Why the Bus Got So Bad, and How to Save It

By John Surico, CITYLAB

TransitCenter’s Steven Higashide has created a how-to guide to help city leaders and public transportation advocates save struggling bus systems.

“…the biggest problem [with public transit] in most cities is that we don’t run enough service. You could use federal transportation funding to buy a bus, or stripe a bus lane, but you can’t use it to hire a bus operator, or dispatchers, or people who are planning bus priority projects. In the book, I write about this really bizarre set of affairs in the [2008] stimulus package, where cities all over the country were using federal stimulus dollars to buy buses. At the same time, they had to lay off all of their bus operators. That’s not really doing anything to further equity for people on the ground.”

If you had flicked through the cavernous layers of New York City transit Twitter last Thursday morning (and practically ever since), all you would have seen were buses.

There they are, speeding down Manhattan’s 14th Street on freshly painted red lanes devoid of private car traffic, which is now banned for most hours of the day. This was the first glimpse of a true bus-centric street in America’s largest city, a feat of traffic engineering that fended off civil lawsuits to become a reality. The busway is now over a week old and has already increased the speeds of one of the city’s pokiest routes. In hindsight, its mission statement—give buses priority, and they will move efficiently—seems so painfully obvious, that it now seems difficult to believe it took this long to pull off.

But in another way, the battle to clear 14th Street for the workhorse of mass transit is par for the course. Public buses supply 4.7 billion rides every year in the U.S.*, and get very little respect in return. Buses, anywhere, are typically ignored in the media, in federal funding debates, and in industry discussions on mobility and sustainability. When they are mentioned, it’s usually with a negative association: grueling delays, declining ridership, and service cuts. Given all the buzz about “shared mobility” as the future of transportation—Ubers, scooters, and one day, perhaps, autonomous cars—the mode that’s already helping millions of people split rides gets left out of the conversation.

What’s the matter with the bus, and how can it claim its rightful place in the urban landscape? In his new book, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit (Island Press), Steven Higashide lays out the answer. “Most of what we hear about the bus in the United States is demoralizing,” he writes. But it doesn’t have to be, says the author, who’s the director of research at TransitCenter, the New York-based transit think tank and advocacy organization.

CityLab caught up with Higashide to talk about how federal transportation policy let buses fall behind, what makes a world-class bus system, and what advocates, elected officials, and riders need to do to have their ideas heard and implemented. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Read more at https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/10/better-bus-system-public-transit-book-cities-federal-funding/599776/

E-bikes are wildly popular in the Bay Area. Can they really replace cars?

By Rachel Swan, San Francisco Chronicle

When Liza Lutzker threw her daughters a back-to-school party at the Berkeley Rose Garden, she and her husband packed all the provisions on their electric cargo bikes: two boxes of firewood, food for 30 people, a water dispenser, plates, napkins, glasses and two kids.

Then they rode 2 miles from their home on Milvia Street to the terraced amphitheater on Euclid Avenue, high in the leafy-green hills. Six years ago, Lutzker would have hauled everything in a car. Now she travels almost exclusively by foot and bike.

Her family illustrates a culture shift in the Bay Area, where e-bikes, once conceived as a luxury item, are becoming a widely accepted form of transport. Enthusiasts view them as an option for commuters or for weekend warriors who want speed and distance with less work. In the case of cargo e-bikes, they’re a solution for the types of trips that suburban parents once made in minivans: grocery shopping, school drop-off, shuttling kids to soccer games — even getting to BART, which has begun filling its parking lots with housing.

The trend is picking up globally, though it’s become particularly noticeable in Marin County, Berkeley and San Francisco. That pleases e-bike riders and merchants, even as it highlights the deficiencies of local roads, where collisions are frequent and some bicycle lanes are marked only with a picture of a bicycle.
Continue reading “E-bikes are wildly popular in the Bay Area. Can they really replace cars?”

Jeffrey Tumlin Named SFMTA’s New Director of Transportation

KQED Radio, hosted by Scott Shafer

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has a new director of transportation, Jeffrey Tumlin. Tapped by Mayor London Breed earlier this month, Tumlin will be the agency’s fifth director when he begins the job on Dec. 16. The SFMTA currently has a $1.2 billion annual budget, employs more than 6,000 people and serves about 714,000 passengers each day. We’ll talk to Tumlin about his plans for the agency, including his pledges to fill bus driver shortages and fix the subway, and we want to hear from you: what are your biggest issues with the SFMTA and what are your hopes for this new chapter of leadership?

Link to 51 minute interview

Six Secrets From the Planner of Sevilla’s Lightning Bike Network

Michael Anderson, Streetsblog USA

Here’s one way to understand the story of biking in Sevilla, Spain: It went from having about as much biking as Oklahoma City to having about as much biking as Portland, Oregon.

It did this over the course of four years.

Speaking last week at the PlacesForBikes conference, one of the masterminds of that transition — which is only now becoming widely known in the United States — filled in some of the gaps in that story.

Manuel Calvo had spent years in Sevilla bicycling activism and was working as a sustainability consultant when he landed the contract to plan a protected bike lane network for his city. The result was the Plan de la Bicicleta de Sevilla, mapping the fully connected protected bike lane network that would make Sevilla’s success possible.

But as Calvo explained in his keynote Wednesday and an interview afterward, the story might not have played out that way.

Here are some things for U.S. bike believers to learn from Calvo’s account.

Read the rest at https://usa.streetsblog.org/2018/05/07/six-secrets-from-the-planner-of-sevillas-lightning-bike-network/#new_tab

Putting the ‘Square’ in Railroad Square

by Lois Fisher (Close to Home in the Press Democrat)

What if we had a proper square in Railroad Square? A place that people disembarking from the SMART train and looking toward downtown could see as a leafy, bustling urban oasis that told them, you have arrived. Stop and stay awhile. It would feature shade trees, benches, a playground, places for art displays and maybe a fountain. It would be a ready-made site for public events, farmers markets and concerts. Surrounding the square would be shops and restaurants with lots of outdoor dining on the new wider sidewalks on two sides of the square.

A square in fact has been proposed for Railroad Square. It would create a “public realm” that would offer shade and a community feel to an area that will see an increasing number of people living in new buildings in proximity to the SMART train.

Parking in the area between the back of the historic Santa Rosa Depot and the linear strip of grass along Wilson Street could be relocated to the edges of a new square while retaining the same number of parking spaces. Parking is key to the economic success of downtown retail, and it needs to be preserved.

At this point, two options are proposed for the design of the square. One is a green square like Sonoma’s, with the green space separated by a curb from the parking that surrounds it. The other option would be more like an Italian piazza. This area would be bestowed with beautiful stone structures like the Hotel La Rose and Aroma Roasters buildings that were built by Italian craftsmen. What if a stone piazza were to stretch from stone building to stone building without curbs? Shade trees would be planted in tree wells to make it a cool oasis.

This square could be seen as a smaller younger sister to Courthouse Square, with the history of the railroad — steam trains, electric trains and the Fourth Street trolley — included somehow in the final design. Whichever design is selected, the key historic characteristics of Railroad Square would need to be preserved so that Railroad Square keeps its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Historic Railroad Square Association supports the idea of a public square in this area as long as common sense crime prevention through environmental design principles are incorporated into the design to discourage vagrancy.

These include being sure that surrounding business owners have a clear view of the square from their shops, that the square design is simple with no grade changes and that no areas are hidden.

The addition of a police substation and cameras to this area, along with incorporating a program similar to the Downtown Action Organization’s “Blue Shirt” patrol would help with security.

Finally, regular power washing of the sidewalks would increase the enjoyment of all who visit. Railroad Square property owners just voted to tax themselves to help with the maintenance, security and promotion of this historic part of town. This new entity is called the Railroad Square Community Benefit District, and it would implement these security policies if the plaza is included in the city’s downtown plan.

There is a City Council meeting this coming Tuesday, from 1 p.m.- 3 p.m. at Santa Rosa City Hall, to discuss the Downtown Station Area Plan update.

Happily, the idea of a square in Railroad Square is included in this preferred plan, and many City Council members support the idea. If you support this idea (or even if you don’t), please come to this meeting and let the consultants and public officials know your thoughts. We welcome a dialog on this idea to create a beautiful new addition to the public realm in downtown Santa Rosa.

Lois Fisher is an urban designer with Fisher Town Design. She lives in Windsor and teaches urban design as an adjunct faculty member at Sonoma State University.

Santa Rosa artist Judy Kennedy is the co-creator of this idea. This piece was written with support and input by Dick Carlile, Civil Engineer and Curt Nichols, Landscape Architect, both members of the Railroad Square Association.

Free Transportation Or Better Transportation?

Excerpts from an article by Steve Hanley, Clean Technica

Free public transportation may not be the panacea for urban congestion many advocates think it is …. an experiment with free transportation in Austin, Texas between October of 1989 and December of 1990 …. found significant issues, not the least of which was that buses became rolling homeless shelters. The report summary concluded,

In the fare-free demonstrations in larger systems reviewed in this paper, most of the new riders generated were not the choice riders they were seeking to lure out of automobiles in order to decrease traffic congestion and air pollution.

The larger transit systems that offered free fares suffered dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness due to younger passengers who could ride the system for free, causing numerous negative consequences. Vehicle maintenance and security costs escalated due to the need for repairs associated with abuse from passengers. The greater presence of vagrants on board buses also discouraged choice riders and caused increased complaints from long-time passengers.

In other words, the promised reward — fewer cars on the road — did not materialize and the costs of operating the public transit system increased significantly. The TransitCenter has examined several cities that have implemented free public transit programs and found mixed results. In Dunkirk, France, the plan has seen ridership increase 85%, but in Tallinn, Estonia, a similar program saw only a 3% rise in ridership. In general, TransitCenter suggests, people are perfectly happy to pay for public transportation if it is efficient, clean, and timely. It says on its website,

“When researching our forthcoming report, Who’s on Board 2019, we surveyed 1700 transit riders in seven different cities across the US. What we heard is that most low-income bus riders rate lowering fares as less important than improving the quality of the service. This suggests that if a transit agency had to choose between devoting funds to reducing fares or to maintaining or improving service, most riders would prefer the latter. The idea of making transit “free” turns out to be less appealing to the public than making improvements to transit.”

What are superior and sustainable ways to move the needle on ridership? Making transit fast, frequent, and reliable. In just a few short years, Seattle has nearly tripled the number of people able to walk to frequent transit, and ridership continues to climb. Ridership has also been gaining in San Francisco, where SFMTA has an ongoing program to speed up buses. Cities like Austin, Richmond, and Columbus are redesigning their bus networks to better connect people to jobs, and seeing ridership growth as a result.

TransitCenter says the cost of parking or accessing cities by car can make a big difference in the number of people riding public transit. In London, congestion charges have led to an 18% increase in people taking the subway. In Los Angeles, Phil Washington, CEO of LA Metro recently created a stir when he proposed a similar congestion charge could raise $12 billion a year — money that could be used to fund free public transportation with plenty left over. Under his plan, buses on major routes would come every 90 seconds. The plan is a long way from being adopted but it has created lots of healthy debate, which is a good thing. TransitCenter concludes its latest analysis of the value of free transportation this way:

Free transit makes for a terrific news hook. But the only way to see the full benefits of transit – like improved air quality, less congestion, and more vibrant cities is for people to actually start riding transit in substantial numbers. To this end, agencies should immediately make transit more accessible by offering discounts to riders who need them the most. More employers should be compelled, whether through penalty or incentive, to subsidize transit passes.

But what advocates and policymakers should actually be focusing on is a multi-pronged approach to make driving less attractive, and undoing policies that make driving feel free. Cities and transit agencies should work together to raise parking rates and replace swaths of curbside parking with transit priority streets.

And while congestion pricing isn’t feasible for most US cities, large metro areas with robust transit networks should start laying the groundwork. Funneling money from these pursuits directly into improving transit will yield precisely the type of benefits sought by proponents of free transit.

The Takeaway

The takeaway is this. The paradigm that says anyone should be free to drive into any city at any time — a notion that became firmly rooted in the American psyche after the explosion of suburbia after World War II — needs to be a blown up and replaced with a new one that emphasizes public transport options that meet the needs of most members of society at affordable prices. The age of the car is ending. It’s time to move on to what’s next.

And let’s not forget that any new public transit options need to utilize zero emissions vehicles, whether they are buses, ride sharing vans, or other vehicles. There is no point in making it easier to get around if doing so results in a dying planet.

Source: https://cleantechnica.com/2019/12/08/kansas-city-is-first-major-city-in-america-to-offer-free-public-transportation-is-that-a-good-thing/

Deadliest Year for Pedestrians and Cyclists in U.S. Since 1990

by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs (The New York Times)

On average, 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed each day in traffic crashes in 2018. Distracted drivers and bigger vehicles may be the culprits, experts say.

More pedestrians and cyclists were killed last year in the United States than in any year since 1990, according to a report released on Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Most of the news about traffic safety has been good in recent decades, as vehicle manufacturers have added safety features, drunken driving deaths have fallen and seatbelt use has climbed to nearly 90 percent. But in recent years, pedestrian and cyclist deaths have been a disturbing outlier.

The number of pedestrians killed grew by 3.4 percent last year, to 6,283, and the number of cyclists killed rose by 6.3 percent, to 857, even as total traffic deaths decreased. On average, about 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed each day in crashes. Together they accounted for one-fifth of traffic deaths.

Kate Kraft, the executive director of America Walks, a group that advocates for walking safety, said she was infuriated by the report’s findings. She expressed hope that the new data would encourage politicians to make their cities safer for walkers by lowering speed limits, improving traffic signal efforts and creating more pedestrian-only public spaces.

“The fact that we have proven interventions, but we are not likely to implement them, is the tragedy,” Ms. Kraft said. “These are senseless deaths.”

Read more for some of the report’s key findings and their implications.

Scooters Offer Chance to Rethink Urban Rights of Way

by William Fulton, California Planning & Development Report

From Central Park West to San Diego’s hip North Park neighborhood, cities are removing parking spaces, replacing them with bike lanes, and getting pushback from residents and business owners.

In urban neighborhoods across the country, well-capitalized electric scooter companies are invading, sometimes met with support from policymakers who see them as a useful transportation mode and sometimes met with resistance from residents and politicians who view them as a safety hazard and little more than metal street litter.

What’s really going on here? Depending on how you look view transportation, bikes and scooters are the key to future, clean urban mobility or a sideshow that distracts from maintaining mobility across large metropolis. But I think the basic problem – the reason we’re having a hyper-emotional discussion about these transportation modes on both sides – is that we’re not framing the issue right.

The problem isn’t that bikes and scooters are necessary or that they’re a menace. The problem is that, in urban locations across America, we need an intermediate mode of travel between cars and walking – an easy to way to travel between a half-mile and two miles. In the transit business, this is called the “first and last mile” problem. Cars are a hassle and walking is too far, so these intermediate modes need a right of way, whether they are bikes, scooters, Segways or vehicles that haven’t been invented yet.

On urban streets, we know how to accommodate cars that go between 25 and 45 miles an hour, which often also wind up parking on the street. We also know how to accommodate pedestrians (though we don’t always do this well), who tend to travel at about three miles an hour. What happens when somebody shows up in a small vehicle that travels 10 to 15 miles an hour? They either travel in the street, where they’re too small and too slow to navigate amidst car traffic comfortably; or they travel on the sidewalk, where they are too big and too fast to travel amidst pedestrian traffic comfortably. And where do they park?

What’s happening is that cities are taking space away from cars – parking spaces – in order to give it to these intermediate vehicles a thoroughfare. (The most persistently amusing example of the problem this creates is police cars parking in bike lanes).

Read more at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/20190829

SCTLC and Climate Change

by Jack Swearingen

Transportation and Land Use in Sonoma County, California: what’s the connection to climate change? Practically everything. These three issues are joined at the hip—along with a few others such as housing, air and water pollution, runoff, open spaces, endangered species, energy use, and even social issues like road rage.

But individual contributions to these problems are insignificant, and individuals can’t affect the global picture—Right?

Wrong. Environmental impacts on a global scale are the summation of contributions from seven billion people living their individual lives. SCTLC operates on the principle that individuals can make a difference. We can drive less, use public transit, carpooling, and ride sharing, consume less, and teach our neighbors how to do so. We can influence public policy makers by writing letters, making phone calls, and giving public testimony at City Councils, the Board of Supervisors, and any number of topical meetings.

Individuals can multiply their influence by working with advocacy groups such as SCTLC, Sierra Club, Green Belt Alliance, North Bay Organizing Project, Transportation for America, TransForm,etc.

Members of industrialized societies like North America, Europe, China, Japan, Korea, and India consume the great majority of energy and materials, and contribute the great majority of waste into the biosphere (air, water, and land).

In Sonoma County we don’t generate electricity from fossil fuels and we have very little heavy industry. But we heat our homes and businesses with natural gas, light them and cool them with electricity, and discard tons of plastic—some of it on roadsides. Nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gases in SoCo come from vehicle tailpipes.

How is transportation connected to land use? Because they are 2-dimensional, roads provide access to all land that is paveable. And our system of development allows subdivisions to be built far from urban centers and services, requiring new roads must be built and more vehicle miles to be driven. Unfortunately it falls to the County to maintain the roadways — and in Sonoma County we have built far, far more road miles than we have the funds to maintain.

And while we are on the topic, pavement changes the albedo of the land, absorbing more infrared light from the sun and increasing surface temperature. And because pavement is impervious, oil drips collect on the surface and run off into the shoulders with the rains. This is not a trivial problem; it is big enough to pollute the soil. To prove this point to him/her self, reader might wish to do their own calculation. Estimate the number of vehicle miles traveled, the number of drips per vehicle-mile, the size of each drip, and see what you come up with. My guess is that you will be startled.

Conversely, trains are 1-dimensional; they promote transit-oriented development near stations. And the ballast on the right-of-way is permeable; rainwater percolates instead of running off. As a contingent benefit, rail transit stimulates economic development more than buses because it is permanent. Investors can anticipate a long-term future near transit stops.

And then we come to energy. Fossil-fueled vehicles with solo drivers of are the most energy consumptive form of transportation out there. Yet this represents the lion’s share of transportation in our county, in the State, and in the U.S. Electric vehicles (EVs) can reduce the use of fossil fuels, but they won’t reduce congestion, sprawl, or land use. Thus far the impact of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft has been to increase congestion in urban areas.

Buses consume less fuel per passenger-mile than autos when they are full; but until the public shifts from autos to buses in significant numbers, no real gain is manifest. And buses are subject to the very traffic congestion that they are intended to reduce.

Steel wheel on steel rail is the most efficient form of transportation that we have. But getting from home to station to work and return is the obstacle. If people would leave their autos at home and ride the bus to the train, the net result would be more buses, more trains, fewer autos, less congestion, reduced emissions, and—shall I say it?—less road rage.

Transportation, energy consumption, land use, pollution, smog, climate change (read anthropogenic global warming): these issues are joined at the hip. Amazingly, the solution to one is a solution to all. It begins with our willingness to be inconvenienced slightly for the sake of the planet and the creatures that live upon it.

The importance of reducing VMT by 1% per year

by Steve Birdlebough

Many cities and counties are adopting emergency declarations regarding the Climate Disruption crisis. Some places have shown progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their water and power sectors, however it seems much more difficult to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector.

Reports and studies by the Air Resources Board tell us that during the next 15 years it will be necessary to reduce average vehicle miles traveled by more than 1% per year for each California resident. Merely shifting people into electric vehicles will NOT achieve the needed reductions in GHG emissions. In part, this is because many vehicles now on the road will be emitting greenhouse gases for years to come.

A 1% per year reduction in driving may seem small, but steady reductions in our collective driving habit (vehicle miles traveled [VMT] per capita) will become significant.

The SCTLC can play an important role by educating local policy makers about equitable strategies to reduce driving while maintaining a healthy economy. Depending on the geography, work force, and economic drivers, policies to be considered are:
– Support climate-friendly sharing of autos, electric bicycles, scooters, etc.
-Make more employers aware of the benefits, and ways to manage telecommuting.
– Convenient, attractive & safe trails for bicycles, horses, and pedestrians
– Make low cost transit passes and free shuttles widely available
– Improve the quantity and convenience of bus, train and shuttle services
– Cease subsidizing automobile parking (progressively unbundle parking costs)
– Build most new residences near shopping, work places, and public transit
– Avoid construction or expansion of roadways that invite more congestion

In November, 2018 we saw the power that groups and chapters exercised in defeating Proposition 3 (the pay-to-play water bond). The Transportation & Sustainable Communities Committee is urging every chapter and group to engage policy makers in efforts to significantly reduce per capita VMT and GHG emissions related to
transportation.

City councils and boards of supervisors should begin to receive VMT per capita progress reports annually. Within a few years, candidate interviews can present an opportunity for discussion of these issues.