Monday, May 20, 2013

Weekend surprise: Talkin’ transit

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The reaction my face registered (he later recounted) was remarkable when he said, “I’m in public transit.”

LED display signRemarkable it probably was. For our conversation didn’t take place at an acronym event such as APTA, NARP, or RSI. It was rather a Saturday combined post-wedding reception/graduation celebration, deep in the still lush farmlands of New Jersey (not yet an oxymoron, folks, I’m pleased to say). Time to meet new extended-family in-laws and their friends a second time, to exchange homemade foodstuffs (my gift: real maple syrup), and to apologize upfront for being doomed to forget their names all too quickly. (“Me, too,” some replied, laughing and kind.)

Time also to meet friends of my brothers-in-law, college buddies, fraternity brothers, and almost invariably auto enthusiasts of varying stripe. Somewhere along the way of mixing my XY chromosomes, one of my parents (my dad, maybe? He liked cars) didn’t give me the right stuff to talk power and speed. Or, as I all too often see it, cars I used to own, cars I want to own, cars I’ll never own, cars that guy owns, and not (all too often) cars I actually own in real life, blame the wife and kids, etc.

My car stories tend to revolve around not horsepower and speed and wow-how-reckless I was as an idiot kid, but rather what could be accomplished in miles-per-gallon of a 1961 Ford Falcon (thank you, Robert McNamara) or how much musical gear can be crammed into a VW bug. Tame stuff to offer amidst the tall tales of the Jaguar or Porsche (now sitting in the garage, brought out only for ceremonial events), or so on.

But back to my conversation with one of those frat brothers, who was discussing various (and interesting) non-auto items with me for some time, something I was enjoying. The inevitable pause ensued, at which point I pulled out the old, reliable conversational jump-start I resist using as an opener: “So what do you do?”

And the answer, “I’m in public transit,” really did surprise me, for the gentleman offered it quietly, and with assurance – maybe even a hint of pride – that I wouldn’t expect. Turns out he works for Hanover Displays, Inc. , based in Elk Grove Village, Ill., and the North American branch of its British-based parent. Hanover, he said, is one of “five or six companies” competing in the North American market for display signage on transit vehicles and properties (as seen in the photo above). “Too many for the field,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “It’ll change, thin out, sometime soon.”

Of course, Hanover hopes to be one of the survivors, and I asked what kind of clients the company had. It wasn’t hard to recognize some of the players at all: New York City Transit. LA Metro. Siemens Mobility. Most of that business involves bus signage, but my new acquaintance noted rail is a growing (if small) part of the mix.

That was my cue, of course, to mention what I do for a living, which brought a round of polite queries, and then agreement between us that more and better public transit (bus and rail) is a must for a healthy U.S. I warmed at the idea that, for both of us (certainly as I understood my new friend), it wasn’t just the job and the money; we really wanted to believe that.

Hence the story the man told of a recent trip to Barclays Center in Brooklyn to catch the NBA Nets (before the team was eliminated from this year’s playoffs). The gentleman let his son do the trip planning, since all rational minds know accessing Barclays by automobile isn’t a very good idea. The son, using 21st century apps with some old-tech (maps) mixed in, guided his father and party by bus and subway – “I let him do it; for him it was easy. And it was easy,” the man emphasized. “It may be a generational thing; public transit just isn’t the ugly, rundown, anti-status mess it used to be. Makes me believe.”

Me, too, but my brother-in-law, listening to a for-once unfamiliar subject matter for five minutes or so and perhaps bored by it all, ended any further ruminations. Smiling, he interjected, “We still need cars.”

Right as rain, of course, especially when the only way to and from our day’s gathering was by car. And rain it did on the long, dreary, nighttime trip back up the ever-expanding New Jersey Turnpike. Still, one can hope for better, I thought on the trip home. Or at least a better transport balance.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.