28 September 2009
Eric Anderson, Tacoma's City Manager, puts the cost of deferred maintenance on our roadways at a whopping $700-$740 million! But as much as candidates support alternatives, how are they going to fund alternatives while making critical repairs to Tacoma's roadways? Further, how would they coordinate the menagerie of transportation agencies that could help us to reconstruct our streetcar system?
On Thursday, October 1st, we will be able to get questions like that answered at a candidates forum put forth by the Transportation Choices Coalition at UW Tacoma. The event has a long list of co-sponsors, so its bound to be attended by at least a few more people than the usual suspects.
***Crossposted from Exit133***
Do you have any questions for the candidates? If so, join the conversation.
Transportation and Land-Use Forum
Thursday, Oct 1st, 6:30-8:30pm
Carwein Auditorium, UWT
Event Co-Hosts: Transportation Choices Coalition, The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, University of Washington Urban Studies Program, Futurewise, Cascade Bicycle Club, Tacoma Wheelman’s Bicycle Club, Tacoma Sun, Cascade Land Conservancy, and Exit133.
23 September 2009
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
17 September 2009
For Pierce Transit, the service area defines:
- where transit service will be,
- who transit will serve, and,
- how much support these services will get from sales taxes (and fares) in the territory.
Pierce Transit doesn’t get any annual funding from Washington State and only gets small portions of funding from the federal government, so it’s up to the locals to pay for their own transit. This gives the question of territory a lot of weight to it because it brings up certain inequalities in terms of “who gets what” and impacts what the transit system looks like right now and in the future. Do we decide to pare down the service area and/or expand our taxing authority to invest in light rail and streetcars where such modes make sense, or do we keep the status quo and provide service along arterials throughout the entire service area? Do we provide paratransit services to far flung areas, or do we scale back the service territory and work with partners to provide the same service?
Urban Transit and Economic Development: They go hand in hand
In areas with highly successful transit systems that provide a large public benefit in terms of transportation, congestion relief, local air quality, farm preservation etc. the systems have a strong relationship between land use and the transit system (See: Portland, Vancouver, San Francisco). This makes a lot of sense, since historically, transit service was provided as a means of boosting the property value of development. Dense, mixed use areas that are appealing and vibrant draw concentrations of people. Transit service depends on having as large a pool of possible riders as possible to provide the best cost-effective service. High quality transit service, whether it is BRT, light rail, streetcars, or monorails, although costly, has a positive impact on land use. The density of areas surrounding streetcar lines or light rail stations tends to go up, representing significant sums of investments, bringing in new businesses and customers, and hence helps to generate more tax revenue. The late urban theorist Jane Jacobs spoke of density and a mixture of uses as being core to those aspects of cities that give them a life unto their own that supports economic development (read: transit-supportive tax revenue). The mixture of uses also produces different pockets of time that people are in the area in the form of bell curves. For example, office workers have a particular time pattern, they arrive at the office in a morning rush, they take a lunch anytime between 11am and 1pm and then tend to leave between 4 and 6 o’clock in the evening. Students, seniors, shoppers, small business owners, and the bar crowd all have their own days. However, when all of these people are in a similar space they create one large bell curve that extends beyond the normal 9-5 work day, and it creates a more vibrant and active environment.
Sprawl and Transit: Mostly incompatible and a Diversion from Urban Transit
On the other side of the spectrum we have sprawl, which for our purposes will be a series of low density single use areas of detached single family homes, office parks, and commercial strip malls loosely connected via a handful of congested roadways. Sadly, a lot of Pierce County can be put in this category, not unlike a lot of America today. In such an environment, the pedestrian, the prime source of ridership in transit, is relegated to the margins, and transit vehicles, without significant investments in right-of-way, suffer from the same horrible traffic levels and delays that people in single occupancy vehicles suffer from. This all hampers ridership since the ridership pool is so small and only those who are dependent on transit service tend to use the service. So if there are only small public benefits of standard bus service in these areas, some of which produce exactly zero sales tax dollars and it costs great deals of money to service such areas, where is that money coming from? --- Well, it’s got to be the urban areas, since the funding isn’t coming from anywhere else.
If there is a disparity in funding levels when compared with demand for transit services, it means that some people get more than makes sense and some people don’t get what they need. What’s worse is that such a disparity can set the transit organization, like Pierce Transit, on a path of not doing much of anything in terms of improving service quality in areas where there is demand, and spending more to support long distance commuters in far flung areas. There is evidence of this. Pierce Transit has not embarked on significant service expansions in at least ten years and has focused on 1) creating long distance trunk routes serving large swaths of low density areas, 2) extensive use of marketing to try to lure people in upper income levels to use transit service, and 3) a proposed and canceled Gig Harbor park and ride lot with a pedestrian bridge across highway 16 even when Gig Harbor routes tend to be subpar in their performance tests. However, despite significant overcrowding during peak periods on Route 1 on Tacoma’s most urban corridors, 6th Avenue and Pacific Avenue, Pierce Transit has not engaged the public in those areas to consider articulated hybrid buses, streetcars or an expansion of our highly successful light rail line.
What may prove to be the most important piece of geography where Pierce Transit is concerned is voting geography. Pierce Transit can only provide service that voters approve, and because many people outside of Tacoma never really consider the possibility of using transit even occasionally, they have little reason to ever vote for it. The population of voters in (mostly unincorporated) Pierce County, who live in areas that are poorly suited for public transit has grown, diluting much of the support there is for public transit in Tacoma and portions of University Place. In 1979, fewer people lived in environs that stack the deck against transit, in 2009, that situation is different. Those who depend on public transit and want to see it used to encourage economic development in the county’s urban centers ignore that fact at their peril.
Alternative: Reduce Service Area to Central Incorporated Pierce County
The areas south of the Parkland Transit Center or east of Fife don’t perform very well. The cost of running Route 402 along South 224th and Meridian Ave. costs about twice as much per passenger as Route 1. However, Paring down Route 402 to a smaller stretch of Meridian could free up enough funds to bring Route 1 to ten minute frequency or convert it to BRT or part of it to streetcars. Edgewood and Milton’s land use patterns don’t make sense to serve with transit. They’re primarily residential and are generally disconnected from their commercial sections. Route 402 and 501 cost generally twice as much per passenger than Route 1. I’ve also heard about removing the Key Peninsula as one measure, although I don’t have access to how much Route 113 costs the organization. There are also a number of routes that cost upwards of $10/passenger to operate, and also because we operate fixed route service in those areas, we are bound by law to provide Shuttle service at $40/passenger to all areas ¾ of a mile within that fixed route. I’m not saying that we should make these decisions to make cuts lightly. But if we made these cuts and increased sales taxes to 0.9% we would have enough funds to leverage federal capital to reduce per passenger costs even more in the core areas, which would put us on a path towards service expansions in the future.
In summary, it would be prudent to examine a situation that would drop Milton, Edgewood, Buckley, Bonney Lake, South Hill, Graham, Midland, and the Key Peninsula from the service territory, while changing and restructuring routes that cost more than $5/passenger.
Next Topic: Trunk Routes
15 September 2009
As well as covering Pierce Transit as it looks on paper, I also intend to cover some of the chronic unresolved issues that confront riders everyday that don't make it into the reports - on time performance, lost coaches, overcrowding, etc. From my experience, if the City of Tacoma were in charge of transit operations, I find it likely that a task force or two would have been formed of interested parties in partnership with staff to resolve these issues or at least abate them. Hopefully through the PT-Tomorrow process we will be able to implement some sort of rider committee, which can bring an on-the-ground assessment of any changes we decide to implement. That could go a long way towards improving relations between the riders and the organization. It would also help to improve the system by bringing in innovative ideas not from the riders themselves.
The first topic under discussion tomorrow will be: The Pierce Transit Service Territory.
13 September 2009
That's okay for keeping the community up to date on where ridership is going and where the budget is generally going, but it's simply not enough if you're wanting riders to weigh in on where there should be service reductions or if we should put a greater emphasis on rail transit or if we should have board members elected from the general public or if we should transition away from the time transfer system. There needs to be more information available on the site. Farebox recovery by route, time of day ridership, maps of where ridership is highest... and I'm only scratching the surface here. Trimet did a much better job at this, by giving interested citizens a crack at designing routing and thinking about long range planning.
Right now, I only see a web form for providing comments, but... seriously... a one-way web comment form where you can't see what other people have said is not a very modern use of the Internet for gathering public feedback.
Shouldn't there be a message board (with roots dating back prior to 1996) or a blog (popularized around 1999) dealing with each of the issues that the public should be considering changing?
I have to applaud PT for entering the social networking age by joining Facebook and Twitter, but there needs to be more done to involve riders ideas at a more fundamental level during this redesign process.