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How to Make Transit (and Biking and Walking) Sexy

How to Make Transit (and Biking and Walking) Sexy
Transbay Joint Powers Authority

Maybe what transit in the United States needs is a little more joy.

“Joy” and other enticing words such as “freedom,” “fun,” “sexy,” and “seductive” are common parlance in automobile marketing. But when it comes to transit – at least in the United States – not so much.

In a new e-book from Island Press called Making Transit Fun! How to Entice Motorists from Their Cars (and onto Their Feet, a Bike, or Bus), urban designer and writer Darrin Nordahl writes that advocates for non-car transportation need to stop trying to appeal to reason and go for the gut instead:

If people behaved entirely rationally, we would have foregone our cars long ago. … Against sound reasons of safety, environmental health, and personal wealth, we still drive. People simply love their cars. And as we all know, love and reason are like oil and water….

What has become very clear in the automotive world is the power positive emotion wields over a person’s choice. While joy seems to be a dominant word in the language of carmakers, the transit industry often focuses on words such as function, usefulness, safety, convenience, and accessibility. These are all important words, no doubt. But what are lacking in the transit vocabulary are nouns of positive emotion: delight, allure, pleasure, exhilaration, and compulsion.

Can we make people look longingly at mass transit? Can we give biking and walking the aura of cool that has long been the province of the automobile? Or are buses doomed to be the butt of jokes, along with the city of Cleveland?

Nordahl has a raft of suggestions, many based on real-world efforts of transit officials and planners to lure people out of their cars. Some are whimsical (like slides in train stations, something they’ve actually tried in the Netherlands, or fruit-shaped bus shelters, which have popped up in Japan). Some are more substantive, such as making transit stations into great civic spaces, as in the case of the Transbay Transit Center, scheduled to open in San Francisco in 2017:

[It] will be like nothing North America has ever seen before—not even in Midtown Manhattan. The massive multilevel, multimodal transit station drips with sex appeal, featuring gorgeous architecture with sinuous curves, enriched paving, lush landscaping, and seductive water displays. But the real value comes from the variety of interconnected and well-appointed public spaces. Jogging and walking trails snake their way through a five-and-a-half-acre city park that sits atop the station. The park will boast a café, a plaza, an open-air amphitheatre, water fountains, lily ponds, and large grassy areas for casual activity. This rooftop oasis connects people back down to street level through Mission Square, a stately urban space sprouting redwood trees and a delicate, undulating canopy of glass and steel.

Sure, you might be thinking. Sounds great, if you can afford it. But expensive public works projects are by no means the only way to make transit, biking, and walking sexier, writes Nordahl:

Contrary to what our gut tells us, good design -- the kind that provides utility and delight -- can be affordable. The issue here is not about spending more, but about spending smarter. Sure, designing for the human experience will indeed be an extra and likely expensive cost if it is an afterthought; something retrofitted to the final functional design. But when we design our sidewalks, bike lanes, and transportation circulators with the concern for human experience at the forefront, joy is surprisingly cheap.

He looks at how some cities have succeeded in making buses more appealing through a relatively low-cost combination of marketing and design, citing Boulder, Colorado, as an example:

“If you were to go back to 1990 and ask what role did public transit play in Boulder,” recollects Will Toor, former mayor of Boulder, “it was essentially a social service for people who had no other choice about how they got around.” Toor said this didn’t sit well with policymakers at the time. Instead, they wanted a transit system that could “compete for people who have other choices.” …

Together, citizens and planners came up with a brilliant idea to give each route a unique identity: the Hop, Skip, Jump, Bound, Bolt, Dash, and Stampede. Graphic designers were hired to create unique logos and illustrative themes for each bus line…. Mayor Toor said the idea behind enlisting the public to help rebrand the bus came from a simple question: “What would make you want to ride the bus?” “It wasn’t rocket science,” said Toor, “it was just what any private business would do.”

And that type of thinking, according to Nordahl, could be the key to changing American perceptions about transit. Getting out of the bureaucratic mindset and being more entrepreneurial and creative is the only way, he argues, that transit advocates will ever chip away at the auto’s dominance.

We may be at the perfect historical moment for arguments like Nordahl’s to take hold. As Richard Florida noted here earlier this month, young people are driving less than their parents – and not just because they are strapped for cash. They are increasingly seeing the car in a negative light. What better time to stop promoting transit, biking, and walking as if they were good for you (the horror!) and instead start pitching them as a genuinely enjoyable way to get around?

If they are to succeed, these efforts have to be more than just window dressing. In order to make someone want to ride transit, a slick paint job won't do the trick. The service has to be useful, pleasant, and efficient once the rider chooses to hop on. In the United States, it's long been a struggle to get funds to make those kinds of systems a reality. But Nordahl's book is a reminder that transit has only lost when it aims low. We should always be looking for joy, even on the bus.

Top image: A rendering of the Grand Hall of the planned Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco, courtesy Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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