Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The need for a double decker bus vs. streetcar comparison study

Hey, I am into streetcars, a lot, and for the most part, I am in favor of streetcars in DC and other places. 

Right:  rendering of what streetcars will look like on H Street NE in Washington, DC.  The line is between 2 and 3 miles long and will have 6 cars (at least initially--some may have to be shared with Anacostia if they ever get their streetcar service).  The service should be operational by April.  

It happens that this morning, I ran into someone who is heavily involved in local politics and he asked me about a bunch of transit issues, including the streetcar. 

For me, the biggest reason for streetcars is the likelihood that ridership will rise significantly, say 40% over a bus, smoothness and quality of the ride, and most significantly, reduced noise as buses, even with natural gas fuel, are still very very loud.

But later today Notions Capital forwarded this article, "St. Paul on the cusp of transit transformation" from the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, about some changes to transit service that are coming to St. Paul, Minnesota--to link with and leverage the forthcoming Central Corridor light rail line that should open later this year.
One of the changes to the transit picture in St. Paul Minnesota will be the transfer of Amtrak service from an outlying newer station back to the historic Union Depot in Downtown.  Photo of Union Depot by Jean Pieri, St. Paul Pioneer-Press.

The article mentions other proposals, including  a proposed four-mile long streetcar line (so that would be 8 miles of track) is expected to cost $246 million to construct, plus $8 million in annual operating costs. 

Damn that's a lot of money.  By comparison, the Central Corridor line is 11-miles long and will cost $957 million to construct and fit out.

It makes me wonder if there are better ways to spend money on transit...and it makes me appreciate that DC already has a reasonably extensive Metrorail subway service.

Buses Line up on Oxford StreetDouble deck buses line up on Oxford Street, London.  Flickr photo by DJFleer.

Previously I have argued ("Making bus service sexy and more equitable") that DC should reposition and rebrand bus service as a premium service by switching to double deck buses.  It would look cooler than the current buses--like the buses in cities like London--but it wouldn't be quieter.

It would be interesting to do a simultaneous test of a double deck bus service on a street like Georgia Avenue (70s line) and compare the impact to the introduction of streetcar service, such as on H Street NE.

Of course, the problem with this is that you can't really do a complete comparison study. 

You would need to do the other changes, including marketing that are outlined in the past blog entry.  And with regard to streetcars, they aren't buying enough streetcars to be able to eliminate bus service completely and in any case, the line doesn't fully parallel the X line bus service (from Minnesota Ave. to Downtown DC) anyway.

But it would be great to be able to do a study and answer some questions: "can you get enough ridership pickup at a lower cost with double deck buses?" and "what is the difference in economic impact from the two types of services?" to determine if satisficing with better buses is viable.

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At 9:15 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

I would argue that actually improving the bus service is far more important than making the buses themselves 'sexy.'

Premium service is not about branding, it is about actually offering a better level of service.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Look at the studies about transit use. People with choices-higher incomes don't, except in "unusual" circumstances, ride buses.

In my opinion, without physically rebranding bus service through a markedly different type of bus, meaning a two story bus, as opposed to "a bus that's made to look like a train," you won't get the kinds of ridership increases that you are expecting.

For all the focus on "bus rapid transit," special stations, etc., in most places (not LA County), the ridership on those bus lines does not exceed the ridership of the highest used bus lines in DC, which don't have any of those added elements.

The VIVA service in York Region (with service to Toronto) has ridership much lower than DC's highest used buses.

The Silver Line in Boston has pretty pathetic numbers.

The HealthLine in Cleveland is about at/a little under ridership of the 70s, 90s, and 30s lines in DC, and lower than the S bus line on 16th St.

And speaking of the value of branding, look at the ridership of the Circulator. I wonder if there has been any decent demographic studies of the ridership of those services.

I bet if you compared the downtown serving lines to the Metrobus lines serving the same areas, the demographics would be significantly different in terms of higher income people riding the Circulator.

In fact, such data would probably prove my point, with the proviso that the nature of the service is different and would draw a different segment of the ridership as well.

The big thing would be do the demographics of the Circulator serving Adams Morgan with service to McPherson Square significantly differ from the 50s bus. I would think even they do, that more white people ride the Circulator compared to the 50s bus, probably the same number of Hispanics.

At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

I have looked at the studies, and I'm not sold on the idea that a really nice bus that's operating the same crappy service will magically attract more riders.

The quality of the service matters more than anything else.

I don't find any of the comparisons to other regions convincing, partilcularly when you're citing ridership numbers that depend so much on the broader context. It's all apples to oranges.

I know the Circulator well, and the brand there is not the nice red buses, the brand is the level of service. 10 minute headways, all day long. The nice buses are a bonus, a nice association. But put those same nice buses on any regular ol' Metrobus route with circuitous routing, long headways that vary throughout the day, and heavily peak-oriented services that require you to consult a schedule before travelling - and the quality of the bus won't matter much.

You can get really nice buses if you like, but if you don't provide a quality level of service, then it's just putting lipstick on a pig.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

FWIW, the piece on making bus service sexy and more equitable goes into most of the elements necessary to improve bus service, frankly, in way too much detail.

The point the piece makes is to introduce quantum changes in the service framework and a different type of bus.

2. The real reason the Circulator works downtown probably isn't even the alleged 10 minute headways but the legibility and the fact that as a service it goes to a lot of the places that people want to go, which the Metrobuses don't do so easily, because they are long haul routes that happen to serve downtown and nearby activity centers, but not intentionally so. It's just a spillover from the overall route.

My piece on "intra-city" transit service discusses those issues, also in too much detail.

At 12:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to be an ignoramus, I would like to know where you can see figures for the ridership of the Circulator. There was an individual in my 'hood who railed against the service for years, claiming that it was an expensive non-necessity.


At 1:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

in the past I've relied on news reports.

I haven't read the big report produced for the MoveDC planning process on bus service, but I presume that numbers are in there.

Again, the point about the Circulator service is that it is a particular kind of intra-city transit service that should be judged by more nuanced criteria, respecting what it is intending to do.

2. that being said, the "downtown" routes are materially different from the other routes and have much larger ridership.

The "local" routes, especially the ones in SE, for the most part duplicate service at high cost and lower ridership.

The Woodley Park one is a hybrid, because it goes to McPherson Square. This increases its ridership.

OTOH, using my framework for transit subnetworks, neighborhood circulators do make sense for intra-neighborhood access and connection, but that's not really what the DC circulators are intending to accomplish, so they don't really illustrate my framework very well.

It's more about people in those neighborhoods wanting to feel equal to Downtown and Georgetown... and that is very expensive and probably a waste.

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Circulator dashboard.‎

At 1:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" is a particular kind of intra-city transit service that should be judged by more nuanced criteria, respecting what it is intending to do."

"...but that's not really what the DC circulators are intending to accomplish..."

And what is it that they are attending to accomplish (see my comment below on economic development) and why??


At 4:30 PM, Anonymous h st ll said...

"s expected to cost $246 million to construct, plus $8 million in annual operating costs.

Damn that's a lot of money."

Seems cheap to me in comparison to small bridges or interchanges that are 600 million or more.

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

good point. and a not insignificant part of the cost tends to be utility relocation.

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

circulators = intra-district transit

At 6:47 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Yow. Charlie thanks for that. I guess I should add the link to the sidebar.

While it's awesome they provide this info, it's an illustration of the necessity of metrics as part of the city's transpo plan/transit plan.

Most of these services are unsupportable from a usage standpoint. In fact most are pathetic. Now we need cost/line #s.

At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks from me, too, Charlie!

Kind of interesting how the Circulator usage fluctuates with the tourist season--bottoming out in November and February. I'd forgotten that it doesn't run in December and January.

"Most of these services are unsupportable from a usage standpoint."

That was the point of my question above--are we getting value for our money. Although 400,000+ (500,000+ in peak season) riders a month seems pretty decent, but it may be chump change in comparison to the subsidies/costs. I know less than nothing about the financials.

At 8:01 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

In terms of circulators getting white/affluent people, like all things it varies.

My experience is that it very true on the Rosslyn-Dupont line. High number of tourists as well.

The main K st line used to, but not anymore. Still better than WMATA. A lot of people use it as a cheap cross town bus (I do as well)

The 14th st line, yes.

Alex, I broadly agree with you that the key factor is better service, not bettr buses. That being said branding and informaton is important. The "orange line wiht a view" ad is brilliant as it describes what a bus does. You don't need double decker, but wrapping buses can help (the graphics on circulator as confusing, for instance).

Buses are esotoric transit. The best way to more affluent people is to run buses to where affluent people want to go -- and not end up at hospitals or slums.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

to riff off Charlie's point about "esoteric" transit, the point of the circulators is to be intra-district, whereas traditional long haul bus service is kind of point to point to activity centers, often in a somewhat peripatetic way. (esoteric = peripatetic in this context)

That's the point made by Robt. Firth in his pieces in the PGH Post Gazette.

links to pieces within this entry:

It's what I mean when I say that it is "happenstance" that Metrobus lines serve the core as an intra-district service.

Intra-district transit can be deserving of separate and branded service. The Circulators in DC and Baltimore do that. In Baltimore they need it even more because of the more limited MTA services.

3. But from a $ standpoint, to run service every 10 minutes, you probably need about 12,000 riders to justify it.

None of the DC circulators hits that metric. Again, for other reasons, it may be worth supporting such a service in the core (tourists, etc.).

4. But intra-neighborhood circulators are a different story and need different metrics and service patterns too. In my writings I call this the "tertiary" transit network and focus service within neighborhoods to commercial districts and transit stations.

They can't be long haul by definition, and the bus that goes from Woodley to McPherson is long haul, so is the one that crosses the Anacostia, so is the "Navy yard" one.

The Navy Yard and SE services should be shut down immediately as circulators, there is no way their minimal ridership is justified.

But the "advantage" of replacing Metro with local services is that there is less scrutiny, despite the dashboard, whereas all Metrobus routes are compared with cost and ridership #s and have to be justified budget-wise.

That's what happened with the Navy Yard "circulator" which used to be a Metrobus route, one of the least used, and which Metro would no longer subsidize. Same with the "Adams Morgan Link" bus service, although to its credit the Circulator equivalent is doing much better.

5. Wrt EE's point, I wrote a post 3 years ago about "giving up" on trying to apply logic, reason, and metrics to Circulator expansion, because actual use and financial efficacy clearly was not part of the equation.

That's why I argue for metrics as part of the transpo master plan, because then you have an objective set of criteria to make decisions and choices against.

At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...I wrote a post 3 years ago about "giving up" on trying to apply logic, reason, and metrics to Circulator expansion, because actual use and financial efficacy clearly was not part of the equation." could take out "Circulator expansion" and put in just about anything having to do with government services and it would be wholly appropriate.

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

"But from a $ standpoint, to run service every 10 minutes, you probably need about 12,000 riders to justify it."

Based on what? What money standpoint? What Metrics are you using?

Riders per day isn't a good metric.

Boardings per bus per hour, farebox recovery, Subsidy per rider, cost per revenue hour - these are good metrics (and are part of the Circulator plan, by the way - have you read it?). An abstract, context-less ridership number is not.

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Alex, looks like a lot of your proposed metrics are on the dashboard now.

Farebox rcovery is ranging from 30% (Georgetown) to 10% (skyland)

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

They're not my proposed metrics, they've been the metrics DDOT has used for quite some time now. They don't get a ton of press. And no, not all of the routes meet the metrics.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

for me, ridership is more important than farebox recovery. High ridership is the metric used by transit services to justify frequent service.


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