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Have Mercy, Talking About the Bus All Day

December 16, 2011

Last Sunday the Tribune ran a front page article about commutes in the Tampa Bay area this past week.  The piece had a number of interesting things in it.  For instance:

About 80 percent of Tampa Bay area commuters drive to work by themselves, according to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That pattern continues despite gas prices that have tripled in recent years and government efforts to reduce congestion by pushing carpooling and mass transit.

The fact that many people drive alone is clearly true. (more on the 80% figure later).  As for government efforts to reduce congestion by pushing . . . mass transit, we were surprised be because Tampa Bay does not have mass transit.  Thankfully, the article clarified:

People continue driving solo for a lot of reasons, transportation experts say:

Ok, now we’ve got it.  Tampa Bay’s “mass transit” is buses.  Sure, buses can take a decent number of people from one spot to another.  However, anyone who actually thinks about it will note a few downsides to buses.  First, you have to wait for them – like trains, but unlike the car in your driveway.  Second, you sit in traffic with everyone else. (Yes, we know about the “metro rapid” bus rapid transit idea that HART is going to use, but those buses are still on the road – if the road is blocked with traffic, so is your bus, even if you can play with traffic signals.).  Third, when you get to where you are going, you cannot go anywhere else because, do to poor planning, our area (including our downtowns) is built that way.

The obsession with the bus is explained this way by the executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA):

Hillsborough County voters last year rejected a tax increase that would have financed a commuter rail line. This year, Gov. Rick Scott rejected more than a billion in federal funding meant to underwrite a high-speed rail corridor across the state. Bus ridership, which spiked with rising gas prices in 2008, has been undermined by job losses linked to the economic downturn.

“It leaves us in a place where we need to be looking at all modes,” Clifford said. “We’ve got to find low-cost, efficient solutions. There’s not a lot of funding out there for new, big projects.”

Clifford sees some hope in carpooling, which has started to grow at the region’s fringes. In Hernando County communities such as Spring Hill and Masaryktown, where the average commute runs about half an hour, carpoolers make up 15 to 18 percent of commuters. Closer to Tampa, those numbers drop into the single digits.

First, we have already covered the issue of the referendum.  Second, high speed rail has nothing to do with commuters.  Third, we thought the economic downturn would force people out of their cars.

Finally, there is funding for new, big projects – but it is in Orlando, where the leadership of the area took the bull by the horns, thought creatively, and actually got a rail project going.  However, the creative thinking Tampa Bay has is this:

He also sees smaller projects – sidewalks and bike paths, for example – as ways to inspire commuters to leave their cars in the garage. So far, though, pedestrians and cyclists make up the barest sliver of the region’s commuters. The Pinellas County beach town of Gulfport leads the region with 2.5 percent of its workforce commuting on foot.

We do accept that sidewalks are helpful as a means to build walkable areas where people can go for the day, so they do not need a car when they get there, but the above quote questionable. Sidewalks and bike paths as a means to commute?  What, from Wesley Chapel to Westshore, someone is going to walk?

We are also told the following:

In the coming years, the state Department of Transportation will use existing highways and surface streets more efficiently – by creating bus-only lanes or special toll lanes for commuters willing to pay for a speedier trip downtown, Clifford said.

That is fine, but it is still a bus and we do not even have HOV lanes.  Frankly, maybe TBARTA has noticed that half of 275 through Tampa is relatively new (and still inadequate) and the other half is the old, really inadequate part – maybe that should be addressed.  Moreover, with a train, once you have the track, for more capacity, you can just make the train longer, like they are considering in Charlotte rather than having to keep expanding lanes.

The Expert

Towards the end of the article, there is the obligatory quote from a researcher, in this case the director of mobility research for the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida:

Buses might be it for mass transit in the Tampa Bay area for the foreseeable future.

With voters resistant to tax increases, a rail system such as those built in Dallas, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C., probably remains out of reach for the Tampa Bay region, Polzin said.

And even if the area could fund a rail system, it’s not clear a commuter train would be worth the cost, he said. The Charlotte system, which has been the envy of Tampa Bay area leaders, has made hardly a dent in that region’s commuting pattern, Polzin said.

Census figures show that in Charlotte, about 80 percent of commuters drive alone. Less than half a percent take the train.

“The reality is: It’s only serving a tiny share of the public,” Polzin said. “It’s not like there was a radical change and everybody in Charlotte starting taking the train.”

And from 2005:

Polzin, a former member of the HARTline board, would rather see the region concentrate in the short term on BRT.

“Bus rapid transit has a higher payoff sooner for the community and the commuter,” Polzin said. “I don’t think Tampa should be playing “keeping up with the Joneses’ on rail. Each community has to look at what makes sense there, and then let it play out.”

He argues that Orlando is better suited for a rail system given its much larger service sector, tourist base and more clearly defined destinations.

That seems to be quite damning stuff from the unbiased expert. The thing is that, though the does not mention it, it is not clear that the expert is unbiased.  In fact, it appears that the expert may have a vested interest in promoting buses over rail.  And, even more interestingly, unless HART has not updated its website, this expert is on the board of HART.

The expert is the “the director of mobility research for the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.” (or CUTR).  Part of CUTR is the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute (or NBRTI see also here). Odd, what could the purpose of that be? Well, right on the home page, they tell us:

Our Mission

The Mission of the National BRT Institute is to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and innovation for increasing speed, efficiency, and reliability of high-capacity bus service through the implementation of BRT systems in the United States.

Note, they are not providing unbiased analysis of the benefits and liabilities of BRT.  They are pushing the implementation of BRT.

And in the “Learn” section of the website, there is a link to Bus Industry Confederation (BIC) BRT brochure (though the link seems broken).  In the “Promote” section of the website, we are told:

Promoting Rapid Transit

In this section you will find presentations and research related to promotion, marketing and branding Bus Rapid Transit.

It is widely recognized that fostering a “positive image” is a central objective of BRT. It is hoped that creating a positive image could translate into ridership gains that are greater than would be achieved by service improvements alone, and could result in greater perceptions of speed, reliability, safety and security while using BRT services. The BRT system offers numerous different opportunities for creating a positive image, including vehicle design, both interior and exterior, as well as station design and running-way provision.

Note, they are not promoting “Rapid Transit” but BRT with links to helpful information to promote BRT.

In fact, the Times did an article  in 2009 on just this topic.  The gist of that report was:

The University of South Florida think tank says every transportation option it examines undergoes a rigorous and objective analysis. It says it plays no favorites.

But a St. Petersburg Times analysis shows CUTR has often criticized one type of travel — passenger rail — while promoting alternatives it is paid millions to study.

An examination of the center’s research and funding shows:

∙ CUTR (pronounced “cutter”) has consistently championed highway expansion even as it gets most of its grant money from Florida’s largest road building entity — the Department of Transportation. Since 2003, the DOT has paid CUTR $26 million to study and advise on everything from toll roads to road rangers to drug abuse — but not passenger rail.

∙ CUTR has received more than $6 million since 2006 to research bus rapid transit, which competes for much of the same money that rail does. It has consistently favored this transportation option over rail.

∙ Since CUTR opened in 1988, its experts have been quoted or cited on rail in at least 119 published accounts. Their statements were three times more likely to be negative than positive, according to a survey of the Nexis data base.

We won’t rehash everything in the article.  You can read the article and the websites for yourself and decide what weight to give them and the expert.

The Numbers

Getting back to the numbers quoted in the article.  The Tribune article states that “about 80 percent of Tampa Bay area commuters drive to work by themselves, according to recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.” Interesting, a Census Bureau analysis of commuters nationwide says:

Over three-quarters of the nation’s workers drove alone to work.

* * *

Suburban workers drove alone at a rate of 81.5 percent, compared with 72.1 percent for workers living inside of a principal city.

* * *

The 10 metro areas with the shortest average commute times have populations of fewer than 300,000 people.

In other words, Tampa Bay is pretty normal with those numbers – maybe a little on the high.

As we noted the CUTR expert argues that rail is not efficient and refers to Charlotte saying:

Census figures show that in Charlotte, about 80 percent of commuters drive alone. Less than half a percent take the train.

“The reality is: It’s only serving a tiny share of the public,” Polzin said. “It’s not like there was a radical change and everybody in Charlotte starting taking the train.”

How does that compare to Hillsborough County?

Yet Steve Polzin, director of mobility policy at USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, argues this area still isn’t ready. Not when only one percent of travelers use buses, and where less than a fifth of all trips are for work. And only in Los Angeles are jobs more dispersed than in the Hillsborough-Pinellas area, Polzin says.

Polzin thinks Hillsborough County should begin collecting taxes for a rail system, but shouldn’t build one until bus ridership doubles to 2 percent.

“That would be pretty dramatic,” said Polzin, who is a board member of the county’s bus agency.

Now, the exact difference in the numbers of “commuters” v. “trips” is not clear, and we do not have all the numbers.  However, if bus trips in Hillsborough County only account of 1% of all the trips, ½% riding the rail does not sound so bad – especially when the system is very new (late 2007) and does not come close to serving the entire metro area.  Of course, these numbers also ignore transit based development, urban redevelopment, attracting business and workers and all the other things that rail promotes.

Finally, the expert also has a 2010 article on BRT in which he says the following:

A key characteristic of BRT is the prospect that it can offer a lower-cost method of providing better performing public transit service (not yet fully verified) that is able to both retain current and attract new customers as well as garner political and taxpayer support.

So keep in mind, with all the talk about BRT’s benefits, the “[b]etter performing transit service” is not yet fully verified.

Buses seem to just be the easy thing to do.  As we have noted several times, Tampa Bay’s competitors are doing the hard things.

Roundup

Due to the holiday season, the Roundup for this week will be included in next week’s Roundup.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Steve Polzin permalink
    December 20, 2011 1:01 PM

    If anyone want to know my opionin on a particular transit related issue, please ask. As with most things in life, the opinion is set in the context of the specific issues and the types of generalizations implied are seldom appropriate.

    And if anyone thinks my opinions are influenced by how various initiatives are funding within our organization – well, then they just don’t know me very well.

    Steve Polzin

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