Word choice matters. I have often heard the media or regular people refer to public transit as alternative transportation; I have rarely or never seen it referred to as such among planners or transit proponents.
The word “alternative” can mean a choice between multiple options, but it can often imply that a particular option, or alternative, is inferior to the other choices. Given a choice between two similar luxury cars, either could be seen as a reasonable
alternative. But if you introduce a twenty year old, rusty (though driveable) beater car into the mix, it’s clearly the least desirable of all of the alternatives.
How does this relate to public transit? In many car-dominated cities around the world, automobiles are seen as the default choice for transportation. Public transit, where it exists, is often less desirable than private vehicles: it may not serve the destinations
people want to travel to, when they want to travel, or the journey may take much longer than it does by car. Based on the values important to most people (convenience and travel time), the private automobile is indeed a better alternative than public transit. Proponents for public transit obviously would not want to reinforce an image of public transit as inferior and less useful, and the word “alternative” could infer such sentiments.
The much maligned public transit system is often relegated to a last-ditch alternative, to be used when driving is not an option. To quote the introduction to Taras Grescoe’s book Straphanger (an excellent read, by the way), “public transportation…is often seen as a squalid last resort for those with one too many drunk driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car.” It’s a pretty negative image.
However, “alternative” can also connote something underground or non-mainstream. Music is a great example. Many alternative bands or groups produce artistically excellent music, done for the sake of art and expression, and untainted by corporate influence or a desire to simply produce music with a broad appeal which will generate massive profits. But while an underground, non-mainstream cool factor raises the appeal of alternative music groups, it doesn’t help to spread awareness or popularity for such music. Similarly, a cool, non-mainstream image doesn’t help to sell tickets for transit. Even the cool novelty factor by itself doesn’t help ridership if the service isn’t genuinely useful. The monorail in downtown Sydney, Australia, is a great example.
As such, public transit shouldn’t be referred to as an alternative except in a situation where it’s roughly equal in usefulness compared to the private automobile – in a reasonably dense city or inner suburb with mixed uses and amenities. In places where
people can safely and efficiently move about by walking, cycling or using public transit, as fast as (or in some cases faster) than by driving. Places where driving is still an option, but it may not be the best option.
Perhaps in an ideal world, public transit and driving (along with walking and cycling) will all be usable options, and referred to as such. Certain transportation modes may be faster than others in specific cases, but each can be advantageous for certain types of journeys. Importantly, people will have the option to use the transportation mode they prefer, without feeling that certain alternatives are simply less useful. That’s an option I’d be in favour of.