Saturday, December 9, 2006

Park & Ride Lots - An Important Key To Success

I came across this small news story regarding increasing the lot size of the park & ride lot along the St. Louis MetroLink LRT line. It alone isn't much of a story but brings up a much larger problem that many public transit agencies have.

The problem is how transit officials and transit planners think regarding park & ride lots. All too often, the public transit industry downplays the need for park & ride lots. They'll build a transit project, such as an LRT line, but will place only small park & ride lots along the line. They want the public to ride the new line but fail to think when it comes to how people will get to the new project.

I guess they assume everyone will come by bus or walk but a significant portion of riders drive to the line and then will hop on board. That is, if they can find a spot to park.

Transit officials and planners seem not to understand that forced transfers drive off ridership. People are far more willing to meet you halfway than having to go through forced transfers between LRT and bus. They also seem not to understand that many people have rather poor or no bus service in some areas and therefore are willing to meet the transit system at a halfway point.

I have had years of first hand experience dealing with my local transit system, the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) in Pittsburgh, regarding this exact issue. PAT is famous for placing undersized park & ride lots in and then acting totally surprised when the lot overflows. In fact, they have outright refused to even consider a park & ride lot might actually be successful even though they have had decades of success with the lots.

One such incident was at a public meeting regarding the opening of the then new North Hills HOV lane in the late 1980's. They actually admitted to the public their true feelings towards park & ride lots. A resident brought up the question of possibly having a park & ride lot near the McKnight Road entrance to the HOV lane and was shot down with this from PAT's Director of Planning at the time (who is in charge of PennDOT currently): "People can just use the Perrysville lot that PennDOT built. It's too large and will never fill up. A big waste of money." The problem in this is that your making people in the McKnight Road corridor travel away from the McKnight Road corridor to the Perrysville corridor. The result was that many people just bit the bullet and drove all the way into town instead using public transit.

The fact is, the very large Perrysville Avenue park & ride lot, which was built by PennDOT and not PAT, was overflowing from day 1, has been extended several times as well as having a new separate lot added. PAT's admission that day was just one of many instances of PAT downplaying the popularity of park & ride lots and truly believing that nobody will use them. News reports at the time told of "surprised" PAT officials regarding the popularity of the park & ride lot even though they have had success after success with park & ride lots since the early 1970's.

There are stories from all over the country that are similar and date back for decades. Overflowing park & ride lots, new transit projects opening with little to no parking available as well as total surprise by transit officials when park & ride lots overflow.

Public transit systems across the US claim they want new ridership yet routinely thwart new riders from getting on board. The main problem I've found is that spending money on installing a park & ride lot doesn't bring the "prestige" of building an LRT line or busway yet the park and ride lots are important to have the line succeed as well as help the line meet projected ridership expectations.

My question basically comes down to this. If they are projecting these wildly inflated ridership numbers for a new transit project, why do they always vastly underestimate the number of riders that will drive to the line?

Between underestimating the park & ride lot's popularity and the transit officials and planners mindset that everyone wants to be forcibly transferred and/or spend excessive amounts of time on public transit, public transit systems routinely drive off potential ridership. Until the transit officials and planners begin to truly accept park & ride lots as a valuable resource in actually boosting the ridership and fare box revenue, we'll continue to see stories of park & ride lots overflowing, lots having to be extended at a greater cost than if they were sized correctly to start with as well as the stories of transit officials who were "surprised" by a park & ride lot's success.

SamTrans unveils condo project

San Carlos CA - Reading yet another story of a yet another transit system being involved in land development, I must ask what gives with this new trend?

SamTrans has recently presented plans to develop 8 acres of land it owns in San Carlos. Included in the plans are adobe style condos with slate roofs and retail space.

Public transit agencies should not be in the business of land development. Their purpose is to move people from point A to point B. They should not be in the real estate business. SamTrans is not the first to do this and I'm sure it won't be the last to do it but the news story just stood out for me.

Public transit systems all across North America are venturing into real estate development. These same public transit systems, including SamTrans, are also screaming for more money to run the transit system.

This is a huge part of what is wrong with public transit today. Items such as designing housing and retail developments just further take the focus off of what transit systems should be doing which is to provide convenient, reliable and reasonably priced transit service.

"But this is a Transit Oriented Development" I hear you say. It doesn't matter what it is, public transit systems have no business being a land developer. Yes, public transit systems should be considered and the transit system consulted for advice as to how to incorporate transit into the plans for new community developments but the transit system should not be the one designing and developing the project.

This is yet another way that public transit has lost its way in providing transportation services to the public. It would be one thing if they were designing a rail station, bus terminal or something directly related to the service the system itself provides. What SamTrans is doing, TOD or not, is not directly related to the service.

By losing focus on what public transit means and branching out into real estate development, SamTrans earns itself a Lance.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Experts disagree on ridership

Honolulu HI - The Honolulu Advertiser had a relatively interesting article regarding projected ridership numbers for the proposed rail line that the city is trying for. It helps prove something I have long held was the case and that is that the projected ridership numbers that are generated for a proposed project are nothing more than a wild guess which favors the project in question.

Two University of Hawaii professors are currently battling it out with one saying the City's projection is actually on the conservative side while the other saying the projection is fatally flawed. Why doesn't this surprise me?

The problem stems from the use of past and present ridership data for the Honolulu area which appears to be skewed to the high side by as much as 21%. Again, why doesn't this surprise me?

There are many calculations that go into projected ridership numbers. While the formula for coming up with the numbers work in theory, the problem lies in the data which is input into the formula. All too often, falsified or inaccurate numbers are plugged in to the calculation from numbers supplied by the entity which wants the project in the first place. This results in a skewed projection being calculated.

Professor Karl Kim, who claims the projection is on the conservative side, states he reviewed the report from the City and found the information accurate and reliable. One big question begs to be asked of Professor Kim - Did you review the raw data?

The answer is probably not. If he did, he would have been questioning the data much as his colleague, Professor Panos Prevedouros is doing. The prime giveaway to the fact that the past and present ridership numbers were bad would be the wide variations in actual ridership versus the numbers used in the study.

This situation is not unique. Sadly, it is all too common. Transit systems routinely massage the ridership numbers different ways to enhance or detract from the actual ridership totals for reporting purposes. Too often these massaged numbers are what are given to consultants for project analysis instead of the raw numbers. Many systems across the country massage the raw ridership numbers by at least 15% or more through tricks like rounding up to the next 1,000, double counting certain fare categories and "assuming" the raw data is missing some numbers if they look to low.

Then one must look at who commissioned the rail study and holds a vested interest in the projected ridership numbers being good. The City of Hawaii.

Bottom line to all of this. Projected ridership numbers are just that, projected. A mathematical formula generates what amounts to a wild guess. Just about all of the projected ridership numbers for numerous transit projects built across the US have been wildly off base and always on the high side. Chop that projected ridership number in half and perhaps you'll have a closer and more accurate wild guess as to what the future ridership will be.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Bay Area increasing transit ridership

San Francisco CA - Ridership figures look good for public transit in the Bay Area. The various transit operations that serve the area report record ridership levels and are celebrating the ridership numbers as well as a study showing that Americans are driving less.

The question is this. Are we celebrating too soon? Transit ridership numbers have always been fickle. Many times, the ridership gains a transit system receives are lost when they sit back and think the ridership gains are permanent.

BART spokesman Linton Johnson stated "...this latest shift in commuting habits could be permanent."

That could be but I've heard this very line before, many times in fact, over the past 40 years. The problem has always been the lack of ability to adjust quickly to ridership trends. What happened in the Bay Area could have been the perfect storm that drove riders to the transit systems. What needs to be considered is this, can these transit systems hang onto the ridership gains?

Given the observations of 40 years of public transit and studying transit services when private operations were king, I would say probably not. The stars aligned this time to boost the ridership however it is up to the transit systems to keep these new riders now. Public transit has proven itself to be too slow to adjust to changes in commuter habits. Much of the lag in response time is simply because of the bureaucracy factor in a government agency. During this lag time, your ridership gains drift away and back into their cars.

On the same day, there were extremely conflicting news reports on gas prices and how it effects driver's habits. The first news report out of Houston was widely picked up by most of the papers outside of the United States indicated that high fuel prices were dramatically effecting our driving habits and using it as an excuse to support more fuel taxes in their own countries. The second news report from the University of California at Davis stated that high fuel prices barely made a dent in our driving habits.

The Bay Area transit systems are relying on the first news report to support their supposition that people are going to stay riding transit. In actuality, the second news report is more likely closer to the fact which is that our driving habits aren't dramatically effected by the higher fuel prices.

Public transit systems should not just sit back and think that these new commuter habits are permanent. That is a bad move. They need to keep on top of the ridership trends and make adjustments quickly to keep the ridership. To think that this is a permanent trend will only result in these systems losing the ridership gains they currently have.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Politicians & Transit - Do Not Mix Together

Albuquerque NM - The Editorial in the Albuquerque Tribune on December 5, 2006 is a very good overview of why politicians need to be taken out of public transit decisions.

A big push for an electric streetcar line in Albuquerque by Mayor Martin Chavez and a majority of the City Council was met with less than enthusiasm by the residents of the city. Questions were asked by the public and the politicians scattered like cockroaches in the kitchen when a light is turned on.

The most telling point in this whole editorial was the mention of the "quickie study" that was commissioned by the pro-streetcar Mayor. This type of quickly done study is typical of cities pushing for expensive capital projects for things like light rail and trolley service.

All too often the preliminary studies commissioned will paint a picture of economic boom times that will occur if the project is built. This is sold to the people as a plan with no drawbacks. After millions are spent on further required studies, planning and other prep work needed before the funding application can be submitted, people begin to wake up that they were snookered into accepting a plan that will do little beside cost them money. By then, it's too late to turn back.

The residents of Albuquerque were right to ask the hard questions considering that ultimately, they would be paying a big part of the cost through higher taxes. It's too bad that residents of other cities just follow the bumbling politicians like a herd of sheep when it comes to projects designed more for a politician's personal legacy than for serving the public or improving the economy of the area (hint - if you want to improve the economy of the region, try lowering taxes and making a business friendly environment).

What happened in Albuquerque is a classic example of why politics and public transit don't mix. Politicians today want to use public transit as a development/economic tool rather than what it is supposed to be for, moving people.

A Laurel goes out to the residents of Albuquerque for questioning the plan right out of the box and not letting the Mayor and City Council baffle them with answers that danced around the questions. By making the politicians squirm, they defeated a boondoggle that would have cost them millions in taxes if the politicians had their way.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Transit worker puts beard to work during the season

Dayton, OH - From the Dayton Daily News on December 5, an article for the Christmas season.

A Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority operator takes on the role of Santa Claus with help from his flowing white beard and a Santa hat. There haven't been complaints from the "offended" and those I have talked to in the area think it's great that the driver is doing this.

What better way to celebrate the season and even attract riders with some good old fashioned holiday cheer. It costs the GCRTA nothing plus it generates good publicity for the system and the driver, Donald Kern, enjoys his role of being the Santa bus driver.

Many transit systems in North America frown upon such displays of Christmas cheer. Drivers in many systems that put on a Santa hat to celebrate Christmas are often reprimanded. Even saying the politically correct term of "Happy Holidays" in some operations can result in a reprimand going into the drivers permanent file.

Two Laurels go out on for this story. The first goes out to the GCRTA driver, Donald Kern for making the trip a bit more cheery and the second goes out to the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority for allowing this and understanding that it is good PR for the operation.

Public transit can be a success

One look back to the past can show how public transit can be successful without expensive transit projects.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania had one of the most successful transit operations in the US between 1972 and 1980. This success wasn't because an expensive transit project was built but because PAT went back to the basics of providing service.

Under the direction of John T. Mauro, PAT reversed a steady decline in ridership and increased service by using an almost unheard of tactic in today's world. That tactic was making the transit system cost effective, increasing the productivity of the service and employees as well as finding inexpensive but innovative ways of marketing itself to the public. This all occurred when PAT was in a financial crunch and was unable to get more operating funding from the State. Now get this boys and girls, it was done without increasing fares.

Specialized services were launched under Mauro's leadership which included U-Bus service, Red Flyer express services, Park-N-Ride services and the first of the low-cost reverse flow bus lanes in the area. Also launched was an education campaign which explained the operation to the public. It was believed that the better people understood the operation, the more interested they would be in riding. It worked.

Service expansion was a must under Mauro. To accomplish this without raising fares or getting more funding, PAT held a hard line on minimum ridership levels for routes. Non-performing routes were eliminated or curtailed and that service quickly moved to areas that needed more or new service. Streamlining of many routes and how driver route picks were made also increased the productivity of the services.

PAT launched many innovative marketing methods which were low cost but very effective. One of the best was the PAT Traffic Central which used existing bus drivers to radio in traffic reports which were then put together into a broadcast for various radio and TV stations which got them a free promotional plug in exchange for the traffic report.

The first transit project completed by PAT was a bus only roadway which helped speed the ride for South Hills commuters. The South Busway was opened in 1977 and was a low tech and cost effective method that worked (and still works) well. This project, while assisting with the success, wasn't the reason for the success which was well underway by the time it opened.

PAT focused on the basics before adding the frills to the operation. During the "MOD" era of PAT, which this period is known by, PAT had a rainbow of colors used on its buses. This was the icing on the cake and gave PAT a big presence. Product, Price and Promotion were the cake which the painted buses represented.

Flash forward to today. What is happening in the transit industry now is that they are trying to pass the icing off as the cake. Too often we see public transit trying to "save the system" through expensive transit projects that ultimately drain off money from the rest of the struggling system once the project is completed.

Public transit has lost its way. Frills are placed above the basics in this day and age. When you have transit systems across the country that can barely run buses without crying about route cuts, fare hikes and begging for more money from government, how can they seriously think an expensive transit project will save the operation?

Public transit needs to go back to the basics and use the PAT operation of the 1970's as the model. Not just the colorful buses but the whole package. Too many, including the current PAT administration of today, think colorful buses will attract the masses and then scratch their heads when the riders don't show.

People are willing ride in plain, non-flashy buses if the service is reliable, convenient and reasonably priced. You don't need flashy new buses and every option imaginable to attract riders. If you don't have the basics of service down, even hosts that fluff your pillow, serve free food and drink and things like free Wi-Fi won't attract new riders.

Product - Price - Promotion are the basics. Hold the line on fares, improve the existing produce before adding frills and finally, find inexpensive but effective methods for promoting the system. Transit systems that follow the MOD template will soon find they have more riders than they know what to do with.

My critics will cite PAT's Skybus of course but remember, the project was cancelled so it didn't play into the success of the MOD era. If built, it would have literally destroyed the transit operation by draining off operational funding to pay to operate the line. That is one of my few critical comments regarding PAT of the 1970's, the push for the expensive, untested and unproven technology of Skybus to replace the already existing rail lines.

The future success of public transit depends on going back to the basics. Many systems have the last part of the formula, promotion, nailed down but they fail miserably on the product and price. The politicians and transit administrations of today seem to have forgotten that without a good product that works and a good price for that product, no amount of promotion will help.

In addition, the adding of expensive transit projects to the formula of the transit basics will doom the basics to fail unless certain issues are addressed during the planning stage. This is another area that the politicians and transit officials fail at. Too often the transit projects are planned solely with the hope of future economic development rather than being planned with the rider in mind. If TA's and city officials insist on having expensive transit projects such as LRT and BRT, they need to be placed in existing high ridership corridors where high ridership is already established, not to serve brownfield areas which city leaders hope to have developed. Sadly, the gamble on future economic development trumps the need of the community.

When you have transit systems developing long term plans for future fare increases and route cuts and scrambling to build any project that they can convince the Feds to pay for, which we have today, it is clear that public transit has lost its way. Transit officials will continue to provide poor service, cry for money, hike fares and find new ways to waste the money that they have until common sense comes back to the industry and the basics of transit are rediscovered.

Milwaukee tries yet again to jump on a bandwagon

Milwaukee WI - Milwaukee Wisconsin once had one of the stand out transit operations in the United States. Today it's barely a shell of it's former glory. There are many reasons for this but most hinges on politics.

Over the past several years there have been numerous proposals to introduce some other form of transit to the Milwaukee area besides buses. These included heavy rail, light rail, trackless trolleys and now the latest, streetcars.'s web site has a story about the latest proposal, filled with the usual rail proponent verbiage about how trolleys will save the city.

Milwaukee is one of the cities which I often cite as being barely can handle bus operations anymore. It's glory days are gone but those in politics feel if you just spend more taxpayer money on expensive transit projects, people will flock back to the city.

Of all the proposals brought up over the years, none addressed the key point that the existing transit system has problems. The warning buzzer went off for me on this latest proposal when I read that Alderman Robert Bauman stated that they don't care about fares but view the project as an "economic development tool".

What this means in layman terms is this. The transit system will get saddled with the costs of building and running this line and the bus service can go to hell just as long as the trolley line can be run.

The Milwaukee Alderman, Robert Bauman, gets the Lance for going out of his way in trying to find some way to just waste taxpayer money instead of addressing the problems that need to be addressed with the transit system in Milwaukee.

Monday, December 4, 2006

New transit is only half the solution

The Neal Peirce article on December 3, 2006 needs a few comments made about it.

First, he mentions the passing of the Kansas City, MO LRT ballot measure as a positive step. While he does mention the many times this measure has failed, he didn't mention that this time there was much confusion and information on the ballot measure was scattered about and there was no single place that one could easily find out what it was all about. Many in Kansas City now realized what they voted for and aren't real happy about it.

What I came away with from reading the article was that as far as transit goes was the typical Liberal argument of "let's spend more taxpayer money on expensive LRT lines and all will be fixed".

There were some things I agree with in his article, such as eliminating the required parking rules that many cities have, other of his suggestions are a bit troublesome. Primarily of which is transit oriented development (TOD).

TOD is good in theory but in practice is rather doomed to failure. Remember "Urban Renewal" from the 1960's? Urban Renewal was the same thing as TOD is today, exactly the same. Most cities that went through urban renewal in the 60's are ghost towns today.

TOD proponents have a fatal flaw in their vision. They assume that everyone wants to live in urban settings. That urban sprawl only happened because of the easy availability of the automobile. That if government spends enough money, everyone will flock back to the cities.

All are false. Urban sprawl was made easier by the automobile but the people that moved out to the suburbs wanted out of the urban lifestyle. Crime, noise, pollution, higher taxes and other urban ills are what pushed many out into the suburbs to start with. TOD's are not going to eliminate any of these things and in fact will make many things worse.

Getting back to transit to finish this up, what needs to be done is for public transit to get back to the basics of providing service. Expensive transit projects, TOD's and other government funded methods will not work to improve anything until public transit goes back to the basics.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Riders cite environmental reasons for taking the bus

Minneapolis / St Paul, MN - The environmentalist argument strikes transit again. In a December 3rd news article from Minneapolis, I was amused to find the following quote:

"Riders increasingly cite environmental reasons for taking the bus, and Metro
Transit wants those riders to know that the agency is leading the state on green
initiatives, said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb."

What I find amusing is that the "reasons" being cited come about by using push polling. Questions are asked of individuals but are worded to get the result the pollster is looking to obtain. Jane and Joe Sixpack do not cite the environment as one of the reasons they take the bus unless that's the only answer available for them to respond with.

The real reasons people choose the bus are cost, convenience as well as having no other choice. I have seen some of these polls that are trotted out by various transit systems which cite environmentalism and in each and every one of them, the questions are "loaded" to get the answer they want. In addition, many of these polls are done with the backing of environmental groups which brings into question the accuracy of the poll.

The environmental argument regarding public transit dates back to the 1970's. Yes, people rode transit more back then but it wasn't because of environmentalism. It was because gas was scarce. Listening to the environmental groups however, one comes away thinking that just about everyone rode back then because they cared about the environment when it simply wasn't the case.

The simple fact of the matter here is that every transit system in North America could switch over to fuel cell or electric buses and the impact on the air quality would be negligible.

The big problem is that the costs of implementing the majority of the environmentalist agenda is costly. Too costly for public transit to handle while keeping service available and fares low enough for people to want to ride.

While I have no desire to have polluted air, water, etc., pushing much more expensive and unneeded technology on to public transit agencies is not the answer to clean things up. Part of the answer is to get people out of their cars but that won't happen as long as the environmental movement continues to force expensive mandates onto the transit industry. Public transit is at a financial choke point. They can't continue much longer to provide service at a reasonable fare with more and more eco-nonsense being placed on them.

The environmentalist movement earns itself a nice Lance for their part in pricing public transit out of existence.

Activists are trying to price public transit out of existence

Boston, MA - Several recent stories out of the Boston area have proven something I've believed for decades. Activist groups are helping to price public transit out of existence.

The first news story I bring up deals with a lawsuit over the MBTA's Silver Line service. Claiming discrimination, activists tried to force the MBTA to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer money to change the Silver Line from buses to Light Rail Transit (LRT).

Thanks to the whiny lawsuit by a handful of activists, the cost to run the Silver Line have now gone up as the MBTA is now required to maintain and provide quarterly data on the line to the Feds. This data is primarily to help keep the activists at bay.

Thankfully, the courts have ruled in the favor of the MBTA on this one. Still, the costs have increased thanks to a small bunch of activists that think they know more than anyone else.

The second news story related to activism raising costs deals with an agreement that the MBTA has entered into for extending the Green Line. Activists using environmentalism rather than discrimination pushed for the extension over issues from the Big Dig.

Guess what, the MBTA really doesn't have the money to extend the line, yet alone operate it, but the activists don't care. I take that back, they'll care when fares are raised and service gets cut to help pay for it and file another lawsuit.

The activists groups that push these types of lawsuits against public transit refuse to see the big picture. They only want to see what they wish to see. These activists love to claim how they support public transit but they'll make any wild claim to make the lawsuit stick and don't care that they're actually helping to destroy public transit.

The amount of money that these types of activists cost public transit agencies every year in lawsuits and increased costs to operate literally go into the billions of dollars. From defending itself in court to additional paperwork and costs to implement and run what the activists want, the cost to the public transit agencies is staggering. With all this wasted money, public transit could really be improved for everyone but it'll never happen as long as these ridiculous lawsuits continue to be allowed.

A big Lance goes out to all the activist groups that are trying to make public transit unaffordable to the people.