Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

While reading about the Ottawa bus network on the Transit Politic, this quote struck me:
"Unlike most “BRT” lines in North America, ’s are mostly grade-separated, producing actually high-speed buses".
One of the questions I get asked the most is when I talk about transit is "What is BRT? How does it differ from a bus?" For me, the distinction is as follows:

  • Class III - 'Basic': Longer hours, 15 minute service, special branding, substantial stations, CNG/Electric bus, signal pre-emption. 
  • Class II - 'Arterial': Dedicated lanes, off-board fare collection, 3 door boarding.
  • Class I - 'Busway': Limited access, often grade separated, with no traffic lights. 

To my knowledge, the only cities in the world with Class I BRT are Brisbane, Ottawa, and arguably Curitiba.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Open Streets

Taking a festival day and closing the streets to cars had been discussed for Salt Lake City. Looks like Minneapolis has already beaten us to the punch.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gotta build something

I was reading about housing starts today, and this phrase struck me:
Construction started on buildings with five or more units at an annual rate of 171,000 units, the highest level in two years. The rate of starts for single-family homes was the lowest in almost two years.
I find it tremendously cheering.  Five years ago, I remain the general despair at the thought of ever getting builders to shift toward developing multi-family properties. "No one will build multi-family, because developers have no experience at it". But the current oversupply of single family homes has changed that--if you've got a construction company, you've got to build something or go broke. Even if you fire everyone, you've still got cost of capital. So builders are switching.

The techniques for building town homes and condos really aren't that different from those used to build mansions and large house. Extra bedrooms, guest bathrooms, second kitchens, second furnaces and water heaters. Simply a matter of adding a few extra walls.

In the long-term, demand for single family homes will resume. But the skills for building decent multi-family units will have been developed, and that will do a lot to overcome the friction associated with developing TOD.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Transit Benchmarks

Mountain Line Transit in Missoula, Montana has a benchmark that a bus trip should be "no greater than 200% of automobile trip time". While I initially found the idea ridiculous, I came to recognize while the benchmark may be set low, the idea of benchmarks was an excellent idea.

A co-worker once told me that the purpose of accounting is not fairness or equity in distribution, but a technique for detecting what produces value. There are a raft of possible improvements that transit agencies can spend their funding on. Many transit agencies spend far too little on tracking their own performance, and as a result are unable to assess the success or failure of their own efforts. Without rigorous accounting, there is a danger that transit improvements will be limited to what is politically palatable, or the 'flavor of the week'. Worse still, without metrics, when program and policy efforts prove ineffective, transit agencies have little justification for cutting them when faced by an active and vocal campaign by a narrow interest group.

How good is your transit? Has it gotten better? How will you know when it does?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Bad Mapping

This is a terrible map.
It imitates this far more successful map. 
The latter map is based on actual neighborhood boundaries, and does a far better job of representing the actual size of different neighborhoods, and their actual relation to one another. Come to think of it, I've never actually seen a good map of Salt Lake City's neighborhoods. I'll have to take a shot at it sometime.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Consistency Matters

I have friends who would never willingly ride a bus who will eagerly take a ride on TRAX. I cannot blame them. TRAX was the start of my love affair with Salt Lake City transit. The fundamental difference between TRAX and a bus is reliability--TRAX can keep a schedule. When I was commuting to the University of Utah from Sandy, I knew, to the minute, when TRAX left Sandy station and arrived at the University of Utah.

Much as I support buses, I cannot muster any love for them. Because I cannot trust a bus. By its very nature, a bus is an unreliable beast. No bus can keep a schedule, and the sheer uncertainty of that is maddening. Even when I rode a bus daily to work, I still found myself doing the 'bus bob', craning my neck down the street to look and see if the bus was coming yet. When the bus actually came varied by weather conditions, by time of day, and by individual driver. It was actually pleasing when a regular driver was consistently ten minutes late every day.  I knew exactly when I had to be at the stop and I no longer had to stand in the cold for ten minutes every morning, waiting for a bus that the schedule claimed had already arrived. 

The bus schedule was worse than useless. It only shows what time the bus is supposed to come, not when it actually will. It is possible and even likely to arrive ten minutes before the schedule time, and wait 20 minutes to catch a bus. But with 15 minute headways between buses or trains, there is only one chance to catch the right bus, so everyone is forced to be early, just to be sure. Thus, irregular arrival times vastly increasing their door to door travel time, to the enormous detriment of ridership.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Drinking and Transit

Taxi's are far too costly unless you live relatively near where you happen to be drinking. Including tip, a taxi will run about $2 a mile. As a result, when coming home from the bar, there are a lot of people who are certainly over the legal limit. When available, people take transit. It would be a far better thing if there was a 'last train' or 'last bus' at 1 or 2 am. Many times when I would have liked to stay downtown, drinking that were made impossible by the need to catch the last TRAX home.

Salt Lake continues to try and build itself up as Utah's entertainment capital, for dining, restaurants and nightlife. But under budget pressure, UTA continues to cut service, so that the last TRAX train leaves earlier and earlier. The last train once left Gallivan station headed south at 11:24p. Now it is 11:14p, and plans call for cutting it to 11:00p. If Salt Lake wants to be a grown up city, something needs to be done about extending the transit curfew.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Center Change

While my heart is for non-automobile transportation, any alternative to road widening is a good alternative. And that means making more efficient use of existing roadways. The least efficient part of the urban road network are the intersections. 100% of the traffic volume from two streets trying to share the same space by taking turns. And every time the other road gets it turn, and the lights switch, everyone has to start up and get up to speed. Just in time to slow down and stop at the next light, and then stand idling. Extremely inefficient. The obvious solution is to double the space of the roadway. But that's very problematic because of big rigs. Every bridge needs to be tall enough to drive a semi-truck under, strong enough to support (multiple) semi-trucks at once, and gentle enough curves and slope that you can drive a semi-truck on it. As you can imagine, that tends to make overpasses very bulky bits of construction.

Which is why I'm always pleased to see new alternatives to full interchanges. Bangerter Highway is proving a very innovative area. It already has two Continuous Flow Intersections (CFI) and there are plans to try out some other new tricks, such as the 'Center-Change'. According the Deseret News, the idea is in planning for the 3100 and 4100 South intersections at Bangerter Highway. While the construction will suck, it seems like a worthwhile change. The CFI intersections were certainly a major improvement over the previous 'Dual-Left-Turn' intersections.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Decline and Fail of Portland's Planning

Portland has lost its 'crown' as a transportation Mecca not because its done badly, but because it has ceased innovating. When Portland created the first bus couplet, it was the first in the nation. It later lead in the adoption of Light Rail, and then in Streetcar. But the 'Grand Plan' for the next 20 years? A massive streetcar network. Not to slander streetcar, but it is a low speed, high access, short-hop mode of transit. You can build a downtown around it, but not a modern metropolis.

Monday, April 11, 2011

FrontRunner Blues

According to Wikipedia, "Ridership as of the fourth quarter of 2009 is just under the projected 5,830 to 9,037 persons per day traveling on the line that was predicted."

It's not that the ridership is bad--it's just that it could be so much better. The system is really designed to handle crushing loads. FrontRunner uses bi-level Bombardier cars. Each car can seat about 360 people. Assuming each train-set consists of 3 cars, that's about a thousand person capacity per day. Trains run hourly, with some additional peak service, for a rough total of 60 trains per day. Thus, without adding additional cars, FrontRunner could theoretically handle 60,000 riders a day. That's about twice as many as Bangerter Highway currently carries. 

But FrontRunner was built on the basis of projections made as the housing bubble was inflating--it looked reasonable to assume that all of Davis and Weber Counties were going to be converted into housing developments within 10 ten years. When the housing bubble explode, that plan went to bits. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Flux and Flow

Salt Lake City has a 'daytime' population almost three times its resident population. With a resident population of about 200,000 people, that means about 400,000 people enter and leave the city every weekday. While intra-urban circulation is critical for quality of life for Salt Lake City citizens, inter-urban circulation is key for Salt Lake City's business environment. Congestion can literally choke the life out of cities. All economic activity depends on transportation access--nobody can make money if their employees can't make it to work. TRAX is so successful as an Inter-Urban access point. Like I-15, it links Salt Lake City to places all over the Salt Lake Valley (and beyond). When planning for Salt Lake City, this dynamic can't be ignored. The most demanding needs for mobility do not originate within Salt Lake City.

'Smart Lake City' -- Smart Parking Meters.

According to USA-Today, 'Smart' parking meters are coming to town. That town (sadly) is not Salt Lake City, but Charleston North Carolina. To give the article highlights"

Converting from drop-in-a-coin-and-twist-the-dial machines to a new generation of meters.
-Uses smart-card technology
-Pay by cellphone
-Meters linked by wireless networks that can be remotely controlled and alert officers to parking violations
-'Call in' to register for parking.
-$150 apiece
-$7000 to $10,000 for multi-space meters.
-Powered by solar panels.

That last factor is actually a surprisingly big deal.  The installation costs for a parking can exceed the cost of the meter for a normal parking meter. One that requires electrical hookups can be substantially more expensive. While solar panels aren't yet powering whole cities, they are increasingly powering small parts of it.

Too bad the story didn't have more to say about using wireless networks to let drivers know where parking is available. But cities are hurting for money, and parking is a nice source of revenue...

Monday, April 4, 2011

Nobody Drives Alone

One of the policy levers that Salt Lake City controls is Salt Lake School district. It could drive demand for transit by limiting parking access at the three High Schools (East, West, Horizonte), and by making the availability of parking contingent on a promise to carpool. Call it the 'Nobody drives alone' campaign. Students could walk, bike, take the bus or carpool, but no single occupancy vehicles would be allowed parking.

Friday, April 1, 2011

I-Phone/Android App for NextBus

Speaking of ITS for transit--it looks like many transit agencies are now providing data on next bus arrivals via smart phone via something called RouteShout. Hopefully, it's real time data based on GPS coordinates. It even appears to have SMS (text message) integration using numbered bus stop locations! Well done. I'll have to see what can be done to get UTA 'on the bus' so to speak.