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Ridership on the Upswing After Houston’s Bus Network Redesign

Houston's bus system before, on the left and after a complete system redesign on the right.

Houston’s bus map before and after a thorough system overhaul.

In August, Houston debuted its new bus network, reconfigured to increase frequent service, expand weekend hours, and improve access to jobs.

The implementation was contentious at times, and when we last checked in on the results — two months after the changes took effect — bus ridership was down 4 percent overall but up dramatically on weekends. That was to be expected, wrote transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who worked on the project, because it takes some time for people to adjust to changes and familiarize themselves with the new routes.

Now, after just two more months, METRO is reporting that bus ridership has climbed above previous levels. November totals were up 4 percent compared to the previous year.

“The upswing in ridership on the New Bus Network launched on Aug. 16, 2015 is immensely gratifying,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia in a press release. “The countless hours of researching routes, community meetings and input, planning changes, and redirecting and training our staff is paying off and we’re confident that trend will continue to grow.”

In October, Walker said he would expect ridership to increase about 20 percent by two years after the redesign, provided good management by the local transit agency. We’ll see, but the returns after just a few months are promising.

These results should be encouraging to cities like Columbus that are considering similar changes.

Metro is also getting ready to roll out a new transfer policy expected to boost ridership more. Previously, riders paying with cash did not get free transfers. Under the new policy, tickets will be good for a free transfer for up to three hours.

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Civil Rights Groups Challenge Maryland Gov. Hogan’s Red Line Cancellation

Back in June, newly elected Maryland Governor Larry Hogan unilaterally cancelled a transit expansion project that Baltimore had been planning for a decade, transferring the state’s promised investment to road projects in more rural parts of the state.

Governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore's Red Line in June. Now civil rights groups are suing. Image: Railfanguides

Governor Larry Hogan canceled Baltimore’s Red Line in June. Now civil rights groups are challenging him. Image: Railfanguides

Now a coalition of civil rights groups is challenging the decision on civil rights grounds, saying it amounts to discrimination against Baltimore’s black residents. The Baltimore Sun reports that the Baltimore NAACP, the ACLU of Maryland, and the Baltimore Regional Initiative Developing Genuine Equality (BRIDGE) will file a complaint against the governor with U.S. DOT under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Hogan’s decision to cancel the $2.9 billion Red Line light rail project came after months of evasiveness. The city had spent $230 million planning the 14-mile line and about $900 million in federal funding had been committed. Hogan has since proposed a $135 million system of busways as a substitute.

Legal challenges of this type are rare but not without precedent. The city of Milwaukee prevailed in a similar case in the 1990s, when governor Tommy Thompson cancelled a rail project in the city while proceeding with highway projects elsewhere. As a result of the case, the state was ordered to fund a transit project in the city. That agreement is the reason Milwaukee has been able to proceed with its streetcar plans without interference from Governor Scott “No Train” Walker.

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The Looming Transit Breakdown That Threatens America’s Economy

transitbacklog

Categories of maintenance needs, in billions of dollars, for America’s large transit agencies. Graph: RPA

While federal transit funding stagnates, the nation’s largest rail and bus systems have been delaying critical maintenance projects. Without sustained efforts to fix infrastructure and vehicles, the effects of deteriorating service in big American cities could ripple across the national economy, according to a new report from the Regional Plan Association [PDF].

RPA focuses on ten of the nation’s largest transit agencies — in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Between them, these agencies face about $102 billion in deferred maintenance costs. To bring the systems into a state of good repair will require about $13 billion in maintenance spending per year — more than twice the current rate of investment.

These regions house about one-fifth of the country’s population and produce about 27 percent of the nation’s economic output. They also carry about 60 percent of the nation’s total transit ridership, up from 55 percent 20 years ago. That’s a reflection of how transit has become increasingly important in these regions, with passenger trips growing 54 percent over the same period.

That level of ridership growth can’t be sustained if the transit systems aren’t maintained properly. RPA cites a 2012 report from San Francisco’s BART that says if the system is allowed to deteriorate…

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Will Council Members Who Want Transit Improvements Back Toll Reform?

At yesterday’s City Council transportation committee hearing, chair Ydanis Rodriguez hoped to engage the MTA and DOT concerning areas of the city that need more transit options. But despite being invited, according to Rodriguez, the MTA refused to send anyone.

Instead, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg promised to pressure the MTA to invest in transportation projects to improve commuter times between Manhattan and the edges of the city.

A bill introduced by Rodriguez and Daneek Miller would require DOT and the MTA to assess transportation availability in neighborhoods identified as “transit deserts.” Another bill would mandate that the two agencies study the feasibility of a new light rail system. Trottenberg requested that those proposals be folded into a study already underway, commissioned by the council earlier this year, on options for improved bus rapid transit.

Since Mayor de Blasio has upped the city’s MTA contribution, the administration is in a position to “exert pressure” on the MTA “to see that they are equitably serving the parts of the city that have traditionally been so under-served,” Trottenberg said. “That is very high on our agenda.”

Council members expressed skepticism that the MTA would pull through on outer-borough transit projects. Miller said that new Hudson Yards subway service, a capital project funded by the city, serves far fewer passengers per day than proposed projects in eastern Queens. “We want to make sure the services are being provided equitably, and I think right now they are not,” he said.

Bronx rep Jimmy Vacca urged Trottenberg to act urgently on improving express buses. “People in my district, and people in the Bronx, are asking for relief,” he told Trottenberg. “Now that we’re having this discussion, we can’t wait for long-term plans. We have to do what we can do now.”

Among the specific projects discussed was expansion of the MTA CityTicket program, which makes commuter rail tickets cheaper for city residents. The council is currently considering a resolution calling on the MTA to equalize the cost of commuter train travel within city limits with the cost of a subway ride.

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Detroit Bus Driver Contract Offers Bonuses When Ridership Rises

A new labor contract between the Detroit Department of Transportation and ATU Local 26 explicitly ties bus driver bonuses to ridership increases.

If farebox revenue goes up, 30 percent of the increase will belong to drivers, up to a certain point, DDOT announced earlier this week. Individual drivers’ bonuses are capped at $350 per year the first year and can rise to $750 in the fourth year of the contract.

The bus drivers union ratified the agreement on Friday. “With fare box sharing, if DDOT succeeds, our drivers will share financially in that success,” Fred Westbrook, president of ATU Local 26, said in the press release.

Megan Owens of Detroit’s Transportation Riders United said she’s generally supportive of the revenue-sharing provision.

“If they have a little extra reason to help out a new rider to have a good experience or be a little more patient with a frustrating rider … that appears to be a worthwhile investment,” she said.

Steven Higashide of TransitCenter said revenue-sharing is a “really innovative and fascinating provision” that he hasn’t seen elsewhere.

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Next Up for SBS: 23rd Street in Manhattan, Canarsie to Gravesend in Brooklyn

What people are saying about the B6 and B82

What people are saying about the B82. Image via NYC DOT

Two more enhanced bus routes are entering the project pipeline in NYC, one along a busy Manhattan crosstown street and the other snaking across a transit-hungry stretch of Brooklyn.

The Manhattan project will run across 23rd Street. The Brooklyn project would tackle a long route following the B6 and B82 between East New York and Gravesend, which carried a combined 69,586 riders on an average weekday last year, according to the MTA.

The general sweep of the southern Brooklyn route was first identified in the 2009 SBS “phase two” expansion plan. A more fine-grained map emerged in the de Blasio administration’s OneNYC environmental and equity plan, released in April.

DOT and the MTA have already gotten started on the southern Brooklyn route. The project website includes reports from the field, where staffers set up tables at busy bus stops in August and September to find out what riders want. The top complaints: Buses are too slow, too crowded, and not running frequently enough.

There are also online maps — one for the B6, another for the B82 — so riders can pinpoint areas in need of improvement.

The B82 seems to offer the best opportunity for bus lanes, especially along Flatlands Avenue and Kings Highway. Getting these changes might take some effort: The route crosses City Council and community board districts where representatives don’t have a great record on reallocating street space.

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Simple, Creative Ideas to Build a Better Bus Stop

Waiting for the bus can be a pain. To make transit more appealing, nothing beats frequent service, but studies have shown that if you’re going to wait, small improvements like shelters and information about when the next bus is coming can make the wait feel shorter.

A community group in Denver, Colorado raised money to post walking directions signs advising riders of nearby destinations that are a sort distance by foot. Photo: ioby

WalkDenver raised money to post wayfinding signs pointing the way to destinations within walking distance. Photo: ioby

That was a big impetus behind “Trick Out My Trip,” an initiative that helped transit riders in cities across America implement creative ideas to make the rider experience better. The project was sponsored by TransitCenter and ioby (in our backyards), a crowdsourcing platform for community improvements.

Ten grassroots teams raised a combined $54,000 for their projects, matched by $26,000 from the sponsoring organizations. Among the ideas that got funding: play equipment at transit stops for waiting children in Denver and bike repair stations at rail stops in Atlanta.

Here are a few cool examples.

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How Bus Rapid Transit Can Save Lives on One of NYC’s Most Dangerous Streets

Woodhaven Boulevard needs BRT not only to move transit riders faster, but also to save lives and prevent traffic injuries. Map: Transportation Alternatives [PDF]

Lives are at stake in the redesign of Woodhaven Boulevard and Cross Bay Boulevard, making the implementation of bus rapid transit on this southeast Queens corridor all the more urgent, according to a new analysis from the BRT for NYC coalition. Crash stats bring home the point that new pedestrian islands and other safety measures in DOT’s Woodhaven BRT project are critical to reducing the carnage on one of the most dangerous streets in the city.

Woodhaven Boulevard regularly appears near the top of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s list of the city’s most dangerous streets. More pedestrians were killed by motorists on Woodhaven from 2011 to 2013 than on any other street in Queens, Tri-State reported in March, outpacing notorious roads like Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard. Citywide, only Flatbush Avenue and the Grand Concourse saw more pedestrian deaths.

An analysis released today by BRT for NYC coalition member Transportation Alternatives pinpoints the intersections with the most crashes on Woodhaven [PDF], based on NYPD crash data from July 2012 to December 2014. They are:

  • 101st Ave & Woodhaven Blvd: 42 crashes, 62 injuries, 1 fatality

  • Jamaica Ave & Woodhaven Blvd: 38 crashes, 52 injuries, 2 fatalities

  • Queens Blvd & Woodhaven Blvd: 32 crashes, 42 injuries, 0 fatalities

  • Atlantic Ave & Woodhaven Blvd: 32 crashes, 55 injuries, 1 fatality

  • Rockaway Blvd & Woodhaven Blvd: 30 crashes, 18 injuries, 0 fatalities

Among the victims was Yunior Antonio Perez Rodriguez, 35, killed by a hit-and-run driver after he stepped off a pedestrian island near Jamaica Avenue in December 2013 — just months after another man was killed trying to cross Woodhaven at the same location.

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Without Transit, American Cities Would Take Up 37 Percent More Space

Even if you never set foot on a bus or a train, chances are transit is saving you time and money. The most obvious reason is that transit keeps cars off the road, but the full explanation is both less intuitive and more profound: Transit shrinks distances between destinations, putting everything within closer reach.

A new study published by the Transportation Research Board quantifies the spatial impact of transit in new ways [PDF]. Without transit, the researchers found, American cities would take up 37 percent more space.

Transit-oriented development in Portland's Pearl District. Photo: Smartgrowth.org

Transit-oriented development in Portland’s Pearl District. Photo: Smartgrowth.org

The research team from New York, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City modeled not just how many driving miles are directly averted by people riding transit, but how the availability of transit affects the way we build cities.

By allowing urban areas to be built more compactly, the “land use effect” of transit reduces driving much more than the substitution of car trips with transit trips. Total miles driven in American cities would be 8 percent higher without the land use effect of transit, the researchers concluded, compared to 2 percent higher if you forced everyone who rides transit to drive.

On average, the study found, the land use effect of transit is four times greater than the “ridership effect,” or the substitution of car trips with transit trips. But the land use effect of transit varies a great deal across urban areas. In places like Greenville, South Carolina, it’s responsible for reducing driving 3 percent, the researchers estimate, while in San Francisco and New York City, it’s 18 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

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The Port Authority Bus Terminal and Our Glaring Lack of Transit Leadership

This plan, known as Concept 3, was supported by the Port Authority's bus terminal working group but not endorsed by the full board of commissioners today. Image: Port Authority

This proposal, known as Concept 3, was supported by the Port Authority’s bus terminal working group but not endorsed by the full board of commissioners today. Image: Port Authority

The effort to replace the aging and overcrowded Port Authority Bus Terminal continues to suffer from the New York region’s inability to coordinate its transit mega-projects.

The bus terminal already handles more than 225,000 passengers per weekday and cannot accommodate all the bus traffic that crosses the Hudson in Midtown. Demand is expected to increase about 50 percent by 2040, but there is no plan in place to build a new terminal.

A working group of four Port Authority commissioners has been considering five concepts to replace the bus terminal with a modern facility that can handle many more passengers. Today they recommended a plan to the full board, but the full board didn’t endorse the working group’s proposal, putting off a vote until a later date, pending further study.

The almost-recommended-plan, known as Concept 3, would move the bus terminal one block west. It appealed to the working group for a variety of reasons, including the fact that unlike the other four options, the Port Authority would not have to build a temporary terminal to handle passengers while the new terminal is under construction.

“It doesn’t require an alternate facility and the complete disruption of the passenger experience for a decade,” said Commissioner Kenneth Lipper. “It’s less expensive, and it opens up billions of dollars in real estate.” Selling off development rights could help finance the project, which has been estimated to cost as much as $10.5 billion.

But moving the bus terminal west poses serious problems, due in part to the mistakes of past projects.

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