Mallon: Public transit needs to get back to the basics
A VTA light rail train arrives at the Metro/Airport station in San Jose in this file photo.

    In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion about free transit, fleet electrification, consolidating agencies, seamless fare integration, governance and regional network management. All of these things have been pushed in the name of helping riders, but what do riders really want?

    While opinions may vary—and geography certainly plays a role—surveys from across the country show the basics of service frequency, reliability, safety and cleanliness are top priorities for riders. This is true even for low-income riders. Despite the assumption that they might prefer free fares, a survey from national transit advocacy group TransitCenter shows frequency, safety and reliability are higher priorities.

    At the local level, VTA conducted a survey coming out of the pandemic to see what would make riders take public transit more often. Despite the vaccine not being widely available at the time of the survey, the top priority of riders was more frequent service.

    More recently, VTA has done surveys and outreach for the 2023 Transit Service Plan and Visionary Transit Network and an update of the long-range Valley Transportation Plan. In all of these efforts, more frequent service has emerged as the top priority for riders and residents.

    The basics aren’t flashy, but they’re what riders want. If you get on a bus or train and ask an average rider about electric buses or a regional network manager, most would probably say, “I don’t care as long as I can get where I need to go.” That’s something important for all of us to keep in mind.

    As someone who takes transit every day and is involved in transit advocacy, I get to see two different worlds. I’ve been starting to feel like transit advocacy is getting disconnected from the needs and desires of actual riders, and we can’t lose sight of that.

    This is especially important because Bay Area leaders are beginning to explore a new transportation funding measure.

    We can’t lose sight of what’s most important to current and future riders: the basics of clean, safe, reliable service that takes them where they need to go.

    San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon is a transit advocate and rider in Santa Clara County. Her columns appear on the first Thursday of every other month. Contact Monica at [email protected] or follow @MonicaMallon on Twitter.

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