Expanding liberating transit in small cities

Salem, Oregon (metro pop around 200,000) is typical of a lot of small cities in America.  It's a state capital and has some small universities, which help keep its downtown focused, but it's not an enviro-utopian place like Boulder or Eugene, nor is it besieged by demand for massive urban density like the bigger west coast cities all are.  This is a town that much of North America could recognize as familiar.

I love working on tranist in big cities, but I also love working in small ones.  Often, it's easier to get things done.  

So I'm proud to announce that the local transit agency, Salem Keizer Transit has released for public comment a major reworking of their transit network, one that we helped them design.  As usual, red means every 15 minutes all day, blue is every 30 and green is every 60.  Here's the new network on the left, and the existing network for comparison on the right.


The themes are familiar if you've followed other work of ours, in Columbus, Houston, or Auckland, New Zealand.  There's more high-frequency service (red) which means more places where transit is useful to people in a hurry.  The spacing of nearby routes is more even, so that walking distances are more uniform.  Sometimes service has been eliminated to extremely low density areas, such as parts of the west side of Salem in this image, where existing service is logging fewer than 10 passengers per hour of service.  

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't have low-ridership services to low-demand areas, but only that the community, acting through the transit agency Board, needs to decide how to balance ridership goals with competing goals that require low-ridership service, such as perceptions of equity and lifeline access for people who are extremely dependent on transit.

Salem is interesting in that the city's geography really limits the possibilities for a high-frequency grid.  The arterial pattern is a starburst, many streets going downtown in different directions but very few streets that are useful for running perpendicular those streets.  Thus Salem continues to have only one frequent crosstown — along Lancaster Drive — but the plan works toward expanding that crosstown so that more non-downtown trips can be made that way.  Otherwise, this remains a strongly radial plan for a strongly radial city.  Salem has done better than many cities at keeping its major institutions, including its biggest university, all clumped in a small area of greater downtown, where most of the transit sytsem goes.

The bigger story, however, is that freestanding cities of Salem's size are big enough to do interesting things with transit, and to build services that are useful enough that some people will make location decisions in response to them.  That's the essence of how a city's form becomes more sustainable over time.  

8 Responses to Expanding liberating transit in small cities

  1. EngineerScotty August 22, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    There’s something that you mention in your slide show, but don’t discuss here–something that I would argue is every bit as important as frequent service, if not more so:
    Service that runs seven days a week. Not needing to consult a timetable is cold comfort if you still have to consult a calendar.
    Right now, Cherriots only runs on Monday-Friday, which greatly limits its use for non-commuters (or for those commuting to retail jobs, in which case weekends are the busiest workdays). When transit disappears on the weekends, it’s very hard to live without a car, especially in a generally low-density place like Salem.
    Also–the OR22 bridges across the Willamette River are a bottleneck that provides an opportunity (though the proposed third crossing project may widen the bottleneck. OTOH, if and when a new highway bridge is built, this might be a good opportunity to convert one of the lanes on each of the existing bridges to bus-only…

  2. Josh F. August 22, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    Apparently there are plans to add weekend service in “Phase II” (http://cherriots.org/movingforward) when funding becomes available. I’m surprised that the agency hasn’t made it a higher priority, but adding weekend service without increased funding would mean that some weekday frequencies would have to be reduced initially. It’s a difficult choice, and while weekend service would probably provide more benefits to people without easy access to automobiles, I can understand why Cherriots would be reluctant to reduce weekday service.

  3. Jarrett August 22, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    We had long conversations about 7-day service as opposed to building the frequent network 5 days. I think everyone involved agrees that they’re both essential.

  4. Jack Lattemann August 22, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    Excellent work in Salem-Keizer, Jarret. I’ve made others aware of your report. Hopefully, their board will go for more funding now that they’ve been given a framework of choices.

  5. daodao August 23, 2014 at 4:14 am #

    Most UK cities and towns have preserved moderately frequent urban bus services during business hours (0800-1800 Mon-Fri, 0900-1700 Sat). However, there are only limited services on some routes on Sundays (generally during shopping hours 1000-1600), with evening services minimal on most days and generally non-existent after 1700 on Sundays. This limits mobility and virtually makes car ownership essential, except in inner London.
    With few exceptions, most services are run by private companies, and local government subsidies for “socially necessary” bus services are being slashed due to the parlous state of the UK’s finances. What little expenditure there is tends to be spent on grandiose rail projects.

  6. Eric O August 25, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    One thing I really appreciate about the reconfiguration is how you are encouraging a transit supported development strategy at appropriate locations. For example, most of the interior of West Salem is filled with small parcel, cul-de-sacky single-family neighborhoods that are unlikely to develop to transit supportive densities over time. So the service here is discontinued. But West Salem does keep the transit in the corridors that are likely to develop to such densities and varied uses and moreover increases the frequency and usability of its two main lines. THUS, increasing the frequency in these corridors actually does induce demand for TOD over time. Really, this approach is a good “hand-and-glove” model for how we should all first consider using transit to help support (and even induce) the demand for greyfield/”stroad” corridor redevelopment and to spur growth with transit oriented development.

  7. elee November 20, 2018 at 10:32 am #

    So how RELIABLE is it? I suspect that any transit-focused blog could provide you with endless tales of people who lost their jobs by trusting the bus schedule. And I have yet to hear of any consequence ever getting visited on those who broke their promise to make the powerless reliable.