email of the week: transit to business parks

A transit planner in a suburban agency asks an eternal question:

Do you have any examples of best practices in transit service in large business parks?  I am looking for some creative solution, such as a transit to vanpool connection, or a site redesign for accessibility.

If you have an opportunity, please share some examples, thoughts, etc.…

Yes, everyone wants “creative” solutions in transit.  But too often, “I want a creative solution!” means “You need to change the facts of math and geometry to suit my interests!”

As with so many transit issues, the real answers start by understanding the geometry and math problem that business parks present.

  • Disincentives to driving are very low, due to abundant parking and site plans designed on the assumption that all important visitors are motorists.
  • Business parks often want long-haul peak commute service, usually one way, which is massively expensive for the transit agency in both staff time (short shifts, long deadheads to return to origin) and fleet requirement.
  • Street and development patterns at business parks tend to be hostile to fixed route service because either (a) fixed routes must meander in ways that deter through riders or (b) people must walk long distances from the straight path of a fixed route, usually through a pedestrian-hostile environment.
  • The pedestrian-hostility of the business park environment consists largely of (a) buildings far from the street, forcing long walks across parking lots, and (b) buildings facing fast and wide streets often at points where is no safe way to cross.  Most cost-effective transit runs two way on major streets, stopping on the opposite sides in the two directions, so every round trip requires crossing the street either morning or evening.   If you can’t cross the street safely you don’t have effective service.
These are geometric facts and “creativity” won’t change them.
For these reasons, fixed route transit to business parks is always unproductive.  Vanpool programs are usually more effective, and a transit agency role must be limited to helping organize and in some cases owning and insuring the vehicles — all still a  small cost compared to fixed route operations.
Longer term solutions, driverless cars and taxis, will thrive in the business park environment and further reduce demand for conventional transit there.  This will be better for all concerned.  Still, all solutions have costs, and the question will be “who pays?”
There are ways to make business parks incrementally better for transit, but they lie mostly in site selection, site planning and traffic planning.  Once it’s built, the geometry problem has been created, and the only interesting question is whether it will be solved by the developer and employer who created the problem, or by the taxpayer through demands for unproductive service from the transit agency.  That’s why employer-funded shuttles are part of the real answer to suburban business parks.  These already exist at many scales, including not just the famous geek-shuttles of the Bay Area but also the simple shuttles operated, for example, by Federal Express in Indianapolis, moving low wage workers between FedEx’s transit-hostile headquarters and the nearby airport terminal, which the fixed route network can serve.
It’s not by accident that the most robust thinking about business parks, and some of the best planning for them, happens in California where state law requires employers to participate financially in solving the commute problem that their location choice has created.  It also becomes easier for a California employer to choose a transit-friendly location, because the commute problem that will arise from the location choice will be, in part, their problem.


14 Responses to email of the week: transit to business parks

  1. calwatch May 5, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    To answer the original question, you have Bay Area business parks like Bishop Ranch and Hacienda that get good transit work share. Hacienda attracts both those who want to live in an more urban environment and those coming from the exurban/rural Central Valley because of its location at the end of the Dublin/Pleasanton BART line. Jarrett himself covers it here:

  2. Kenny Easwaran May 5, 2015 at 10:34 am #

    It still seems that there might be something you could say about “site redesign for accessibility”. If you’ve got a central arterial road with side roads fronted by big parking lots and office buildings, there might be a way to connect footpaths from the office buildings directly to the arterial road (especially if the buildings are close to the arterial, with the parking lots between the buildings and the side roads).

  3. Kenny Easwaran May 5, 2015 at 10:56 am #

    I suppose, in response to myself, all of those fixes still aren’t going to make the transit work out, unless the central arterial road continues past the business park to further destinations that can anchor transit. The business park will have very few travelers at any time other than rush hours, but if you’ve got an urban center on either end, then you can serve the business park on the way and pick up a few people who go out for lunch, or who are taking half days or whatever.

  4. Rob May 5, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    It was a long time ago, but in college I interviewed some regional planners in Ottawa who seemed to be getting impressive transit use in office parks, which they attributed to required site review for all major developments that required a non-circuitous transit route designed into the street system, with transit stops within something like 300′ of the front doors of significant buildings.
    I also got the impression that streets were platted with local streets winding through residential subdivisions to provide bus collection and distribution off the arterials. Buses were out of the heavy arterial traffic, stops were close to residences, and and again, non-circuitous routes were provided. The full depth pavement was on these streets, and not necessarily on the arterials.
    I don’t know if my mental picture or recollection was correct or if any of these practices or performances persist there – but the ideas still seems attractive. Too much auto-dependence in suburbs is primarily a function of bad street design (and single-use zoning) that neglects the importance of local streets and misses opportunities for creatively serving buses closer to where pedestrians want to be.

  5. david vartanoff May 5, 2015 at 11:55 am #

    We in the SF Bay Area will have a “front row seat” watching this issue in the recently announced UC Berkeley satellite campus at a former industrial site in Richmond shown here
    The existing bus and rail services are not easily accessible from the future offices/labs duie to a freeway.

  6. threestationsquare May 5, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    “It also becomes easier for a California employer to choose a transit-friendly location, because the commute problem that will arise from the location choice will be, in part, their problem.” On the other hand, the many California laws that empower NIMBYs to block any change whatsoever in their neighbourhoods make it much harder for employers to locate in transit-friendly locations. This seems to be how the tech companies ended up in office parks practically in the Bay (rather than in skyscrapers in downtown Palo Alto and Mountain View).

  7. Joseph Alacchi May 5, 2015 at 4:23 pm #

    One way of offering long-haul reverse-peak commuter service to suburban office parks affordably is to combine this service with regular peak direction service in an intelligent way. Vehicles have to return from the urban center (metro station, etc) to the suburbs anyways, why not route the reverse-peak service in a way that optimizes service to workers?
    Some suburban transit agencies in Montreal do this successfully and with decent reception. The main limiting issue in Montreal is that suburban office and industrial parks outside city limits generally lack sidewalks which makes for an uncomfortable or even dangerous experience in the snowy winter.

  8. Zmapper May 5, 2015 at 5:17 pm #

    Block the long-distance work commuter trips with the suburban high school trips.
    In the status quo, school districts schedule their various school hours in order to recycle buses two, three, or even four times throughout all schools. Due to various reasons, usually the secondary schools draw the short straw and get stuck with start times around 7:30a, and release around 2:30p-3:00p.
    In order for effective blocking to work, the high school day would need to be roughly 9:00a-4:00p. The morning school trip would be scheduled to drop at 8:45, and pick up at 4:10. With 30-45 minutes for student pick-ups and drop-offs, the work pick-ups and drop-offs would be around 8:00 and 5:00, coinciding nicely with the highest work peak hours. The work trips could either supplement an existing hourly or half-hourly local route, providing a brief boost to a 30 or 15 minute frequency when it is demanded the most, or operate a one-off route on top of the base system if the existing system doesn’t serve a market very well, but demand only exists in significant numbers in the peak (off-peak customers would use the local system). The trick to making the blocking work is that the high school day tends to be about 6:45-7:30 hours long, while a regular 8×5 working day is 8:00-9:00 hours in length; the remainder from subtracting the school day length from the working day length divided by two is the time available for the student route.
    The school district would discontinue general-student high school bus routes (SPED and various federally-mandated routes would remain), and redistribute the elementary and middle school hours into three (8:00, 8:30, 9:00) or four (7:45, 8:15, 8:45, 9:15) tiers in order to use their fleet more efficiently. Some sort of reimbursement program or subsidization of market-rate passes from the school district to the transit firm would be necessary.
    As a result, the transit firm has all their vehicle loads turn over at least once in the AM and PM, the school district is freed from the cost of high school level general-student routes, and is also able to not have the general high school start time in the 7:00 hour.
    Fort Collins briefly explored doing this in 1971 order to start a rudimentary peak-only system with school buses (the buses would have also been used mid-days for senior-oriented routes), but instead started Transfort.

  9. Jarrett May 6, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    Zmapper. If only the school districts co-operated, this would be lovely. However, parents and teachers both passionate defend the current school schedule. It works for countless parents who deliver their kid to school en route to work, then leave her there for afterschool activities, etc. Teachers defend their late afternoon time off.
    There’s also the problem that the school commute doesn’t look anything like the work commute in reverse. The only thing that you can do with reverse-direction commute express trips is run expresses out to suburban employers from downtown. Downtown is the best residential market to connect to business parks, because people who live there are usually transit-positive already. But all the land use, built environment, and peaking
    problems still apply.

  10. Dave May 6, 2015 at 9:30 am #

    Having scheduled buses for a large urban area, I’d also like to add that school trips take a lot longer than 30-45 min, once you factor in deadheading. Generally, office parks aren’t anywhere near high schools or those high schools’ catchment areas (and those catchment areas have tons of cul-de-sacs and other impediments to direct routing anyway), so you end up spending 15-30 minutes just getting the bus into position for the school trip. Add that to the 30-45 min in service, and suddenly the school would need to start at 9:30 and end by 3:30 to accommodate an 8-5 business park’s arrivals and departures. A typical school is in session for about 7 hours a day… and a shorter 6-hour school day is not going to happen, especially in this era of high stakes testing.

  11. Eric Doherty May 6, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    This is part of ‘retrofitting the suburbs’ – requiring both creativity and knowledge of what really matters. Think infill, parking pricing, pedestrian access, cycling routes and storage, and transit network design.
    Creativity does not have to be code for magical thinking. It is often just finding what worked somewhere else in a similar situation.

  12. William C. May 6, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    If possible, I think Joseph’s suggestion to combine suburban office park service with traditional peak-commute service is the best. Take a look at Seattle, WA’s 212: in the forward peak, it heads straight to downtown from the Eastgate P&R; in the reverse peak, it goes from downtown to the P&R via the Factoria business park.
    To some extent, Sound Transit’s 545 is the same – it provides forward-peak service from P&R’s near Redmond, together with reverse-peak service to Microsoft. It’s less extreme there, though, because of Redmond’s downtown.

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  14. Josh Poe May 19, 2015 at 7:11 am #

    Thanks Eric,
    Glad you understood my question. When I used the term “creative” and mentioned a “site redesign for accessibility,” my motive was to find an example of a business park retrofit for transit access, thereby changing the geometry and “facts.” If residential and big box commercial developments can be retrofitted for access, why not industrial parks?