New chapter

The new Capital Metro CEO signed her contract yesterday.  I’m pleased to see she chose to rent an apartment near three bus routes, and I wonder whether a separate car allowance is something a transit agency should continue to give its CEO.  It’s not immediately clear to me why it’s necessary, but perhaps they know something I don’t.  Symbolically, I would hope the agency would consider the message a car allowance for its CEO sends to the public.

If I were more of a transit purist, I might take issue with the new CEO’s comment that “There are a group of people who never ride the bus because it doesn’t fit their needs, or for whatever reason, and that’s OK.”  Of course it’s okay for people not to ride the bus, but I don’t know whether it’s okay to assume that a bus system cannot meet a particular person’s needs.  It would seem to me like everyone in the region needs to get around, efficiently, affordably with minimal hassle.  That’s the underlying interest shared by everyone; the difference may be in how quickly someone needs to be able to reach a destination on a moment’s notice.  But I would submit that the public, transit agencies, transportation planners and others mistakenly categorize transit as only suitable for meeting the needs of some–when, in reality, a well-designed system could truly meet the needs of perhaps all but first responders to an emergency.

I would also hope that people take note of the CEO’s choice to live near three bus routes.  We often place “silos” around planning for transit and land use planning–that is, we think of the two as unrelated.  But choices about how to arrange housing, jobs, amenities and the like impact the ability of transit to get you where you want to go, and transit can impact where you can afford to live.  You can be 15 miles from a city center, but if you’re a short walk from a train station, suddenly that becomes a more desirable place to live.  I applaud the CEO for choosing to live near transit, and I encourage planners to continue studying the nexus between transit and land use–particularly the notion that mixed use “activity centers,” where live/work/play all co-exist near each other, can help us develop a transit/transportation network that gets people around more quickly, efficiently, sustainably, and affordably.

Finally, I’m encouraged that Capital Metro is considering adding train runs. I recognize that the agency can’t assume that just because they add times for people to take the train doesn’t mean an increase in revenue for the agency.  But I would hope that these changes would occur, in a cost-effective way, as quickly as possible.  I, for one, don’t usually have a need for the train at traditional rush hours but can conceive of using the existing line at other times of day.  One of the problems the line has now is the difficulty people have in knowing how to use it if they’re not commuting from the northwest suburbs to downtown.  That will change once people see the line as part of a broader system, but until then, I think it’s important the agency give people additional opportunities to take advantage of it.#snappatx

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Fair fares?

Houston is considering a fare increase to help pay for additional rail.  I think this makes sense, though I would suspect bus riders would resent fare increases that pay for rail.  Bus riders and rail riders are often different in a variety of ways–for one thing, some trips just can’t be done with rail no matter how great the system (the nature of the route may be too circuitious, etc.), and rail almost always costs more than bus service.  Some people prefer the closeness of bus stops to their final destination, for instance, while others may go farther for rail service unaffected by traffic (though not all rail service is unaffected, and Houston’s does have to contend with traffic lights, if I’m not mistaken).

But one of the other challenges here is the fact that transit agencies almost always think in terms of fare increases to expand service, while transportation departments may think of bond debt or even a tax increase on the general population to pay for road infrastructure.  Obviously, some roads are tolled, which resembles a transit fare, but the vast majority of roads are not.  I am sympathetic to the notion that ultimately, the ideal would be to have transit mimic road transportation in its business model, one way or the other–either a fare free system or additional tolling for road travel.  Implementation of either would be seriously challenging, but the playing field seems quite even for transit as it is, and this story helps make that case.

It’s not just good for the environment–it’s good for you, too

Interesting post from another blog about the health benefits of transit.

The “public” in public transportation

As both a public participation/community engagement professional and a public transportation enthusiast, this story concerns me.  On the one hand, I view the Bay Area as a big transit success story.  They have an amazing tool called Transit 511 that connects all the various systems, including buses, light rail, streetcar, commuter rail, and from multiple counties, so for someone with a phone and/or Internet in the Bay Area, you’re set, on a level I haven’t seen anywhere else.

On the other hand, this post raises concern because it makes it appear as if the agency has not meaningfully incorporated public input into its planning.  I have no way to verify the accuracy of the statements made here, but I think it’s imperative that transit agencies heed the concerns in the Bay Area for robust public participation and inclusive community engagement.  Transit projects needlessly bog down when agencies make decisions without meaningfully engaging the public, thereby making them feel as if a project is being thrust upon them and, by extension, they don’t feel it’s theirs, as they should.  My local transit agency is wrestling mightily with this challenge and I think has come a long way towards making itself more open to public input, but agencies around the country should heed the lessons being learned in the Bay Area.

If we’re going to make transit the mode of choice (and I emphasize choice rather than a mode of necessity–some folks will have to ride no matter what, but lots of folks will ride only under certain conditions), we have to ensure we’re involving the public in creating their public transportation.

Free rides, pretty boy?

Asheville, North Carolina, is one of several cities with a movement to have “free” (i.e., no fares charged to ride) public transit.  Evidently, some folks are particularly annoyed that the bus system is contemplating a fare increase to help fund improvements that won’t arrive on the schedule they were promised.

I’m not sure where I stand on fare-free transit–I certainly think it would boost ridership, reduce traffic congestion, and increase quality of life in many (if not all) cities, but it’s a politically tough sell in many of those cities.  Of course, the argument that “those who ride should pay” is a tough sell when you consider how much everyone pays to ensure that roads are built and maintained, regardless of whether they use the (non-toll) roads or not.

My ultimate aim is to see all transit systems provide frequent, reliable, easy-to-navigate service at affordable (and perhaps free) prices so that the public has every reason in the world to choose transit.  Given that many “fare recovery” ratios for transit systems hover at or below 10% (i.e., the transit agency makes 10% or less of its revenue on fares), it stands to reason that many could find a way to go fare-free, at least when the economy recovers and sales tax proceeds increase (if that’s the funding stream, as it is here).  But my goal would be to create the efficient system, with greater frequency and reliability of service, competitive with driving, and eventually to create and engender public good will to absorb the costs of a fare-free system.

Where is that bloody train?

Some guys in London have come up with a cool website to enable people to track where trains are.  This would be SO useful with buses, where delays seem more frequent and less predictable or easy to track.  Riders should be able to call or view online where buses are to gauge how to adjust their plans, particularly if they’ve just missed a bus that’s not coming again for another 10+ minutes.  Greater access to where trains and buses are would greatly enhance transit ridership.  More here.

Beyond the city limits

This post on Planetizen raises some interesting points about the overlapping and competing needs of intercity bus riders and intracity transit users.  Most notable to me is the point the author makes about the location of the long-distance (Greyhound, etc.) bus station in the context of the destination city and its existing transit system.  Austin’s bus station is located in an area that, at the moment (i.e., pre-redevelopment of Highland Mall), does not feel to me like an area particularly appealing for pedestrians or those making transit connections, though a bus stop is across the street.  The station is right near a freeway overpass and the dining/shopping/services options nearby are a bit awkward to reach on foot.  But Walk Score does rate the bus station high on its rating of walkability, so perhaps I underestimate its value to pedestrians.  Nevertheless, I think  cities would do well both to co-locate Amtrak/Greyhound stations in areas that allow arriving passengers convenient access to hotels, restaurants, services, and the like, and ensure that the walks to and from the station are safe, well-lit, and smooth.