Tuesday, September 27, 2011

RTA is Hub-and-Spoke, and That's a Good Thing

I've heard this complaint before, including at least one occasion from a guy at a planning meeting who should have known better. It runs something like this- RTA is a terrible transit system because it's a hub-and-spoke design, and if we could just design a grid system it'd work out a lot better. I got a version of this in an e-mail from a reader (citing this Atlantic article on a recent Tallahassee re-design as a model for RTA), and after writing a lengthy reply, I figured I might as well turn that work into a blog post.

A decentralized grid system is the best of all possible designs for public transit, but it depends very heavily on having very high frequencies- say, 10-15 minutes at the outside, preferably closer to 5 minutes- on every route in the system. If you can't pull that off, it's better to design your system as a hub-and-spoke system, like RTA's, and to engineer timed transfer (or "pulse") points at each hub. (RTA does this, but they don't advertise it well.) That way, even though frequencies as a whole are abysmal, transfer wait times at system hubs are significantly less than they would be if buses just randomly met along their way.

The trouble with moving from a hub-and-spoke system to a more grid-like system in a relatively low-ridership system is that these timed transfer points become almost impossible to engineer. On the Tallahassee map (PDF), line M is a not-quite-downtown north-south route that crosses nearly all of the east-west routes at different points. It would be nearly impossible to schedule the M so that it connects well with the E at the end of its run, the A and C outside of downtown, the F, the T, the D, the L and B, and the G all at different points. When you then consider that each of those routes would need to be scheduled based on a similar number of transfer points, you might get a very fragile and illegible schedule that is operationally very difficult to maintain (eg. one bus is late, breaking the whole system), or (more likely) you get very little concern for the wait time of people transferring, so that the average wait time for the next bus is awful. (Average wait is 1/2 * frequency, which ranges from 20-50 minutes in Tallahassee, and from 20 to 120 minutes on RTA.) In a well-designed "pulse" system, transfer wait times can be reduced to mere minutes at the hubs.

We actually have a local example of a low-frequency grid system: OCTA. Back in the 80's, OCTA went from a hub-and-spoke system to a grid system, with decent frequencies and promises for improvement. However, the grid-supporting frequencies never materialized, and riders are now stuck with interminable transfer waits at unpleasant arterial intersections.

Part of the reason I think I keep seeing this idea reoccur is that grid systems work well for nearly every other sort of network. It goes without saying that cars love grids, but just last month I was also extolling their virtues for cyclists. This is an example of what Jarret Walker talks about in the recently-posted introduction to his book:
     For example, in most debates about proposed rapid transit lines, the speed of the proposed service gets more political attention than how frequently it runs, even though frequency, which determines waiting time, often matters more than vehicle speed in determining the total time a transit trip will require. Your commuter train system will advertise that it can whisk you into the city in thirty-nine minutes, but if the train comes only once every two hours and you’ve just missed one, your travel time will be two hours and thirty-nine minutes, so it may be faster to drive or even walk.

     I can explain the concept of frequency to a motorist, and she may even understand, intellectually, why it’s important. But what she knows is the experience of driving, where speed matters and frequency doesn’t. So when she makes a decision about a transit project, she is likely to give frequency too little weight. The result can be services that are very fast but don’t come when we need them, or that require too much time to connect from one service to another. 
 Similarly, hub-and-spoke designs for transit pretty much only make sense for transit, because transit travel time is linked inextricably to service frequency. When you draw lines on a map, it looks terribly inefficient- but you have to realize that, at least outside of big-city transit networks, lines on a map are a very small part of the reality of transit service on the ground.

Friday, September 23, 2011

BAC Meeting

The next meeting of the Bicycle Advisory Committee will take place on October 19th, 2011. More details as I get them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Omni gets on the U-Pass bus

Omni's new Go Smart! program, similar to RTA's U-Pass program, allows students from most public colleges and universities in the service area to ride free during the school year. Crafton Hills, San Bernardino Valley and Chaffey Community College students, as well as students at Cal State San Bernardino, can ride free on any Omntirans bus simply by swiping their student ID cards. This program is in a trial phase this year, so if you're a student at any of thee above colleges you should ride as much as possible in order to show your support.

Sadly, the program only works during the school year. RTA's program is year-round, allowing those of us who don't go "home" for the summer to continue to enjoy public transit. (My home is the one I've made here, not the house I grew up in, no matter how many students may disagree with me.) Hopefully, if the program is a success, it will be expanded to year-round.

Interestingly, unlike RTA's program- which is funded by the colleges and universities themselves (and, in the case of RCC, by a direct fee levy on the students)- Omni's program is funded by the city governments who lie within the service area. In a time of increasingly scarce educational budgets, could this be an improved model for getting students to class?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Free Trials

I was spurred in to thinking about this by a recent presentation at Greater Riverside Transportation Now! An RTA representative, Virginia Werly, was on hand to talk about a new travel training program put on by the agency under a new grant agreement with RCTC and the FTA. The agency will send out a bus and some staff to senior centres around the service area in order to get people familiar with how to plan trips on the fixed-route transit system, and then will provide them a free 30-day pass in order to encourage them to put these skills in to practise as well as to asses how well they are doing so. The thinking behind the program is that it would reduce the cost of providing Dial-A-Ride service to the local senior population by shifting their travel onto cheaper fixed-route transit. (One of the things I learned at the meeting is just how frakkin' expensive Dial-A-Ride service is, but I'll cover that some other time.)

At the meeting, however, I brought up the idea of expanding this sort of travel training program to the general public, or at least to specific populations such as college and university students. Obviously, the agency cost argument wouldn't be there, as the transportation alternative for pretty much anyone who's not elderly or disabled is the private car, but it would be a tool that could help increase ridership and reduce automobile dependency. According to The Atlantic, some researchers in Sweden had a similar idea. Turns out that drivers expect to dislike transit before they use it, but once they do, they rate the experience much higher than they originally expected- and their ratings increased with time. I've said similar things in the past- people perceive the typical city bus as a dirty, dangerous place full of freaks and weirdos, but the reality of riding the bus is markedly different.

The key here, I think, lies in the free transit passes. Each of the people in the study was interested in changing their transportation behaviour, and was given a way to do so- a 30-day transit pass. Accordingly, their transition to transit was made a bit less costly. Couple that with even a mild form of travel training- perhaps a brochure explaining the use of Google Transit and 511- and most people would probably find discovering transit simple. And, once they've discovered transit, they're probably likely to stick with it- I know of at least four people in my personal life who I've convinced to switch to transit, and they're all still sticking with it. (It didn't take much more convincing beyond "I'm sorry to hear about your commute. Have you considered taking the bus/train? It's easy, and there's a route that serves your needs.") Best of all, it would cost essentially nothing. The great strength of transit lies in the fact that the marginal cost of each new rider is essentially zero. If a rider uses the pass a lot and becomes a transit convert, great! Ridership! If they don't, all you've spent on them is the cost of the pass stock and glossy brochure.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Campus Mobility Stunted

At the end of the Spring quarter of this year, UCR Parking and Transportation Services announced (very, very quietly- I didn't notice) that they were permanently ending ALL campus shuttle service. This makes UCR the only general UC campus without any University-operated shuttle service. Furthermore, their justification for doing so requires some scrutiny.

According to the announcement, the Highlander Hauler shuttle services "did not receive money from the state, the university or student fees." The department made the decision to close down the shuttles due to "the unprecedented impact of the campus budget crisis." But wait... the shuttles were funded entirely by parking fees and fines. Parking fees have gone up, as has enrollment (so I doubt fewer students are parking), and it's unlikely that people have stopped parking illegally in large numbers. The campus budget crisis has been caused by a reduction of state support to the campus- the very pot of money that the department itself acknowledges is not used to fund the shuttle service. This means that the parking fee and fine money that used to fund the shuttle is being re-directed to fund something else entirely.

Of course, I have a theory as to what that might be. At one of the many community meetings I attend, a UCR official noted that the UC does not provide a budget to each campus for parking. Each campus must build and maintain their parking lots out of student fees. The official was lamenting the fact that UCR is running out of land to build surface parking lots on, requiring more expensive parking structures to be built. Even while Parking Services has even more money coming in from raised parking fees, they don't have enough money to pay for the parking structures they think will be required to meet student demand in the future- and so they chose to cancel the shuttle program in order to re-direct that fee money to parking lots.

Obviously, this is counter-productive. Granted, the campus shuttle system did not serve huge distances, with the most popular route running from the dormitories to the University Village. In an ideal world, the trips that this service served would be accomplished by walking, cycling, or the brief use of the RTA 1 or 16. This is not an ideal world, however- this is Riverside. A great number of students already drive from the main campus to the University Village. Some will, of course, switch to one of the modes outlined above- but some will undoubtedly find themselves "needing" to bring a car in order to reach the University Village lectures, causing an even worse impact on campus parking and traffic and- it goes without saying- further environmental degradation.

As a community service, I will be posting up flyers at the old Highlander Hauler stops pointing folks towards their newly-reduced transportation options. I also condemn this action by the University as an example of movement in precisely the wrong direction. Shame on you, TAPS.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Commuters" and the Jefferson Ave. Bike Lane

At last night's Parking, Traffic and Streets Commission meeting, we approved parking restrictions for most of Jefferson Avenue in order to facilitate the installation of bike lanes from Victoria to Arlington. The usual arguments about people's sacrosanct right to park their private cars on the public property immediately in front of their homes were in full bloom, and at least one member of the public argued that the bike lanes would "lower [their] property values." (Never mind evidence to the contrary.)

The disheartening portion of the evening, though, was that the parking restrictions in the bike lanes were only proposed on weekdays from 7am-6pm, and there was no support in the room save myself for extending them further. Why these times? Because, in the words of City Traffic Engineer Steve Libring, it was thought that these times would accommodate school and commuter traffic.

Yup! "Commuters" will make my Jefferson Ave. bike lane vanish.

On the whole, the Jefferson lanes are a great addition to the City's bike network, especially considering they will be the first bike lanes to cross the 91 freeway north of La Sierra. Still, I wish we didn't have to make the lanes less effective in order to provide still more space for private cars.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reminder- No Labour Day Bus Service!

Best of luck getting to those barbecues, folks. There will be no bus service on Labour Day- which is tomorrow, Monday the 5th. Both RTA and Omni are shut down. Riverside Special Transportation (for seniors and the disabled) is also not running. Metrolink is only operating the Antelope Valley Line, on a special holiday schedule. OCTA and Metro will run on holiday schedules, while Foothill will run on a weekend schedule.

If you need to get around Riverside, the bike lanes will be open. You can also pick up a ZipCar at UCR, if you can snag a reservation. Riverside's three cab companies are available at:

AAA Inland Empire Cab1-888-333-TAXI (8294)
Yellow Cab Riverside951-286-6666
Happy Taxi951-781-TAXI (8294)

For inter-city transportation, Greyhound serves San Bernardino, Claremont, Santa Ana, Anaheim and LA. Amtrak also has one train daily to LA, leaving at 5:53am from the Riverside-Downtown station (south platform, over the bridge) and returning at 8:03pm.

Good luck!

"Commuters" are killing us

No, I don't mean the actual people who commute. Rather, I'm talking about how any transportation conversation seems to frame those seeking transportation as "commuters." Work trips are important, certainly, but they are not the most common type of trip taken on our transportation system. Daily work/school commute trips account for only around 20-30% of daily trips, and the most congested hour of the week on surface streets is actually 1pm on Saturday. To think only about the commute trip profoundly damages our transit system, as I've mentioned before, but it also impairs the way we think about other transportation topics.

Take, for example, bicycling. I wrote last week about the Bicycle Advisory Committee's slant towards recreational, rather than transportation, cyclists. Many of the other committee members also proudly state that they are "commuters," but note that wayfinding is (in their minds) less important for commuter cyclists. The committee chair told me that
If you're a commuter, you can plan out your route, look at the maps beforehand, learn the streets, maybe even drive it a few times before you commit to it.*

First, note the auto-centrism. Many cyclists in this city, especially transportation cyclists, ride bikes because they can't drive, can't afford a car, or choose not to use an automobile for other reasons. Second, and more importantly for this post, is the assumption that a cyclist riding for transportation would be riding the same route, between home and work, over and over and over without deviation. This sort of view makes no provision for cycling to other destinations, such as the grocery store, social activities, or government meetings like those of the BAC. Thus there is a fundamental difference between panning infrastructure for bicycle commuters, and planning infrastructure for transportation cyclists- the latter being those who bike, not just to work, but to everywhere. Furthermore, our city will not be bicycle-friendly unless and until her residents can safely make, not only their work trip, but all of their day-to-day trips on a bicycle.

I once again encourage everyone to be very careful in their use of the word "commuter." It implies a very particular sort of travel, with often devastating impacts on alternative transportation.

*I wasn't taking notes when he said this, so this quote may not be verbatim. It captures the spirit of his comments.