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The last two years have been rough for Muni riders. With a shortage of bus operators, it’s all too common for scheduled buses to never show up. New light rail vehicles have been plagued by malfunctions, including train doors clamping down on unsuspecting riders and in at least one case dragging a woman onto the tracks. The 2019 biennial “City Survey” revealed a huge loss in public confidence in the SFMTA, the city agency that houses Muni, since 2017.
Shortly after a damaged wire wholly disabled all light rail service to downtown during the morning rush on April 26, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin announced his resignation. Mayor London Breed promised to win back the public’s trust in the system and bring in a “real transportation expert.”
Looked at as a whole, Reiskin’s eight years as SFMTA chief are more accomplished than recent events suggest. During his tenure, San Francisco became the first American city to launch all-door bus boarding systemwide, and the agency rolled out street improvements to prioritize transit, bicycling, and walking (often at a glacial pace, however). Compared to other large American cities, transit ridership has held up well in San Francisco.
But Muni service remains too sluggish and unreliable. Reiskin’s departure could lead to a reset at the SFMTA, and a faster flow for the type of transit improvements that trickled out under his leadership — if Breed empowers his successor to do so.
Rachel Hyden, executive director of the grassroots organization San Francisco Transit Riders, says that delivering the basics of reliable service and good communication will be essential to winning back riders’ trust.
Riders have lost faith in Muni because it has failed to deliver scheduled service. “As much as people love to hate Muni or hate to love Muni, it’s their only way to get around, and time and time again they’re being let down,” said Hyden. Breed and the next SFMTA chief have to attract new bus operators to work shifts that are currently going unfilled.
Riders also need more assurance from the SFMTA that the agency is on a path to more reliable service and fewer breakdowns. “There is certainly a lack of transparency on how they are going to fix things,” Hyden said. “How many times is a switch going to break at West Portal? What are you doing to fix that? That’s not being communicated at all to anybody.”
Hyden credits Reiskin for championing and rolling out transit-priority “red lanes.” Unique among American cities, the SFMTA both operates transit service and controls the streets. On Mission Street, the red carpet for buses has significantly improved speeds for some of the city’s busiest transit routes.
Citywide, however, bus lanes remain sparsely applied. Reiskin’s successor should be bolder in implementing bus prioritization projects, said Hyden.
“Oftentimes we see planning projects that are very block by block. These projects then get watered down and compromised. Instead, what is needed is a holistic approach that demonstrates how a certain improvement connects to a larger strategy of how people will move in the city.”
SFTR plans to communicate the organization’s criteria for the new SFMTA chief to the agency’s board (which will lead the search for Reiskin’s replacement).
Whoever leads the SFMTA next, Mayor Breed will have to give the new director a strong mandate to make change. Hyden believes Breed has provided solid oversight of the SFMTA in the past year. Going forward, the mayor can help make good on the city’s longstanding “transit first” policy by publicly standing up for bus priority projects when the SFMTA faces opposition to measures that, say, repurpose on-street parking spots.
“Mayor Breed giving the SFMTA that cover and charge to build out the system would be ideal,” said Hyden.
Uber’s new Movement platform doesn’t tell cities how Uber itself is affecting the transportation system
Over the last several months, Uber has rolled out its Uber Movement platform, which allows users to see travel times for its fleets in 11 American cities. The company is eager to portray this peek into its trip data as a refreshing shift toward transparency. But Uber Movement is no substitute for the full data cities have been asking for.
Uber Movement is a publicly available tool that provides average travel time data between two zones in a city or region at a given time and date. A feature that went live this week also provides vehicle speed data by street segment in select cities. Uber asserts that the data can be used by planners, advocates, and researchers to better approximate travel times across US cities and guide decision-making.
This is helpful as far as it goes. Looking at travel speeds can help advocates pinpoint where bus lanes, queue jumps, and other transit priority treatments are needed.
But Uber Movement doesn’t tell cities how Uber itself is affecting the transportation system. Research has shown that Uber and Lyft add significant traffic volume in large, dense cities, exacerbating congestion that slows down transit service. To better manage the challenges posed by Uber and Lyft, cities should demand more robust trip data from them.
In New York City, for example, the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) requires transportation network companies like Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Via to report detailed information on all pick-ups and drop-offs. The companies provide the date, time, and location of pick-ups and drop-offs to the intersection (to assuage privacy concerns, the precise address is not included), as well as information on the fare collected and the amount the driver was paid for the trip.
The information available to the TLC goes well beyond what is offered in Uber Movement.
Origin and destination data can also highlight where cities need to expand bus service, especially during the evenings and weekends, and where investments in bus stops and safer pedestrian access are needed.
More cities should require full trip data from Uber and Lyft. TransitCenter urges cities to work together to put forward a consistent and collective demand for trip data from Uber and Lyft (see more in our report, Private Mobility, Public Interest). While many states — not cities — have regulatory authority over Uber and Lyft, cities can negotiate from a position of strength by banding together.
If cities collaborate, they can get the data they need from Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies to enable better regulation and public investment decisions.
New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, left, and new MTA Chair Pat Foye are the two people most directly responsible for running the MTA. Photo credit: Long Island Press
Effective advocacy is an exercise in persuading the right people to make the right decisions. For transit campaigns, winning better service hinges on both identifying the officials accountable for agency performance (which isn’t always obvious given the complexity of transit governance) and gaining access to information that can point the way toward specific policy reforms (which can be difficult if the agency isn’t transparent about performance data and project management).
To navigate this terrain, it’s useful to plot out the transit agency’s executive structure, oversight mechanisms, and transparency practices.
With its Open MTA report, the good government organization Reinvent Albany has produced such a guide for the nation’s largest transit agency.
Broadly speaking, the Reinvent Albany report seeks to answer the following questions:
Who possesses executive authority at the transit agency, and how is it exercised?
What are the relevant external sources of government oversight, and how are they applied to the agency?
What are the agency’s own mechanisms to disclose information to the public, and how can they be improved?
The Open MTA report deeply examines a single (very large) agency. But the exercise of mapping executive authority, outside oversight, and transparency systems can and should be replicated by transit advocates in other cities.
If you’re campaigning for more reliable service or smarter capital investment, you need to know where to apply political pressure to trigger action. To set goals for a campaign and to make specific asks, you need access to information from the agency — like accurate measures of service quality or the terms of contracts with vendors.
Transit agency boards are vested with varying degrees of policy-making power, and advocates should strategize accordingly. Even at agencies with empowered boards, the final word on transit policy typically belongs to elected officials at the city, county, or state level who must be held accountable to steer transit in a better direction. In New York, Reinvent Albany makes clear that the governor wields control over the MTA and is ultimately the official most accountable for performance — much moreso than the members of the MTA Board, a plurality of whom are appointed by the governor.
The report also highlights how external oversight of the MTA has atrophied, especially in the state legislature. Unlike most other MTA oversight bodies, members of the legislature are not appointed by the governor. But even with this independence, the Assembly and State Senate have all but forgotten how to flex the oversight muscle. The Assembly has held zero MTA hearings since 2014, and the State Senate held none from 2015 through 2018. It is perhaps not coincidental that subway service reached a nadir during this lapse in attention.
With a new cohort of state senators in office, including several representing New York City districts full of transit riders, there was a glimmer of activity earlier this session. While congestion pricing was under consideration, the Senate held a hearing on subway and bus service, and it has held separate hearings on Metro-North and LIRR. It’s too early to call this a new habit, but with some cultivation it could grow into one. Reinvent Albany recommends regular hearings to shed light on MTA operations, capital spending priorities, and other topics, as well as the creation of subcommittees devoted specifically to the MTA.
February’s MTA oversight hearings were the first time in years that State Legislators had directly questioned MTA officials Photo Credit: Office of State Senator David Carlucci
Ultimately, it’s to the MTA’s advantage to be open about shortcomings in service and project delivery, both to confront issues quickly and to gain public trust. A defensive posture may blunt criticism in the short run but provides cover for delayed response and internal complacence, an environment where manageable problems can snowball into crises. Current MTA practice remains decidedly opaque, stymieing reporters’ freedom of information requests and burying information in PDFs instead of public posting searchable databases.
A more open posture can prevent problems from festering, and Reinvent Albany has no shortage of ideas for MTA transparency, expanding on its previous recommendations for FOIL reform. These steps include releasing the underlying datasets for its performance dashboard, creating a contracts database, and adopting an Open FOIL platform to respond to information requests.
Governor Cuomo’s selection of Pat Foye to serve as MTA Chair provides cause for optimism on the transparency front. As executive director of the Port Authority, Foye was instrumental in the adoption of Open FOIL, and he has publicly pledged to do the same at the MTA. The same spirit should guide a thorough overhaul of the MTA’s public reporting and data sharing policies.
Last year’s WTS scholarship recipient, Jessica Murray
Every year, TransitCenter funds a scholarship through the New York City chapter of Women’s Transportation Seminars (WTS). The WTS mission is to attract, sustain, connect, and advance women’s careers to strengthen the transportation industry.
The TransitCenter Transit Policy Innovator Graduate Scholarship awards $5,000 each year to a woman pursuing a career in transit planning, policy, or finance, and who has an interest in reforming existing institutions and putting forward original approaches to transit policy and governance.
Last year’s scholarship recipient, Jessica Murray, focuses on accessibility for transit riders with disabilities in her research and advocacy. “Applying for the scholarship helped me to clarify and communicate my career goals, which was more challenging than I expected,” she said, and attending the WTS Gala shed new light on “the leadership roles of women in transportation in the greater New York metropolitan area.”
“The whole process changed my thinking about the possibilities that might exist when I finish my degree. While I’m not sure what will come after I graduate, receiving this scholarship has confirmed my commitment to continue my research and work with local transit agencies, advocacy organizations, and people with disabilities to improve public transportation for all members of our city.”
“This scholarship program is important because it encourages women who are researching transit policy to apply their skills and education to the real world,” she added. “The perspectives of women are essential during a time when transportation agencies are planning for the future, dealing with rapid changes, and adapting to new modes for personal mobility.”
Green New Deal investments should go towards improving transit and pedestrian conditions on dangerous streets
Part two in our series about what a Green New Deal for transit should look like.
A central premise of the Green New Deal is that historically marginalized communities should benefit from decarbonizing the economy in the form of jobs, better air quality, and other reductions in social inequity. The goal is to deliver a “just transition” away from fossil fuels.
Modeled after FDR’s New Deal, the Green New Deal aims to build political support by promising infrastructure projects in every Congressional district. To ensure that a just transition isn’t sacrificed to political imperatives, an equity framework like the SFMTA’s must be applied to the transportation components of a Green New Deal, prioritizing the frontline communities that have borne the brunt of the pollution and disinvestment imposed by highways, but which may not have the most political capital.
Applying an equity lens to the transportation component of the Green New Deal would correct America’s historic bias toward road construction, which spews pollutants into communities of color and forces people into car ownership they can’t afford.
Shifting investment toward transit and walking is better for the planet, and will create huge employment opportunities. Running more buses, constructing and repairing more sidewalks, and building more rail lines in dense, walkable neighborhoods can set us on the path toward a more prosperous and sustainable future shared by all Americans.
Prioritize transit projects in neighborhoods that need transit most
American transit agencies have poured public resources into projects that serve areas with outsized political sway, overlooking communities with greater transit needs and more propensity to actually ride transit. Applying an equity lens to project selection can begin to right these historic wrongs – and provide more useful transit in the process.
With this lens, a project like the Utica Avenue Subway in New York City, which would primarily serve people of color in a dense urban corridor, would rise to the top for federal funding. A project like the BQX streetcar, which would primarily serve well-off waterfront residents and generate low ridership, would clearly fail to make the grade.
Metro Transit’s Green Line connects low-income and immigrant neighborhoods with jobs and opportunities across Minneapolis.
Make operating a bus a viable path to the middle class again
To dramatically reduce carbon emissions, we’re going to need a lot more transit service. But today, American transit agencies are struggling just to provide the service they’ve scheduled, because they’re not paying operators a competitive wage.
A strategy to dramatically increase operating support for transit — be it through direct federal aid or incentives to increase local funding — must be central to the transportation component of a Green New Deal. This would both produce a surge in new transit operator jobs and give transit agencies the resources to compensate operators with good, competitive wages.
Additionally, in small towns and rural areas across America, transit, paratransit, and medical transportation services are currently provided by volunteer drivers coordinated by small nonprofits. This essential service — the “basic human right” of mobility, in the words of the Community Transportation Association of America — should be a source of middle-class jobs, not left up to charity.
Build streets that reconnect neighborhoods
The racist, discriminatory legacy of urban highway construction is exactly the kind of inequity that the Green New Deal should address head-on. A few cities, like Syracuse, are moving to tear down highway segments that tore through black communities and exacerbated segregation. In many more cities, mid-century highways are at the end of their useful lives, and federal incentives could lead local leaders to replace old fossil fuel infrastructure with street grids that reconnect neighborhoods and allow low-carbon modes like transit, walking, and biking to flourish.
A street grid will replace the aging I-81 viaduct that cut through Syracuse. Photo credit: Streetsblog
Sidewalks and curb cuts should rule the day
American cities including Houston, Atlanta, and Denver have sidewalk construction backlogs in the billions of dollars. At the same time, rising housing costs in cities are pushing lower-income people outside urban centers, where sidewalks are scant. A massive investment in pedestrian infrastructure would allow Americans to walk for short trips, and provide the safe, comfortable connections to transit stops that are absolutely essential for transit to succeed.
Installing curb cuts, raised crosswalks, and other accessibility measures would also ensure that Americans with disabilities can enjoy equal freedom of mobility.
Building sidewalks can even yield more jobs than a cars-only approach. A 2011 UMass Amherst study found that street projects that include pedestrian infrastructure create an average of 10 jobs per $1 million spent, compared to 7.8 jobs for repaving or road expansion projects.
We have one shot to do this right, given the rapid timeframe for decarbonizing our economy outlined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Centering equity within the Green New Deal provides an opportunity to correct the shortcomings of the original New Deal. Applying an equity lens to the transition would result in an infusion of fast, frequent transit and a much safer walking environment that connects hundreds of millions of Americans to opportunities, and to each other.
Understanding why ridership is rising in some places but not in others is critical to formulating effective transit policy. And to gain that understanding, advocates, researchers, and policy makers need access to useful data on local ridership trends, service characteristics, and demographics.
To illustrate the capabilities of Transit Insights, let’s look at the diverging transit fortunes of two Ohio cities. Faced with the same federal and state funding obstacles, Columbus and Cleveland have experienced remarkably different transit ridership outcomes over the past decade. Using Transit Insights, you can delve into the factors that explain the ridership difference between these two places.
Transit ridership at the Central Ohio Transit Authority in Columbus (COTA) grew 25% from 2006 to 2017 (and climbed even further in 2018 following a bus network redesign). But a hundred-odd miles northeast, ridership at Cleveland’s beleaguered Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) has fallen by half over the same period.
Selecting these two agencies on the Transit Insights map using the “Compare” feature, you can tell that regional population change isn’t the only cause of the divergent trends, since transit trips per capita also rose at COTA and fell at GCRTA.
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Vehicle revenue miles are an indication of how much transit service an agency provides. As you’d suspect, people generally respond to service increases by riding transit more. From 2006 to 2017, COTA expanded its vehicle revenue miles nearly twofold. In Cleveland, GCRTA slashed service around the 2008 recession, and hasn’t fully restored it since.
Operating expenses — which have increased at most US agencies since 2006 — quantify how much agencies spend to run buses and trains. Generally, higher operating expenses enable more and better service. COTA has doubled its spending on operations, while GCRTA’s expenses grew only slightly after adjusting for inflation.
Raising fares, meanwhile, exerts downward pressure on transit ridership, particularly over the long term. Since 2006, GCRTA has approved several fare hikes, pushing up the average price riders pay per trip 65%. But for riders in Columbus, fares have remained largely unchanged.
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Transit is most effective when it runs frequently in high-density areas. Columbus has densified in neighborhoods within walking distance of COTA’s expansive frequent bus network. But in Cleveland, job and population density decreased along much of GCRTA’s frequent network (which is far more limited than COTA’s).
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The tale of these two Ohio cities is just one example of the findings Transit Insights can unearth. Advocates, agency practitioners, journalists, and others can use it to measure, compare, and evaluate transit ridership trends in any major American metropolitan region.
From 2012 to 2017, transit ridership increased in just a quarter of the country’s largest urban areas. Population magnets Seattle and Phoenix experienced the fastest transit ridership growth.
Only a few transit agencies have increased bus ridership since 2012 — most prominently, King County Metro and Houston Metro, which substantially altered service patterns with bus network redesigns.
Transit speeds have slowed down at many agencies as street congestion worsens. One exception is LA Metro, which expanded light rail service in 2010.
Ridership loss notwithstanding, in 2017 New York City Transit provided an average of 400 trips to each person living in its service area — over 150 more rides per capita than the next agency, San Francisco MTA.
We’re sharing Transit Insights as a public beta. We welcome your questions about how to use it, suggestions for improving the tool, and examples of real-world application of Transit Insights in your work. Send your feedback to email@example.com or tweet @TransitCenter
The rollout of congestion pricing should be tightly coordinated with the addition of bus lanes and implementation of all-door boarding.
With the passage of congestion pricing legislation in the state budget, Governor Andrew Cuomo harpooned the great white whale of New York transportation politics: He got a road pricing plan for New York City’s most traffic-choked streets through Albany.
Charging to drive into the congested heart of the city makes so much sense that it looked like a distinct possibility as far back as the Lindsay administration. But putting a price on driving is so politically fraught that no executive could pull it off until now.
All it took was a 12-year public messaging campaign, unprecedented advocacy mobilization, a sweeping realignment in the State Senate, and the firm commitment of the governor to make it happen.
Congestion pricing also passed because the New York City transit system is in the midst of a full-blown crisis of unreliable service and ridership loss. Victory in the budget may signal the end of the legislative campaign for congestion pricing, but it’s the start of an effective policy response to New York’s traffic and transit dysfunction.
So much of the promise of congestion pricing is conditional. Congestion pricing can catalyze a profound shift in New York’s surface transportation system to favor transit, biking, and walking — if City Hall reallocates the street space opened up by tolling. The revenue from congestion fees can make the subways more accessible and reliable — if the MTA gets its capital costs under control.
If policy makers capitalize on this potential, New Yorkers will see the passage of congestion pricing as a turning point. This should be the moment when the tide turns against traffic paralysis, when New York City buses start moving again, when subway service catches up to the standards set by global peers.
But first, delivering an effective congestion pricing system depends on the governor, the mayor, and their appointees at the MTA finishing what the state budget started.
The legislation enacted by Albany defines the parameters of a cordon boundary (Manhattan below 60th Street, excluding the FDR Drive and Route 9A on the west side of the island), a revenue target (enough for $15 billion in bonding capacity for the 2020-24 MTA capital program), and some exemptions (including a tax credit for residents of the congestion zone earning less than $60,000). It leaves the details of toll rates to be worked out later, by a panel whose recommendations will be submitted to the MTA Board for approval.
The upshot is that the potential for an effective congestion pricing system emerged from Albany intact, but it’s not guaranteed. While the political terrain is easier to negotiate from here on out, there’s not much wiggle room going forward.
Leaving Route 9A unpriced raises the costs of implementation and administration by requiring tolling installations at every cross street on the west side. The exemption for some residents of the zone will add cost, reduce revenue, and lessen the congestion-busting impact. If even more exemptions are carved out, administration will grow more complex and expensive, and the system will grow more vulnerable to gaming by insiders, like New York’s parking placards.
There’s a long lag until the toll plan is finalized at the end of 2020. Policy makers will have to hold firm against pressure for carveouts between now and then. A Swiss cheese congestion pricing program will fail to deliver the benefits New Yorkers have been promised, a scenario the governor and the mayor should strive to avoid at all costs.
Tightly coordinate congestion pricing with a bus turnaround
In London, the congestion charge enacted in 2003 was embedded in a wide-ranging package of improvements for city streets and the regional transportation network, with an emphasis on bus service. In New York, several major bus upgrades are in development, but the various strands haven’t been tied together in a tightly coordinated package with congestion pricing.
Mayor de Blasio recently pledged to roughly double the city’s rate of adding bus lanes and transit signal priority. New York City Transit is redesigning its bus network and says all-door bus boarding should be live by February, 2021. If implemented, these measures will produce faster, more reliable bus service. Congestion pricing will augment these gains by reducing traffic in the city center, while introducing what amounts to a deadline for other service improvements: By the time the tolls take effect, the bus network must be ready to absorb a shift in travel from driving to transit.
The impending congestion toll should light a fire under the mayor, the governor, and their respective transportation agencies to deliver an ambitious, well-defined suite of bus service improvements prior to the fees taking effect. It’s especially important to speed up the boarding process with citywide all-door boarding so an influx of new bus riders doesn’t drag down performance. Hitting this target would entail shifting the MTA’s previously stated timetable by just a few months.
Subway upgrades like resignaling the system will not be complete by the time congestion fees take effect, but bus improvements can be. Clear communication from the MTA and NYC DOT about how they intend to speed up buses before the tolls go live will give New Yorkers more assurance that congestion pricing is tied to tangible transit improvements.
Accelerate transit project delivery and reduce construction costs
Bringing the cost of elevator installation in line with global norms will facilitate the goals for station accessibility in the MTA’s Fast Forward plan.
The revenue raised from congestion pricing will mainly fund the MTA’s Fast Forward plan, which aims to resignal much of the subway system and make 50 stations accessible within five years. The priorities are on target, the question is whether the MTA will deliver.
If anyone can reform project delivery at New York City Transit, it’s Fast Forward architect Andy Byford, who has restored a measure of confidence in the subways with his candor about service quality and a back-to-basics approach to operations. And new MTA Chair Pat Foye’s recently announced transparency agenda, which includes an overhaul of the agency’s frustrating FOIL process, suggests a willingness to be open and accountable that will be absolutely essential to progress on cost control.
So far the MTA has convened working groups on cost containment and declared progress on measures of project management efficiency like processing change orders faster. A recent design revision to phase two of the Second Avenue Subway shaved a billion dollars off the pricetag by making use of existing tunnels and reducing excavation — a welcome and valuable effort that nevertheless falls short of bringing projected costs in line with global norms. Much more needs to be done to deliver capital upgrades cost-effectively as routine agency practice.
In addition to delivering subway and bus upgrades, expectations will be higher for every MTA division with congestion pricing in place. Every part of the New York region, including northern New Jersey and the suburban counties served by Metro-North and the LIRR, feels that it has a stake in what comes next.
During and after the legislative debate, this mainly manifested as an every-district-for-itself selfishness, with lawmakers seeking toll carveouts and transit goodies for their constituents, like fare discounts and chunks of funding for commuter rail. It’s up to advocates to harness this energy and convert it into momentum for a high-functioning, efficient transit network that delivers prosperity via reliable local bus service, fast and accessible subways, and frequent regional rail connecting city and suburb.
To avoid the worst effects of a warming planet, Americans can’t count on electric cars to clean up all of our transportation emissions. We also need better transit in our cities.
Models consistently show that electrifying the motor vehicle fleet will be necessary but not sufficient to achieve targets like net zero emissions by 2050. Only if we shift some travel from cars to transit can we decarbonize the transportation sector rapidly enough to fend off a rise in global temperatures greater than 1.5C.
The centrality of transit to effective climate policy aligns well with the goals of the Green New Deal, the ambitious framework to draw down American greenhouse gas emissions while advancing racial justice and economic fairness. Better transit will not only curb driving, it will reduce barriers to employment for low-income Americans and keep household transportation costs more manageable.
The Green New Deal resolution introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey leaves the details of policymaking for a later date. But by invoking transit, however briefly, the resolution invites expansive thinking about how to reform federal transportation policy.
Until now, transit has been relegated to the margins of federal policy while the lion’s share of transportation resources go toward highways. The Green New Deal suggests a much different approach — one that aims to put fast, reliable service within walking distance of as many homes and jobs as possible.
Budgeting more for transit should be a given when the opportunity arises to craft detailed Green New Deal legislation. But that’s only part of the solution.
Today, when regions do muster significant funds to invest in transit, too many resources go toward low-ridership projects that don’t serve major population and job clusters. Ridership has fallen nationwide for several years running, including in cities like Denver and Los Angeles that have spent billions on transit expansion.
Without overhauling the current policy regime of wasteful road-widening and poor transit investment choices, increasing the federal transit budget won’t get us very far. Here’s what will.
Deliver better transit service, not just more transit infrastructure
Federal transit policy, however, is oriented around building infrastructure, not providing service. Since 1998, Congress has only supplied operating assistance to the smallest transit agencies.
There are good justifications for this policy — federal support shouldn’t substitute for operating funds the local agency would otherwise provide — but it also leads to counterproductive outcomes. In the wake of the 2009 stimulus package, transit agencies all over the country received federal funding to buy new buses and rolling stock at the same time the recession forced them to cut service.
So how should federal policy improve local transit service? To start with, any operating support from the feds should come in the form of matching funds that don’t supplant local transit spending.
Federal capital funds can also incentivize better transit policy at the local level. A transit agency that meets benchmarks for delivering frequent, all-day service, for instance, could be rewarded with additional capital grants from the feds. This could set in motion a virtuous circle of additional service, better maintenance, and higher ridership.
Let local agencies improve transit without jumping through hoops
Better transit is inherently good for the environment. It makes no sense to drag basic transit upgrades through the expensive, time-consuming process of environmental review. Yet that’s what federal policy imposes, even for projects as straightforward as adding a bus lane or a bus stop.
The federal government already exempts certain types of projects from review, such as bike lanes. These exemptions should be expanded to include simple transit-priority projects — and should override environmental review at the state level too.
Transportation agencies should also have more leeway to spend federal funds on pedestrian infrastructure. Most transit trips involve walking, and agencies shouldn’t have to apply for sidewalk funds from an alphabet soup of tight-fisted federal programs. If the feds gave state DOTs a free and easy hand to build highways for the past 60 years, they can finally do the same for local transportation agencies and sidewalks.
Stop expanding highways
The federal surface transportation program supplies states with piles of money for roads — upwards of $40 billion in 2018 alone — and unchecked highway funding has sent America’s carbon emissions soaring.
Much of this funding should be redirected to cities and regional agencies, with an emphasis on transportation projects that explicitly reduce vehicle mileage, such as transit-priority lanes and bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
Of the funding that state DOTs retain, tight restrictions should be placed on highway expansion. Wringing more capacity out of the highway system should rely on efficiency measures like tolling existing lanes or converting them to bus- or HOV-only operations.
Build transit where people will ride it, not where it’s easiest
Tempted by easy right-of-way acquisition, American transit agencies often decide to add rail along freeway medians or old freight lines, extending far into unwalkable suburbs. These routes are not designed to succeed as high-volume travel options. Dallas’s light rail network is the classic example: Despite covering great distances, it hasn’t led to an increase in total transit commuting.
Federal cost-effectiveness formulas exacerbate the problem by encouraging agencies to select routes because they minimize expense, not because they maximize ridership.
Transit expansion projects are essential, but they must be built where large numbers of people can walk to stops. It’s worth the additional expense to build transit people will ride. In a climate crisis, we can’t afford to do otherwise.
DDOT will apply lessons learned from last year’s Rhode Island Avenue bus lane to new lanes on H & I St.
DC transit riders will be seeing red this summer — in the best way. From June to September, rush hour bus lanes are coming to H Street and I Street downtown.
The bus lanes will coincide loosely with the shutdown of six stations on the DC Metro Blue and Yellow lines, with the 11Y bus, which runs on both H and I Street, expected to absorb many of the riders affected by Metro’s maintenance work.
But even under normal circumstances, H and I Streets need bus lanes. They are two of DC’s busiest bus corridors, peaking at 70 buses an hour and serving routes that carry 20% of MetroBus ridership. The anticipated pressure from the Metro station shutdowns created a strategic opportunity for DDOT to add bus priority to the streets.
Cross section of the new street configuration
“Usually during the rush hour, these lanes are available as travel lanes,” says project co-lead Raka Choudhury. “Hopefully, dedicating the lanes for buses will make it more attractive for people to take transit instead of driving during the shutdown.”
Temporary bus lanes are not an entirely new concept for the District. Last summer, DDOT tested out a “pop-up” bus lane along Rhode Island Ave during the closure of Metro’s Red Line. The results were mostly disappointing. Without red pavement, adequate signage, or sufficient enforcement, drivers routinely drove and parked in the lanes, forcing bus riders to sit in general traffic.
But the experience did prove educational. DDOT is approaching this bus lane iteration with a much better understanding of what’s needed for success. Because the agency jumped at the chance to try again, they are ready to transform the experience of riding the bus for tens of thousands of people.
This time around, DDOT planners recognize that the H and I Street bus lanes need to be more visible to drivers. The lanes will be painted bright red and blanketed with signs advertising their presence. Because of lane width constraints, DDOT has opted against using cones or other protective barriers to keep drivers out.
In lieu of a barrier, vigilant enforcement of bus lane blockers will be key. According to Choudhury, DDOT is coordinating with myriad city agencies to conduct enforcement. DDOT staff trained as traffic control officers, and the Metropolitan Police Department, Department of Public Works, and Department of For Hire Vehicles will all be participating in the effort.
The H and I Street lanes are the latest entry in the growing practice of “tactical transit.” Though still relatively rare, a number of US transit agencies are testing out nimble implementation methods, using low-cost materials like paint and signage to increase the speed and reliability of bus trips practically in a matter of days.
Where they’ve been deployed, these bus lanes have proven marvelously effective at improving transit speeds and building support for longer-term street changes. Rather than devoting months to outreach that never produces a satisfying consensus, temporary lanes can enable agencies to showcase the benefits of a proposal in practice, then monitor and tweak if necessary.
The now-famous “pop-up” bus lane in Everett, outside Boston, repurposed a parking lane into a bus lane overnight, using implementation as a substitute for outreach. Once riders and drivers saw the benefits of the lane, a return to the status quo was inconceivable. Not to be outdone by Everett, the City of Boston and the nearby suburb of Arlington also piloted bus lanes that later became permanent.
How will DDOT determine whether the bus lanes on H and I Street stick around? “We’ll be looking at four metrics along the corridor – safety, mobility, reliability, and compliance – to see whether they improve,” said Choudhury.
“Right now this corridor isn’t working well for anyone – including drivers,” added Megan Kanagy, co-project lead at DDOT. “We plan to be proactively monitoring the performance of the H and I Street lanes, and are continuing the pilot into the fall to see how it performs when school and Congress are back in session.”
In a city where bus lanes have taken nearly a decade to implement, Kanagy and Choudhury hope this tactical approach can serve as a new model for DDOT. “Moving forward, we hope to deliver two types of bus projects – these shorter, tactical interventions, and the more involved corridor projects,” says Kanagy. “We are also actively thinking about how to organize staff and streamline project delivery processes to shorten time frames for big projects like 16th Street.”
Riders wait to board the 79 bus on Chicago’s South Side
Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance is putting bus service squarely on the agenda for the city’s next mayor through a combination of research, grassroots activism, and political acumen.
Buses carry a majority of the Chicago Transit Authority’s trips, but ridership is eroding rapidly. Since 2012, bus ridership in Chicago is down 21 percent.
Despite the large number of Chicagoans who ride the bus, the quality of service tends not to draw much attention as a political issue. As this year’s elections for mayor and City Council approached, Active Trans aimed to change that.
Active Trans has spent the past several years raising awareness about the abysmal condition of Chicago’s buses through its “Back on the Bus” campaign. With funding from TransitCenter, the group kicked off the campaign in 2017 by publishing a report, Speeding Up Chicago’s Buses. In researching the report, Active Trans surveyed 1,000 people about why they weren’t riding the bus as often. The takeaway was that although the proliferation of Uber and Lyft played a role, the main factor was simply poor service.
“People said again and again it’s speed and reliability,” says Active Trans Advocacy Manager Julia Gerasimenko. “Average speeds have gone down nearly 1 mph since 2007. Bunching has gotten worse. We know that to get riders back, we have to improve the quality of service.”
Bus priority treatments such as bus-only lanes, transit signal priority, and all-door boarding are rare in Chicago. Chicago’s most visible application of these techniques has been limited to the central business district, where bus routes on the “Loop Link” operate in dedicated lanes with all-door level boarding at sheltered, elevated platforms.
Beyond Loop Link, neither the city nor the Chicago Transit Authority had made concrete commitments to additional bus improvements. The only transportation idea consuming political oxygen during the last few years of Rahm Emanuel’s mayoralty was a hyper-implausible Elon Musk proposal for high-speed, low-ridership underground express pods between the Loop and O’Hare.
With its Back on the Bus campaign, Active Trans focused on a different objective: improving transit for the many Chicagoans who live beyond the reach of the El’s hub-and-spoke network. The campaign is grounded in an evaluation of bus speeds and reliability based on publicly available data from the CTA.
ActiveTrans packaged the analysis in Bus Report Cards, grading service in every aldermanic ward and on the eight highest-ridership routes in the system. Cs and Ds were common.
To organize around better bus service, Active Trans teamed up with grassroots groups in five neighborhoods, gathering first-hand accounts from bus riders of how slow, unreliable service affects them. “Each group had their own organizing philosophy,” said Gerasimenko.
Northwest Side Housing Center youth meeting their alderman
All told, Active Trans and its partners collected 600 surveys from bus riders.
Emanuel announced he wouldn’t be seeking another mayoral term last September. This created an opening for Active Trans to put ideas for bus improvements in front of the new crop of politicians who would be setting the city’s policy agenda.
Leading up to the February 2019 municipal election, Active Transportation NOW – a branch of the organization that engages in electoral politics — sent all 14 mayoral candidates questionnaires including an ask to commit to 50 miles of transit-priority streets. They also met one-on-one with the candidates. “To be able to show them the report cards was a great visual aid,” said Gerasimenko.
On January 15, Active Trans hosted a mayoral forum with the Pilsen Alliance, one of its neighborhood partners. Eight of the 14 candidates attended, including Lori Lightfoot, now competing with Toni Preckwinkle in the run-off election. “That showed them you can fill a room with people because they care about bus service,” said Gerasimenko, “and that was powerful.”
Toni Preckwinkle, left, and Lori Lightfoot will head into a run-off election April 2nd
With either Lightfoot or Preckwinkle headed to City Hall, the next mayor will be less focused on a fantasy tunnel to O’Hare, and more concerned with improving the bus service that hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans ride every day. Both candidates have endorsed the Active Trans target of adding 50 miles of transit priority streets.
“We can imagine a more exciting future for buses,” said Gerasimenko. “Service doesn’t have to be the crowded, late, unreliable experience we’ve all come to know and expect.”