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Finally Some Relief for Memphis Bus Riders

The shameful state of Memphis’s bus system is one of the more outrageous stories in American transit.

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, there have been a number of fires. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

Buses in Memphis are in such bad shape, they’ve been known to catch fire. But help is on the way. Photo via Memphis Bus Riders Union

When we checked in with the advocates at the Memphis Bus Riders Union in March, they told us the local transit agency, MATA, was running buses so poorly maintained that they were known to catch fire. In the midst of this crisis, local business leaders had marshaled enough cash to restore the city’s historic trolley system, which mostly serves tourists. Meanwhile, MATA was struggling just to maintain bare-bones operations, with a 17 percent service cut looming.

The current condition of buses is so poor, riders can’t even be assured a bus will arrive no matter how long they wait, said Bennett Foster of the Bus Riders Union.

“Some routes are not being served throughout the day due to a lack of buses,” Foster told Streetsblog. “When a bus breaks down they don’t have another bus to send out. There are people in the city every day who experience just no buses running.”

But the advocacy of the Bus Riders Union is getting results. Mayor Jim Strickland has allocated an additional $7.5 million from the city budget toward the transit system this year. About $5 million of that will be reserved for replacing buses — an absolute necessity.

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How Transit Agencies Can Offer Better Paratransit Service at Lower Costs

Paratransit costs are rising fast for transit agencies and riders aren't particularly satisfied. Graph: Rudin Center

Paratransit costs are rising fast. Graph: Brookings via Rudin Center

Paratransit service for people with disabilities is a big part of what modern transit agencies do, and it’s getting bigger all the time. As the population ages and more people rely on paratransit to get around, agencies need to get smart about how they provide the service — or else rising costs will eat into their capacity to run buses and trains.

A new report from the Rudin Center for Transportation at NYU lays out how to provide quality paratransit service without breaking the bank.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act required cities to provide paratransit service for residents with disabilities but provided no operating funds. Nationally, paratransit now accounts about 12 percent of transit budgets, according to the report. It typically costs far more to operate than bus or train service — the national average is $29 per paratransit trip, compared to a little more than $8 per trip for fixed-route services.

The Rudin Center report explores how transit agencies can reduce costs while simultaneously improving service for paratransit users. Here are the four main recommendations.

1. Partner with ride-hailing services

Contracting with taxi services or ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft could benefit both transit agencies and paratransit riders.

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A New Resource for Tracking Transit Trends in American Cities

This graph, which is interactive at the Transport Politic, shows how heavy rail systems are faring across U.S. cities.

This graph, which is interactive at the Transport Politic, shows how heavy rail systems are faring across U.S. cities.

How does transit ridership in your city stack up against other cities? A new tool from transit analyst extraordinaire Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic can help you figure it out.

Freemark’s “databook” compiles a raft of data from the Census and the Federal Transit Administration into a series of graphs and tables that show trends in transit ridership in selected U.S. cities. Here you can see how bus ridership is floundering in many American cities (but not Seattle):

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No, Uber’s Not Going to Replace Buses, But It Can Complement Them

Not a day goes by without a raft of stories about “new mobility” providers — ride-hailing companies like Uber or car-share services like Car2Go that have tapped into recent technological advances to provide new ways to get around.

ansas City is using the private vanpool service Bridj to link two neighborhoods with weak transit connections. Image: Bridj

Kansas City teamed up with the private vanpool service Bridj to link two neighborhoods that the bus network didn’t connect well. Image: Bridj

In a new report, “Private Mobility, Public Interest” [PDF], TransitCenter deflates some of the hype surrounding these services while laying out several opportunities for productive collaboration between public transit agencies and private mobility providers.

Despite what you may have read, none of these services will replace transit — at least not buses and trains that move large numbers of people. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help transit agencies improve service, diversify their offerings, and operate more effectively.

Based on interviews with more than a hundred people working on mobility in the public and private sectors, TransitCenter’s report examines the opportunities for transit agencies to team up with mobility companies. If transit agencies keep the core values of providing “equitable, efficient, affordable, and sustainable transportation” in mind, TransitCenter writes, they can forge new partnerships that yield broad public benefits.

Here are some of the most fertile areas for collaboration.

Convenient, Cost-Effective Paratransit

Paratransit for riders with disabilities is usually among the most expensive types of service for transit agencies to provide. This can strain budgets and drain resources from other transit services. If agencies can provide paratransit at lower costs per trip, they can free up resources to run more bus or train service.

Both Boston and Washington have started to experiment with contracting paratransit to taxi and ride-hailing companies that can not only operate the service more cost-effectively, but also offer riders more convenience.

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America Has a Terrible Traffic Safety Record Because We Drive Too Much

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Traveling by car is much more dangerous than traveling by train or bus. Table: APTA

Even though the U.S. traffic fatality rate per mile driven has fallen by two-thirds in the last 50 years, America today still has the deadliest road system per capita in the developed world. Much of the improvement from safer driving and better emergency care has been wiped out by increases in total traffic.

U.S. traffic fatalities have improved a lot on a per-mile basis, but not so much on a per-capita basis. Graph: APTA

Per mile, the traffic death rate in America has improved a lot, but per person, the nation has fallen far behind other developed countries. Graph: APTA

The American approach to traffic safety has emphasized seatbelt use, vehicle standards, and reducing drunk driving. What has been lacking is any effort to reduce driving mileage and enable more people to get around by safer means. And that’s exactly what the U.S. needs to do to make further gains in safety, according to a new report from the American Public Transportation Association [PDF].

Riding transit is much safer than getting around in a car. According to APTA, the fatality risk per mile traveled for bus passengers is 30 times lower than car occupants. For rail passengers, the risk is 20 times lower.

But federal safety policy has largely neglected how transit — or policies aimed at reducing driving in general — can play a role in reducing America’s staggering traffic death toll.

APTA argues that it’s time for a new approach. Here’s why.

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Court: Don’t Spend Billions on Outdated Travel Forecasts

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Cross-posted from City Observatory

Last week, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., has ordered new ridership projections for the proposed Purple Line light rail line, which will connect a series of Maryland suburbs. Like any multi-billion dollar project that serves a densely settled metropolitan area—and this one connects some of its wealthiest suburbs—there’s bound to be controversy. But today, we’ll ignore the substantive debate over the merits of the proposed alternative and focus instead on the technical issue of projecting future ridership on which this case turned.

The court’s decision was based on the fact that the state, and the FTA, have failed to update ridership projections since 2009. The plaintiffs argued that rail ridership on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metro system has declined every year since then, and that the system’s recent safety, budget, and operational woes are threatening to push ridership even lower.

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5 Reasons No One Should Ever Take the Straddling Bus Seriously

A Chinese inventor actually built and tested this concept last week -- but it only emboldened skeptics of the concept. Photo: Youtube via Popular Science

A Chinese firm built and tested a prototype of this on a short track, but that might be the end of the road for the straddling bus. Image via Popular Science

The taller the bus, the harder it falls. Since 2010, a Chinese firm’s “straddling bus” concept has captured the imagination of people around the globe who want to avoid the hassle of carving out street space for transit. But a “test run” last week in the city of Qinhuangdao looks like it was the final blaze of glory for this idea.

Shortly after the test run, Chinese state media attacked the reputation of Song Youzhou, the designer of the “transit-elevated bus,” and labeled the project an elaborate scam to bilk investors. Whether or not you believe those allegations, the straddling bus is full of holes so big, you could drive a car through them (yuck yuck).

Here are five of the biggest.

1. It’s a train, not a bus

Let’s get this out of the way first. The “bus” would run on tracks. It’s a mistake to assume — as many people apparently have — that you could just plop a straddling bus with rubber tires on any old roadway and watch it go. Building tracks would be expensive and present a whole host of design challenges.

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End of an Era? Detroit’s Suburban Power Broker Won’t Block Transit Vote

A rendering of what Gratiot Avenue would look like with bus rapid transit. Image: Michigan RTA via Curbed

A rendering of Gratiot Avenue with bus rapid transit. Image: Michigan RTA via Curbed

There was a time when Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson could appeal to white racial anxiety and do lasting damage to the Detroit region. It almost happened again last week when Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel nearly scuttled a vote on a regional transit tax that would fund a significant expansion bus and rail service.

Over the course of 40 years, 23 attempts to create a unified regional transit system had failed. Why would this time be any different?

Well, it’s looking more and more like the politics of the Detroit region have changed. Reversing course, Patterson and Hackel have reportedly reached an agreement to put the transit expansion measure before voters in November.

The details of their deal with other board members of the Detroit Regional Transit Authority haven’t been made public. But Patterson told the Detroit Free Press he is satisfied that his base of support in the affluent, sprawling northern Oakland County suburbs won’t be “left out.”

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A Better Bus Stop: Big Ideas From Transit Riders for a Better Wait

Streetsblog has been calling attention to the dismal state of transit waiting areas with our Sorriest Bus Stop in America tournament. Transit riders have to put up with conditions that no one should stand for — bus stops with nothing to sit on and no shelter, bus stops by dangerous, high-speed roads with no sidewalks, even “secret” bus stops with no visible marker that they exist.

Every bus stop ought to be a safe, comfortable place to wait for the bus, and riders across the country have ideas about how to go a few steps further than that. Bus riders in 10 cities have proposed some creative ways to improve bus stops in the annual “Trick Out My Trip” crowdfunding initiative from ioby (“in our backyards”). Through the end of this week, all the funds raised for these bus stop improvements will receive a match of up to $10,000 from TransitCenter.

Here’s a look at what bus riders are proposing in three cities. You can check out all 10 bus stop ideas (and give generously) at ioby. The matching period ends Friday.

Memphis: Bus Stops as Bike Repair Stations

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Volunteers in Memphis are raising money to install bike racks and bike repair stations at three bus stops in key locations. These will help address the “last mile” problem by making it easier to bike to the bus.

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Of Course the GOP Transportation Platform Is a Catastrophe

In the past few years, Congressional Republicans tried and failed to turn the federal transportation program into a highways-only affair. Still, the GOP isn’t giving up on eliminating federal funds for transit, walking, and biking.

Donald Trump may have made his name building on the most transit-rich real estate in the nation, but he hasn’t changed the party’s stance on transportation at all. The transportation plank in the newly updated GOP platform [PDF] is as extreme and hostile to cities as ever.

Here are some of the lowlights:

1. Eliminating federal funding for transit, walking, and biking

The Republican Party platform calls for cutting all federal funding for transit, walking, and biking.

The loss of federal funding would cause chaos for transit agencies and transit riders, disrupting and diminishing capacity to operate, maintain, and expand transit systems. The reason this proposal goes nowhere in Congress is that even a sizable share of Republicans realize it would be disastrous to kneecap transit in the nation’s urban centers, where so much economic activity is concentrated.

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