First started in Ottawa, Canada, the #TransitChallenge is a week-long pledge to leave one’s car at home and instead use public transit or active transportation like bicycling or walking. In June, nine Montgomery County officials organized by the Action Committee for Transit also took the challenge and tweeted about how their trips went.
I frequently take transit in Prince George’s County, where I live and work. But when some of my colleagues heard about the challenge in Montgomery County, they encouraged me to take it too to highlight how easy or difficult it is to get around here by bus and train.
How did my Prince George’s #TransitChallenge go?
Throughout the work week, nearly all of my trips are commutes between work and home. I was able to take Prince George’s County’s TheBus for all of these trips without difficulty. Route 21 connects Largo, where I live, with Upper Marlboro, where my office and son’s daycare are located.
Over the course of the week, there was never a trip where the bus was more than five minutes late. The worst thing that happened? One morning, my transit app indicated that my bus would be arriving in 74 minutes, but that bus was actually on time.
I took one trip into Washington, DC to visit the museums. I was able to walk to the Metrorail station and while I did have to wait 12 minutes for the train, it was easy to take the Blue Line to the National Mall and back to my home in Prince George’s.
Why did it go so well? #TransitChallenge vs. #TransitLife
Some people taking the #TransitChallenge have shared the experience of waiting in the rain without adequate shelter, buses that show up 20 minutes late (if at all), missed transfers, and environments hostile to people walking. However, my experience went exceedingly smoothly. There is certainly some luck to this, but living in a transit-accessible neighborhood makes it easier, even though I’m in a suburban area.
My family and I live near the Largo Town Center, which provides easy access to six Metrobus lines, three TheBus lines, and the Metrorail system. Being near multiple routes increases the number of potential destinations. For daily commuting and taking my son to daycare, we take the Route 21 TheBus; the closest supermarket is walking distance, and the Route 26 TheBus goes to the next closest shopping center. Going to doctor’s appointments or anything downtown is a short trip on the Blue or Silver Metrorail lines.
Not everyone prioritizes transit access when looking for a place to live, or has the resources to do so. My family and I deliberately choose a transit-friendly neighborhood so we wouldn’t each need our own automobile. Being near so many different routes also provides more destinations that can be reached without transferring. For my normal commute, I walk five minutes to the bus stop and then once I get off the bus, I walk less than five minutes to the daycare and my office.
Having to transfer buses or from train to bus makes each trip more difficult, not only because of the additional waiting time, but also because scheduling transfers requires a “stars-align” approach if headways are long. Not having to transfer makes transit much more convenient and everyday travel more feasible. Given the choice, I actively avoid trips that require a transfer, especially when traveling with my son.
Moving to a transit-oriented neighborhood from DC has allowed public transit to remain my default mode of transportation for the past several years. The challenge was only for one week, but using transit is a part of my life.
The time spent on the bus with my son has become one of my favorite parts of the day. Before he went to daycare, I spent the time reading, surfing the internet, checking email, or just relaxing—anything other dealing with daily stress of traffic. There are a lot of benefits to not driving. Seeing the same people on the bus every day, both other passengers and the bus driver, creates a sense of community.
Taking transit can still be a challenge
Of course, there are many real challenges to regularly using transit, especially in areas that are not very dense. Indirect routes and transfers usually equate to longer trip times. My commute to work is about 10 minutes more than it would be by driving, but some trips between further parts of the county can have dramatically different travel times.
Also, the low frequency of buses can strongly influence a person’s schedule. Every morning and afternoon there is a definitive time when I must leave, regardless of what is happening, to make sure I will not miss the bus. If you have a late engagement or work a late shift, there are even fewer (if any) feasible options.
Even though everything was running on time during when I took the #TransitChallenge, there are many reasons for buses to be late: Vehicle breakdowns, traffic congestion, or an inordinate number of passengers boarding/alighting. While generally the bus runs on time, it’s important to take this into consideration.
Finally, it’s easy for me to go to work and back using transit where I live, but there are many places in the county that I don’t visit because they are not easy to reach via transit. Being totally car-free in a country that’s still built around the car isn’t easy.
How to make transit work for you
The #TransitChallenge is a great way to highlight the service the transit can provide and the obstacles faced by people who rely on it. However, it’s probably not an effective way to increase how often people use transit, especially in less dense communities. Even as a regular transit user, sometimes I drive.
Instead of trying to get people to take transit 100% of the time, it may be more feasible to encourage folks to try commuting by transit once a week. If the commute times are too long, try finding a few other trips that can be taken by transit or bike. Is there a nearby restaurant or park that is transit-accessible? Try taking the bus the next time instead of driving.
Be sure to download the right apps to get real-time tracking and to look up the routes and fares in advance. Also check the weather—if there’s a chance of rain, bring a raincoat or pack a small umbrella. Being prepared and getting familiar with the routes are the easiest ways to make transit more doable.
As communities build out and redevelop, there is opportunity to make transit work better for everyone. New building projects can provide direct connections to transit stops and offer bus shelters. In fact, Prince George’s County’s newly-adopted zoning ordinance will require direct connections to transit. Local governments can work to improve transit service, and also encourage employers to provide transit subsidies to their employees.
The county’s Department of Public Works & Transportation is completing its Transit Vision Plan, which will include recommendations on how it can improve bus service. When the Purple Line light rail is operating, there will be even more opportunities to easily acess parts of the county that were a challenge to reach without a car before. Hopefully, there will be a point where residents of the county will choose to take transit—not out of necessity, but because it is just as easy as driving.