Friday, January 25, 2013

Phoenix 2013 - Barely a BRT

Last weak, I visited Phoenix, Arizona. While there, I took the time to ride both the Metro light rail (which is excellent) and the LINK bus rapid transit (which is not).

Link was a) late, and b) not keeping to its headway. According to the schedule, it was on a 15 minute headway, but I waited over 20 minutes. The reason for which quickly became apparent--the entire boulevard was torn up on one side, with one lane in each direction.

The buses are branded, but they use a combination of articulated and non-articulated buses. The presence of 'normal' buses was upsetting--if you can't fill the bus to capacity, how good can your bus be?

For a state with so many old people and veterans, valley metro is inefficient at loading wheel chairs. The sliding-board on the Eugene BRT really impressed me. In Eugene, wheel chair riders roll themselves on, and then back into a little slot directly across from the back door, where they boarded. The wheelchair ramp is activated by the driver, from where he sits. On the Link, it was much more like a regular bus. The driver got up, walked back, opened the door, made everyone standing move, lowered the ramp like a draw-bridge, let the guy roll aboard, made more people move, flipped up some seats, seat-belted the wheel-chair in. Then he turned to the old lady in a wheelchair on the platform, shrugged, and said 'There'll be another bus along in a moment'. It was like watching a transit horror story, enacted before my very eyes.

Station spacing was a little enraging. Multiple times, the stops are still near-side of an intersection. Which is two-fold terrible. First, it means a bus will almost certainly miss the light--approaching a green light, the bus will still have to stop, and almost certainly will wind up sitting through the red light. Far-side stops means the bus continues through on the green. Second, near-side stops conflict with with the right-turn pocket, so that the bus has to slow down, pull out of traffic (and into the gutter), conflicting with car traffic. Waiting passengers are also exposed to the constant screech of right-turning cars. I began to wonder how 'seriously' Phoenix had taken the whole concept of BRT

On-board fare collection for the Phoenix LINK. I had a transfer ticket from the light rail, so I didn't notice it at first. Many people had contact-less fares, but there was still a certain amount of fiddling with the machine, cramming creased dollar bills into the slots, as the whole bus sat and waited.

The lack of offboard fares made me wonder about how 'substantial' the stations actually were. I was not impressed. The area tends to substantial bus stations in any case, due to the absolute necessity for shade. The BRT stations were larger, with more metal and more seats....and that was it. No 'Nextbus' indicator, no offboard fare collection, no informational materials, nada. They do tend to have the raised curb that permits for level boarding, (which seems to be universal for BRT).

No bikes on the bus. Again, the innovations of Eugene are telling. Link had spots for TWO bikes (no more) attached to the front of the bus, like a normal bus. Eugene permitted bikes on the bus, in a spot between the 'flex' spot and the  wheel-well.

The Phoenix Link was brutally slow.  Start to end was a solid hour. Even including the delay from construction, that's a very long line. (And the longer the line, the greater the danger of delays and the more the difficulty of keeping to a schedule.) But, as one local put it: "Beats taking the local bus". There is a local bus running the same route, stopping more frequently. I can't even imagine how long it must take. Hours.

At one station, there was actually a driver switch. Another driver was waiting at the stop (which was next to a convenience store (bathrooms+food), and took over driving the bus. 

Superstition Springs Transit Center was actually pretty innovative. Good urbanism, fitting a new use into an old context. It's a park and ride lot situated on the edge of an older mall, where the most distant, marginal parking would normally sit. The access is provided by a ramp from the freeway on-ramp, so it's very direct--no detours through the mall parking lot. Two kinds of bus parking--one for buses you can board, and one (less accessible) for buses that are idling. And for the drivers, the Mall is both food-court and bathroom. Not to mention a major retail center. The only problem is that there is absolutely nothing BUT the Mall--a very 'mall or death' context.

METRO light rail
First, I was struck by how long the dwell time at the stations is for Metro. TRAX arrives, the doors open, people get off, people get on, and whoosh, it's gone. Metro seemed to sit a bit, which I found a bit strange. It's got low floors, which should speed boarding for both regular and wheel-chair riders. Perhaps it has a 'dwell' point in the mid of the system intended to provide a buffer if it's running late?

Secondly, it didn't reach downtown Mesa, somewhat to my confusion. Downtown Mesa had been the planned terminus for years. Instead, it stops about a half mile away, near a transit center. It's not an unreasonable terminus, but if the intent was to provide increased accessibility, so as to induce redevelopment, it failed. Several museums, restaurants, and government buildings are all in downtown Mesa, as well as a lot of aging 'mainstreet' style buildings.

As I walked the LINK route, I saw a sign stating "Future route of Metro light rail"! I have never seen so clear an example of BRT being used as a 'pioneer' for light rail. It also went a long way to explaining some of the crap-tastic elements of the LINK BRT route--they were never intended to last, and were only temporary placeholders for the light rail.