Friday, September 23, 2011

Transit and downtown, how should it be?

The transit planning world is a buzz about Tallahassee's revamp of their transit system (one account gushes over the changes, another fawns). Primarily, transit systems are downtown focused, for lots of reasons. Yet, American cities are sprawling outwards, rather than upwards in a central core. Meanwhile, cities across the country have tried to implement more crosstown routes to reflect that change. The results have been mixed, but largely disappointing.

Some stats about the change: Prior to the change, there were 26 routes, all terminating in downtown. Now there are 12, though much longer. Every route was altered in some form. Operating costs did not rise. Of the 12 routes, only six stop at the downtown transfer area.

I am going to rip the maps from the Atlantic article and put here showing the before and after.

Old - notice the radial lines into downtown.

The reason given is fairly simple. The links above state how Tallahassee's downtown contains only 14% of the jobs, yet every bus route was routed there. A cursory glance indicates a very sound idea, nothing really unique to Tallahassee even. So why have the mixed results been so prevalent?

The biggest reason is land use. DFW Airport is one of the largest employers in DFW, yet has a very low transit usage rate, especially when compared to downtown. You can't be dropped off at the doorstep or even a few hundred feet away in most areas of the airport. That means lowered ridership. If the same amount of jobs that exist within downtown Dallas now (130-140,000) existed in a much more sprawled landscape, like a freeway frontage or an airport, the current transit use rate would fall. Similarly, as discussed before, if the density is too low, riders can't be generated at a number high enough to make the service close to balancing a cost/benefit ratio. I could plan a system that ran down every street, but that doesn't mean it will be ridden or meet even the loosest, most vague definition of efficiency.

It also completely ignores frequency. Tallahassee would have increased ridership by simply upping the frequency and reducing headways. People ride transit more when they know they won't have to wait long. In the higher ridden systems, some riders don't even have to consult a schedule, since the vehicles run so close together.

It also ignores demographics. Particularly in American cities built for the car, the more affluent you are, the less likely a bus is to be ridden.

Lastly, my personal beef, it treats transit as a way to get to work. In my opinion, if you treat transit as a transportation option, rather than a commuter option, then things change. In New York, people do ride the subways to get to work, but more often, people ride the subways to get somewhere, and sometimes it is work.

Now I don't want to say that planners didn't take these into account, because I am sure they did, but the reporting by people who love to see crosstown routes always ignore these factors. DART put a great emphasis on crosstown routes when it was formed in the early '80's. The average ridership was about a quarter of projections. They had to be scaled back. The main reason was land use was not conducive for bus service, particularly in the 'burbs.

That said, I am not opposed to crosstown routes. However, it should also be noted that bus that run through downtown can still be a crosstown route. Let me illustrate. If you draw an X representing two bus routes, with the intersection being downtown, you can go from the top left to the bottom right by going through downtown, but not stopping, which is commonly done. Now that can bring up other issues, such as extended trip times, since downtown trips usually take longer to traverse.

I have always said that transit needs to do two things effectively, get people from where they are to where they want to go and get there efficiently. The first point is obvious. If I want to go to Arlington, Frisco or Mesquite, I won't take transit because I can't get there. Conversely, if those residents wanted to get to downtown from there, they couldn't. Note, it doesn't say anything about the workplace.

The second point is a bit harder to understand. It can mean time, but not the fastest. Buses are perceived as slow because they stop a lot, since people have to get on and off and that can also mean they miss the timing and get stuck at lights. Trains can sometimes go slower, but it doesn't feel slower, since it is built into the schedule. Bus rapid transit could go a ways to increasing ridership.

But it also means other things. Reducing headway's is efficient as is costs. My biggest one is transfer. It is inefficient to have to make multiple transfers. Each transfer increases the trip time and possibly increases the risk of missing a transfer. DART's system is rough because it is a rail system that requires bus feeders or park and rides to be successful. The only true place where people consistently get off the train to their destination is downtown. But if downtown is not the destination, then it is usually at least two transfers.

I hope Tallahassee's changes work, but I will wait to see results, rather than proclaim the greatness before it is running.

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