Tulsa Transit: A Marketing Problem

I have used the bus system in Tulsa some, and I would like to more. When I have used the system I have enjoyed it. The buses are fine, drivers were nice and professional, free wifi, generally on time…all the things you would want from a transportation system. The system has it’s problems. Mostly the problems are around coverage, how long you have to wait for a bus, stuff like that. The truth is that i find the bus system relatively impractical, mostly because of the frequency of the schedule. Tulsa Transit knows this is a problem and they are working to fix it, which moistly is just about money it seems.

Now, before you get into this post to far I want to clarify something: Its going to come off as very critical of Tulsa Transit, and in truth that is not my intention. From the little I know I think Tulsa Transit’s leadership wants to be good, and understands these issue. Considering the resources they have (Tulsa per capita spending on transit is very low compared to peer cities..and not so peer cities. Our spending per capita on public transportation is lower that that of Springfield, MO).

But, it seems that there is a second level of problems that have to be addressed at the same time. Problems like headway and rout coverage are sort of technical in nature, and have essentially technical solutions (with some politics mixed in). Even if these technical problems were fixed I am not sure that tons of people would start using the buses in Tulsa. There is a marketing problem as well. Consider these two pictures of bus stops near my house:

These two stops, which are typical of many around town, seem to do two thing:

  • They tell the people who use the bus system that we don’t care about them…we can’t even bother to build a decent bus stop. We might not give you a place to stand that wont get muddy when it rains, much less a way to keep the rain off. Not to mention a sidewalk or a crosswalk.
  • Second, it sends a message to people who don’t ride the bus which reinforces any negative perceptions they have about buses and people who ride buses.

There is a scene in the movie Urbanized  which is particularly applicable here. In the scene the mayor of a big city is riding his bike on a newly constructed bike pathway. On one side of the path is a dirt road for cars. He sort of laughs and points out that bikes are on a nice paved trail and the cars are in the mud. But then he says why. And the reason if a very human reason. He wanted the people who rode bikes to know that they are important. That the city supported them and their pursuit of transportation. His answer was not about trends in walkability, or green, or sustainability, or  bike rights or anything like that. It was about how we treat people when we make hard decisions about spending limited resources.

So, I wonder what would happen if we put people first in our transportation systems? Tulsa Transit has to fix their technical issues, but I hope they also consider how the system treats people. It seem by doing this not only will people be given worth and value, but the transit system as a whole will be more used, simply because it  will be perceived as a place that takes care of the people of this city no matter who they are, and that by using the system you are not relegated to  second class status simply because we are unwilling to provide decent bus stops.


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