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Transit and Light Rail Planners Need to "Listen to the Merchants"
Commentary by George Barsky
Small business merchants often can tend to be short-sighted when it comes to the benefits of public transit. They've even been called "their own worst enemy". Some transit supporters, planners, and agencies even tend to regard small-business merchants as antagonists, especially when they resist installing bus stops and major transit projects like light rail (usually, because it displaces automobile traffic and parking spaces).
However, it's critical to see things from the merchants' point of view. Merchants are not 50% funded by the FTA. They assume a huge amount of risk, no matter how small the operation. And the larger the merchant, the more is at risk – including many jobs and the health of the community.
Small merchants work hard to extract a little customer loyalty and sometimes work on a razor-thin edge with a lot of competition and circumstances they can't control. They may have opportunities for business loans – but they must be repaid. They also pay hefty taxes – unlike most publicly funded transit agencies.
Merchants cannot operate at a cash deficit and make excuses like public works departments, highway departments, transit agencies, and commuter railroads. Merchants have very little access to experts, consultants and the whole cadre of know-it-alls without making their own heavy investment. Do you shop at the "local" small hardware store or the super box home centers now? Of course, whether or not they survive seems immaterial to legions of local and government agency experts.
Try investing your hard-earned money, time, energy and ambition into a small merchant business and see whether or not you might protest when someone else comes about to make big waves in your territory championing improvement. Start your own privately funded transportation enterprise and you may sing a different tune.
Merchants in some areas have been criticized for opposing transit stops on or near their property. But it's important to keep in mind that contemporary life is far more complex than a few bus stops. The removal of bus (or streetcar) stops in some cases may or may not have contributed to economic decline. There are many other contributing factors to consider – bus stops being only one. My point will not be well understood by those who live mainly in the "transit lane", unless you've been there – in retail where luring customers can be very difficult and costly.
Despite all the efforts of the do-gooder transit types, their best intentions may just work contrary to how the merchants see it and experience it. They may have a legitimate concern and the transit industry – which serves them as well – ought to take that into account. Maybe they have delivery problems, as well. Where should the delivery trucks park? The goods aren't brought to them by transit. They have security problems and shoplifting problems. Maybe bus stops add to that problem?
How easy is it to get a municipality to change anything? Not very easy (OK - I know somebody will tell me about some municipalities that were a knockover) and very time-consuming. it's not a question of being arrogant, or troublesome for its own sake – it's a matter of survival for those businesses – as they see it. I suggest they have valid concerns and needs and are not just a bunch of protesters. if you can't appreciate that, then as a transit official you are not doing your job, because you exclude them as a vital part of the community.
The Bronx borough of New York City, which has undergone some economic decline over many decades, provides a good example of all this in action. The Bronx has plenty of surface, subway, and elevated transit – yet there are broader aspects to its decline than the mere existence (or deterioration) of transit. Maybe if the Third Avenue Railway System had not been converted to buses and the Cross Bronx Expressway had not been constructed, things would be different today. But the fact remains, many complex factors play into survival, growth, decline, and wellness. Transit is not necessarily the key, but rather it is one of many.
Merchants are too busy to protest for its own sake. They protest when they feel compelled to do so.
Sometimes, it pays to listen to them. They just might be right.
Merchants' Favoritism Toward Auto, Disdain for Transit is Self-Defeating
Commentary by Edson L. Tennyson, P.E.
Merchants often do work hard and risk money. But they can be extremely short-sighted when it comes to transportation, automobiles, and mass transit. Some examples from my own experience may help illustrate this.
Investors in Milwaukee's former electric rail transit system – where I was in operations management – did try to make a profit. But merchants were fascinated by the relatively small proportion of their clientele who accessed their stores by automobile.
The electric rail system served a Gimbel's department store just beyond the system's terminal. Gimbel's had no problem allowing their few customers in a few automobiles to back up in the street, blocking and slowing our rail cars, which were bringing in many customers.
That was back when most shoppers came by transit. No more. Facing dirty pool by various Wisconsin politicians and the Wisconsin Electric Power Company, the electric rail system was unable to make a profit and yet had no public subsidy (such as is lavished on automobiles). Milwaukee lost one of the best rapid transit services in the entire United States.
Passengers protested, but the politicians were not interested in the passengers Three city councilmen told the transit company that it was unfair to allow three wards in the city to have so much better transit service than the rest of the city got. That is the devious political mind at work.
Youngstown, Ohio provides another example. The transit system there struggled, trying to make a profit. But it was an uphill, hopeless effort – and investors had been disinvesting in the system by the time I became involved in operations
From 1951 to 1956 the Youngstown system made a nearly six percent return on the transit investment. But, again, favoritism was bestowed on the automobile. The transit system had trouble getting its buses through downtown because of illegally double-parked autos and autos backed up in the bus stops.
The transit company asked for a No Parking rule in the curb lane in peak periods to keep the buses moving. The merchants objected, even though most of their customers came by bus. Indeed, surveys found that most of the curb parking spaces were used, not by customers, but by merchants or their employees. (There were meters, but they would illegally "feed" them.)
We eventually persuaded the city council to open up the bus lanes, but after three months the merchants demanded parking be restored. Their motto was, and I quote, "Bus riders have to come to our stores, but motorists can go anywhere. We have to entice them." Yes, true. Motorists did go anywhere ... anywhere but downtown! And, by blocking buses, the merchants stopped many shoppers from using the bus service.
Today there are hardly any merchants left in downtown Youngstown. There are other reasons that make it particularly bad, but transit everywhere suffers similarly unless major segments are on reserved or private-right-of-way.
Urban rail transit was once the sixth largest industry inNorth America. It got no subsidy. It paid taxes. It even subsidized auto movement. Merchants would not support the very transit that populated their stores. instead, they supported the automobile subsidies that helped put transit out of business. So now we have transit subsidies.
Certainly, some political transit managements abuse subsidies, but one should not disparage honest, industrious transit managers who need subsidy in today's environment. indeed, they need a lot less subsidy than the automobile is getting.
It's true that merchants face very tough competition. But it is not nearly as tough as competing with a subsidized competitor with a convenient product. Highways do not have the capacity to adequately serve a major city – but they do have the capability to congest it to death. Many merchants would be prudent to revise their attitude toward mass transit and the major benefits it can provide.
Photo credits: LRP graphics library; B. Volkmer (Milwaukee bus and streetcar).