Thoughts on the future of transit in Franklin County

Last week, to conclude our economic development committee roundtable, we went around in a circle and everyone proposed an idea that would benefit the town. I proposed expanding bus service to Northampton. I ended up getting some pushback on this point, specifically emphasizing the need for local evening and weekend service, which gave me the opportunity to work out my thoughts more specifically in writing.

I’m sharing this with the hope that I’ll get some constructive feedback, and encourage everybody to be in touch with thoughts at I’m not a transit planner and I may be way off base with some of these ideas–I come at this from the perspective of a lifetime transit rider.

  • First off, I think it’s a cruelty that we don’t have local evening and Saturday service, and I agree that it’s a priority. But I don’t think that’s sufficient, and generally I have a different perspective on how transit should work and what the future might hold.
  • Some context: it’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve had a stable job for the first time, and I’ve spent the majority of my life on the poverty knife edge. During that time, public transit has generally been my only way to get around and I’ve spent thousands of hours on buses and trains, in big cities and in small towns. I’ve had to give up jobs because the transit just didn’t work, and I’ve been the dude who wasn’t able to go anywhere on the weekends because there were no buses. In addition, at GCC I work with students who take the bus every day, and I hear all about how long it takes them to get places, the restrictions that the bus places on their schedules and their academic progress, and the larger impacts of transportation on their lives. With all of that in mind, it’s clear that our current FRTA system is lacking.
  • Part of the reason that FRTA doesn’t work is structural: if you look at the map, the FRTA district basically consists of all of the small towns that are impossible to serve, while PVTA got all of the urban centers where service is easier. For instance: why are Westhampton and Southampton (the latter of which is almost in Connecticut!) part of FRTA, while Northampton and Easthampton are part of PVTA? The pie was sliced inequitably to begin with.
  • So right from the beginning, we’re in a situation with FRTA where we’re trying to use our extremely limited funding to serve an enormous geographic area, and in addition to that our American development patterns have not been transit oriented for the last 100 years. (Who builds public housing complexes and community colleges in fields, miles outside of town? With no plan for buses, and no sidewalks? I’ll never understand that one.) All of this leads to major last-mile issues, which is a good explanation for why the service is so poor.
  • What do I mean by poor service? In addition to not having weekend or evening service, and running far too few buses during the day, FRTA routes (almost all of which I’ve ridden) are devilishly circuitous: they’re trying to solve those last-mile issues by having the same bus go by everyone’s house and everyone’s place of employment. This is why it takes almost two hours to get to Amherst. This is why the Northampton bus drives around South Deerfield for a half hour. This is why I can often walk to GCC faster than I can take the bus, and why many of my students from Greenfield do end up walking to class if they’re able.
  • Despite the fact that the drivers are great and everyone is trying their best, the limited service and the circuitous routes make riding FRTA an impractical proposal for people with real, complicated lives. The result is: the bus becomes the transit option of last resort; only folks who have no other choice end up riding it. I think FRTA’s low ridership statistics (1/100th of PVTA, which actually shares many of the same problems) bear this out. Anecdotes aren’t data, but the one time I took it to Amherst, I was alone on the bus for an entire hour. We have a vicious cycle on our hands: transit is hard so few people choose to ride it; few people ride it so it’s not funded; it’s not funded, so it doesn’t improves. My overarching goal is to break out of that cycle.
  • So, coming around to my main point: I see fast, efficient, frequent rides on the most heavily trafficked routes–urban center to urban center–as the backbone of a transit system. Those are the kinds of routes that make public transit viable, and even desirable. By designing a transit system that only the poorest and most vulnerable ride, we set ourselves up to continue to receive paltry funding; I propose that if we want transit that works for the most vulnerable, we get it by making transit that works for everyone. We get good transit by building routes that work well (fast, efficient, frequent), instead of routes that provide only the most barebones, last-mile service.
  • The Greenfield-Northampton route is currently the most heavily utilized route in the FRTA system, yet it only runs seven times a day. I spoke with the folks at FRTA recently, and they said the reason they don’t expand the service is because they think PVTA should pay for part of it, but PVTA is unwilling to do so. That kind of interagency bickering and politics gets us exactly nowhere: this funding squabble tis keeping folks in Greenfield from having access to jobs in relatively wealthy Hampshire County, and is keeping folks from Northampton from enjoying Greenfield’s downtown.
  • Call me an idealist, but my vision for transit is ambitious: I want to see a valley that’s connected and transit oriented, rather than car oriented, where people take the bus because it’s a practical option and not just because they have no other choice. 
  • People talk a lot about the new trains, and their potential to transform the region. But trains are, unfortunately, a luxury form of transportation: round trip to Northampton on Amtrak costs $26 last I checked. A bus could be just as transformative for less money, and in a way that’s accessible for everyone.
  • As a coda, I’ll point out that our closest social security office is now in Holyoke, which is another cruelty for anyone in Franklin County who is on SSDI. It breaks my heart to think about folks (some of whom are my students) trying to get to that office on our substandard public transit, when their lives actually depend on it. I think it’s possible, but I’m sure it takes an entire day. I suspect that there are a number of other services in that genre, which folks from around here absolutely need to go to Hampshire or Hampden counties to access. It’s essential for folks to be able to get into downtown, but it’s also essential for them to connect to the rest of the valley. Last-mile service is an important component of any transit plan, but currently last-mile service is all that we do and that’s a recipe for low ridership and bare-minimum service.
  • So, in conclusion, perhaps I’m willing to broaden my request. I don’t really care if it’s the Northampton route, but I’d like to see one FRTA line that runs great: fast, efficient, and frequent. For instance, it’s also incredibly difficult to get back and forth to Turners Falls on the bus, considering that it’s really the same urban area as Greenfield. That would seem to be a sensible backbone route as well.
  • I hope these notes clarify my perspective, and I hope that some folks try to change my mind. In the meantime, I’ll be first in line to beat down the door at the statehouse to demand evening and Saturday service on existing routes, but I also think that our way of thinking about transit in this area is flawed, and I want to see some new ideas on the table.