After reading Lewis M. Schneider’s 1965 book, Marketing Urban Mass Transit, the good news is, Toronto is not a special snowflake when it comes to the politicization of public transit planning. That seems to be a factor transcending time and place. The bad news is, the politicization of public transit planning transcends time and place.
In many ways, fifty years on, it’s something of a miracle that in our car-obsessive manner of building and servicing cities, public transit survived at all. Schneider wrote the book (a ‘shortened version’ of his Ph.D. thesis, Management Policy in a Distressed Industry: A Study of Urban Mass Transit) at the height of the automobile’s ascendancy, almost a decade into the interstate expressway explosion that helped create our suburban sprawl. He was a transit advocate facing a very strong school of thought that believed the notion of public transit was a relic of the past. It was an era of vigorous optimism for the future. Median family incomes were booming upward. Lower income families had more than halved in number during the previous decade.
America was Going Places, to paraphrase a 1962 book, and it wasn’t taking the bus to get there.
In the face of this onslaught of onward and outward, the general acceptance of the “a homogeneity of land use” in suburban development where the private automobile would luxuriously move people between home and work, home and the mall, and back again, Schneider and his ilk believed a more balanced approach to moving people around the city and region to be necessary. Even as early as the 1960s, he noted an insatiable need for road capacity. Urban expressways alone had grown from 2875 miles in 1960 to 9200 miles just a few years later. Estimates suggested more than 13000 more miles would be needed.
The selling of public transit faced the steepest part of its uphill battles. With an unsurprisingly precipitous decline in ridership, a plunge to Depression level ridership in 1953 after its peak just 7 years earlier, service suffered, creating a vicious circle of declining ridership and antipathy to public transit providers. Such a weakened constituency made public transit a tough political sell. In fact, as Schneider suggested, “a politician gets far more ‘political mileage’ out of attacking a transit company than of supporting it.”
This helped feed the biggest obstacle public transit faced, in Schneider’s opinion. That of a bad public perception of it, bad P.R. Advocates and management needed to “make transit attractive and desirable to the public, and thereby remove the stigma of unpleasantness which has haunted the industry almost since its inception.”
How to do that?
First, build a better product. For Schneider that meant exploiting ‘technological advances’, from “Jet Age” modes of transit that involved almost exclusively rapid heavy rail subways and commuter trains to basic modern conveniences like the new-fangled air conditioning. Like many people of that age, he saw no place for olde time transport like streetcars and trolleys, going as far as to predict that the future of public transit depended on cities converting their feeder system entirely to buses.
Schneider was no Pollyanna about the realities the public transit industry faced. Whether public or private, profits for companies were always razor thin, government support grudging and whimsical. There was little margin for big capital investments or research and development or marketing the product.
This was the second aspect, and the crux of the book really. Even with a sellable product, Schneider felt that the industry didn’t concentrate nearly enough time, money or energy, out there pitching it to the public, politicians, planners. Public transit was an operations-oriented industry, focusing on getting things right. Marketing and P.R. consisted mostly of ‘putting out fires’, according to Schneider.
While there’s certainly some truth to that but how do you justify spending marketing money and energy, let’s call it, when making the product appealing through providing better service takes up so much of your funds? The automobile industry thrives on the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends annually on advertising, creating dreamy brand loyalty and a belief system in the freedom and individuality of the driver. How do public transit advocates compete with that?
“The basic marketing problem of mass transit is to provide a service which is more attractive to the consumer than his automobile,” Schneider writes. Fifty years on, and I have to ask is that even possible? It seems every year, while driving around the city might not be getting better, certainly the ride is much more comfortable. Air conditioning? Ha! I’ll chill your seats for you, heat them up in the winter. Better sound systems than in many homes.
As long as car travel remains more convenient and ultimately quicker to get around places, all other things being equal, mass public transit will never be ‘more attractive to the consumer than his automobile’. Aside from maybe cost, it’s hard to see how you entice people to use public transit approaching them as consumers. Until you decide to level the playing field, and make public transit as convenient and quick to use as a car, it will remain an uphill struggle, regardless of how good your transit system is.
That’s not a criticism of Schneider. Fifty years ago when he wrote this book, it wasn’t as obvious the social and financial costs automobile dependence would exact on cities as it is (or should be) to us. They and the lifestyle they promised presented a rosy looking future, a future public transit could help augment but never supplant. Jet packs and teleporting were on the horizon. What possible need would we have then of public transit?
That’s not to say there’s nothing to learn from Marketing Urban Mass Transit. With the advantage of half a century of hindsight, we now know cities will not thrive without moving past auto dependency. To help do that, we need to pursue the public transit goals Schneider proposed, provide a better service and convince people that it is a better service. The details of doing that have changed slightly although I marvelled at Toronto’s deathly slow roll out of the Presto card while reading Schneider’s excitement about the prospect of automated fare collection in the form of “a credit or validation card” of some sort. Fifty years ago!
Marketing Urban Mass Transit concludes:
“The challenge to management to make changes in its existing practices seems critical at the present time. For it appears that its marketing strategies will largely determine whether the industry enjoys a renaissance marked by modernization and growth, or whether it takes a final plunge to the status of an unpleasant tax-supported public service, providing spartan, cheap transportation (primarily for those who cannot drive) in urban communities designed for and dominated by the private automobile.”
Depending on your perspective and the day you’re asked, it’s difficult not to admit that we blew it, and Lewis Schneider’s dire second prediction has come to pass. Public transit as second-rate transport and public transit users as second-class citizens. The dream of a better non-car future is not dead yet, and the dreamers are multitude but it remains an uphill battle.
— bookishly submitted by Cityslikr