Photo: (Wikipedia Commons - Trolley Bus in Vancouver, BC)
In 2001 Pierce Transit began a process of merging various routes together to create “Trunk Routes.” These routes operate every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 20-30 minutes on weekends and are intended to carry large portions of ridership on the system. Route 25 (6th Avenue) and Route 46 (Pacific Avenue) were the first lines to be merged to create Route 1, a transit backbone in the City of Tacoma and the southern suburbs of Parkland and Spanaway. Ridership increases were substantial - 14% in the first year, with no signs of stopping. Given this success, Pierce Transit combined Route 27 (19th St.) and Route 200 (Bridgeport Way) to create Route 2 and changed the number of Route 210 (Downtown Tacoma to Lakewood via the Tacoma Mall) to Route 3.
The addition of Route 1 and 2 solved a number of problems inherent in transit. One of most aggravating issues in public transport are missed connections. Since there is no transfer from route to route because of “interlining,” that problem never occurs. Another issue that we hear about frequently in the transit business is that routes don't connect enough destinations for them to prove useful. Trunk routes use a mathematical principle in transit that essentially states that the longer your route and the more stops you make on that route, the more connections you make from place to place. (Vuchic, Urban Transit Systems and Technology) This may seem like a no-brainer, but the relationship is non-linear. It ensures that connections grow exponentially the longer the route is. If we follow this principle to the extreme, as has been done in Route 1, it is possible to catch a bus within 15 minutes by walking at most six blocks to reach a stop on either 6th Avenue or Pacific Avenue, greatly expanding accessible destinations.
However... as with most mathematical principles at their extremes, problems tend to crop up that were not anticipated at first.
Overcrowding – As was previously mentioned, ridership increases on Route 1 have never stopped. At many times throughout the day, during morning and evening rush hours, and midday, buses are at or beyond capacity. All seats are taken, all spaces for wheelchairs or other wheeled vehicles such as grocery push carts and baby strollers are taken, and the two bicycle rack slots are taken. If such a bus is full and it needs to take on another person in a wheelchair, the driver is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act to force someone to get off the bus so that the new passenger may ride. I've seen this happen, to mothers with baby strollers. It's one of the worst possible things that can happen, and its one that seems to be happening with increasing frequency.
Bunched buses – Although Route 1 is supposed to be every 15 minutes, it hardly ever is, especially during peak periods where there's overcrowding. Offloading, fare collection, wheelchair loading, traffic congestion, stop lights, etc. all impede transit schedules. This lack of on-time performance has a tendency of causing people to miss connections or to degrade reliability in terms of making connections. Sometimes the buses are so off schedule that they bunch together, one after another, with the first bus being full to the state of bursting and the other being practically empty. If you're a passenger on either bus you're angry, because you've been waiting probably more than twenty minutes for a 15 minute bus and the bus you get on is packed with other uncomfortable people OR you have to stop behind the first bus a chunk of the time.
Longer Travel Times – Since the trunk routes tend to be popular, their popularity means that it is going to stop at every... single... stop... along... the... way. Each time this occurs, people need to gather their belongings, walk off the bus, more passengers need to get on, pay their fare, sit down, the doors need to close, and then only to be stopped at a stoplight afterwards. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you have Route 1.
Diminishing Rates of Return – Although buses are crowded in popular sections of the routes, there are places where ridership isn't as heavy. West of Union Avenue on 6th Avenue, ridership drops off a bit and the same occurs south of Tacoma city limits and again at the area beyond the Parkland Transit Center. Currently the statistic for Route 1 is that it costs about $3 per passenger to operate, but that statistic masks the incredible efficiency of the route when it is actually within Tacoma, where I would speculate that it costs closer to $2 per passenger to operate – pretty close to the actual fare charged by Pierce Transit.
I've got to give credit where credit is due. Pierce Transit made a smart move by integrating Route 45 with Route 26 into Route 1 and it was a “good” decision to integrate Route 200 and Route 27 into Route 2. It produced ridership increases and gave Pierce Transit riders a taste of what frequent service can do and feels like. I wouldn't recommend “deinterlining” the routes, since they're so popular now. But, as I've reviewed, there are a number of issues that have cropped up that have not been dealt with. Here are some possible ways to resolve them. They are meant to be mixed and matched in ways that make sense.
Branch Routes – We have Trunk Routes with NO real branch routes. If we picked some critical corridors to branch off of, we could have service every five minutes or less in many places throughout the service territory. We could branch out at Union Avenue along Pacific and maybe S. 38th St.
Larger Vehicles – Thanks to great service, there's been a growth in demand for transit. We could meet that demand with more space for passengers and their wheeled vehicles, carts, and strollers. Articulated buses or modern electric streetcars could serve us well in this regard.
Route Truncation – If we ended Route 1 at the Parkland Transit Center it would make the route more symmetrical, helping buses to stay on time and would help to prevent overcrowding. It would also enable the use of larger vehicles while remaining cost effective.
New Local Route – As a potential alternative to Route Truncation, an additional bus or streetcar traveling on sections of the Route 1 alignment, could be used to mitigate peak demand and function as a local circulator, connecting districts currently disconnected by the present route network.
Bus Rapid Transit – Dedicated right of way is the best way to speed up trips. Bus rapid transit may not work fully on 6th Avenue, but it could work on a great deal of Pacific Avenue. Fewer, better stops, with bus arrival times, off-coach fare collection, and a high level of traffic signal priority could help to speed the route up and give it a greater sense of permanence.
New Propulsion Technology – Natural gas buses aren't great at going up hills. Electric trolley buses are great at doing that though. Their ride is smoother and their acceleration is gradual and faster than that of natural gas buses. Some time could be shaved off trips by using this option.
Next Topic: Transit Centers