Influencing public behavior can be an arduous and often frustrating task, as our long national journey with COVID-19 has borne out. It takes a lot of work to encourage and maintain public health behaviors such as masking, distancing, abiding by quarantine, getting tested, and getting vaccinated. Those in government and public health have been using everything in their toolbox and sometimes (as we know) it isn’t enough. People can be remarkably difficult to move.
With that in mind I would like to congratulate County Executive Calvin Ball and the team in Howard County Government for pulling off a feat of downright magic this week. In about 24 hours they got a significant number of Howard County residents to do something they had never done before: look at a public transit schedule.
I’ve written a lot here about the need to connect people with public transit in Columbia/HoCo, and how it needs to be seen as a useful option that everyone can use, rather than what poor people have no choice but to accept. Words are pretty, but they don’t move minds in the way that would be necessary to change a significant amount of behavior. As much as I am committed to writing, I am equally aware of the limits of my influence.
But on Thursday when Calvin Ball announced that, through an agreement with RTA, Howard County middle and high school students would receive bus passes for free transit, a whole bunch of people who had never considered riding the bus suddenly went to the website and started looking.
This is cool stuff. This is where attitudes and behavior can change.
Two things have arisen in the past few days that bear discussing. One is that some folks want to know if this agreement covers all middle and high school students in Howard County, or just HCPSS students. To my mind, if the decision has made specifically to address the bus driver shortage serving the school system, then it would make sense to target public school students. Sure, it would be nice to extend this benefit to all young people of middle and high school age, but, is that where the need is?
What is the question we are trying to answer here? Is it: “Why don’t young people get free transit?” Or, “How are we going to get all these kids to school?”
It can be very difficult for some people to see others receive something that they won’t get. For example, the folks who were angry that there was a beautiful new playground in East Columbia and not in their neighborhood. This, too, is human nature. I would find it mildly amusing to see anyone get riled up enough about this to actually organize and fight for the right for their children to have access to free public transit. Actually, who knows? That might be a good thing.
The other thing, which is a mixed blessing, is that plenty of parents who have been searching through nearby bus routes have been discovering that RTA doesn’t serve their particular area all that well. That is probably disheartening. But it’s also a teachable moment. I think it’s good for people to contemplate the state of local public transit: where the routes are, where you can go, where you can’t.
It takes a belief, even if it’s a glimmer, that riding a bus is a feasible option, a desirable choice, even. For some students this absolutely will be a useful service for getting to and from school. I’m hoping that some of the other community members will ponder what it would take to make better options for their areas come to fruition. And that could be the beginning of a transformation in public attitudes about public transit.
No one is claiming that this is a perfect solution. It is a creative response to a public need and it uses the resources that we have available. I hope that it will provide significant help in a really difficult situation. I also hope that it may influence a new generation to believe that public transit is convenient and takes you where you want to go.
The more people experience that, and have that expectation, the more they will advocate for improvements to public transit wherever they live. This is a short-term solution that may have long term benefits.
I like it.
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