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Omaha Gets Serious About Transit

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There are plenty of reasons why Omaha, Nebraska, isn’t known for being a walkable, people-friendly city. It has one of the lowest bike commuting rates in the country. In a vote last year, Streetsblog readers crowned a location in Omaha as America’s worst intersection.

But there are some signs that the city is moving in the right direction. Omaha launched a B-Cycle bike-share system in 2012 that, while it started with only five stations, has been slowly expanding. Bike commuting has increased 125 percent since 2000.

More ambitious changes are on the agenda now that the city has unveiled a transit plan with the potential to make the city a more walkable, urban place.

A “preferred alternative” developed by the city of Omaha and the local transit agency calls for an eight-mile bus rapid transit route, estimated to cost about $33 million, as well as a 3.25-mile modern streetcar line, estimated to cost $140 million. The city is applying for a TIGER grant to help fund the BRT plan.

The streetcar will run through downtown Omaha, between “north downtown” to the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The BRT will share much of the same route but extend several miles further west, past the medical center. The BRT will run on both dedicated and mixed-traffic lanes and will include signal priority.

In public meetings, planners emphasized that the enhanced transit lines would help downtown become a “park-once” district, where people would not have to drive between destinations. With less pressure to supply parking, more land could be developed. Planners estimate that the transit lines could spark as much as $1 billion in new development, leading to an increase of 8,500 jobs and 3,150 residents downtown [PDF].

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11 Simple Ways to Speed Up Your City’s Buses

Turning at busy intersections costs buses time.

Turning at busy intersections slows down buses, so many transit agencies are simplifying routes to speed up service. Photo: Steven Vance

All across America, city buses are waiting. Waiting at stoplights, waiting behind long lines of cars, waiting to pull back into traffic, waiting at stops for growing crowds of passengers. And no, it’s not just your imagination: Buses are doing more waiting, and less moving, than they used to. A recent survey of 11 urban transit systems conducted by Daniel Boyle for the Transportation Research Board found that increased traffic congestion is steadily eroding travel speeds: The average city bus route gets 0.45 percent slower every single year. That’s especially discouraging given how slowly buses already move, with a typical bus averaging only 13.5 mph.

Transit agencies are taking action against the waits. A recent report on “Commonsense Approaches for Improving Transit Bus Speeds” surveyed not just the scale of the problem, but also solutions. In it, 59 transit agencies across America shared how they have responded to the scheduling problems presented by ever-slower bus routes. The agencies report on the most successful actions they’ve taken to improve bus speeds and reliability. Here they are, listed in descending order of popularity.

  1. Consolidate stops: More than half of agencies have thinned bus stops, some by focusing on pilot corridors, and others by gradually phasing in policy changes. Many agencies moved stops to far side of intersections at stoplights, and 13 agencies adopted physical changes like longer bus stops or bulb-outs, which help passengers board faster and more conveniently.
  2. Streamline routes: Straightening out routes, trimming deviations, eliminating duplication, and shortening routes didn’t just simplify service, it also sped up service for two-thirds of the agencies that tried this approach.
  3. Transit signal priority: The 22 agencies with signal priority can change stoplights for approaching buses. They mostly report a minor to moderate increase in bus speeds as a result. In fact, agencies singled out traffic engineering approaches like TSP as the closest to a “silver bullet,” one-step solution.
  4. Fare policy: Several agencies changed fare structures or payment methods. The one agency that collects fares before passengers board, and lets them board at both bus doors, decreased bus running times by 9 percent.
  5. Bus Rapid Transit: Ten agencies combined multiple approaches on specific routes and launched BRT service. Of those that measured the impact, almost all reported a significant increase in speed, typically around 10 to 15 percent.
  6. Vehicle changes: More than half of agencies have moved to low-floor buses, which reduce loading times by one second per passenger. Smaller buses might be more maneuverable in traffic, and ramps can speed loading for wheelchairs and bicycles.
  7. Limited stop service: Although new limited-stop services offered only minor to moderately faster speeds, it’s a simple step and 18 agencies reported launching new limited routes.
  8. Bus lanes: Dedicated lanes are used by 13 agencies, and one reported that “most routes are on a bus lane somewhere.” When implemented on wide arterial streets, this moderately improves speeds.
  9. Adjust schedules: Almost all of the surveyed agencies have adjusted running time, recovery times (the time spent turning the bus), or moved to more flexible “headway schedules.” All of these actions improve on-time performance reliability for customers, and reduce the need for buses to sit if they’re running early.
  10. Signal timing: Synchronized stoplights along transit routes can make sure that buses face more green lights than red, but only have a mild impact on operating speeds.
  11. Express service on freeways: This strategy had the largest impact on speeding up buses for the three agencies that tried it.

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Tell IDOT to Rehab LSD as a Complete Street, Not a Speedway

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This bus stop on Inner Lake Shore Drive at Addison is an unwelcoming space for riders. Image: Google Street View

On Thursday, the Illinois Department of Transportation kicked off the feedback process for the the North Lake Shore Drive rehabilitation’s future alternatives analysis, at the third meeting of the project’s task forces. During the previous two meetings, it seemed like IDOT would insist upon just another highway project, with minimal benefits for pedestrians, transit users and bicyclists. Yet as the process of determining the lakefront highway’s future has evolved, some hope that the project can be steered in a more positive direction.

When the city of Chicago began building LSD in the late 1800s, the road was designed to be a place where one could take a leisurely ride to enjoy views of Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. Today, an average of 161,000 cars use the drive on a daily basis, few of them leisurely partaking in the view. IDOT estimates that 78 to 95 percent of drivers break the posted 45 mph (40 mph in winter) speed limit. In the highest-speed section, nine percent of drivers were doing more than 70 mph.

Several of the CTA’s busiest bus routes also use Lake Shore Drive. Around 69,000 passengers ride on the 970 local and express buses that ply the Drive every day, many of them residents of high-density lakefront neighborhoods. That’s almost as many passengers as the Blue Line’s O’Hare branch carries daily, and more than twice as many riders as dedicated busways in other cities, like Cleveland’s HealthLine and Los Angeles’ Orange Line.

Yet unlike those passengers, those riding LSD buses frequently get bogged down by car traffic. Northbound bus commuters who use stops along Inner Lake Shore Drive have to wait for the bus on narrow sidewalks, with only a thin fence and guardrail separating them from high-speed traffic on the main road. At intersections were buses get on and off the drive, there are complex interchanges with tight turns.

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One Chart Explains All the Chicagoland Transit Reform Proposals

Several different proposals to fund and govern Chicagoland’s transit system have recently been floated by various area politicians and interest groups. Streetsblog has created this handy chart to compare each of the proposals to one another, and to how the system currently works. Click to open the chart in a new window.

The chart compares the existing system and four proposals:

The chart will be updated as more information becomes available and as new proposals emerge, so check back as events happen.

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BRT Doubters Interested in Working With City to Tweak the Plan

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Rendering of BRT on Ashland.

The city of Chicago has been pretty quiet on the subject of its Ashland bus rapid transit plan lately, but recently there have been encouraging signs that even some skeptics are warming to the concept.

During a presentation about the project to the Wicker Park Committee neighborhood group last week, WPC member Alan O’Connell, an urban planner who works at a shipping logistics company, encouraged BRT doubters to work with the city to improve the plan rather than fight it, DNAinfo reported. The committee had previously voted against the plan, which would nearly double bus speeds on Ashland between 95th and Irving Park by converting two out of four travel lanes to dedicated bus lanes, building ‘L’-style median stations, and adding various other time-saving features.

“This isn’t something you should all be scared of,” said O’Connell, a Cleveland native who has witnessed the success of that city’s Health Line. “It’s really good when done right.”

Some Chicago residents have opposed the Ashland plan on the grounds that the lane conversions will create gridlock – the CTA predicts car speeds will be reduced by only ten percent – and that the prohibition of most left turns off of Ashland will drive traffic onto side streets. In reality, it will be fairly simple for drivers to plan routes that don’t require lefts off the street.

Not all attendees were persuaded by O’Connell’s words. “It will destroy our community totally,” said Mitchell Hutton, a Wicker Park resident. Hutton worried that pedestrians could be struck by cars as they cross to the median stations. Commenters on the DNA piece pointed out that people are already crossing Ashland to access bus stops on the opposite side of the street, and the BRT stations will improve pedestrian safety by doubling as refuge islands.

O’Connell said the city should fine-tune the plan, to make it more acceptable to residents. Allowing more left turns at main intersections is a possibility, although this would delay the BRT buses and other through traffic. He added that the city should come up with strategies, such as traffic calming, to keep vehicles off residential streets. And while the Ashland plan currently calls for retaining curbside local bus service, he argued the CTA should discontinue it, so that it doesn’t cannibalize BRT ridership.

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Jefferson Parkers Can Vote for Bike Lanes, Metra Improvement in PB Election

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Conventional bike lanes on Lawrence could be upgraded to buffered lanes. Image: Google Street View

Last year, residents of the 45th Ward, made up largely of the Jefferson Park neighborhood, had the opportunity to vote for a number of outside-the-box transportation projects in the ward’s participatory budgeting election. Most of those proposals, including bike lanes on Lawrence and Milwaukee, and on-street bike parking corrals, didn’t win, but voters did opt to spend $125,000 of the ward’s $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” funds to install a new pedestrian crossing light at the Jefferson Park Transit Center.

This year, in the ward’s second PB election, there are fewer livable streets projects to choose from, but the proposal to stripe buffered bike lanes on Lawrence, from Cicero to Long, is back on the ballot. Voters can also opt to replace the fences on a pedestrian bridge over the Kennedy that serves the Gladstone Park Metra station.

Alderman John Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh says Arena decided to bring back the PB process this year because last year’s election succeeded in getting constituents more involved with their community – over 650 people voted. “This is the taxpayer’s money, and the taxpayers should have a direct voice in how we’re spending it,” Brugh said. “This really gives them the power to make important decisions that will affect the ward for years to come.”

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CNT and Active Trans Launch “Transit Future” Funding Campaign

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Map showing potential expansion of the local rapid transit system. Image: CNT

On Monday, Governor Quinn’s Northeast Illinois Public Transit Taskforce released its final report, underscoring the need for better funding for regional transit. Yesterday, the Center for Neighborhood Technology and the Active Transportation Alliance launched a new campaign, dubbed “Transit Future,” to raise that money via a new Cook County-based revenue stream that would help the region leverage federal dollars.

Transit Future calls on the Cook County Board of Commissioners to create a dedicated funding source for maintaining and expanding the transit system in Chicago and the rest of the county. Creating this revenue stream would allow the region to take advantage of federal funding sources like America Fast Forward, which provides long-term, low interest loans to cities for construction projects.

The campaign is inspired by the successful drive to raise $40 billion for public transportation in Los Angeles, which is bankrolling the largest expansion of transit in the region’s history. That campaign, called Move LA and spearheaded by former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Santa Monica mayor Denny Zane, led to voters approving a half-cent sales tax increase in a 2008 referendum called Measure R. By 2013, four new transit lines had opened, with two more under construction.

Villaraigosa and Zane, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook Count Board President Toni Preckwinkle, showed up to support Transit Future at a launch party last night at the University Club of Chicago, 76 East Monroe. A map on display at the event showed the potential for expanding the local rapid transit system.

In addition to well-publicized projects that will extend the South Red Line and build bus rapid transit on Chicago’s Ashland Avenue, the map shows other line extensions and new routes outlined in the region’s GO TO 2040 plan. Existing lines could be expanded to suburban destinations like Old Orchard, Schaumburg, Oak Brook, and Ford City, while new north-south lines could parallel Cicero Avenue and connect O’Hare and Midway airports.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for policy at CNT and director of Transit Future, emceed the event. “Building a world-class transit system requires a steady, long-term investment,” she told the crowd. “We’ve been falling short. There are over $20 billion in potential projects that are just sitting on the shelf that will help us to expand and improve our system, so that we can’t afford to fall short any longer.”

Emanuel told the audience that a coordinated effort between the city and county to create dedicated transit funding could unlock the region’s economic potential. “Our ability to recruit new companies, our ability to see companies expand, our ability for families to go from where they live to work, is dependent on a 21st Century public transportation system,” he said. “Because people years ago made a great investment, Chicago had the opportunity to become the city it is. For us to become the city we want to be, we have to continue to make that commitment to our public transportation system.” He noted that the city is already taking advantage of federal transportation loans for projects like the Red Line’s 95th Street station rehab and the Chicago Riverwalk extension.

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Regional Transit Needs New Funding to Meet $20 Billion Backlog

Red South Reconstruction - Sep. 17, 2013

The Regional Transportation Authority estimates $20 billion is needed to clear the transit infrastructure maintenance backlog. Photo: CTA

Transit systems in Northeastern Illinois face a $20 billion maintenance backlog. Now the question is how to pay for it.

Governor Pat Quinn’s Northeastern Illinois transit task force has shown some of the possibilities at the region’s disposal, but hasn’t staked out a position on how to secure the necessary revenue to keep Chicagoland’s track, trains, and buses from sliding into disrepair.

All told, the Regional Transportation Authority estimates that $20 billion is necessary to bring existing transit infrastructure into a state of good repair, with an initial five-year outlay of $4.7 billion called for in its capital plan. Expanding service will require funding in addition to meeting those maintenance needs.

The transit task force highlighted 12 funding sources used by national transit agencies and reviewed many short-term financial options “common in the private” sector. New funding sources could include fuel taxes, a broader sales tax that covers services, a payroll tax, land development charges, and parking fees. However, the task force stopped short of recommending new funding sources for the integrated transit agency it proposes.

The task force analyzed regional transit’s existing funding, noting how reactive the transit agencies’ financial planning has been. “The region,” the task force writes, “lacks a strategic financial plan for transit that does more than show funding gaps based on the status quo.” The agencies don’t work together, so there’s no “coordinated planning for investments to increase or improve inter-system connectivity.” CTA, Metra, and Pace have a “natural desire” to “minimize RTA oversight” and choose priorities independently — or not choose at all, as Metra has done since 1992 by not adopting a capital plan.

Currently, highway and transit projects are partially funded by state and federal fuel taxes, levied in cents per gallon of gas or diesel sold. However, both taxes are in decline as gas sales slip; the federal Highway Trust Fund will again run out of money this summer. A new fuel sales tax would instead tax the final purchase price, at a set percentage. The report calls it “easy and inexpensive to implement and administer,” but could push drivers to buy gas outside the area, or switch to electric vehicles.

The report specifically warns against continued reliance on federal gas tax grants, which paid for a quarter of Chicagoland’s transit construction projects between 2002 and 2012. “At best,” the task force writes, “future federal funds for transit will stagnate, at worst they will decline.” Read more…

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Rogers Park Participatory Budgeting Ideas Include a North-South Greenway

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Discussing proposals at a 49th Ward participatory budgeting meeting in 2011. Photo by John Greenfield.

Chicago aldermen traditionally use their $1.3 million in discretionary “menu” money for basic street, sidewalk and lighting improvements. However, this year a handful of wards are holding participatory budgeting elections. These often result in money being set aside for innovative transportation projects, and walking and biking infrastructure is a relative bargain. 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, who five years ago became the first U.S. elected official to pioneer the participatory budgeting process, is once again holding a PB election, and a few walking, biking, and transit projects may be on the ballot.

The ward has hosted two community events so far, where residents have had the opportunity to discuss proposed projects. The final meeting takes place this evening at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church by the Lake, 7100 North Ashland. PB committee members will draw upon feedback from constituents to narrow down the candidates to a final ballot, according to Moore’s aid Bob Fuller. Early voting will take place from April 26 to May 2, with the final election happening on May 3. “We’ve been doing this for five years now, and by all accounts things are going smoothly this year,” Fuller said. “But it’s certainly a challenge finding consensus in a neighborhood of 56,000 people.”

The ballot will have a section where residents vote on what percentage of menu money should be spent on street and alley repaving, sidewalk repair and streetlights, from zero to 100 percent. The results are averaged – last year it was 62 percent – and the remainder of the money is awarded to nontraditional projects, according to how many votes they garnered.

The winning proposals in 2013 included funding a $30,000 pedestrian safety engineering study on hectic Sheridan Road, exploring whether bumpouts, signal timing improvements and other strategies could make the street more walkable. Voters also opted to spend $75,000 to install bike-and-chevron shared lane markings on Clark from Albion to Howard. Other proposals that won funding the restoration of cobblestones on Glenwood, and cherry blossom trees and a new water fountain at Touhy Park.

None of the above projects have been finished yet. “It definitely takes more than a year for some things to get done,” Fuller said. The traffic safety study and sharrows are pending the completion of gas line work on Sheridan and Clark.

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Final State Task Force Report Dives Into Transit Reform Details

Metra and Elevated again

The task force proposes that CTA and Metra trains run under an integrated transit agency. Photo: Marcel Marchon

Governor Pat Quinn’s northeastern Illinois task force released its final report [PDF] yesterday, detailing recommendations from its mid-March draft. The task force launched last year, after former Metra CEO Alex Clifford resigned to protest the commuter rail operator’s long-running patronage culture.

The task force of transit experts, business and union leaders spends most of the report writing about how regional transit governance developed, starting with CTA’s formation in 1947 and the RTA in 1974, and describing how previous transit reforms failed to create a coordinated planning capacity at RTA and instead simply patched a broken funding system.

Their recommendation to create a unified transit agency that would replace the existing RTA is also joined by new recommendations to restore public faith in Chicagoland transit, and to create a system that better supports the economy and residents’ needs.

Transit service, vehicle purchases, and infrastructure upgrades should be planned cohesively in all areas and for all modes, instead of by the RTA and independently by Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace. (Metra, the report says, hasn’t released a capital plan since 1992 and “does little more than list capital improvements in its annual budget.”)

The task force highlights the disparity between job locations and transit access that we’ve reported before and recommends including development around transit as a performance measure. Doing this, the report says, would incentivize municipalities to develop plans and policies that focus development near transit. In other words, if certain towns want more funding for better transit, they’re going to have to ensure that developers build near transit. Read more…