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Posts from the "Transit" Category

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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: Escobar’s Escalator

Did you go to the World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia, last week? Neither did your hosts Jeff Wood and I, but we sure found a lot to say about it anyway on this week’s Talking Headways podcast. Medellín’s remarkable urban transformation — undertaken in the midst of war — has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention lately for making the city’s transportation infrastructure more equitable.

But first, we talked to our very own Angie Schmitt about the Parking Madness tournament. Did she know Rochester was a winner from the moment she laid eyes on that stunning parking crater? You’ll have to listen to find out.

And finally we turn to Dallas, where local activists are pressuring officials to tear down a 1.4-mile stretch of I-345 to make room for 245 acres of new development downtown. If it happens, it would be a tremendous win for smart urban development over Eisenhower-era car-centrism.

The other big news this week is that Talking Headways podcast is now available on Stitcher! So if you’re not an iTunes person, you’ve got a way to subscribe. But if you are an iTunes person, by all means! Or you can follow the RSS feed. And as always, the comments section is wide open for all the witty remarks we should have made but didn’t think to.

Oh, and despite the fact that we said, “See you next week” at the end out of habit, Jeff will be traveling so we actually won’t be taping a podcast next week. So take that opportunity to catch up on any episodes you’ve missed, and we’ll see you in two weeks.

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Transit Union and Sierra Club Join Forces for Earth Day and Beyond

Earth Day is a week from tomorrow. How many people will drive to their local environmental festival without even a second thought to how they got there?

The ATU and the Sierra Club are teaming up to promote transit as a solution to fast-rising transportation emissions. Photo: ##http://www.carnewschina.com/page/701/##Car News China##

The ATU and the Sierra Club are teaming up to promote transit as a solution to fast-rising transportation emissions. Photo: Car News China

The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Sierra Club will announce tomorrow that they are joining forces to highlight the connection between transportation and climate change.

Transit is important, “not only to people who ride it but also to everybody who breathes oxygen in the world,” said ATU President Larry Hanley. That’s why the union is strengthening its coordination with the Sierra Club.

“They completely get the importance of mass transit,” he said. “It’s just that we haven’t found ways to formalize our public relationship in the past. That’s what we’re going to do now.”

Transit advocates, including the ATU, have been working to advance the full range of arguments for transit with the Transit Is Greater campaign. The ATU’s new “Transit > Pollution” leaflet [PDF] is all ready to be rolled out at bus stops and train stations around the U.S. and Canada, where the union will be encouraging riders to become more active in the push for better transit. They’ll also be doing climate-themed events with the Sierra Club in May, and beyond that with events they’re calling “Transit Tuesdays.

“We’re working with elected officials and candidates for public office to get out and ride transit with us, to organize riders to contact Congress for a better transit bill,” Hanley said, referring to the pending reauthorization of the MAP-21 transportation bill. They’re also planning a rally May 20 on Capitol Hill, after which members of the ATU and the Transport Workers Union will visit Congressional offices. Sierra Club locals and other community groups from around the country will support that event with phone calls to their representatives.

While initially timed around Earth Day, the partnership launch also coincides with a spike of interest in climate change following the release of a new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that issued a dire warning about the consequences of inaction. “Climate change, to those of us who don’t believe in voodoo but believe in science, is a real serious concern,” Hanley said. “We’re watching polar ice caps melt at the same time that our Congress has turned its back on the things that could slow that down — like mass transit.”

Even many lawmakers concerned about environmental issues don’t pay enough attention to the power of transit to allay climate change, said Hanley. “That’s really the whole point of what we’re doing in May and throughout 2014,” he said. “We’re going to remind the ones who should know and alert the ones who don’t about the value of mass transit.”

According to the IPCC report, emissions from transportation could rise by 71 percent from 2010 levels by 2050, while the scientific consensus holds that the world needs to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by then. The transportation sector is projected to be the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Play the Gray Away

Jeff and I had a great time this week, getting all outraged at the short-sighted move by the Tennessee Senate to ban dedicated lanes for transit, and high and mighty about cities that devote too much space to surface parking at the expense of just about everything else. And then we treat ourselves to a fun conversation about the origin of the American playground — and whether the entire city should be the playground.

We think you’ll enjoy this one.

Meanwhile, have you subscribed to the Talking Headways podcast on iTunes yet? Well, why the hell not? While you’re at it, you know we’d love a little bit of listener feedback. Oh, you can also follow the RSS feed. And we always enjoy your comments, below.

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Transit Benefit Reappears on the Congressional Agenda

The tax benefit for transit riders has zigzagged dizzily from parity with the car parking subsidy to second-class status. Currently, while drivers can pay for up to $250 in parking costs per month with pretax income, transit riders can’t claim more than $130. Could it zigzag back up?

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) included tax parity for transit riders in his extenders package. Photo: ##http://www.wyden.senate.gov/meet-ron/biography##Office of Sen. Ron Wyden##

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) included tax parity for transit riders in his extenders package. Photo: Office of Sen. Ron Wyden

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who took over the gavel of the Finance Committee when Max Baucus left to become ambassador to China, just introduced a package of tax extenders, which the committee will consider in a hearing Thursday. The $50 billion package, which re-instates tax benefits that have expired or are expiring, includes a provision bringing the maximum transit benefit up to $250, equal with the driving benefit, for the next two years. That would be a welcome respite from the zigzagging.

The bill has a long way to go before passage, however. It has no “pay-for,” meaning it adds $50 billion to the deficit — a tough sell in an election year. However, some of the benefits included in the package [PDF] — help with mortgages, education deductions, and assistance to members of the military, for example — may be popular enough to warrant it.

Over in the House, Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp has announced he plans to go through the extenders package policy by policy, so lawmakers can decide whether to make them permanent or kill them off. “I think we can all agree that a short extension of tax policies is no way to legislate and is even worse for the families and businesses who utilize those tax benefits,” he said in a letter to Ways and Means Committee members last week. “Moreover, it further confuses the debate as to what the real revenue baseline is. It is time for clarity in both policy and baseline.”

Camp’s plan to hold hearing after hearing on individual measures will take a long time. Wyden wants to act more quickly than that. But Camp is angling toward comprehensive tax reform, especially now that he’s announced that he’s retiring after this term. Although even his fellow Republicans have deemed his reform proposal — which pays for transportation with revenues from a changed corporate tax code — dead on arrival, Camp would clearly like to leave a legacy of some permanent reform.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Knight Rider Rides Again

It was a dark and stormy day in San Francisco and Jeff Wood stayed dry in Woonerf studios, recording the Talking Headways podcast with co-host Tanya Snyder, who was bitter that days after the spring equinox, Washington, DC, was getting hit with another snowstorm.

But more importantly — what does the future hold after a tumultuous news cycle for New York’s Citi Bike? What can Chicago (and, oh, every other American city) do to create more affordable housing in the neighborhoods everyone wants to live in? And is the self-driving car seriously going to become a reality by the end of this decade? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Jeff and Tanya take on all that and more. Or really, pretty much just that.

Enjoy our sweet 16th episode of the Talking Headways podcast, subscribe on iTunes, follow the RSS feed, and talk at us in the comments.

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How the Self-Driving Car Could Spell the End of Parking Craters

Look, ma, no hands! A legally blind man tested out Google's self-driving car in 2012. Photo: ##http://byteandchew.com/best-of-2012-8-rise-of-the-self-driven-car/##Byte and Chew##

A legally blind man tested out Google’s self-driving car in 2012. Photo: Byte and Chew

Here’s the rosy scenario of a future where cars drive themselves: Instead of owning cars, people will summon autonomous vehicles, hop in, and head to their destination. With fewer cars to be stored, parking lots and garages will give way to development, eventually bringing down the cost of housing in tight markets through increased supply. Pressure to expand roads will ease, as vehicle-to-vehicle technology allows more cars to use the same road space. Traffic violence will become a thing of the past as vehicles communicate instantly with each other and the world around them.

Then there’s the other scenario: People who can afford it will pay an exorbitant amount for gee-whiz driverless technology, but the new systems will have imperfections and won’t integrate seamlessly with older vehicles. Most cars will still be piloted by humans, so the new tech won’t have much effect on traffic hazards and congestion. The driverless car utopia will remain a Magic Highway fantasy.

Driverless vehicle technology has progressed far enough that we need to start anticipating its potential effects. Google’s autonomous vehicle fleet has driven half a million miles without a crash. But the future is extremely uncertain.

At a Congressional briefing this week, the RAND Corporation’s James Anderson, author of a recent report on the prospects for autonomous vehicles, said he is convinced that while there are advantages and disadvantages to driverless cars, “the societal benefits exceed the costs.”

The best possible scenario involves a fleet of shared driverless cars and the elimination of private vehicle ownership. Cars would be in constant use, so the amount of land reserved for parking could be greatly reduced. Even if driverless car technology comes on the market soon, however, that version of the future may never arrive.

Here’s how RAND and others are gaming out some of the potential effects:

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How Transit Pays for the Automobile’s Sins

Tony Dutzik is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Group.

An op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post by three professors of urban planning rained on the parade of transit advocates celebrating a new 57-year high in transit ridership. Ridership, the authors wrote, has actually fallen on a per-capita basis since 2008 (as has driving, by the way), as well as outside of New York City.

Dial-a-ride services for the elderly and disabled are costly, but they provide an essential service to people automobiles leave out. Photo: ##http://www.cityofdelano.org/index.aspx?NID=183##City of Delano##

Dial-a-ride services for the elderly and disabled are costly, but they fill an essential gap left by automobiles. Photo: City of Delano

To underscore their point about transit’s unimportance outside of NYC, they wrote, “[t]ransit receives about 20 percent of U.S. surface transportation funding, but accounts for 2 percent to 3 percent of all U.S. passenger trips and 2 percent to 3 percent of all U.S. passenger miles.”

If you are a transportation nerd like me, you have probably seen this kind of comparison before. It is a long-time favorite of transit denigrators, and for good reason: It makes transit look really bad.

But here’s the thing. Comparing spending on transit with spending on highways per trip or per mile is an inherently misleading exercise. In part, that is because it fails to recognize an important fact: Much of the transit service we provide in the United States is designed specifically to cover for the failures of our lavishly subsidized car-centered transportation system.

Here’s an example. In 2012, U.S. transit agencies spent $3.5 billion to provide “dial-a-ride” demand response service for the disabled — accounting for 9 percent of all spending on transit operations nationwide. Those services carried 106 million passengers, 1 percent of all transit riders.

That same year, Boston’s transit agency, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, moved nearly four times as many passengers as dial-a-ride at less than half the total cost.

What does that comparison tell you about the relative value to society of dial-a-ride versus the “T”? Or about the wisdom of spending an additional dollar on improving transit service for the disabled versus spending it, say, on running an extra train on Boston’s Red Line subway?

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Making Transit Better Isn’t Enough. Driving Needs to Be Worse.

So transit ridership is up. Everybody knows that. It’s at its highest point since 1956. Right?

That's more like it. Photo: ##http://www.showingsuite.com/high-gas-prices-still-sell-more-homes##Showing Suite##

That’s more like it. Photo: Showing Suite

Well, ridership per capita is still less than half its 1956 point. And by 1956, transit ridership was already at a 40-year low. But with transit growing faster than car travel, at a rate that outpaces population growth, there is still cause for optimism.

But even that cautious optimism took a bit of a beating in the Washington Post’s opinion section this morning, as three prominent urban planning professors declared the transit bump fictitious. “In fact, use of mass transportation has remained remarkably steady, and low, since about 1970,” they go on. “There is nothing exceptional about last year’s numbers; they represent a depressing norm.” They even hint that federal funding for transit is too high.

Way too far down in the column, the professors – David King of Columbia University, Michael Manville of Cornell University, and Michael Smart of Rutgers — shift focus from the problem with transit to the problem with driving.

The nut of their argument is as follows: “Resting our hopes on a transit comeback distracts from our real transportation problem, which can be summarized in four words: Driving is too cheap.”

Emily Badger made this point in Atlantic Cities two weeks ago (and Jeff Wood and I made it on the Talking Headways podcast last week). It’s not enough to spruce up sustainable modes if we as a nation are still giving enormous amounts of subsidies and space to the private automobile.

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Moody’s: Future Is Bright for U.S. Transit Sector

Yes, federal funding for transportation is expected to go negative before Congress is even due to pass a new bill. And yes, transit systems had a tough few years, cutting service and raising fares as the recession took a bite out of revenues. But guess what? In a credit outlook report released this week, Moody’s credit rating service says the outlook for the transit sector is positive.

More riders and higher sales taxes make for a sunny financial outlook for transit. Photo: ##http://www.newsday.com/long-island/lirr-commuters-pack-trains-a-week-after-sandy-1.4188094##Newsday##

More riders and higher sales taxes make for a sunny financial outlook for transit. Photo: Newsday

APTA’s release of new transit ridership numbers, showing that the number of transit trips has reached a level not seen since 1956, was the impetus for the report. “Strong ridership is credit positive for US mass transit authorities,” Moody’s notes.

Moody’s credit outlook reports are available only to subscribers.

Still, high ridership doesn’t guarantee strong financial footing for transit. The farebox covers only 36.5 percent of transit operating expenses nationwide. During the recession, rising ridership was actually a stress on the system, since it coincided with plummeting sales tax revenues as consumer confidence fell. But the stars seem to be aligning now.

Sales tax revenues are healthier, growing about 5.5 percent last year. Some agencies are restoring service they were forced to cut. Voters continue to approve transit funding measures by a large majority. There’s a flurry of activity on transit expansion and renovation.

Most U.S. transit systems issue bonds secured by sales tax revenues, though some are backed by net operating revenues. Both of those are in pretty good financial shape right now, said Nick Samuels, vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s. While Moody’s doesn’t issue a rating for the transit sector overall, the average rating of the 42 agencies that issue bonds backed by sales taxes is an AA2 — the third highest possible rating.

Rising ridership has financial benefits outside of just farebox recovery, too. “If more people in the city are utilizing a system, the city at large has more of an incentive to keep the system running,” Nowicki said. “If a city has a heavy reliance on transit that only gets heavier, the political environment would favor it. Any proposed tax increases are more likely to be approved by a tax base that actually uses the system than one that does not.”

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