In Search of a Transit Culture Shift: The July 10th Report on Transit & the London Plan

Public Transit and the London Plan

The London Youth Advisory Council met several times in June and July 2014 to discuss the London Plan. The London Plan will be next iteration of London’s official plan (how the city grows between now and 2035). It is organized around 10 big ideas or moves, outlined in more detail here.  This report is the result of LYAC’s discussion of the changes to public transit outlined in the plan.

Who should read this?

  • People who have waited in the rain or snow for a bus that never arrived

  • People who have been late for work or class because of delays in transit

  • People who think Google cars are cool

  • People who have thought about giving up their car, but weren’t sure they could get around using public transit

A Note About Our Reports

LYAC reports are a different kind of report. They are conversational, friendly and honest. These reports don’t try to trick you by using complicated language or pretend to be based on the opinions of experts. They are based on the best information that the Youth Councillors have at the time of each discussion. We hope that the reports make you think, make you act and challenge you to consider things that you haven’t considered before. Share your opinions with us so that we can represent you better!

Barriers to Using Transit

We came up with a list of barriers that stop people from taking the bus.  First, and probably most important for a lot of people, is the time it takes.  When you can drive somewhere in 15 minutes, or take two buses and be there in an hour or more, it seems like a pretty clear choice (for people who have the choice). The transit system can be less efficient than driving: if you’re facing a two hour round trip for a 30 minute appointment, it doesn’t look like an efficient use of time. On some routes, buses don’t run very often, and on Sundays and late at night there might not be any buses at all. If it comes to convenience, time management, and efficiency, the current transit system loses out to cars most of the time.

A second set of reasons to drive rather than take the bus hits on stereotypes about people who take the bus.  There seems to be a general perception that buses are unclean and/or unsafe, in a way that may have as much to do assumptions about the people who take the bus as it does with the real uncleanness or unsafeness of the bus.  The idea seems to be that people who can afford to drive do, and that the people who take the bus do so because they can’t afford to drive. Thinking about how to overcome that stigma led us to the question of how to shift people’s thinking about transit: how do you start a cultural shift?

Culture Shock

Once we figured out what was stopping people from using public transit, we had to figure out how to change their minds.  This was a bit of a challenge, and I’m not sure we were really able to answer the question, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t try.

First, the councillors talked about how to make change easier for people to handle.  This included talking about ways to get small businesses to open in transit hubs or villages.  An important part of the London Plan focuses on increasing the population density of the city, particularly along major transit corridors, and rethinking the shape of the city in terms of complete neighborhoods. This means that we need a way to encourage small businesses to serve smaller, denser communities. One councillor suggested that some kind of rent subsidy might encourage small, local businesses to open in neighborhoods.  One of the other difficulties here is in making sure that developers work with the London Plan and are able to build according to the goals of the plan. In London, much of the real estate downtown is owned by a small number of companies, including many parking lots that could be used as part of the intensification process.

Another councillor suggested that one way of persuading people to try transit is to act and write as if transit is already great and these changes are the next step to making it better, a kind of “fake it ‘til you make it” approach.  If more people were riding the bus, there might be a tipping point at which the number of people using the service forces the introduction of new routes and new approaches to transit service. At the very least, it would demonstrate to city council that Londoners are interested in transit and would like to see it made a priority.

Rapid Transit, But What Kind?

When we were talking about changes to the transit system in London, we realized that we weren’t really sure what bus rapid transit (BRT) or light rail transit (LRT) would look like in London. We had the outline of an idea, but we wanted to know more about the details: what would it look like in practise? Would our transit system end up a mix of the two? Why don’t more people talk about this?

This last question led to an idea: youth councillors could do the research to become authorities on the differences between BRT and LRT, and could come up with a resource that would help people understand the options the city has when thinking about a new kind of transit service. Many councillors felt they weren’t quite comfortable talking to people about this part of the London Plan, and having more information themselves would help them make transit a topic of conversation in the city.

One last point that came out of this discussion: when we were talking about the pros and cons of BRT versus LRT, one councillor pointed out that LRT might not be such a great long term investment. New technology, such as Google cars, might make current forms of public transit outdated. BRT might be able to adapt, but the infrastructure needed for an LRT system would end up being unnecessary and a poor investment. This point made it clear that we need to think about more than just city planning and population changes when thinking about making transit better: we need creative problem solving and a flexible approach in order to make sure we build a transit system that will be adaptable, dependable, and convenient for Londoners.

Personal Stories

One councillor said she really liked the ideas and the philosophy of the London Plan’s approach to transit, but she was concerned about the implementation: how would it look in practise?  What would it be like to actually use BRT or LRT? How would the transit villages be built, and what kinds of businesses would open there?

Another person talked about a conversation they had with someone who wasn’t directly concerned about public transit, but who was definitely affected by it.  This person really enjoyed ultimate Frisbee but was having a hard time meeting up with friends to play because the bus service to the field was too infrequent or unreliable and his friends didn’t want the trouble of taking the bus.  This wasn’t a person who was particularly interested in the London Plan, but it was someone who would be impacted by the changes it would make to the city.

Big Questions:

These are the big, unanswered questions we’d like to keep thinking about:

  1. How do we start a cultural shift?

  2. How do we challenge stereotypes associated with transit?

  3. Are we being creative enough in our approach?

Recorder’s Notes

At this meeting, people were really interested in transit villages.  In fact, transit has been a popular topic over quite a few meetings. While the youth councillors seemed very supportive of this part of the London Plan, some were concerned that the Plan isn’t very clear on how to implement new transit systems and services.

One thing that wasn’t really discussed in terms of barriers to transit is the weather.  Cold winters, especially this past one, make transit especially unattractive.  Is there a way to overcome this particular barrier? Does this require a cultural shift or are there practical and tangible ways to deal with this? Another aspect that was missing from the discussion was the perspective of other groups, such as seniors, and large families.

What We Still Need to Learn

  1. Missing perspectives: seniors, people with low income, large families, people facing accessibility barriers. For the most part, we represent a pretty specific category of transit users, mostly students and all under the age of 25. This is a narrow demographic, and our understanding of the issue would benefit from a broader range of experiences.

  2. We need more information about bus rapid transit and light rail transit.  We don’t know enough about how each would actually look or work in London.  Two of the councillors decided to form a research team to find out more, and to develop a list of pros and cons for each that could be a resource for others.

  3. Creative approaches: it might be helpful to think more about the ways technology will change over the next 20-30 years, and how these changes might affect our transit choices and long term investment.

Things We Forgot the First Time

  • Meeting short term transit needs in order to build support for the future of transit: if we can’t make sure that people have access to transit now (to get to and from work), it will be difficult to persuade them to support the London Plan, which focuses on changing transit over a period of years.

  • Opportunity cost of transit: if you rely on transit to get to and from work, it can mean that you spend most of your evening commuting. While the cost of a bus ticket or transit pass may be less that the cost of a car, maintenance, and insurance, there is more than just the money to consider.