In most US cities, the city doesn’t control the transit agency, but it does make huge decisions that largely govern whether transit can succeed. Cities control land use planning, which determines the number of people and jobs that are in places where transit can compete for them, and they control street design, which has a powerful impact on whether buses can operate reliably. Other city functions, like parking and law enforcement, also have a big impact.
So we get great outcomes only when city government takes a strong leadership role on transit, partnering with the transit agency but also leading in the areas that it controls.
Two new plans out of the Portland Bureau of Transportation show the City of Portland rising to that challenge: the Enhanced Transit Corridors Plan, now in public comment, and the Central City in Motion plan, which is just beginning. While the city has nice transit priority policies and has done a few bus lanes before, we’re now seeing an effort to think more systematically about how to get buses moving again.
Short term indicators are not good: Ridership is falling and buses are slowing down. Indeed, bus operating speed is the ultimate boiling frog problem:
As traffic grows, speeds fall just gradually enough that the problem never makes the headlines, but a decade of this adds up to a major loss of access to jobs and opportunity. We’re seeing this rate of drop — around 1% a year — in many growing cities we work in. This chart shows the city’s busiest frequent bus lines, which collectively add up to a huge share of the transit ridership.
Losing about 10% over a decade doesn’t just mean that people’s trips are longer, but also that 10% more buses must be deployed to maintain the same frequency, consuming funds that could otherwise be spent on growing the network.
Portland’s Enhanced Transit Corridors plan is the first systematic look at this in a long time. Focusing on the Frequent Network where the stakes are highest, the plan identifies critical points where work must be done to improve performance. The plan doesn’t choose which transit priority treatments to do where; that’s the work of more detailed engineering. But it does lay out the big picture and helps to define priorities. Read the plan and follow it. (There’s also a survey about it, closing March 26)
Many of the most critical problems are around the edges of downtown, where many routes converge on chokepoints — most commonly the bridges — that are also places where traffic converges. The Center City in Motion plan is where those problems will be addressed in detail. There’s also a chance to rethink the role of parallel streets to reduce conflicts between different modes.
This is a big change for Portland. Too often in the past, the city has plan different modes in isolation — the bike network here, the freight network there, a streetcar plan here, the transit agency’s plans over there — when the best solutions arise only from thinking about all the modes together and how they can best share a limited transportation network. I’ve worked on studies that do this, in Seattle and Minneapolis, and it’s great to see Portland finally insisting on this kind of thinking.
If you want to get in the weeds, here’s my own starting wishlist for the Center City in Motion plan:
- Proper transit priority on approach to all of the congested bridges, and between the bridges and the transit mall.
- Integrated planning of bike and transit to reduce bike-transit conflicts.
- Reviewing all the east-west transit routings in downtown, possibly consolidating them onto fewer streets.
- Making better use of the Transit Mall for buses. At this point I wonder if too many routes have been removed from it and we are not getting enough value from our premiere transit priority facility.
- Fixing the unacceptable 5-block separation of the two directions of Line 15-Belmont/23rd downtown.
If you live in Portland, get on the mailing list and share your own views!
Won’t matter. This city rarely actually implements their plans anyway since none of them actually specify where funding will come from. Portland is a city of all talk and no action.
I would love to see Vancouver, BC do this…at least on routes with significant ridership.
While I total agree with the points here, and the importance of working on improving transit service speed and reliability, I have a word of caution regarding analysis of trends in system and route level operating speeds. The average speed of a service is a combination of the “street” speeds and the distribution of service among faster and slower routes and route segments.
At the system level, if one adds more freeway service or local service in low density (higher speed) areas, then the _average_ system speed will increase, even if the core local service, where likely most people ride, doesn’t improve.
At a route level, if we add more frequency on the higher ridership, usually slower speed, portions of the route, then the average speed of the route will decline. Again, this is true even if the street speed experienced by customers doesn’t change.
A City Observatory piece a few years ago, that used system level NTD data to document slower transit speeds, suffered this exact problem. http://cityobservatory.org/urban-buses-are-slowing-down/ The article acknowledged the problem that service mix affects average speed, but it couldn’t really address the issue. In my mind this is a fatal flaw to this type of analysis. A more nuanced approach is necessary to really see changes in service speed.
This is true enough, and would affect systems that are growing service only in suburban or express services. Is that what Metro Transit is doing?
So is the slowdown due more to increased car traffic blocking the routes, or increased ridership (more stopping for passenger on/off) ?
In Duluth, the buses are super slow because they space the bus stops 350-400 ft apart. Particularly during busy times of the day (when people need faster service the most!) it’s constant stop and go. I can’t convince the local agency to at least standardize on 800 ft stop spacing minimum.
It’s infuriating that everyone on the bus is being slowed down by multiple minutes (e.g 20 min) worth of delays to save each individual person from walking an extra 60 seconds if half of the bus stops were removed.
In your comment the ‘200-400’ and ‘ft’ are separated by a line break. Reading through I thought you were going to say yards or metres. 400 metres is a sensible transit spacing for many routes, 400 ft is bonkers!
Speaking of transit plans to watch, Saint Louis’s has just released its Metro ReImagined plan for its Missouri services (it runs some transit in Illinois communities adjacent to Saint Louis as well) which adopts a lot of your basic principles–more frequent service that is dependable, direct routes which encourage transfers, etc. and is definitely worth a look, I would love to hear your thoughts on the plan.
* Speaking of transit plans to watch, Saint Louis’s Metro Transit has just released its Metro ReImagined plan for its Missouri services (it runs some transit in Illinois communities adjacent to Saint Louis as well) which adopts a lot of your basic principles–more frequent service that is dependable, direct routes which encourage transfers, etc. and is definitely worth a look, I would love to hear your thoughts on the plan.