The Paths to Public Transport Enlightenment


In light of former MP Denise Savoei’s grossly ill-informed letter in the Victoria’s Times Colonist about the E&N railway and public transport in general, the following maybe of some help for those advocating for affordable and user friendly transit in BC.

The following from London Reconnections.

The Paths to Public Transport Enlightenment

By Long Branch Mike

Advocating public transport improvements is often an exercise in long term frustration. Decades can go by with only poorer service and line closures. But there is a way to work through these feelings. A lot of it has to do with understanding human nature.

This is a guide to the different ways the general public, and advocates, perceive public transport improvements, and the potential to increase their knowledge of what’s involved in getting public transport projects support, funding, and approval.

Herein we describe a method to avoid falling into the well of bitterness, keeping sanity and hopefully serenity, and making a difference. It can actually become a spiritual journey, accepting the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. You can be the change you want to see in others.

The Spectrum of Public Transport Advocacy

Let’s start by identifying some of the stages in public transport awareness:

0 Neutral on public transport (may not use it or know anyone who does).

1 Likes trains, trams, or buses, and/or understands that they are important for towns and cities, allowing people who can’t or don’t want to drive to get around.

2 Wonders why there aren’t way more public transport, trams, and/or buses. If angry, blames the transport authority.

3 Starts thinking of ideas for new lines or services.

4 Actively participates in discussions about appropriate public transport mode, vehicles, lines, and/or priorities.

5 Reads rail and transport articles, news regularly, and starts to realise the cost, funding, political priorities, or underlying culture limitations to expanding transport.

6 Joins a public transport advocacy organisation to actually push for improving public transport.

7 Understands competing points of view on public and road transport, and that transport authorities are beholden to elected leaders’ goals and funding.

8 Understands transport authority and political realities, and not blaming them outright (each has good and bad points).

9 Zen state of accepting limits of what one can reasonably do to move sustainable transport forward.

10 Actively works to educate others, communicate with elected officials, write a blog or YouTube channel, joins with others to constructively communicate positive ideas.

Not all transport enthusiasts and advocates necessarily follow this progression, nor necessarily experience all these stages. It’s a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours we have observed, with individuals fitting in to some and not others.

Avoiding the Depths of Despair

There are also those who are against public transport, for a number of reasons:

-1 New mass transport will get the car and bus in front of me off the road.

-2 NIMBYs – Not In My Back Yard (transport improvement is fine, but not near me).

-3 BANANAs – Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.

-4 Invest nothing in transport networks – it’s a waste of money (the CAVE Brigade – Citizens Against Virtually Everything).

-5 Completely shut down public transport networks, and give over the infrastructure to cars and expressways.

Many on the negative side of the spectrum believe the private sector is better able to fulfill transport need, but this has lead to street and chaos with jitney buses, unregulated taxi services, and greatly increased congestion and pollution in third world cities. And increasingly in first and second world cities thanks to the likes of Uber and Lyft clogging street and sharply reducing bus reliability.

Some of these levels are particularly susceptible to bitterness and anger. This is understandable, but these behaviours just put others off. They also work to tar fellow advocates working to foster communication and goodwill with public transport authorities and allies. Perception is reality for most people.

By all means have a healthy debate, but overly simplistic monochrome ‘authority X is bad’, ‘authority Y sucks’ positions are misleading, as there are many competing factors that are in play for public transport authorities – the politicians they report to, the multiple levels of government funding promised and available, environmental review laws, etc. Similarly, ‘LRT is bad’, ‘BRT is better than LRT’, ‘cut and cover is bad’ blanket statements ignore the critical local geographical, infrastructural, political context, and funding issues.

Knowledge of International Examples

There is a separate and independent axis for individuals and groups on thePublic Transport Advocacy Spectrum. That is the level of awareness of other cities’ lines, modes, and operations. This too tends to be a progression, as follows:

  1. Line(s), mode(s), and system that the person uses
  2. Lines, modes, and systems that the person doesn’t use (could be commuter regional rail, lines, or mode(s) in a neighbouring city.
  3. Other lines, modes, and systems in the person’s country
  4. International lines, systems, and modes

This progression generally leads to an awareness of best practices per urban form, mode, and technology.

Note that it is easy to fall into a bitter place by comparing much better public transport elsewhere (like in Europe, in Japan…), believing that everything is always better somewhere else. The fact is that even well run systems have flaws, they don’t optimise all transport aspects. The goal is to stay out of bitterness, so we can better carry the public transport message to others. Nothing puts off people more than anger and bitterness. Gratitude for what we have, and focusing on positives, is the antid.

<diagram of forces on a public transport authority ie city, provincial/state, and federal funding, legal jurisdictions of which authority can provide local and intercity public transport, environmental assessment laws, public-private partnership dynamics to overcome funding shortfalls, public opinion which influences politician decisions &c > ***

Planning an operational railway is a series of trade-offs.

To build a new line, public transport authorities and supporting governments have multiple criteria to satisfy:

  1. Physical Engineering – how the line would be constructed, options, and estimated costs
  2. Regulatory – environmental assessment and consultation processes, land use changes, union participation in some locations
  3. Legal – laws regarding environmental assessment, property acquisition, land use change process
  4. Contractual – design, construction, rolling stock, signalling, testing, operation, and maintenance
  5. Socio-Economic – the situation(s) that create the demand that would make a line or extension viable, and to determine options (to serve a new or isolated residential or business area, and the relative merits and costs of elevated, surface, in road median, or underground routing).
  6. Culture – will residents accept lengthy cut and cover tunnel construction, or elevated segments? What about appropriation of houses or apartments?

All western public transport authorities need to satisfy all six of these criteria, albeit to different extents and restraints according to the country, region/province/state, and city.

No public transport authority does everything well. Most focus on their highest ridership rail networks, and buses are often not as prioritized for funding even though they may carry more people than the city or region’s rail network. Riders and politicians prefer rail modes to ride and invest in. For many, creating a bus lane does not have the cachet of opening a light rail or streetcar line, even if the added capacity is equivalent.


Public transport authorities often receive funding which requires them to satisfy requirements over and above general corporate and labour requirements: environmental laws, railway operating requirements, transport worker hours, etc. And unfortunately, a lot of labour-management relations are legally structured to be adversarial, and as such the system is always inefficient. So both sides push for whatever they can get, to the detriment of efficiency and of the passenger.

The forces of action and reaction in public transport

For each public transport improvement action, there is an opposite reaction. But unlike Newton’s Law of Motion where the opposite reaction is equal in force and direction, in public transport the reaction often comes from all directions, sometimes from some public transport advocates, and the force of these reactions varies enormously. It is often like a multi-dimensional jelly that bulges out in odd ways in response to being prodded. Reactions are typically along one or more of these vectors:

  • Cost – tax increase to pay for it, separate fare for new line, surcharge for new airport line etc
  • Space/Land – ie taking away road lanes or access, stations requiring key real estate, gentrification, increased densities
  • Priority – at traffic signals, LRT/bus lanes, vs road projects etc
  • Time – time savings are insufficient, construction will take too long etc
  • Capacity – too much or too little, unnecessary or in the wrong location(s), &c
  • Congestion – a new line will attract more traffic, noise, pollution, and/or undesirables, and reduce safety

Alignment Charts

Insight can even come from general internet, for instance the Alignment Chart memes that have sprung up in the last couple years. Often humorous and subjective, they typically contain kernels of truth, and provide an easy way to compare and contrast technology, modes, applications, and justifications.

Municipal Transportation Alignment Chart. Solar Punks

Alignment Charts can be drawn up for individuals, as personality types, as well as for objects. The charts have their origins in the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game, of all places. But such simplistic charts can assist, if only subjectively and coarsely, in identifying and categorising technologies, modes, objects, and personalities.

A Young Person’s Guide to public transport advocacy

To be considered seriously by transport authorities and politicians, the following attributes are essential:

  • Pragmatism
  • Understanding the other side’s point of view
  • Adult and professional behaviour
  • Trust
  • Using case studies and data in context

These are all critical to advance up the Ladder of Public Participation:

Arnstein’s Ladder of Public Participation

Sherry Arnstein was a planner who in 1969 developed this ladder of public participation, which is useful to refer to as in relation to proposed public transport schemes.

Non participation

1 Manipulation The aim is to educate the participants as the proposed plan is best and the job of participation is to achieve public support by public relations.

2 Therapy The aim is to educate the participants as the proposed plan is best and the job of participation is to achieve public support by public relations.


3 Informing A most important first step to legitimate participation. But too frequently the emphasis is on a one-way flow of information. No channel for feedback.

4 Consultation Attitude surveys, neighbourhood meetings and public enquiries. But Arnstein still feels this is just a window dressing ritual.

5 Placation For example, hand-picked ‘worthies’ onto committees. It allows citizens to advise or plan ad infinitum but retains for power holders the right to judge the legitimacy or feasibility of the advice.

Citizen Control

6 Partnership Power is in fact redistributed through negotiation between citizens and power holders. Planning and decision-making responsibilities are shared eg through joint committees.

7 Delegated power Citizens holding a clear majority of seats on committees with delegated powers to make decisions. Public now has the power to assure accountability of the programme to them.

8 Citizen Control Have-nots handle the entire job of planning, policy making and managing a programme eg neighbourhood corporation with no intermediaries between it and the source of funds.

How to destroy trust

  • Binary black or white thinking (it is lazy, inaccurate, and ineffective)
  • Personal attacks on transport authority executives and staff, on politicians, and on other transport advocates

These traits only attract others with the same issues, which is not a basis for constructive dialog with authorities or conducive to positive change:

  • Bitterness
  • Anger

There is often a lot to be frustrated about with the lack of progress and funding for public transport. But deep anger needs to be channelled and retuned into positive actions, lest the anger and bitterness grow.

Transport authorities and politicians take the opinions of groups much higher than individuals in meetings, consultations, and submissions. In the UK, some bus and rail users groups, being focused on a single bus network or rail line, can look at the issues in detail.

There’s a lot in the world of campaign strategy and social change that looks at this sort of thing. Some groups attend public meetings and talk politely, whilst others take direct action to protest for or against:

GRAHAM’S Hierarchy of Disagreements

Programmer, Harvard PhD, entrepreneur, VC capitalist, and writer Paul Graham elucidated this list. The force of a refutation depends on the method of addressing the argument. The disagreement hierarchy forms a pyramid, in the sense that the higher you go the fewer instances you find.:

  • Refutation – The most convincing form of disagreement, and the rarest as it’s the most work.
  • Counterargument – Contradiction with reasoning and/or evidence.
  • Responding to tone – responses to the writing, rather than the writer. The lowest form of these is to disagree with the author’s tone.
  • Ad Hominem – ‘Of course he would say that. He’s a politician.’ It doesn’t refute the argument, but it may be relevant.
  • Name-calling – The lowest form of disagreement, the easiest, and the most common unfortunately.

Glasl’s Model of Conflict Escalation

Dr Friedrich Glasl is an authority on conflict, and he developed this model to assist in the analysis and de-escalation of conflicts. The model has nine stages grouped into three levels, each containing three stages, which can be applied to any kind of conflict: in particular, it applies between and among transport authorities and advocates.

1st Level (Win – Win)

Stage 1 – Tension

Occasional clash of opinions but is not perceived as the start of a conflict.

Stage 2 – Debate

The parties consider strategies to convince the counterparty of their arguments which leads to dispute, and the parties try to put each other under pressure, and start thinking in terms of black or white.

Stage 3 – Actions instead of words

The parties increase the pressure on each other in order to assert their own opinion. Verbal discussions are broken off and sympathy for the other party disappears.

2nd Level (Win – Lose)

Stage 4 – Coalitions

Each party searches for sympathisers to their cause. Belief of right on one’s side, one can denounce the opponent. The issue is no longer important: one has to win the conflict so that the opponent loses.

Stage 5 – Loss of face

The opponent is denigrated by innuendo and similar actions. The loss of trust is complete. To lose face would mean a loss of moral credibility.

Stage 6 – Threat strategies

The parties try to gain control by issuing threats which demonstrate their power. The proportions decide the credibility of the threat.

3rd Level (Lose – Lose)

Stage 7 – Limited destruction

One tries to severely damage the opponent with all the tricks at one’s disposal. The opponent is no longer regarded as human. From this point onwards, limited personal loss is seen as a gain if the damage to the opponent is greater.

Stage 8 – Total annihilation

The opponent is to be annihilated by all means.

Stage 9 – Together into the abyss

At this point personal annihilation is acceptable if it means defeat of the opponent.

Slightly simplified Glasl Chart. Wall-Skills

Strategies for de-escalation and conflict solution

But there is hope, even though solutions for de-escalation are often not immediately apparent. Particularly when both parties don’t want to or believe be impossible to reverse the situation, or when one party selects escalation as a strategic ploy. To de-escalate, Glasl suggests the following:

Stages 1–3: Mediation

Stages 3–5: Process guidance

Stages 4–6: Socio-therapeutic process guidance

Stages 5–7: Intercession, intermediation

Stages 6–8: Arbitration, court action

Stages 7–9: Forcible intervention

The job is education

Education of others of the principles of public transport, its relation to land use, and the importance of service frequency is a major task for advocates. These are complex, inter-related issues:

  • Land use
  • Road use
  • Public transport options
  • Existing transport modes
  • Political choices

Simplistic reduction of them glosses over too many nuances and lead to misunderstandings and myths. Binary thinking is too easy, and poisons the well of intelligent discourse.

Silos of transport related disciplines

In the UK, transport management and planning is taught with little or no awareness or reference to urban and town planning. This is despite the close relation between urban structure and density with the need and demand for public transport.

In the real world, perfect public transport lines rarely exist. A flawed transport authority can still build a good line, and a good transport authority can build a line with deep flaws.

Why people resist change – Schuler’s Ten Reasons

  1. The individual’s personal predisposition to change.
  2. Surprise and fear of the unknown.
  3. Climate of mistrust.
  4. Fear of failure.
  5. Loss of status and/or job security.
  6. Peer pressure.
  7. Disruption of cultural traditions and/or group relationships.
  8. Personality conflicts.
  9. Lack of tact and/or poor timing.
  10. Not seeing the benefits.

Everyone gets frustrated with public transport authorities. The people inside of them get frustrated too. Getting angry at a public transport authority rarely has much effect. To influence someone, start by thinking about transport from their point of view.

Confusing direction from elected officials

Often without intending to, elected officials provide conflicting goals, like increased ridership at a lower overall budget. Many managers would not pressure officials to be clearer about which is the higher priority.

There is often a difference in attitudes between transport authority (who generally want to improve public transport) and the elected politicians which oversee it (who generally bow to the car driving voter). This is really important, but it is not clear in the minds of most of the public.

Operations Resist Change

The dominant task of most public transport operators is running the service to schedule every day, and most staff are focused on that. Disruption and change are generally avoided.

Most people and organisations are quite afraid of change. Change means that what staff did yesterday could be completely different going forward: new bosses, new evaluation criteria, retraining, moving divisions…

Hence having a pilot, or a nearby city demonstrating a mode, technology, or transport innovation is crucial to point to so that people can see for themselves how well it works.

Because operations is the dominant part of most authorities, they tend to define the authority’s culture.

Misdirected Blame

Many aspects of the success or failure of a public transport system are outside the public transport authority’s control. Like traffic, accidents, road and building construction, and their own budget.

Passengers typically blame the operator or transport authority for running late and slow buses, without often considering what priority measures (bus lanes, signal prioritisation) that the authority could prioritise buses. Or that it’s the city and its politicians who have decided this, directly or indirectly, by cutting transport funding and/or hiring malleable staff.

When a planning process seems bureaucratic and unresponsive, do you blame the Federal rules that they have to follow, or do you just blame the public transport authority?

When a public transport authority’s ridership falls, riders and the public don’t often consider external causes like low gas prices, Uber/Lyft proliferation, etc.

When a public transport authority proposes a new line, which usually results in sticker shock, riders and the public rarely consider the soft benefits of decreased pollution, improved network coverage, network resiliency, line-wide accessibility, and importance to following generations. These are all difficult to quantify in monetary terms.

When there is insufficient service, do riders and the public blame the public transport authority, or look at the elected leaders (and voters) who refuse to fund public transport properly?

Public transport authorities are constantly blamed for things they don’t control, which leads to:

Public Abuse

Yelling at authority staff or other advocates is not a good way to communicate. The reaction then is that they become more defensive and less open with ideas and information. The best people rise above this. But they also want understanding and support from advocates, who want the same goals – services provided, improvements implemented. Both the users and the transport authority need to educate the elected leaders on the importance of the public transport in question – the transport authority is rarely the villain. Typically it has been starved of funds, resources, and initiative. Those that control the purse strings are the ones ultimately responsible.

At best, the public transport authority service is unremarkable – people take transport vehicles, get to where they are going as expected, nothing unusual. Appreciation for providing stable, reliable service in normal conditions is rare. But as soon as service is disrupted, for whatever reason, the authority and its operators are the first point of contact. And blame.

It’s also important for advocates to be seen as reputable and trustworthy by the mainstream media, as a source of facts, rational thought, and a counter weight to NIMBYs, politicians, and stubborn transport authorities.

Most public transport authority staff also really want to improve their system, and often share advocates’ opinions and goals.

The Danger of the Technutopians

Autonomous vehicles, maglevs, Hyperloops, flying taxis, on demand transport – these are all unproven gadgetbahn technologies with at least a decade to widespread use. And they are always a decade away, ever shunting into the future. They are not mass transport solutions for cities, and will not be for the foreseeable future. Hence Reconnections does not waste time on them. ***

At best, they are a distraction. But the reality is that these shiny baubles are pulling in billions in investment funding and government support that will benefit millions fewer passengers than if the money were instead invested in proven public transport modes and services.


The goal of this piece is not to shame or put down advocates, but to provide a path on how to improve, whilst maintaining a positive, constructive attitude, if they so wish. ***

Without an informed public and an informed debate, public transport policy and development will forever be stuck in the trench warfare of advocates and critics, lobbing grenades at each other over a no man’s land of wilful ignorance of each other’s views and perceptions.

The standard of debate about transport planning in Britain is woeful, even amongst those who should know better. One real problem is that many people are obsessed with the mode they know the best, and are generally unwilling to accept that a range of transport problems will need a range of different modes to deal with them. It is often difficult for people to comprehend a scheme that doesn’t use their favourite mode and will actively denigrate other transport modes.

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