Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
But the city’s bid for new, young riders might miss the mark.
On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo helped announce the release of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) new bus re-design. More than 2,000 of these cheery blue-and-yellow vehicles will hit city roads by 2020, outfitted with USB ports and wi-fi.
Thank the kids. “As more and more millennials enter the system and use it daily, [the new technologies] are expectations, not desires, on their part,” said the MTA chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast during the event. “Many of the young people using our system today grew up with a smartphone in one hand and a tablet in the other. They’re demanding more wi-fi, more real-time information, more charging stations, connectivity, more apps, and more screens. They aren’t luxury items anymore.”
It’s not entirely clear that Prendergast is right. In 2014, the public transit advocacy group TransitCenter surveyed 11,842 people in 46 metros and found that amenities like onboard cellular service and wi-fi are nearly irrelevant extras for transit riders—including the much-vaunted under-30 bracket. Instead, all age groups said they would ride transit more if it took less time, if travel times were more reliable, if it were less expensive, and if the stops were closer to home and work.
Another recent survey, this one from the American Public Transportation Association, surveyed 1,000 young folks from Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Washington, D.C., and found that, yes, 55 percent are hoping to be constantly connected to wi-fi or 3G/4G by 2023. But 61 percent want transportation options that are more generally more reliable. Great service, it appears, is the priority.
MTA seems to be having a hard time with really great service. In 2010, under budget pressure from the state, the agency cut bus service on 38 routes, and reduced service on another 76. The city restored some of those bus lines in subsequent years, but ridership is still down by 8 percent since 2009, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. (The recession certainly didn’t help.) This decline happened even as subway ridership rocketed.
Adding wi-fi and USB ports to the new buses isn’t particularly expensive—about $5,000 a pop, according to the Wall Street Journal, for a total of $10.2 million. The MTA’s annual operating budget is $14.8 billion, so the revamp comes out to roughly pocket change. And it’s not as if adding these amenities is a bad idea, unless you’re this guy in Chicago, who is currently being charged with using a jammer to kill fellow riders’ phone service to get some gosh darn piece and quiet during his commute.
But it’s silly to think that tech stuff is the silver bullet the bus needs, particularly among the freshest of fresh-faced millennials. Changing how urbanites feel about the bus, however, could be another low-cost approach. A 2009 study from the Federal Transit Administration took a hard look at Los Angeles, a metro in which bus ridership has a strong race- and class-based stigma. There, researchers found riding the bus was a humiliation. “I'm ashamed to [say] that I am taking buses,” one respondent (and reluctant bus rider) said. “In Europe, I wouldn’t. But here, they would think, 'Did he lose his job?' Has he gone mad?’” CityLab’s own Eric Jaffe has argued that buses, and particularly Bus Rapid Transit, need better PR. Well, that and “dedicated lanes, reliable peak and off-peak service, off-board fare payments, comfortable stations or enhanced shelters, or reconfigured routes, to start the list.” But perhaps cool marketing is a start.
Meanwhile, the local blog Brokelyn came up with a list of 25 things millennial transit riders would rather have than buses with wi-fi. Number ten seems particularly apt: “Subway bathrooms you can use when it’s 4 a.m. and you’ve been drinking all night and the train is nowhere to be seen and you really don’t want to pee on the tracks,” goes the plea. Get on it, public servants.