Transit plays such a prominent role in smart growth lexicon, it’s like we’ve created a new grammatical construct: Subject-Verb-Transit. Having lived in the suburbs for five years now, though, it’s become painfully obvious we are speaking in incomplete sentences. What we are really talking about is Subject-Verb-Heavy Transit.
What about the other half, the not-so-heavy transit? Each year, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) publishes the Public Transportation Fact Book. It is chock full of statistics on the various types of transit. For discussion’s sake, here is a summary of several tables’ worth of data to compare by mode.
There are several stories here worth noting as they relate to rubber tire service:
- Not just half - bus trips comprise over 50% of total transit trips. Paratransit is a big deal in its own right, and important for both mobility in suburbs and pressure on transit budgets.
- APTA includes bus rapid transit in the bus category; there are 30 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems operating around the country. BRT, however needs its own category because there are so many combinations of capital and operating factors that skew bus system data.
- There are 90 “heavy” systems (including some not presented the table) which are on fixed guideways. There are 1,088 bus systems. Subtracting out the cities with heavier modes (and considering that some cities have several bus systems), the country has close to 900 cities served only by local bus service. The most comprehensive list of bus systems can be found on the Federal Transit Administration’s website, presented by region for Agency’s 10 regions.
- Bus systems are jobs machines. As such, buses have the largest share of national transit operating budgets. While we activists pay a lot of attention to FTA’s budget to make sure New Starts and Small Starts get a nice chunk of the Agency’s $9 billion budget, more than twice that amount is spent annually running bus systems. Why is it we howl over ineffective infrastructure and inadequate maintenance funding but pay no heed to ineffective use of operating budgets? Shouldn’t filling up buses to let people flow be on par with rebuilding pipes to let water flow?
Let’s face it, local bus occupies almost no discussion in the smart growth world. Now, I know what you are thinking: Developers won’t invest in land development near bus stations because they (and the routes) can be moved at any time.
This is crap. First, every time someone wearing a smart growth hat repeats this canard. It just puts off to a future date taking a serious look at how to leverage local bus service for community development. Second, it implies smart growth and building communities is only about development. Finally, recent research questions whether there is such a bias anyway.
The authors of the study, Milena Scherer and Ulrich Weidmann, used cluster analysis to examine bias between rail and bus systems in a city where both systems offer the same quality of service. They note in the abstract,” Where equivalent service qualities were provided, no significant higher effect existed in tram-based clusters compared with bus-based clusters.”
OK, the study is from another country (Switzerland), and I only have access to the one page summary so am not sure what was included in the various “clusters.” Nonetheless, the study speaks to the raison d’etre for BRT – come as close as you can to mimicking rail service with bus service. In the United States, the two focus areas for mimicry have been (1) vehicles with a more rail-like appearance and (2) dedicated right of way. These are also two of the most capital intensive investments. So the big question is what are the low cost factors a community can devote attention to in order to come closer to the performance benefits of rail: reliability, ease of use, speed, and access to a range of destinations?
There are four main areas that seem to be ripe for attention from smart growth and transit activists.
1) Focus on one longstanding & outstanding route for TOD – Yes, stops and routes can change, but most bus systems have longstanding routes and stops at job or trip generators like hospitals and universities. Establishing a focus on one route can signal to the development community you are serious about setting proverbial stakes in the ground.
2) Transfer Stations - Transfer stations offer the most promising real estate for local bus-centric TOD because a rider gets double (or more) coverage of potential places to go. It also signals more permanence since eliminating a transfer has negative impacts on multiple lines. It seems like heavy rail planners have caught onto this value more quickly and strongly than bus system planners.
3) Transportation Technology – Dan Sturges has a great Vimeo video (contained in this post) about installing a variety of new transportation modes in strategic suburban locations. Dan talks a lot about the concept of the station car and bike sharing.
4) Information Technology – This is the big one. Even the best apps, like PDX bus and Google transit are schedule based – not traveler based. Bus systems need to approach the next cohort of future riders as if they are tourists, not commuters. Systems can’t assume that riders know the bus line, the destination’s address, or neighborhood. If I am a tourist, I don’t want a list of sign poles planted at cross streets, I want something that combines the app AroundMe + Next bus technology+ Augmented Reality like Travel Guide with AR to see where the closest stops are + trip planner + instructions on timing + information on getting back to the trip origin. Here in the land of 60 minute headways, this last one is a really big deal. The video below shows the AR technology (and embarrassingly how long this stuff has been out).
My husband had a great idea: use AR to code buses so that as they approach, a rider can hold a device or smartphone up to tell if its the right bus and/or where it goes. Information technology is not just about iPads and apps. A couple of years ago, Portland mailed postcards to residents to see if anyone wanted customized transit information (as in – this stop is closest to your house – let’s spend 10 minutes seeing where you can go). I am still looking for a link.
There are three main activities that could help move this forward this year
1) Long Term Tee Up– The U.S. Department of Transportation is holding meetings on January 26 and 27 on the Integrated Dynamic Transit Operations (IDTO) operational concept, which is Washington-speak for “DOT wants to build apps.”
2) Near Term Hackathon – If I were Ray LaHood, I would go the Michael Bloomberg route and begin building apps now (instead of plodding completely through the IDTO process). Why not convene all the transit, smart growth, GIS techie, mobile marketing, app-building communities and see what you can do now with a three-venue, national hackathon dedicated to local bus service and paratransit? Use IDTO to fill in the gaps or work at the larger scales that only feds can do. In the near, near term (like – you can do this today), encourage local hacking, like this dude’s guerilla public information.
3) Study what Tallahassee Florida just did like Crazy – Tallahassee just revamped their entire system by replacing the centralized transfer structure with more suburb-to-suburb connections. This move was covered somewhat glowingly in the Atlantic Cities and Grist. Both acknowledge kinks, but for the riders’ views, go to the comments. The system change should not be viewed as “good move” versus “bad move,” but a chance to see what happens when routes are reduced and rearranged to adjust to new employment realities -- and the real life blow back on people who depend on buses.
I don’t know if I have convinced you that this is worth paying serious attention to. But at some point, it would be nice to have bus-only suburbs that go to bat for transit and planning, and send people to DC who do that batting.