Talking Headways Podcast: A Grassroots Bus-Network Redesign

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This week we feature a chat between Carlos Cruz-Casas, assistant director of Miami Dade County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works, and Grace Perdomo, executive director of Miami’s Transit Alliance, about the Better Bus Project, an advocacy-led, community-driven redesign of the Miami-Dade bus network.

For those of you who get your news through your eyes and not your ears, there’s an edited transcript below the audio player. If you want a full, unedited transcript (with some typos!), click here. If you want to listen, here you go:

Carlos Cruz-Casas: You said that you had to get creative, [that] we need to get the attention of the community. I still remember the 24-hour bus-ride marathon, right? When the Transit Alliance rode buses for 24 hours consecutively, and they were actually video taped live, having the conversation. That was great! The message was loud and clear, from the community, but at the same time, you can imagine that we’re not always aligned with the messages, some of the tactics?

Sometimes we want it to take a deep breath and just think more about the outcomes. This is part of the course we need to kind of to go through and understand that we might consider approaching the problem differently. But at the end, if we are aligned on the goal, that’s what we need to focus on. Ultimately that’s what we want it to get on. And that’s why we’re here today. Right? It’s been a long time and you’ve mentioned what we’ve done and you didn’t get into the numbers of that magnitude, it was almost 180 community stakeholder meetings. Right, right. It was a lot of pop-up meetings at the transit stops. It was social media, emails, a survey, something that I felt it was very excellent.

I was going to say, I think it was a text line that was one of the most innovative things. People think about innovative things … through technologies? But texting was such a great way for people to engage. In my mind, the Better Bus Project, now the Better Bus Network, has been by far the largest community engagement in our recent history. To me, it was very clear. It was phenomenal because we started our engagement and everything by listening, right? Listening. I want to bring some numbers in here and some information when back in 2019, and we asked our community, if they believe the system changed, some more people can get to more places more quickly. And 80 percent of the community say yes.

We then asked leaders: Where are your priorities? What we heard is what riders valued more was to get to their destination as quickly as possible and to wait as little as possible for the bus. Then we asked, this is very difficult for Miami, how close should the bus stop be located? The majority answered that they will walk a quarter mile or just about five minutes longer, so the buses would go faster. It was a consistent message from the entire community that we can do better. And it’s not easy in Miami, right? Jeff, I know you can not see me. It’s right now at about 70 degrees here in Miami, and I’m wearing “The Overhead Wire” scarf.

So they can tell you, this is what we do sometimes hotter than 70 degrees. And for people to say, “you know what, I’m willing to walk about five minutes longer so I can have a better service and I am willing to give up something from my side, so overall our entire community can move faster.” It was very telling. That’s when I said, that’s what we need to do. We need to focus on providing better mobility, better outcomes to the community and leave everything aside. What are we trying to achieve? On that note, I wanted to kind of get into some of the things that you saw, right? So, so we ask questions to the community. What were the priorities? You know, what were the elements of a good transit network that the community was telling us?

Because again, we’re not taking this from a book. This is exactly what the community was telling us. We use data, qualitative and quantitative data, to understand their needs, and then to transform that, or to translate that if you will, into an outcome, into a solution. So what were the things that you saw that we on this plan? What is included in this plan, that it is so in tune with what we heard?

Grace Perdomo: Well, a couple of things come to mind. One of them is that when we kept asking people, “what would encourage you to use more transit?,” the conversation is twofold. On the one end, you’re, you’re having this conversation with people that regularly ride the bus, but you’re also in the back of your mind, always thinking, how can we grow ridership? Because once you’re resolved, one, the hope is that it will increase usage and grow that ridership, to support the system. And the resounding comments that came back were that they wanted more frequent service and reliable service. Clearly they wanted access.

You know, that’s when we get into the conversation of “first mile, last mile,” and the critical issues of connectivity to the service. Safety kept coming up over and over again. We heard it not only through the BBN process, but also through the process that the current administration has done through a “Thrive 305” planning effort. And the last one was that they wanted an improved experience. They wanted to be proud of their daily commute. You know, that gets back to the commuting experience, right? They wanted that experience to be more user-friendly, more engaging, more friendly overall — and to address a lot of the problems that they were seeing with the system itself. There were a lot of tough conversations also. I mean, when you’re looking at a bus redesign, you’re looking at models that emphasize ridership versus coverage.

We kept going over that. We shouldn’t be thinking about quantity only, but also about quality, how often the routes arrive and where they take people to, because we found through data that there was a lot of duplication in our current system. So those were trade-off conversations, right? In the end, folks opted for a ridership versus coverage model, 70 percent to 30 percent overall. When you had to have the conversation about cutting certain routes and cutting certain services, people felt the greatest number of people connecting to places with efficient services [was] where they wanted it to end up for the overall system.

So what, what did you find again? I mean, one of the conversations that also came up, what other modes or systems can we connect to? Right. So we’re not only looking at a bus redesign, but that also brings into light that we’re really working to create a very integrated, overall transportation ecosystem for the county. That involves other modes, that people will use to get to the bus stations and the transit stops.

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