Friday, December 1, 2006

Transit Service is Inconvenient

Halifax NS - A news story out of Halifax, Nova Scotia is a telling story that all transit systems need to acknowledge.

Public transit has become inconvenient. Plain and simple. Most public transit systems in North America have the same problem as Halifax and it's not just because of the love affair with automobiles.

The problem has been that public transit has been too slow to respond to population shifts. Routes are run on historical routings, some of which date back more than a century. Little attempt has been made to deal with urban sprawl or move service from one area to another area.

Many suburbanites will ride public transit willingly if the service was there. Instead what occurs is the public agencies hang onto low patronage routes, many being low patronage historical routes. While those historical routings once carried many, today many of the routes barely warrant a motorcycle with a sidecar running twice a day and suburbanites are left to their own devices for transporting themselves.

Public transit needs to wake up to the fact that it needs to seriously consider reverse commuting. Not all jobs are in the city center anymore. They also need to get tough, trim out the under performing routes and transfer that service to areas that want and need it.

Too often I have read, been told of or experienced personally attempts of a suburban community trying to get some bus service. The canned response from transit agencies is "We don't have the money or resources to serve your area".

This same excuse is also used when people try to get transit agencies to start service to an employment center that is outside of the central business district.

Let's face facts. Urban sprawl will not be eliminated. You can't consolidate the sprawl back into the urban areas. These suburban areas do need transportation alternatives besides a 20 space park and ride lot which is filled up by 6 AM and served by a bus that runs once or twice a day.

To start improving transit service, transit agencies need to stop catering to the urban core. Urban areas that have service that isn't being used need to lose that service so that it can be placed where it will be used. Urban areas that have numerous routes can afford to lose a few trips in the area without adversely effecting the area. Transit agencies also need to deal with the reality of jobs being outside of the city center.

Many of the initial improvements that public transit needs can be done without large capital or operating costs. Much of it is simply shifting service from one place to another. Starting with small changes that don't cost much can go a long way to making public transit a success.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Damn The Costs, Full Speed Ahead

The bandwagon for cities to jump on for the past 20 years has been the Light Rail Transit (LRT) bandwagon. Some cities, that can barely run a small bus system properly, are applying for and receiving grants to build expensive LRT lines.

All you hear is the same thing from LRT proponents:

1. "LRT will be the saviour of our city"
2. "People will flock to ride the system"
3. "It's environmentally friendly since it will pull cars off the road"
4. "It's cheaper in the long run"
5. "It will save people time".
6. "A lot of immediate economic development will be done along the line"

The above are just a sampling of how LRT is made to look attractive and all are false.

1. LRT is not the saviour of a city or a transit system. LRT systems literally are a black hole for public money. Once built, other needed services get cut to keep the line in operation. Higher taxes are also an added "benefit" from light rail. LRT lines don't benefit the entire service area. They benefit one select narrow corridor. People outside of the LRT corridor don't benefit and often have bus service cut.

2. On average, you will see a slight increase in overall ridership in part to the LRT line. The problem is that in most cases, the bus routes are losing ridership as transit systems struggle to come up with money to keep the entire operation running. Bus service is always the first to be cut to free up money for the LRT line operation. Basically, in cash strapped transit systems, bus service gets eliminated because they have to run the LRT line since it was paid for by Federal funds.

3. The environmentalist angle has been shown to be false for decades. Cities that have LRT service report no decrease in automobile traffic. It's just the opposite, they cite increased auto traffic and more congestion.

As far as cleaner air, it's doubtful. No studies can conclusively prove that LRT lines actually make the air cleaner. Depending on the area you live in, all your doing is shifting the air pollution from the road to the power plant. Cities lucky enough to be powered by hydro or nuclear power can legitimately make a claim to LRT helping to clear the air but not cities powered by coal.

4. Actually it's more expensive in the long run. You have additional employees that have to be paid to run an LRT system that you don't need with a bus operation. Materials are more expensive since you not only have to maintain the LRT car as you do a bus but you also have to maintain overhead and track. LRT cars last maybe 20 years before they begin needing replaced but they are much more expensive than buses that tend to be replaced every 12 years.

5. Again, this is false in most cases. Unless you live directly on the LRT line, your door to door commute will take longer. LRT lines also have a big disadvantage which is one mishap can literally cripple the line. A derailment or downed power line can stop service completely.

6. Another falsehood. LRT lines notoriously are undeveloped for decades. Between politicians and activist groups battling over what they want, land remains vacant for years. Pittsburgh is a great example of the lack of development along the LRT line. Only One Mellon Bank Center is associated with the Downtown portion of the subway in terms of development. There was additional land at the Steel Plaza station area for development but the land was never able to be sold off for development due to political fighting over what should go there and it eventually turned into a small park.

Don't get me wrong, LRT systems have their place however most aren't being planned with the ridership in mind. They are planned with politics in mind. Most cities pushing for LRT lines have politicians and activists that are after a legacy for themselves. "Rider be damned" may as well be the motto in many cities. Lines aren't placed in high ridership areas where they would be utilized to their full extent in many cities. Many lines are built in hopes of spurring development in the direction the politicians wish it to go rather than where the line is really needed.

LRT lines should be built in areas that can justify the cost by having proven ridership on the bus lines already in the area. Federal procedures ignore existing bus ridership levels and go with projected ridership levels as someone thinks it will be once the line is opened. Projected ridership is one of the bigger scams going in getting Federal transit funding. In short, what projected ridership means is that some clown from a consulting agency comes up with a number that he thinks looks good.

Ranging from what they think the population will be, a guesstimate as to what percentage of that estimated population will ride, assuming people will flock from other areas to ride the LRT line and other mystic predictions, it all boils down to one thing. It's a guess. Not one LRT system has ever met it's projected ridership levels during the first several years of operation. That fact is spun better by the transit systems than the lies told by politicians during an election year.

Federal requirements need to be changed. Systems need to show that they have the existing population and ridership levels in place already. Smaller systems especially need to be started with a bus rapid transit system before jumping into a much more costly LRT system. Where LRT lines are built need to be evaluated better and questions need to be asked as to why a system wants a line built to the North when the bulk of your riders are in the East. None of these issues really seem to be addressed under the current regulations.

The Lance goes to the Feds for continuing to allow expensive LRT lines to be built for transit systems that can barely handle running buses. Pittsburgh's North Shore Connector and Charlotte's new line are two that come to mind immediately Tighten the regulations and start pushing the bulk of the requests from these cities off the LRT bandwagon. Sadly, it'll never happen...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Laurels and Lances Awards

I currently offer 4 different "awards" for public transit. These awards are designed to highlight the transit systems, individuals and other entities that do it right and those that do it wrong.

1. Laurel - A move in the right direction to improve public transit.

2. Lance - A move in the wrong direction which ultimately hinders public transit.

3. The MOD Award - To honor a transit operation for dramatically improving operations by using the basics. The basics are service and productivity. This award is named for the MOD era at the Port Authority of Allegheny County in the early 1970's where PAT used the basics and achieved record ridership levels, increased productivity and national recognition.

4. The Chambersburg Transit Authority Award - To "honor" a transit operation for being royally screwed up. This award is named after the Chambersburg Transit Authority in Chambersburg, PA which had to be shut down due to how poorly it was managed.

Other awards may be created later but these 4 should cover the vast majority of public transit issues.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Someone actually gets it...

New York City, NY - The NYMTA Commissioner, Barry Feinstein, sees the light regarding over designed transit projects as described in the NY Post.

Feinstein complains that the latest plan for the Fulton Street transit hub puts "fancy" form over substance. This viewpoint appears based on the fact that the MTA had to eliminate a transfer tunnel which would be beneficial for the riders of the system. The elimination of the tunnel was done to reduce costs on the already over budget project.

It's funny how something that will actually benefit the ridership gets eliminated while millions continue to be wasted in unneeded frills for the transfer station.

Barry Feinstein is awarded the first Laurel for understanding that you need to place service first and frills second.

Bike Racks and the Port Authority

Bike racks on the buses is a good idea in many cities. Bike racks on the buses in Pittsburgh is a bad idea.

The Port Authority has run their "Rack & Roll" program for several years. It has been a complete and total failure yet the Port Authority is still forging ahead with this program with plans to further expand the service.

The reasoning given is that "the racks are free from a State grant". What is never mentioned to the public however is that PAT pays to install and maintain the racks. Given the Port Authority's dire financial picture of late, this is one expense that needs to be eliminated.

The local Allegheny County biking lobby which has pushed for these bike racks doesn't even promote the program they wanted. The Port Authority barely promoted it. In the many years that this program has been around, I have seen a total of one bike actually using the a bike rack. I had to do a double take just to make sure I wasn't seeing things.

Pittsburgh is not a bike town. It never has been. The local politicians and the bike lobby have tried to make it a bike town however. They have failed miserably. Pittsburgh is loaded with narrow streets, roads in bad condition, steep hills as well as inconsiderate drivers. To make Pittsburgh a bike town, you'd literally have to either ban cars or widen every road in the area. Neither is a viable option.

Granted the Port Authority blew it by only doing racks on certain routes. In the Port Authority's true style of operations, they usually had rack buses on non-rack routes and non-rack buses on rack routes. This style of operation would kill off most attempts by bikers to use the racks however, the second wave of racks eliminated most of that type of operation and still no use.

When a bike rack actually being used turns into big news, you know the program is a total failure. We should be seeing bikes on the buses on a regular basis if the program was a success.

The Port Authority should just let the program die off. Let the racks stay and as they fall off or get damaged, don't replace them. Wasting time and the taxpayer's money on further expanding a program that not even the local bike lobby promotes and has proven itself to be a failure in Pittsburgh is foolish.

The Port Authority earns the first Lance for the further expansion of their "Rack & Roll" program.

Welcome Aboard

I'll be posting both Laurels and Lances on various news stories as well as activities of public transit systems across North America. An award site, if you will, to reward or chastise public transit agencies.

Being interested in public transit operations for my entire life, I find public transit drifting off course as time goes on. Too often the focus is no longer on service but on the frills that do little but cost transit systems much needed operating money.

Many of the stories on this blog will deal with the Port Authority of Allegheny County. Why this particular operation? Mainly because it's my home based transit system and is perhaps one of the most screwed up transit systems in North America.

Many transit operations today have lost focus on their true mission, which is to provide transit service. They think paint jobs, glitzy marketing and expensive transit projects will attract the masses. These operations fail to realize that it's reliable service that takes people where they need to go that attract the ridership.

Even with all the waste that occurs, some systems also need to be recognized as well for doing what they should be doing.

I hope you enjoy this blog.