Over the weekend, I found myself in the service area of Tar River Transit, a transit system operated by First Transit for the City of Rocky Mount, North Carolina (population 57,010). I don't have any hard numbers on TRT because they were exempt from reporting to the National Transit Database as of 2009. However, from their Web site, we can find out that they operate a total of nine routes, which all connect at the Downtown Transfer Center (which doubles as TRT's headquarters). Many of these connections are timed transfers (a good strategy for route design), although the agency has rider-unfriendly and arcane transfer rules. But for a small transit agency, on the whole, the service is not that bad. There's a distinct lack of evening service, and no service at all on Sunday, but those are issues which I'm sure could be addressed with increased funding.
While I'm not an expert in service planning, I know from reading Jarrett Walker's Human Transit that there are certain techniques which can be applied to even small transit agencies to improve usability and the quality of service. Looking at those guidelines, TRT gets a lot right—they operate a 'pulse' service, and make use of through-routing, in which a bus ending its run on one route immediately begins a run on another route.
So, then, what's the verdict on TRT? I didn't have the opportunity to ride any of their routes, so I can't comment from firsthand experience. I could complain about the short span-of-service, or the arcane transfer rules, or even more fundamental problems, like the fact that each route map and schedule are posted online as scans of the paper schedules—completely inaccessible and really quite user-unfriendly (here's an example). I could complain about the lack of a trip planner, or a GTFS feed (hard to produce when they don't even have the information online in any machine-readable format), or real-time passenger information (hard to justify in a less-developed area where delays are less likely). In fact (and somewhat to my amazement), route shapefiles are available, so someone could produce a GTFS feed for TRT without that much additional work.
But for me, the real issue is the first sentence of the first paragraph of Tar River Transit's Web site: "The Tar River Transit System provides regular fixed-route bus service as an alternative method of transportation for the general public...". Alternative method? The phrase "alternative method" is a lot like "alternative lifestyle"; it's an instantaneously othering statement with the expected derogatory connotation. It contributes to a negative perception of transit services and the people who ride them, and this makes it hard to advocate for transit services on their merits.
I'm well aware that the motivation for transit service in suburban and rural areas is simply not the same as it is in the big cities I'm used to, where the operation of an extensive transit service is almost a given. Instead, in small cities and towns, transit is seen, as Jarrett Walker puts it, as a "social service". But even if a transit system is being operated as a "social service" rather than for its benefits to the environment and in reducing congestion and spurring development, the individuals who use a transit service still deserve our respect. Transit is not an 'alternative', any more than the car is an 'alternative' to, for example, the horse and buggy still favored by the Amish. It's not just about a sentence on a Web site, but rather the perspective it represents. Every mode of transit, whether it is the predominant mode or not, whether it is operated as a "social service" or not, is deserving of respect, and so are those who make use of that mode of transportation.