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Talking Headways Podcast: Houston, Transit Paradise?

Welcome to a super-long extra-bonus episode of Talking Headways! We only took on two topics this week, but we got so enthralled by both of them we just couldn’t shut up.

First, we talked to Christof Spieler, a member of Houston Metro, about the “blank-sheet” bus overhaul he helped design. Instead of trying to tweak the current system around its edges, Metro decided to start again from scratch, planning routes and service that make sense for the way the city is now. Metro thought the upside would outweigh the downside, but the agency wasn’t prepared for this: There was almost no downside. By eliminating redundant and inefficient service, Metro could optimize routes without eliminating low-ridership routes that people depend on. And to hear Christof tell it, what they’re accomplishing is pretty amazing:

What we’re really doing is focusing on frequent service. We’re basically doubling the number of routes that offer frequent service, and we’re extending that frequent service to seven days a week. So: every 15 minutes, seven days a week, network of about 20 routes.

That puts a million people within walking distance of those routes; it puts a million jobs within walking distance of those routes. It is going to be one of the largest coverage areas of high frequency transit in the United States. And that is a huge deal for our existing riders, because currently only about 25 percent of our boardings are at stops that have all-week frequent service. This will take that up to 73 percent.

Once we tear ourselves away from Christof and his beautiful vision of the future of transit, we do a debrief on what’s going on with the transportation bill in Congress. The Senate bill isn’t all it could be, but in Congress nothing is ever all it could be, and this one at least stands a chance of passage — or it would if there were an actual, realistic funding stream attached to it. No such luck. Tune in for all the gory details.

Side note: Big thanks to all who have donated during Streetsblog’s spring pledge drive, especially those of you who specifically mentioned the podcast as why you’re giving. We appreciate you! There’s still time to get in on the fun: Please donate today!

As always, Talking Headways is available on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed, and this right here is where you leave your snappy comments. We welcome your backtalk and your sassy mouth.

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11 Simple Ways to Speed Up Your City’s Buses

Turning at busy intersections costs buses time.

Turning at busy intersections slows down buses, so many transit agencies are simplifying routes to speed up service. Photo: Steven Vance

All across America, city buses are waiting. Waiting at stoplights, waiting behind long lines of cars, waiting to pull back into traffic, waiting at stops for growing crowds of passengers. And no, it’s not just your imagination: Buses are doing more waiting, and less moving, than they used to. A recent survey of 11 urban transit systems conducted by Daniel Boyle for the Transportation Research Board found that increased traffic congestion is steadily eroding travel speeds: The average city bus route gets 0.45 percent slower every single year. That’s especially discouraging given how slowly buses already move, with a typical bus averaging only 13.5 mph.

Transit agencies are taking action against the waits. A recent report on “Commonsense Approaches for Improving Transit Bus Speeds“ surveyed not just the scale of the problem, but also solutions. In it, 59 transit agencies across America shared how they have responded to the scheduling problems presented by ever-slower bus routes. The agencies report on the most successful actions they’ve taken to improve bus speeds and reliability. Here they are, listed in descending order of popularity.

  1. Consolidate stops: More than half of agencies have thinned bus stops, some by focusing on pilot corridors, and others by gradually phasing in policy changes. Many agencies moved stops to far side of intersections at stoplights, and 13 agencies adopted physical changes like longer bus stops or bulb-outs, which help passengers board faster and more conveniently.
  2. Streamline routes: Straightening out routes, trimming deviations, eliminating duplication, and shortening routes didn’t just simplify service, it also sped up service for two-thirds of the agencies that tried this approach.
  3. Transit signal priority: The 22 agencies with signal priority can change stoplights for approaching buses. They mostly report a minor to moderate increase in bus speeds as a result. In fact, agencies singled out traffic engineering approaches like TSP as the closest to a “silver bullet,” one-step solution.
  4. Fare policy: Several agencies changed fare structures or payment methods. The one agency that collects fares before passengers board, and lets them board at both bus doors, decreased bus running times by 9 percent.
  5. Bus Rapid Transit: Ten agencies combined multiple approaches on specific routes and launched BRT service. Of those that measured the impact, almost all reported a significant increase in speed, typically around 10 to 15 percent.
  6. Vehicle changes: More than half of agencies have moved to low-floor buses, which reduce loading times by one second per passenger. Smaller buses might be more maneuverable in traffic, and ramps can speed loading for wheelchairs and bicycles.
  7. Limited stop service: Although new limited-stop services offered only minor to moderately faster speeds, it’s a simple step and 18 agencies reported launching new limited routes.
  8. Bus lanes: Dedicated lanes are used by 13 agencies, and one reported that “most routes are on a bus lane somewhere.” When implemented on wide arterial streets, this moderately improves speeds.
  9. Adjust schedules: Almost all of the surveyed agencies have adjusted running time, recovery times (the time spent turning the bus), or moved to more flexible ”headway schedules.” All of these actions improve on-time performance reliability for customers, and reduce the need for buses to sit if they’re running early.
  10. Signal timing: Synchronized stoplights along transit routes can make sure that buses face more green lights than red, but only have a mild impact on operating speeds.
  11. Express service on freeways: This strategy had the largest impact on speeding up buses for the three agencies that tried it.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Get Off My Lawn

Jeff Wood and I talk about the news of the week that most tickled us or burned us — the BBC’s exposé of anti-social urban design features intended to repel people, San Francisco’s social tensions over the Google bus, and the decision by Cincinnati’s new mayor and City Council to “pause” construction of the streetcar. (Update: The streetcar might be salvaged!)

Meanwhile, I wax nostalgic for public space in Havana and Jeff laments slow progress on San Francisco’s Geary Boulevard BRT.

You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes. And participate in the conversation by commenting here.

This will be our last podcast of 2013. Have a Happy New Year and we’ll see you in January!

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Talking Headways Podcast, Episode 4: Car Brain

In this week’s podcast, Jeff and I discuss the impressive turnout — and possible pitfalls — of London’s “die-in” demonstration for bike safety. We try to contain our envy (but not our amazement) at Paul Salopek’s seven-year walk tracing the path of Homo sapiens from the Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego. And we discuss why even passionate transit advocates know what it means to be embarrassed about taking the bus.

Thanks to pressure from our loyal readers (and some extra hand-holding from Tim Halbur) we are now (almost) available on iTunes! Which is to say, iTunes has approved the podcast but it seems it’ll still be a day or two before it’s searchable. If you’ve been following us on Soundcloud, you might want to switch over. You can follow our new RSS feed here.

So please join us for our fourth episode — the Car Brain edition. As always, please join the conversation in the comments.

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Now No Republican Will Ever Ride a Bus Again

Florida RNC delegates got stuck on their bus for hours. Let's just hope this doesn't turn them against buses forever. Photo: Paul Flemming/Democrat

You’ve got to hand it to the Republicans. Even the party of transit haters had to admit that the only logical way to move delegates around in the congested streets around the GOP convention was by bus. And they would have been right, except they had a little snafu that will undoubtedly convince everyone involved that transit is, indeed, an utter failure.

As an aside, remember when Mitt Romney offended half the planet by saying he wasn’t sure London was logistically ready to host the Olympics? And then everything went totally smoothly? Maybe he should have been more concerned about Tampa.

Florida’s own delegates bore the brunt of poor planning in their own state. The Sunshine State’s convention delegates got picked up half an hour late from their hotel but still got downtown with time to spare — except the bus drove around and around, navigating security checkpoints and officers who wouldn’t let the bus stop. The delegates ended up spending two hours on the bus, missing the opening speeches. Even during their ordeal, the RNC emailed out a statement that all buses had arrived and that their operations would only get more efficient in the coming days.

Floridians weren’t the only ones who had a bad experience with convention transit this week. California and Virginia delegates also encountered some glitches. Some even speculated that the bus fiascos targeted delegates that were planning to speak out against a controversial rule change.

Now, these are charter buses we’re talking about, not city buses, but the uninitiated might lump them all together. I just want to encourage all those Republicans to give transit another chance. I think it’s a real shame that this happened. I mean, when people who think transit is a waste of money and buses are for cockroaches actually board a bus, I’d like to think they’d have a positive experience and recognize the benefits of mass transit. I doubt this experience did that for them.

I don’t know who’s to blame for the problems in Tampa. It’s more likely the fault of convention security than the drivers. I just hope they’ll try transit again.

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Explaining the Psychological Appeal of Rail Over Buses

An often-remarked-upon phenomenon in the transit world is the preference, perceived or otherwise, for rail over buses. But this tendency has not been well understood.

A pair of recent European case studies delved into this issue, and their findings help illuminate the psychology behind what many have observed. In the first study, set in Germany, 63 percent of subjects preferred a regional train system over an equivalent bus system, given a hypothetical choice with all other factors being equal. Meanwhile, in a second study set in Switzerland, 75 percent preferred trams to buses — even given identical service levels.

Of note, researchers found preferences for rail travel were “rather irrational” and “highly loaded with emotional and social attributions.” The largest factor explaining the favoritism was “emotional attributes,” like nostalgia, accounting for 38 percent of the bias in Germans. Meanwhile, concrete factors like differences in seat structure or the merits of a fixed guideway accounted for only five percent each.

Even very high-quality bus systems were not immune from the emotional effect, the report noted, but the researchers pointed out that negative perceptions faded as familiarity with better bus systems increased.

According to the report, almost all daily transit users preferred train travel. Younger people showed a particularly strong preference for rail. And the preference for train travel increased with education, but not income.

Researchers cautioned that because modal preferences are so profoundly influenced by cultural and emotional factors, the findings may not be generalizable to other cites or countries.

Read more…

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Mapped: Dramatic Changes on London Streets in the Congestion Pricing Era

For the last nine years, private motorists entering central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. have paid a fee (currently £10 or US$16.22) to drive on the city’s scarce street space. The revenue from the congestion charge is plowed into the city’s transit system, and as Transport for London has amply documented, many Londoners have changed their commuting habits.

Now a flurry of maps released by ITO World, a British company that specializes in visualizing transport data, shows London’s dramatic shift to more sustainable modes from 2001-2010. (The congestion charge went into effect in February 2003.)

The map above depicts the extraordinary decrease in private motor vehicle traffic, with the bright blue dots showing where driving has gone down more than 30 percent and the bright red dots showing where it’s up more than 30 percent. By the looks of it, the drivable suburbs are still a bastion of private vehicles, but the central city is seeing far less traffic.

Of course, people aren’t just sitting at home. They’ve embraced other ways of getting around. So while there are fewer vehicles in London now than in 2001, one motorized mode has become more ubiquitous: the bus.

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Why the House Transportation Bill Hits Bus Riders Especially Hard

When the House Ways and Means Committee voted to divert all gas tax revenue away from transit projects, severing transit’s only dedicated source of federal funds, they were essentially throwing transit riders under the bus.

The Potomac & Rappahannock Transportation Commission, which operates bus and commuter rail lines in Virginia, would need to cut service and raise fares under the House's proposed changes to transit funding. Photo: PotomacLocal

While the House’s official stance is that their proposal still somehow guarantees funding for transit, it really does anything but. ”It’s not dedicated, it’s not stable, it’s not predictable… and it’s not clear where exactly that money is coming from,” said Francisca Porchas, lead coordinator for the advocacy organization Transit Riders for Public Transportation. “For regular bus riders, it’s going to mean completely pulling the rug out from under them.”

It’s not like mass transit has been flying high lately, either. Over the past three years, there’s been an onslaught of fare hikes, service cuts, and layoffs at American transit agencies, even as ridership hit record highs. Some 97,000 employees in the transit and ground transportation industry lost their jobs in 2009 alone.

Forcing transit to fight for funds from the general budget will also force transit agencies to make cuts immediately. Transit agencies like Virginia’s Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission would likely need to cut service and raise fares just as a contingency, since federal funds make up some 15-20 percent of PRTC’s total budget, and state and local governments lack the wherewithal to step in if that money disappeared.

Furthermore, with their future funding in doubt, agencies will be forced to borrow money at higher interest rates, adding another level of costs to plans to add new capacity. That promises to bleed over into the basic services that agencies provide, making the trend of service cuts and fare hikes even worse.

“Where many transit agencies are trying to advance capital expansion, they are doing so instead of maintaining current service,” Porchas explained. “Transit agencies will be making some tough choices, and they’ll prioritize capacity expansion over operating and maintaining their system” if federal funding is suddenly threatened, she said.

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The Last Mile: How Bike-Ped Improvements Can Connect People to Transit

Whether it’s just a short walk down the street or a five-mile bike ride, the journey between home and station is a major factor in people’s decision to take public transit.

Bike-share can bridge the last mile for public transit. Photo: Flickr/Arlington Country

For the transit officials and livability advocates gathered at the Rail~Volution conference this week, that key piece of the journey is known as the Last Mile. Frequent service and affordable fares, on their own, won’t entice people to make that trip. The route to the station also has to appeal to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Every transit trip is a multi-modal journey, pointed out Alan Lehto, director of project planning for TriMet in Portland, at the start of a panel yesterday. “Everybody who rides transit is a pedestrian or cyclist on at least one end of their trip,” Lehto said. “Getting people to and from the station is fundamentally important.”

But that aspect of transit is often overlooked. In fact, look no further than Portland itself, Lehto said. In a recent study, TriMet evaluated all 7,000 bus and transit stations within the region and found major gaps in bike-ped accessibility. “We realized that 1,500 of those don’t even have a sidewalk,” Lehto said.

Ensuring that transit stations are served by adequate pedestrian infrastructure is the bare minimum required to connect people to transit. Making the Last Mile truly appealing takes more than laying down sidewalks and adding a few bike racks.

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Eco-Libertarian Alliance Pushes Replacement of Rural Air Service With Buses

Buried in the FAA extension passed last week was a line item for air service to connect rural communities to major airports. These are usually tiny flights, leaving from remote airports. All together, they use annual subsidies of over $163 million.

In July, when Republicans forced a temporary shutdown of the FAA, this “essential air service” was one of the major sticking points. The House wanted to end the federal subsidies funding the service (even though Republicans disproportionately represent rural districts) except for routes in Alaska and Hawaii, which would still be eligible for federal subsidies.

The Reason Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Bus Association, and Taxpayers for Common Sense – groups with wildly divergent missions – have come together to figure out if those communities could be connected more sustainably by using buses instead of planes.

Of the 153 communities served by what’s known as essential air service, many are long distances from major airports, especially the large proportion in Alaska. But M.J. Bradley and Associates, which was commissioned by the four groups to write the study, “Keeping Rural Communities Connected,” found that 38 of the 153 airports served – about a quarter of the total – were within 150 miles of a hub airport [PDF].

They found that 79,000 one-way flights leave each year out of those 38 airports, carrying 615,000 passengers, at a total cost of $131 million. Of that, about $60 million is government subsidy and $70 million comes from fares. M.J. Bradley found that equivalent bus service could be offered for just $41 million, for a savings of $90 million. Average passenger costs would go down by as much as $285 per round trip.

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