Why Change Can Be Hard for Transit Agencies

Jarrett Walker discusses some reasons why transit authorities can be resistant to change. It all comes down to considering their point of view.

2 minute read

January 30, 2018, 10:00 AM PST

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Transit Fail

Elvert Barnes / Flickr

Putting yourself in a transit agency's shoes, says Jarrett Walker, is the best way to understand why they can be slow to change or innovate. Walker goes through a list of factors underlying that conservatism, including:

  • Complex federal regulations: "I'm not commenting on the worth of each of these regulations, but can certainly testify to their cumulative impact. I've seen countless situations where elected officials were demanding that something get done fast, and the correct answer was that Federal mandates and processes simply prohibit that."
  • Intentionally adversarial labor relations: "Most big cities have progressive elected officials who care about both transit workers and transit riders, but both of those voices have to be strongly present in the conversation, because ultimately they want opposite things."
  • Conflicting direction from elected officials: "If you demand both ridership and coverage from your transit agency — and most people do want both — then you're giving contradictory direction, and someone needs to force you to be clearer about what the priorities are."
  • A penchant for keeping things running smoothly: "So when some egghead planner shows up wanting to change the transit system, it's easy to see them as just another disruption — not fundamentally different from the car crash blocking the your rail line."
In the end, writes Walker, many factors that make for success or failure can be outside the agency's control. "There's a deep sadness at the heart of transit operations, which is that when you do it well nobody thanks you. Your job is to be invisible."

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