Transportation chief’s biggest task is marketing, not building
As she hunts for a new transit director, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levina Cava has a unique opportunity to energize mobility beyond the usual vast capital spending that we long have leaned on as a solution.
Rather than aiming first at how many rail lines we can build and how many more transit vehicles we can buy with how many more hundreds of millions, the biggest opportunity open to a new transportation chief is to get more people to ride the transit we’re already paying for.
Alice Bravo, who resigned last week, is an engineer, by all accounts a good one – so good that she was given the county’s public works operation to run in addition to transportation. Her replacement should have just one focus: transportation. That alone is a vast responsibility.
Dividing the job could add a salary or lead to a promotion to head public works operations. But the county would regain any added cost many times over by getting a transportation chief who knows that marketing the transit we already have could not only halt the exit of riders but could add cash customers.
That’s not to say that the job’s usual scope – financing, building and properly running an urban transit system while speeding traffic on roads and highways – is secondary. It’s vital. But how good is transportation if the most expensive parts of it are vastly underused?
“Build it and they will come” is the best-known line from the film “Field of Dreams,” in which a farmer built a stadium in an Iowa cornfield in hopes a baseball team would appear and fans would fill the stands. That was the claim in building decades-old Marlins Stadium, but fans didn’t suddenly appear.
It’s the same with building bus rapid transit or rail: riders don’t just show up on their own. Look at Brightline, the private railway that halted trips with the advent of Covid-19 because it hadn’t been luring nearly enough riders beforehand, much less with the virus. They built it and enough riders didn’t come.
To understand the magnitude of our opportunity, Miami-Dade’s transit chief can review the dismal figures on riders.
In the six years from fiscal 2013 to 2019, which ended before the pandemic began, total county transit rides fell from 110,702,001 per year to 79,096,594. That’s more than 36 million rides lost.
If those were all round-trip commuters, about 63,200 county residents who used to go to work by transit now don’t. A transit director can make a vast gain not by looking for new riders, new routes or new vehicles but simply by persuading former transit riders to get back aboard. What a golden opportunity.
The opportunity expands if we look at the loss when the pandemic took hold and transit rides fell from 79,096,594 in fiscal 2019 to 56,000,100 in 2020. In just one year that’s another 23 million-plus rides lost, or 29.2% of the prior year’s total.
The first challenge for a transit director is to lure back rides lost with the virus. Some will still work from home, but once the pandemic ends most transit riders lost in the past year will return to jobs and decide how to get there. They once took public transit, but so did tens of thousands of others who got off the bus or train and never got back aboard.
That is not a challenge of running more transit but retrieving lost passengers.
The biggest opportunity is not to finance and build but to improve and market what we already have, changing the image of transit for 2.7 million residents.
Facts in the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey unveiled this month reveal that while 29.8% of US public transit riders last year earned $75,000 or more a year, only 14.6% of Miami-Dade transit riders earned that much. In Miami-Dade, we see a stigma in riding transit – it’s left to those with low incomes who have no choices. That image needs to change.
Face it: a Miami-Dade commute is a pain. We average 32.8 minutes going to work, with 13.6% of us spending an hour or more to get there, far above the national average of 9.8%. For Miamians, commuting is an economic barrier, and the right transit director can be pivotal.
Yet of the 1,344,030 in Miami-Dade who work, the census reports only 50,272 last year took public transit to get there. That’s just 3.7% of workers. If we could shift just 50,000 people from cars we’d double our transit commuters.
The transit director has another opportunity: add carpoolers. More than 1 million county residents commute alone in cars, while just 117,799 carpool. Double the carpoolers and you take at least 117,000 cars off our roads every day, speeding traffic.
Don’t misunderstand: getting us out of cars, into carpools or onto mass transit is tough. But it can be done in big numbers before we spend more on heavy infrastructure (which we also favor in the right places).
Look at the municipal trolleys that move us around cities, including many of us who wouldn’t dream of stepping onto a county bus. Yet trolleys are just buses with lipstick; they’re attractive and inviting and add tens of thousands of riders who disdain buses.
Dressing up trolleys was not an engineering job but a marketing ploy, and it works quite well. How many more marketing ploys are out there?
Carpools can be marketed. When the state wanted to get cars off of West Dade expressways during construction it paid people to ride together, which was a lot less costly than adding roads or railways. What if carpool marketing were spread around the county and made so visible that everyone was aware of it? That kind of thinking should be in the portfolio of a transportation director.
It boils down to this: money to build transportation is limited and projects take forever, whereas getting people to shift mobility habits can cost far less and be just as effective.
Every politician wants to build rail, a decade-long process that costs hundreds of millions and loses money forever. Rail becomes a monument to the builders.
On the other hand, actually moving people more quickly and conveniently at far less cost creates no lasting monuments. It just serves the public.
New transit, make no mistake, is vital. In certain cases it might be the only solution.
But the mayor would do well to look at a transportation director who thinks outside the box to quickly move more of us more efficiently and add more paying passengers who can help fund the transportation we already have.
Elected officials will find excuses to build infrastructure. Our paid transit director meanwhile should find new ways to build ridership and mobility.