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Transit Vote 2016: With Historic Decision, Detroit Could Heal Old Divides

The highlight of metro Detroit's $4.6 billion transit plan is four bus rapid transit routes connecting the city to suburban job centers. Map: Michigan RTA. Click to enlarge.

The highlight of metro Detroit’s $4.6 billion transit plan is four bus rapid transit routes connecting the city to suburban job centers. Map: Michigan RTA. Click to enlarge.

The four-county transit ballot measure before voters in Southeast Michigan this November is truly historic.

It took 40 years and 23 failed attempts for Detroit and its suburbs to establish a regional transit agency. They finally won state support to establish the RTA in 2012. At the time, Detroit was on the verge of bankruptcy, and its general-revenue-supported transit system was in dire condition.

Transit service in the region is fragmented and unreliable, even though a quarter of city residents don’t own cars. The severity of the problem was encapsulated by the story of James Robertson, whose commute to a factory job in the suburbs required taking two buses and walking 21 miles.

The Detroit region is the largest U.S. metro area without a unified regional transit system. This photo shows a suburban "Smart" bus. Photo: Michigan RTA

The Detroit region is the largest U.S. metro area without a unified transit system. This photo shows a suburban “Smart” bus. Photo: Michigan RTA

The RTA can’t deliver a better transit system without funding, and that’s where the vote in November comes into play.

The Detroit region has put together a $4.6 billion, four-county plan to improve transit. The centerpiece is a network of bus rapid transit lines extending out from downtown. Funded by a 20-year property tax increase, the measure would cost the average homeowner in the region about $95 a year.

Megan Owens, director of the advocacy group Transit Riders United, says the measure is important for a few reasons. Right now, urban and suburban transit services are poorly integrated. That’s what messed up James Robertson’s commute — the suburb he worked in opted out of the suburban transit system. The lack of coherent transit connections makes the region’s notorious job sprawl an even bigger problem.

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Transit Vote 2016: Seattle’s Huge, Imperfect Transit Expansion

We continue our overview of what’s at stake in the big transit ballot initiatives this November with a look at Seattle. The first installment of this series examined Indianapolis.

The transit expansion plan on the ballot in Seattle this November is a big one.

Seattle's "ST3" plan would add 62 miles of grade-separated light rail. Map: SoundTransit3

Seattle’s “ST3” plan would add 62 miles of grade-separated light rail. Map: SoundTransit3

Known as ST3, the proposal calls for a 62-mile expansion of grade-separated light rail extending across three counties, including about four miles that will run underground in central Seattle. Also included: bus rapid transit routes along two highway corridors, and $20 million to plan transit-oriented development.

The total package comes to $54 billion, which will be paid for by a mix of property taxes, sales taxes, and excise taxes. And it will take more than 20 years to complete.

Sound Transit estimates that under this plan, ridership will nearly double by 2040 to 800,000 daily trips, and that 361 million miles of driving will be averted each year [PDF].

There are some downsides to the plan, which has drawn criticism for devoting too much to park-and-ride transit in car-centric areas. While expanding the transit network could create new walkable communities across the region, different suburbs have shown varying levels of commitment to transit-oriented development.

ST3 calls for spending $661 million on parking at suburban stations, which works out to $80,000 per space. And much of the suburban light rail will run along highway rights-of-way, which is a bad fit for walkable development.

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Transit Vote 2016: Indianapolis’s Chance to Get a Real Transit System


The Indy Connect plan would dramatically expand frequent transit routes (in red). Maps: Indy Connect. Click to enlarge.

The presidency and Congress aren’t the only things at stake when voters go to the polls next month. In several cities, people will also be deciding the future of their transit and transportation systems. With the odds of increasing federal transit funding looking remote in gridlocked Washington, these local ballot measures take on even more importance. Before the election, Streetsblog will be looking at what’s at stake in some of the big transit ballot initiatives, starting with Indianapolis.

Indianapolis is a growing city, but the region’s bare-bones transit system is not keeping up. Bus routes that provide service at least every 15 minutes are almost non-existent. Only about 2 percent of the city’s commuters take transit to work, compared to 8 percent in Cincinnati and 18 percent in Pittsburgh.

Voters will have a chance to change that in November when they decide on a major expansion of the region’s transit system, funded by a .25 percent income tax hike. If it passes, the Indy region will dramatically expand frequent bus routes, extend service hours, and build three bus rapid transit lines.

Kevin Kastner, who writes at Urban Indy, says right now the bus system does not provide service that people want to use.

“Every 30 minutes is the best you can do,” he said. “The bus I rode this morning, I don’t want to say it was falling apart, but it was in about as bad a shape as a bus can be.”

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Sprawl Is a Global Problem


Even in the places with the best transit systems, there’s a steep drop in transit access once you venture outside the central city. Graphic: ITDP

Sprawl isn’t just a problem in car-centric America. Even cities with the world’s best transit systems are surrounded by suburbs with poor transit access, according to a new report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. As billions of people migrate from rural to metropolitan areas in the next few decades, these growth patterns threaten to maroon people without good access to employment while overwhelming the climate with increased greenhouse gas emissions.

For 26 global cities, ITDP looked at the share of residents with access to frequent, high-capacity rail or bus service within 1 kilometer of their homes, or roughly a 10- to 15-minute walk. Then ITDP looked at the same ratio for the region as a whole. The results suggest that coordinating transit and development will be a major challenge in the fight against global warming.

In Paris, for instance, fully 100 percent of residents have access to good transit. But the city of Paris is home to only 2 million people in a region of 12 million. And looking at the region as a whole, only 50 percent of residents live within walking distance of good transit. That still manages to beat most other regions ITDP examined.

In New York, the highest-ranked American city, 77 percent of residents live within reach of high-quality transit, but region-wide only 35 percent of residents do.

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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


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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