Saturday, August 18, 2007

Empty seats just don't pay the bills

Sacramento CA - As fare box receipts and funding continue to decline, Sacramento's Regional Transit (RT) is facing the same realization which many other transit systems across North America are facing. That is, empty seats don't pay the bills.

RT is looking at service cuts to less patronized routes as well as service adjustments to trim out the worst of the under performing routes. Cries of protest naturally are occurring from the decision however, RT can no longer afford the luxury of funding routes that carry few people.

In Sacramento, one route waiting for the budget ax to fall is the Downtown Trolley which averages about 5 riders per hour. "The bus' value transcends skimpy ridership numbers" states RT driver Stephen Renda in defense of the under performing route. Renda then continues that the tourist trolley bus is a "Welcome to Sacramento' bus for tourists".

Renda also states that Sacramento needs more transit, not less. That brings me to ask this, how is all the extra service you want going to be paid for?

I hear the same in every city. More service not less but let's face a hard reality, transit can't continue to run routes and trips that carry nobody just on the hope that someone might ride. The same people that use the "more service, not less" battle cry are the same ones that have fits when their taxes and fares go up to pay for it or their precious social services get slashed to pay for it.

Transit needs to become efficient if it is to survive. Running routes that fall well below ridership minimum standards is not efficient. In Sacramento, the first route I would eliminate would be the Downtown Trolley. It serves few, is duplicated by other routes and is a luxury the system can't afford.

The RT, as well as most transit systems out there, need to take a good hard look at the routes they run. Many routes can stand some thinning out of a trip here and there. One of the tried and proven techniques of increasing efficiency is being on top of the ridership trends and shuffling service to meet those trends. Yes, that means low performing routes get the ax but it also means increased ridership as freed up service can be sent to routes and areas that justify having the service. Sadly, this technique isn't used much these days as transit has become so political and the brain dead politicians can't comprehend such things as they insist that low performing routes be kept so they can get a few votes at election time.

Low performing areas can often still be served by a simple deviation from an existing nearby route on select trips. This frees up manpower and equipment that can be better utilized elsewhere while reducing the cost to serve the low performing area. Another simple and proven technique is to trim back headways on certain routes. Taking a route that runs every 20 minutes and changing it to every 30 minutes has little impact on the existing ridership (beside a slightly longer wait time) but frees up 1/3 of the service for service elsewhere or just plain elimination.

I'm sure the administration at the RT has plenty of waste as well that can be trimmed to save money. Union contracts are another area that I'm sure has plenty of waste built into it.

Many of the problem transit finds itself in today can be traced back to the 1970's and 1980's. That was the period that many of the low ridership routes routes came to be along with generous union contracts as well as having the money available to just waste without worrying about it. Well, it caught up with the transit systems as costs continue to climb and inefficient operations became ingrained as part of the culture of public transit. Few operations during the 1970's and 1980's were immune to this. While some did well at making the routes efficient during this time like PAT in Pittsburgh during the early 1970's, they became top heavy in administration and were learning the ways of wasteful spending in other areas.

The bottom line here is that transit is at the brink of failure today. Through inefficient operations and plain wasteful spending practices. Of course the riding public is the one that suffers for it and the only way to even begin to deal with the situation that transit systems find themselves in now is to go back to the basics of providing service which includes eliminating low ridership routes and freeing those resources for use in areas that will utilize those resources effectively. Money is not unlimited and it's time for everyone to understand that point.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Cornwall questions need for transit

Cornwall ON - While there are new start-ups of transit systems across North America on almost a monthly basis and cries for expanded service echo across the continent, some Cornwall Ontario officials are questioning the need for having a transit system at all. The city has hired a consultant to see if it is worth improving the transit operation in place or if the city should reduce or even discontinue the service.

I've ridden the Cornwall system in the past and found it a very freindly operation with very well maintained equipment. While not very crowded on most routes, even in peak, at the time I questioned the need for the large buses rather than smaller buses for their operation. While the cost savings would be minuscule, the appearance would have a big impact.

City Councilor Kim Baird however doesn't want to see smaller buses. She believes that having smaller buses would cause them to fill up. Isn't that the point Kim? A filled bus is far less costly to operate than one that only has a few riding it. Once you start filling up the smaller buses, expand back into larger buses. It won't be an overnight change and will take many years to attract and keep ridership based on the quality of service.

I would love to go in and overhaul the Cornwall operation. It is obvious that the city leaders don't really understand how transit works. Instead of having a 40 or 30 minute set schedule system-wide, routes need to be run based on demand. More frequently on routes that require it and less frequently on routes that have lighter ridership. Much of the change wouldn't impact the finances as it would simply be shuffling existing resources from areas that don't need it to areas that do.

That was one of the issues I had with Cornwall when I visited and rode the operation. The 40 minute headway on all routes at all times. I guess it was from growing up with service that ranged from every 5 minutes to once a day depending on the demand of the route but a system-wide schedule using the same headway does little to attract ridership.

Cornwall currently has a 4% share of riders versus population. That can easily be doubled through simple changes that could actually save money. On my trip there, I rode a route that had 7 people riding on it. When it reached the transfer point, 5 of the 7 people (who all got on at different stops) boarded another bus together. Immediately I questioned why the route I was on didn't continue on in the direction of the other route. Obviously that is where people wanted to go.

What was happening was that Cornwall was in fact getting the people to where they wanted to go but at twice the cost as it should have been. 2 buses and 2 drivers rather than a through routing that would free up 1 bus and driver for service elsewhere or just plain elimination of the freed up trip to save money.

Hopefully the consultant the city hired will look at such things. Cornwall could eventually pull a 15-20 percent share of riders versus population within 5 years if it runs the operation properly. Simply lowering the set system-wide headway from 40 to 30 minutes or adding Sunday service won't do it. Learning where people want to go, adjusting service to serve where people go as well as running an efficient operation will.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

An excellent lead-in for a news story

Miami Fl - "A lot of well-heeled people who would never be caught dead on a Metrobus drove their cars and SUVs over to Miami's VA Medical Center last week to cut the ribbon on the first new bus shelter erected inside city limits in more than a decade."

The Miami Herald had that line as the lead-in for an article they published on July 30th. I understand the frustration with the politicians that the writer, Larry Lebowitz, showed in his article completely.

It mirrors many things I often say about the bulk of the politicians and bureaucrats who ignore transit unless it means a photo-op or they see a political advantage to temporarily supporting it. In this case, it was a photo-op that dredged up a bunch of politicians and transit administrators that are lucky if they know what the inside of a bus looks like.

The wheels of bureaucracy move at a snails pace but when something finally emerges out of it for the riding public, the first ones there to soak up the benefits of it are the politicians who want face time to sooth their over-inflated ego's.

It shouldn't take years to address something like transit shelters. Shelters benefit both the riders as well as the transit system by attracting new riders. I have witnessed first hand stops that had few riders that suddenly got a shelter installed and within a month, the passengers boarding at that stop increased dramatically. In a few cases, by 10 times the pre-shelter levels and that is reflected in the route ridership which also increased.

Providing proper amenities for the ridership will attract them. While shelters and benches do increases costs, deals made with advertisers can easily offset the increased costs. In many cases, the advertising agency also takes responsibility for erecting and maintaining of the shelter so it becomes a win-win situation. The riders benefit from having a dry and shaded place to wait as well as the transit system who benefits from increased ridership without incurring the costs of purchasing and maintaining the shelter. The ad agency also benefits by revenue from the ads it sells.

The politicians in Miami should be ashamed that it took so long to start putting up new bus shelters. Instead they bask in the glory of the first new shelter that has been put up in over a decade.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Mayor drops streetcar proposal

Madison WI - Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz officially dropped his streetcar proposal Monday. The proposal had drawn fire from many sources due to the expense as well as the effectiveness of the plan.

The Mayor said in a press release, "There is an old saying in politics; when you've dug yourself into a hole, the first thing you do is drop the shovel. So I have decided I will not continue to pursue the issue of streetcars in Madison. The issue is off the table."

I do have to applaud Mayor Cieslewicz for dropping the controversial plan and not being stubborn and continuing to push it through. With a proposed Regional Transit Authority being planned for the Madison area, it will be tough enough to ensure they can run what they have in place now without the headache of a transit project that was designed more for taxpayer supported development than for actual transportation.

The problem I had with the Mayor's plan was just stated, it was to be for development at the taxpayer's expense rather than for transportation. Considering that Madison's bus system needs help and the streetcar line was not aimed at actual transit service, the plan was more of a fiscal black hole than a benefit.

Once Madison gets the RTA in place, the bus service up to par and a more reliable source of funding the transit system in place, it can be brought up again. Until then, it's best to put the proposal on the shelf.

I would suggest that any future streetcar plan be focused around actual transportation needs rather than the hope of development along a line that goes nowhere.

For backing down from his streetcar plan as well as finally recognizing that you need the broad support from the community before undertaking such a major investment, I'll award Mayor Dave Cieslewicz a Laurel.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Untested and unproven, you just have to build it

Mesa AZ - A Personal Rapid Transit system (PRT) is being pushed for by the creators of what is called SkyTran. It is a futuristic transit mode that utilizes small passenger pods on demand rather than running on a fixed schedule. Seeing the computer graphics of what the SkyTran system is to look like, I started humming the theme from the Jetson's.

Currently in Mesa, the city is in the midst of a long term transit analysis and exploring various transit options for the future. Supporters of the untested and futuristic concept, built by Unimodal, want it included in the analysis and as the focal point of the study. Mind you, the analysis will help steer the city's future transportation planning.

To include PRT as a focal point of the analysis is simply ludicrous. PRT systems are not designed for mass transit, period. They are incapable of handling large passenger loads and are more suited for places like universities and large company complexes with many buildings spread out over hundreds of acres.

Wild and unsubstantiated claims on the SkyTran website such as SkyTran being able to "totally eliminate commuter congestion in any city" is literally false advertising and a complete misrepresentation of the product. Another claim of "SkyTran can END road congestion, car accidents and automobile air pollution" also state the impossible.

Where are the actual studies proving these claims? Not in-house computer projections or "what we believe" press releases but the actual independently conducted case study that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that SkyTran will totally eliminate 100% of the traffic congestion in any city? I already know the answer, there isn't any such study.

The author of the article, Jerry Spellman who is a volunteer coordinator for Unimodal/SkyTran (and would make a tremendously successful used car salesman), touts SkyTran as the cure-all to Mesa's transportation problems. It can make a profit that can be shared with the city, Spellman proclaims. The same claims were made about the money losing Las Vegas monorail. Unlike the Las Vegas monorail however, Spellman wants the SkyTran system as the focal point of Mesa's transportation future. An untested and unproven mode of transportation that is full of the promises of Utopia if only it can be built.

Another claim from the makers of SkyTran is that people will be traveling around at 100 mph around the city. If you sent someone in one of the passenger pods for a 4 block ride, you would not get it to 100 mph. If you did, that person would be thrown back and whipped forward as there is insufficient space for speeding up and slowing down safely. You also would have hundreds of switches and sensors along the line to allow the PRT pod to bypass stations and other pods. One tiny error in any of the millions upon millions of calculations per second the system must do or a small system glitch, as the driverless pod is whipping around the city at 100 mph, could easily spell disaster.

The SkyTran website reads like a science fiction novel. Between the wild claims being made, bashing every other mode of time proven technology and fancy computerized graphics, one gets a clear vision of how Utopia is seen through their eyes. I really had to fight to convince myself that the SkyTran site wasn't a satire site but a real site aimed at convincing people that SkyTran is the answer.

"No ongoing taxpayer subsidies needed!" exclaims Spellman in his article. "A load of bull!", I exclaim here. As with the Las Vegas monorail, more tax money will have to be pumped into it as time goes on. Simply put, SkyTran will not even remotely pay for itself yet alone bring in the big profit that Unimodal states it will. There will be no sharing of the windfall with the City of Mesa.

To pay for the operation, you will either have to charge a ridiculously high amount to ride it which will keep most people off of it (and you still won't meet the operating costs as the higher the price, the less will ride) or you'll have to be subsidized by the taxpayer. That's basic Mass Transit Economics 101 in this day and age, Jerry.

Given that SkyTran is envisioned by Spellman as the central core of Mesa's transportation system, there is no way in hell that more tax money won't have to be poured into it. Your not going to be able to have SkyTran be the core system while charging $25 a ride. Your going to have to get the price down to existing transit fares which will mean a big drain on the SkyTran finances. To make up for the loss, you'll be heading to city hall to plead for more tax money to keep the system running.

What disturbs me the most is that the SkyTran sales pitch is exactly what tax and spend politicians love to bite on. Something unproven, sure to skyrocket in price and is touting the "green" message that these politicians blindly follow like mice following the Pied Piper. If Mesa doesn't bite on the SkyTran proposal, they'll start hitting up other cities to fund their PRT folly.

If SkyTran is all that it claims, where is the test line on company property to clearly show everyone the concept in a full scale working model? So far, all I see are visions of what it should be with wild promises being made. There is a huge difference between theory and reality. So many things work in theory but in reality they fall far short. In theory, even some of the greatest blunders of mankind looked great on paper but failed miserably when unleashed on the public.

This isn't the only PRT proposal floating around either. There are a few others out there by other companies. An ongoing proposal in Minnesota as well as one in Washington state to mention two I personally am aware of. Each one sounds the same however, build it and all your transit problems will be forever solved. None have been tested nor have any been willing to build a test line completely on their own dime to prove their claims. These companies all want to place it as a central core part of the existing transportation infrastructure. As I see it, this means that they have an escape if things go wrong and can unload the responsibilities onto the government if it goes belly-up.

Mesa politicians should not even think about including such an untested and unproven concept such as SkyTran into the transportation analysis. The residents of Mesa need to make that clear to their elected officials. If built, it won't save money, it won't be safer and it definitely won't cure your transportation problems. You'll end up with an expensive white elephant that even more of your tax dollars will have to be sunk into just to keep it running.