“Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus. “
A couple of weeks ago, the head of Sarasota’s transit operations (SCAT) submitted his resignation, ostensibly because the fire extinguishers had expired the day before. There is likely more to the story than this, and there was undeniable disruption for a growing cadre of transit riders. But now’s the time to think ahead.
OK - So some might wonder why we should think about transit at all – it’s a bus. But Sarasota’s at a point where it needs to think big about moving people:
- For starters, gasoline is hitting record prices as are local and national ridership numbers.
- Younger people are eschewing the car, according to new research (and my own observations of my 15 year and his cohort).
- Transit is a big indicator – visitors from Europe and big cities know transit. Moreover there is a growing “cool” factor to transit, biking and walking. Even if visitors don’t step foot on a bus, a working, state of the art system send big signals about a community, its priorities and its savvy.
- It’s a big part of the county budget that’s here to stay – so why not crank it? Transit is budgeted at $36,000,000 (out of a close to $900,000,000 total budget for the County).
Now that we’ve settled that transit as worthy of lots of attention – here is my wishlist of priorities for the next transit administrator: two of them deal with transit and what the administrator can control and the others are my expectations out of everybody else.
The New Head of SCAT
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) –Like other creative class cities, Sarasota has a Bus Rapid transit project in the making. This project, expected to cost roughly $100,000,000(of which Sarasotans would kick in $12 million or so), runs from the airport south to Southgate Mall (or where the new Apple Storewas supposed to be going). But this ambitious project seems to repeat a theme that has dogged Sarasota for the past several years: the attention to innovation sapped attention to the basics. The BRT project is worth continuing, but you are not going to get public support until we see a kick-ass transit agency on a daily basis.
Technology and SCAT– Shifting from BRT to regular SCAT does not mean abandoning innovation. In fact, there is a lot that can be done with our system with attention to a couple of things. First, establish a vision that SCAT will be recognized for deploying imaginative technology that rivals what big cities are doing. The anemic SCAT TRACneeds to be appified for Android and smart phones to get rid of glitch presentation and make it user friendly. Second, the vision should be to make those SCAT poles meaningful. SCAT TRAC assume a potential rider knows more than a typical potential rider actually knows. You don’t have to do it all at once, and you don’t have to roll out Bus Stop Mahal’s. Small stickers on poles that lead users to the SCAT TRAC and the name of the stop as it is listed would go a long way (see photo). For these apps, keep in mind tourists don’t know where they are, or even where the store they want to visit is. The digital “You are Here” through geolocation is a must.
The Public– The past year was hard: we needed to vent. But now, we need to craft every statement to make a difference. We need to be the best watchdogs, commentators, data collectors, and researchers we can be for transit. Fabulous transit does not rest on one person’s shoulders – it is crowdsourced.
County Leadership– First, take SCAT out of Planning and Development Services. It would be the proper place if our transit system and better land development were feeding into each other. But it hasn't turned out that way (the isolated Cattleman Station is Exhibit A - but perhaps I need to reserve judgment as the area develops). Right now SCAT needs to move people. Make it standalone or put it in Information Technology. Second, hire somebody from an organization that turned procurement around. Why not a two-fer? Third - get a tech savvy entrepreneur - not a whipping boy, not somebody scouting out retirement homes - but a young-ish professional who can inspire. There are capable people within SCAT for operations.
Others – Anyone supported by public grants or other funds needs to build support for mobility on their website and in print. Washington DC set up an entire website targeted to tourists for ”Getting Around” that includes every option – including by foot and bike. New York’s MTA has the “Arts for Transit” program to marry arts and transit. For crying out loud, we have some of the best animation, design and graphics talent in the world here – how can we use it to make getting around easier and more fun? The private sector can also get involved. Any app can show stores and attractions for a small amount of money.
Finally - next Thursday April 19th is "Try Transit Day." Free rides - so my expectation is that everyone tries transit!