Tim McCormick, public transit evangelist, answers questions
What environmental organization are you affiliated with?
I’m planning manager at the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. It provides public transit for the state of Rhode Island.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
My job is really about being a liaison between the public and the bus system. Bus systems are not static things, and if they are good ones, they respond to all kinds of stimuli by changing and adapting. New shopping centers or work sites, the entrance changing to the other side of the building on a hospital, street closures, sidewalk enhancement projects, parking policies, and a newly relocated food bank are all things in which I have recently been involved.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
So I was standing in the office of the National Gay Rights Advocates on a lovely late-summer day in San Francisco in 1989. The World Series was about to start at Candlestick Park and boom — earthquake. As a result, I lost my job doing fundraising there because everything just fell apart (literally). I applied around and by November was desperate. I applied for a temp job as a department store Santa and so my career in government was born. The Santa slots were all full but they were hiring damage inspectors for the quake. I took the job.
Within a month I was supervising a team of 15, and within two years was running my own field office. I found myself loving government service. All you had to do was come to work and work hard and you were a star! But something was missing. Broken buildings were not that compelling to me. I went to the library and looked up Masters programs in architecture. It said, “see ‘planning’.” I looked up planning and began to read. Suddenly I was home. Who knew there were others like me?
I applied for my M.A. degree program from City University of New York (Hunter College) and graduated in 1993. The city was in a hiring freeze so I went to work as an operations administrator (grunt) across the street from the World Trade Center at Bankers Trust Company. Four years later, ready to pull my hair out, I quit, packed up, and went to Rhode Island. I argued my way into my dream job and here I am. I owe the Five O’Clock Club a world of gratitude. They taught me how to sell myself. Check them out if you can’t get the job of your dreams.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
People who don’t take the bus and have decided that there is no room in the world for people who do, regardless of the applicable laws. This includes businesses and churches (believe it or not) that don’t want a bus stop in front of their property, even though it has every right to be there, and property owners who want bus routes removed from their streets. The selfishness and disdain for those less fortunate is mind-numbing.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Given what the riders often have to put up with, many of them are very understanding when it comes to our failures as a system. They will put up with serious inconvenience and even agree it is for the best in many cases when I explain the reasons behind a change in service to them.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Warwick, R.I., and currently live in North Kingstown, R.I.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?
When I was 19 years old I lived in a rural area with little bus service. The route I lived on came only every few hours. I worked as a maintenance man in a hotel and had no car, and life was tough but OK. I was standing in a bus shelter one day and someone drove by and threw a beer bottle at me, yelling “Get a car!” It exploded on the wall behind me. I thought at the time: One day I am going to do something to bring some dignity back to this choice I have made. I am not a second-class citizen for not driving, I am a responsible citizen. That needs to get recognized, and there should be no shame or abuse in riding the bus.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
When we are short of money and I must decide which service to cut, which I well know means deciding which person will lose their job after I cut their transportation.
What’s been the best moment in your professional life?
I argued extensively in meeting after meeting for more pedestrian consideration in projects at the state level. It became a joke amongst my colleagues that I had to “sing my song,” usually in vain. Finally, it shifted and in a large meeting the second-in-command at the Department of Transportation announced a new focus on pedestrian accessibility. He said that no projects would go forward until that man approves them, pointing at me. I literally looked behind me to see who the guy was. Since then, we have done tremendous work. I always tell people that my accreditation for “pedestrian accessibility expert” is that I have legs.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
What’s on your desk right now?
Piles and piles of problems about three inches thick.
How do you get around?
I’m ashamed to say almost always a car right now, although I spent 10 years without one. For a year I commuted by bicycle in Manhattan, and did lots and lots of transit riding.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
Dominican beans, rice, and chicken.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Over-earnest mid-level government hack trying to make a difference.
What’s your favorite ecosystem?
Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
A $4 per gallon gas tax — and fund transit with the proceeds.
Who do think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
Much depends on what happens in those last four weeks. I think it will be close, so an event favoring one or the other could have tremendous impact. If there is anyone left who does not realize that Osama Bin Laden will be “caught” in August or September, you heard it here first.
I wish that several thousand years of human history on the karmic wheel had shown us that things work out just fine. Unfortunately, often it is just crap for whole lifetimes. So I trust in karma and keep going, patiently waiting for justice.
As for what I will do, I will continue to travel the Middle East every year and share my stories. I will vote (already made sure I’m registered) and will send whoever can beat Bush $100. That’s my bit.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, because I believe we should each personally use as little land and resources as possible to get by. I don’t have a lot of baggage about it. For me it is like being polite to strangers or not. It is a way to treat other people, animals, and the planet itself.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?
Attracting the political right.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Talking Heads. Madonna.
What’s your favorite TV show?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
When you travel to another city, always look to see if you can use public transit exclusively. You will learn something about the place and its people that you never would have otherwise, and I guarantee you will have some fun.
Can you recommend some resources on traffic calming — slowing traffic down and rerouting traffic to eliminate big trucks and urban crime? — Elaine Hall, St. Louis, Mo.
Traffic calming works, and has numerous success stories around the country. For resources on a national front, try bikewalk.org or read “Creating Walkable Communities: A Guide for Local Governments,” prepared for the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) by the Bicycle Federation of America. This document is available on the bikewalk website. Good luck.
Is the key to successful public transport certainty (where is the bus?), cost, convenience, or something else? — Richard McKellar, Perth, Australia
The use rate of public transit is the sum of lots of individual choices by riders and non-riders. It can get pretty complex trying to decide which factors are influencing whom. I am now into a new approach to attract riders, which is encouraging entire groups to use transit by making it free for them. The way to do this is to sell it as a parking solution to organizations with parking problems.
We are providing free transit to college students through lump-sum payments made by the colleges — at five different schools. Our ridership is up on average tenfold at those schools, parking problems are alleviated relatively cheaply, the students lower their costs, and we still get the fare. Of course reliability and convenience will always play a part in people’s decision to use transit, but free is a big attraction for many.
The choice between rail and bus really comes down to a cost per mile argument. In America, we are now seeing a new hybrid approach, Bus Rapid Transit, which is the best of both worlds — bus’ costs with rail’s speed of travel. I am a big proponent.
How can public transit be provided for people like us who live on a back road in an old town that is unfortunately becoming a suburb? — Nancy Lovejoy, Wilbraham, Mass.
We are now offering a service called FLEX in certain rural communities. It is a van and driver, with no set schedule, who travels only within a zone. His trips are all by reservation. For trips outside the zone, he drops riders off at a bus stop of a route that passes through the zone. We average four to five passengers an hour doing this, and the driver picks up and drops off constantly. It works pretty well in a rural area as long as the zone doesn’t get too big.
How have some transit services successfully balanced service to both poor citizens who can’t afford the option of a car and commuters who can afford a car but elect to avoid the driving, parking, and environmental hassles of using a car? — Steve Leuty, Kalamazoo, Mich.
Unfortunately, most transit authorities in America are grossly underfunded, and spend half their time trying to stave off service cuts. If I have to make a choice to run either a serpentine route to downtown or an express, but I can’t do both, I will always pick the slower, because at least everyone who needs to can get there eventually. When budgets are low, decisions revolve around not abandoning the riders who have no other choice. I would bet Kalamazoo would love to do more express service. Write to your congressional representatives and tell them you are willing to have highway and bridge tolls in order to have better transit. I could go into a long explanation about funding, but take my word for it, highway tolls will have to come back before we can really make transit work.
Here in Seattle we’ve had a long-running battle trying to build a monorail (elevated rapid transit) system. Why is such an overwhelmingly popular and needed transit system so opposed by the powers-that-be? — Jennifer Guy, Seattle, Wash.
I have not been following it, but I bet it is very, very complicated. Take one of your local Transit Authority planners out to lunch. I have found that almost anyone will let me buy lunch. You will probably get more info in that lunch than you will ever get from the newspaper. Then go from there.
Is there any plan to bring the Metro train from Providence to Boston farther south? Could it ultimately link up with the metro trains in Connecticut or at least start servicing Cranston and Warwick? — Mark Brungs, Exeter, R.I.
Yes, and it is complex. The MBTA trains from Massachusetts are the only game in town. So, we can’t exactly go shopping for railroads to run the enterprise you suggest. And, lest you ask, starting our own train system would be exorbitantly expensive, so we won’t do that.
Rhode Island is currently paying Massachusetts a very large annual fee to have the MBTA trains service Providence. In order for the trains to go farther south to the proposed Warwick, Wickford, Kingston, and Westerly stations, the MBTA insisted that we build them a very expensive local rail yard. We are currently building that yard. Are you getting the picture yet?
Until public transit is as easy and pleasant as driving, people will drive, no matter the moral or economic arguments. Transit backers should realize this and accept it and start working on it. — Bennett Jay, Jersey City, N.J.
I am working on it, but the public, not transit planners, must demand change.
Public transit will never be the things you want it to be until two things happen. One, the incremental cost of getting in your car is significantly higher than the present situation, either through a steep federal gas tax or heavy tolls everywhere. Two, the monies generated from increasing the incremental cost of driving get invested in transit infrastructure. Now, can I count on you to ask for a $2 per gallon increase in the federal gas tax? If you need an example of how this could work, check out England. Have you heard about the new $5 toll to enter central London that was overwhelmingly approved by voters?
Are you free to purchase the best environmental buses on your own or do you have to take what the legislature tells you to buy? — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.
The legislature is encouraging us to buy the best environmental buses we can find. Since buses are purchased with 80 percent federal monies, this is usually not a problem on the state budget front.
I’ve been wondering for some time, is there a semi-definitive answer to the public transit version of the “chicken and the egg” question? That is, which needs to come first for excellent transit, a visible, vocal ridership, or the excellent transit itself which would then court the riders? — Zebulon Brockway, Glenwood Springs, Colo.
What must come first is the disincentives to drive, in the form of higher gas taxes, and tolls. In other words, the henhouse must come first before either the chicken or the egg.
I can’t help but wonder/worry about the future of public transportation in my area, since in these down times, when many of us need public transportation more than ever, transit has suffered deep service cuts multiple times, while fares have continued to increase. I’m interested in your thoughts on this. — Judy Purrington, San Jose, Calif.
First, congratulations on being a hardcore transit user. Now, the question I would like you to ask is: What are the consequences of transit service cuts regarding California’s clean air status, and the federal funding that results from clean air compliance?
To ask that question of the right person, take a short cut. Find out from your local city government what your Metropolitan Planning Organization is. Then find out from them who is managing the allocation of funds from T-21, the current federal transportation funding package that requires citizen participation. I guarantee you there is a board meeting somewhere, open to the public, making these decisions on how to spend federal transportation funds. Start raising a stink there, and work your way in. You are their worst nightmare, and you will be so surprised at the difference you can make if you stick with it just a little. Remember I said there is a federal requirement for citizen participation. Find the right forum, and they must listen to you. Good luck!