Making Transit Sexy

Musings Planning

Making Transit Sexy

The second most frustrating thing at the Transportation Camp West unconference was the “Making Transit Sexy” discussion. My exasperation returned when I stumbled upon this article.

“Transit-oriented everything,” said one attendee. “Fix crappy cabs,” said another. ”Public transit — sexy!” ”Fix Clipper now!” ”Multimodal transit haiku.”

“What about a ‘Report a Problem’ app?” an audience member suggested.

Frequent buzzwords on the list? Some were “citizen crowd-sourcing,” “data-driven decisions” and “augmented reality graffiti.”


Backing up, let me say that making transit an appealing choice to people that have a choice is a legitimate concern. Too many people with cars think that buses are for poor people.

I believe there was a sense of good humor in naming the discussion “making transit sexy.” Unfortunately, the conversation quickly turned back into a bunch of older white guys pushing the things they had pushed all day.

I tried to push a difference approach, but either I didn’t explain it right, or the people in the room didn’t grasp what I was saying.

So allow me to elaborate here on the Internet.

What does it mean to be sexy?

Cartoonish anatomy and skanky lingerie? No. If you disagree, just leave now.

To feel sexy means feeling desired, but in control. It means feeling empowered.

How do you apply that to transportation?

Dressing BART up in iPhone apps is as superficial as fishnets. It might grab your attention at first, but it’s not actually going to keep you coming back.

You know a really sexy way to get around? In a car. You’re powering this big machine with just a wheel, pedals and buttons. Want to kick it up a notch? Drive a stick-shift. Sexier still? A motorcycle. They look dangerous, and in California you can whip around a line of cars to get to the front of the queue. Even when driving takes longer and is more expensive, you feel in control the whole time. Driving is freedom, and all that.

Why isn’t transit sexy?

Transit makes people wait. Transit confuses people with incorrect or poorly conveyed information. Transit makes people uncomfortable by removing their control over the situation.

I’ve watched (and reported) an AC Transit driver snap at a person in a wheelchair for taking too long to wheel up the ramp. That’s the least sexy thing in the world.

So, how do you make transit sexy?

You give people control. They can’t drive the bus, but they can have enough options to feel like they have some decision-making authority. You don’t make them wait long enough for them to question why they’re waiting.

I don’t have any quick and easy iPhone apps for answers, but I do have some operational suggestions.

  1. Frequency. Don’t make me wait 20 minutes for BART, ever. Really, even 15 is pushing it. I don’t care that it’s Sunday morning – that’s an even better reason for me to drive.
  2. Reliability. If you can’t make the bus arrive every 10 minutes, at least make it show up when you say it will. Dedicate lanes for buses. Tell me that bus riders are as important as people that drive cars by giving them their own lanes.
  3. Agency consolidation. I don’t care that I’m leaving the BART system and entering Muni. It shouldn’t matter. I should be able to get from this heavy gauge rail, regionally-funded train to that municipally-funded, articulated bus and never be aware of the administrative hurdles involved. I should just do it. Don’t make transfers more difficult than they need to be.
  4. Options. I want as many ways to get to my destination as possible. Sometimes, I like riding the bus for the windows. Sometimes, I want to get there by BART because it’s faster. Sometimes, I want to go slightly out of my way to stop by that one falafel place.
  5. Marketing tone. Don’t make people feel like they’re taking the bus because they’re poor. It makes the sting of being poor even worse. Everyone went to the Coliseum in Rome. BART should be our Coliseum. Build and maintain a system the city can be proud of, and the city will be proud of it.
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