What’s Wrong With Public Transit? (Opinion)

Somebody ran his hand up under my relative's skirt. So much for the benefits of public transit.

by Wayne Hanson / July 18, 2011
Portland, Ore., MAX light-rail station Wayne Hanson

My first subway ride occurred in New York City in the summer of 1968. I was not impressed. The subway cars were packed full of people, and more than a few were screaming or psychotic. I saw two drug addicts shooting up on the train, the stations and cars were covered with graffiti, and the heat was terrible. Somebody ran his hand up under my relative's skirt.  So much for the benefits of public transit.

Things did improve in New York City, however. Compstat, a modern data-based policing system -- started in the New York City subways by a cop named Jack Maple --  helped drop the crime rate and Compstat, or Comstat as it was sometimes called, spread across the country.

In the 1970s, I worked for Multnomah County, Oregon, as a travel trainer, teaching handicapped kids to ride Tri-Met buses throughout the Portland area. The buses were clean, the drivers helpful and they ran on time.

Last week I was back on public transit in Multnomah County, attending the National Association of Counties Annual Conference. I caught the MAX light rail train at the airport and for a couple of dollars rode for some 40 minutes downtown. Portland is one of the few cities that have light rail from airport to downtown, and it always saves money and time, to say nothing of navigating a rental car through unfamiliar streets.

The MAX trains looked very new, they are well maintained, there’s no graffiti on the trains or at the stations. In fact the stations have a sort of transit elegance, very substantial, well-built and aesthetic. In addition, since it’s Portland, Mother Nature washes down the stations several times a week.

At the airport, young assistants directed the public to the MAX, and assisted the hesitant with fare machines. Cars were well marked, and clean with maps of the routes and electronic signs and recorded messages to announce the next stations in English and Spanish. As we left the airport and headed toward town, even the trackside infrastructure was free of graffiti and seemed landscaped. In short, the light rail system was as ideal as you could find anywhere. Downtown MAX is free, and the free zone even includes the Oregon Convention Center where most of our meetings were held. As one young hotel employee said: "The only thing better would be if they handed out dollar bills."

So how could anyone object? Well, on the way into town that first afternoon, three jerks got on with their bicycles and jammed the door while they decided whether to get off at one station or another. The driver got on the PA and asked them to hurry. The guy jamming the door began shouting into the microphone at the driver. The driver – clearly nettled – explained that they were holding up things. Back and forth. It was a relief when the bicyclist finished mouthing off and left the train, still shouting.

The ride back to my hotel that evening was uneventful, city lights were beautiful over the river, and out to the conference center stop.

On Sunday morning, I checked out, went to the light rail station. As I got on, lots of riders were getting off – obviously going to the Convention Center. Some psycho on the train shouted obscenities at them as they departed. He shut up finally and when he got off several stops later, it was quite a relief for everyone.

So what’s wrong with public transit? People.

On public transit, the psychos, loudmouths, and drunks are part of an environment over which you have little control. You can move to another seat, get off, or confront the person. Or you can take a car and put up with parking, drop off and expense, navigation, etc. On this wonderful system, two-thirds of my rides had unpleasant people at full volume. I love Portland and have family and friends there, so I got over it. But for tourists, unpleasant events sometimes overshadow the pleasant ones.

What more could be done? Not much. Transit police came on board at the airport destination, but you can’t police every train on every run. Free rides downtown probably encourage the homeless to ride, and on the last trip out to the airport, two men wrapped in blankets came in from the rain, but they rode quietly.

Compared to that New York subway ride in 1968, the MAX disturbances were very mild, and most passengers seemed to take them in stride.  But to get the American public out of private automobiles and onto transit will take some effort.