Walkable West Palm Beach

Citylab: Street trees improve the wait experience of transit users

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Street trees are one of those low hanging fruit investments that can make all the difference over time, but too often are neglected. Trees don’t have the political appeal of a mega project ribbon cutting, but in terms of building great cities, I’d argue their return on investment is greater without the potential downside of megaprojects.

As if we needed more reasons to prioritize street trees, Eric Jaffe of Citylab posted this article about how trees make waiting for the bus feel shorter and help mitigate for unpleasant conditions such as traffic and air pollution. From the article:

Planting trees around stops offers local authorities an opportunity to significantly improve users’ wait time perception, but falls outside the purview of transit providers themselves. The ability of the presence of trees to compensate for the negative effects of pollution and traffic suggests that planting trees or moving a problematic stop to take advantage of existing tree cover can significantly improve the user experience at reasonable costs.

Because many bus stops in Palm Beach County tend to be located in places with wider rights of way and generous swales (at least compared to downtown WPB), bus stops seem like an ideal place to engage in street tree plantings in order to bolster the appeal of transit. Something for cities and the county to work together on as the Palm Tran Service Board moves forward on building a better bus system.


h/t Joe Roskowski

How Houston designed a better bus system

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Streetfilms produced this excellent short documentary on the changes that led to a better bus system in Houston. It’s very relevant to the current efforts by the Palm Tran Service Board to enact similar changes in Palm Beach County. From the film description:

Every city should do a “system reimagining” of their bus network like Houston METRO did.

Back in 2012, a small group of motivated citizens asked their local transit agency, elected leaders and advocates about how they could improve Houston’s bus network. Ridership was down. Buses did not run as frequently as people liked. The routes didn’t go where the populace needed them as the system did not change with the city since the 1970s. Weekend ridership was weak. If you wanted to transfer to another route, you almost always had to take a bus downtown first.

As you can surmise, all of this contributes to more cars on the roads and people not wanting to use transit.

The solution was an extremely ambitious, complete examination of every single bus route in the city, wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch. Through community meetings and years of tough decisions – a new METRO bus network emerged. One that has faster service, more efficient, better routes and one that is already boasting big gains in weekend service. And the changes have been essentially revenue neutral, meaning that all the Houston bus system is running at about the same budget it did prior.

This inspirational Streetfilm was produced in partnership with TransitCenter, which is funding us for a total of four films looking at transit throughout the country in 2016.





Bus system is integral to avoiding the fate of Broward County

Jarrett Walker: Transit is a continuum between ridership and coverage that involves tradeoffs

On Thursday, Jarrett Walker, renowned transit consultant and author of the book “Human Transit“, presented to the Palm Tran Service Board and the public on the broad theme of how transit works and why it is important.

One of the first slides was a graphic of the amount of space taken up by different modes: Car, bus, and bicycle. At its most elemental, transit is a better way to use space to transport people. Said another way, single occupancy vehicles are a terribly inefficient way to move people and cities inevitably choke from growth if single occupancy vehicles are the only way to get around.

Those lines with the most frequent service tend to have the highest ridership. In fact, the additional cost from the operations is more than offset from the additional riders/fares collected.


Ridership goals and coverage goals involve tradeoffs on a spectrum. Mr. Walker demonstrated how a shift toward a ridership goal has led to success in other cities. By shifting the ridership goal from, say, 50% priority to 80% priority, cities have seen their systems become more useful and ridership increase. By focusing more on ridership goals, I believe Palm Tran can see impressive gains in ridership and have a system that is much more effective for its users.

Palm Tran buses are nice, clean, and comfortable, in my experience. However, the perception of Palm Tran is harmed by the ambulance chaser advertisements that wrap Palm Tran buses. It sends a message that the only people who ride buses are those in a lower socioeconomic strata and that buses aren’t for everyone. Mr. Walker rightfully criticizes this choice and says it should be reconsidered. At the very least, the bus windows need to be more transparent so that people can see into the buses before getting on board; as it stands, the windows are opaque from the outside due to the personal injury attorney wraps. No one likes to enter an unfamiliar space without having any idea what is behind the entryway, and it’s the same for buses.

I’d like to commend the Palm Tran Service Board, the Palm Tran management team including Executive Director Clinton Forbes and Assistant Director Charles Frazier, and the public officials who attended, including Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, County Commissioner Stephen Abrams, and County Commissioner Paulette Burdick. This was a courageous first step taken to move Palm Tran in a more productive direction.

I believe Palm Tran can become an integral part of our transportation mix in the county. Indeed, with the inevitable growth coming, it must, if we are to continue to grow while avoiding the fate of Broward County. Land use policy must also be looked at together with our transportation planning, but that’s a topic for another time.

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Jarrett Walker, author of “Human Transit”, speaks at Palm Tran meeting Thursday

Jarrett Walker, one of the foremost thinkers on the design of public transportation, is coming to Palm Tran this Thursday.Jarrett_Walker_Flyer_pdf This is an exciting opportunity for our bus system to reimagine itself along the lines of a system like Houston, which managed to dramatically increase frequent service with the same operating dollars and make the system incredibly more useful to riders.

I believe Palm Tran is a county asset that isn’t being fully leveraged as it stands now. If the county is to grow in a more enlightened way and provide better transportation options, buses need to play a big role.

This is a good event for transit advocates, Palm Tran riders, or just those interested in how we can grow without becoming Miami Dade or Broward Counties.  Kudos to new Palm Tran director Clinton Forbes and the Palm Tran Service Board for taking big first step.

Please share with others you think would be interested in this event.


Palm Tran: Bus system has not been reimagined for 20 years

Palm Tran Director Clinton Forbes: We’re overdue for a comprehensive look at our bus system

Inside West Palm Beach, the radio show hosted by Barry O’Brien, recently interviewed Palm Tran Director Clinton Forbes. Barry is a huge transit supporter and has been advocating for better transit service through has involvement in the community and on the Downtown Action Committee (DAC).

Much of the conversation focused around the known deficiencies with Palm Tran. As an example, Mr. Forbes cited a survey that shows that only 10% of current Palm Tran ridership consist of “choice riders”, or those who have other options such as owning a car. Many routes are slow, with far too many stops, and few direct routes. Buses aren’t frequent enough. The inability for urban dwellers to get on a bus and ride straight north or south on U.S. 1 is a particularly noticeable failing as these are the population and employment centers in the county. I recently attempted to take a bus to my wife’s workplace in Jupiter, and what would have been a half hour car ride would have taken me over two hours. No one is going to make the choice to ride a bus given other options. And for those without a choice, it just makes life that much harder. Dependent riders’ time matters as well.

I’ve been critical of our bus system, maybe overly so. The good news: Listening to Mr. Forbes, Palm Tran Director, was a breath of fresh air. He gets it. Here’s what he had to say about the routes of Palm Tran:

“Since 1996, we have not taken a comprehensive look at our system. Development has changed, land use patterns have changed, population density has changed…but what have we done? The system is the same. And so we could not be maximizing our efficiency with the system. And so one of my number one priorities…is to do a comprehensive look at our system.”

Music to my ears. He mentioned the efforts in Jacksonville and Houston to reimagine their bus system. I’m a huge fan of the Houston reimagining project, which used the same operating dollars to create a much more convenient and robust bus system that is more useful to people. Below GIF shows the frequent bus network (<15 minute headways) before and after.



Imagine credit: James Llamas and Strong Towns.org. Click image for article.



Mr. Forbes has also mentioned the idea of signal prioritization at traffic signals, which would basically give buses a ‘green wave’ of lights and improve trip times. [Sun-Sentinel story. ] The reimagining of the system and signal prioritization could drastically improve headways. Headways of 5-10 minutes are ideal, with 15-20 minutes being generally accepted as the inflection point at which ridership drops dramatically. Mr. Forbes also mentioned the rollout of attractive new buses that will have Wi-Fi, coming soon. The South Dixie Corridor study also presents an opportunity to implement signal prioritization and new fast boarding bus stops with the corridor reimagining.

With useful bus service, I’m absolutely confident Palm Tran will get used much more than it is currently and become an important part of our transportation mix in Palm Beach County. Mr. Forbes is taking  Palm Tran in the right direction; let’s hope we can all get on-board to make a better bus system a reality.

Interview is below. Go to minute 19, when the interview starts getting good.

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Message to Palm Beach MPO: Avoiding “Browardization”

The Palm Beach MPO took a field trip last week, riding Palm Beach County transit. Kudos to the board members for experiencing the transit system firsthand, even if the trip itself wasn’t really indicative of the day to day experiences of your average rider. I applaud County Commissioner Steven Abrams, as it is my understanding he rides Tri-Rail to work everyday, giving him a real perspective on transit.

Two ideas worth pursuing

The MPO discussed a technology that might allow buses to get signal prioritization at traffic lights, significantly speeding up headways. This sounds like a first step toward bus rapid transit and could have a big impact on convenience and, by extension, ridership on Palm Tran. From the Post:

Along with more bus shelters, Palm Tran wants to develop “smart card” technology — the same that allows drivers with a card on their windshield to zip through toll booths. Adding WiFi and technology to let bus drivers and county traffic engineers communicate to extend green lights at intersections when a bus is approaching is also being considered, said Palm Tran Executive Director Clinton Forbes.

BRT has proved transformational in a number of cities. BRT, if done right, can provide reliable and frequent county transit at a fraction of the price of rail. The cost of right of way acquisition for new rail is enormous and so better ways to use existing capacity and road networks should be the focus.

Secondly, it was good to hear about city and county success in putting in the humble bus shelter. No one likes to wait for a bus in the sweltering Florida heat (well, most of the year). Improved bus shelters help bus riders significantly and also advertise where bus routes exist.

Opportunities for improvement

Unfortunately, disconnects large and small remain in our county transportation policy. Here’s what my wish list would consist of.

  • A Houston-style reimagining of Palm Tran to create a useful bus system. Increase frequency, decrease headways, and make the time to travel between major points reasonable. A half hour car ride can take 2 hours on Palm Tran. This is unacceptable and no one will choose to ride the bus in this circumstance, even those trips where the two endpoints are in walkable neighborhoods.
  • Get the small stuff right. I tweeted this last week, the day before the MPO trip. It was the result of me trying to figure out how to get from FLL to downtown WPB. The Fort Lauderdale trolley doesn’t have a Google Feed, and the result is an inaccurate estimate of the time it takes to get home. Over an hour of time is added to my estimated trip because the trolley isn’t feeding into Google. This affects not only Google, but those apps that rely on Google data such as Transit App. I realize this is a Broward county example, but the same problems exist in Palm Beach County.

  • County transportation impact fees are required to fund new road capacity. This policy subsidizes the car trip and harms older downtowns like West Palm Beach, where what is needed is not new roads but more multimodal options. Downtown WPB has generated a tremendous amount of new urban infill over the past decade, but the impact fee money is not benefiting downtown; in fact, it is being used to fund road widenings in car dependent areas of the county. This is a really stupid policy that needs to change. As Urban3’s analysis demonstrates, the downtowns and traditional neighborhoods are the breadbasket of the county tax base, because they are far and away the most potent land areas in the county. Undermining their tax productivity is harms the cities and also the county at large, which relies on these downtown areas for a disproportionate part of the tax base. See Urban3 analysis video, below.
  • Last but certainly not least, better land use policy, countywide. Regardless of how much money we sink into our transit systems, if they don’t connect to walkable neighborhoods, the results will be underwhelming. As recent studies have shown, in transit oriented development, the most important part of the equation is not the transit, but the compact, walkable development. Building transit in sprawl surrounded by huge parking lots doesn’t reduce car trips and doesn’t provide the many benefits of walkable urbanism. Only building walkable urbanism does that. Transit is secondary to building neighborhoods with centers and with a reasonable pedestrian walking time from center to edge.

The MPO has done a good job elevating awareness of tools like Transit App as well as supporting complete streets and Tri-Rail Coastal Link efforts. A large chasm exists between best practices in land use and transportation at the county level, however. The inevitable outcome of the sprawling pattern of land use pursued at the county level is more congestion, more road spending, more unsafe stroads, more pollution, less community, more time spent commuting, and less fiscal productivity (see video below). Some of these issues must be addressed not by the MPO, but by Palm Beach County.

Avoiding the the “Browardization” moniker requires a more nuanced understanding of the interdepencies between land use and transportation than the “build, build, build” more roads approach. The preservation of Palm Beach County’s high quality of life depends on it.


[edit, 9:30 am: This is a good opportunity to mention the Strong Towns #NoNewRoads campaign which is happening this week. Here is the description of the campaign:

This week at Strong Towns we are going to focus our attention on the embarrassing mess that is the American system system of transportation finance. Our premise here at Strong Towns has been, for some time now, #NoNewRoads, a rejection of any proposal to spend more money on this system until we undertake dramatic reform…

Here’s a common sense approach that a consensus of Americans seem willing to support:

  1. Let’s prioritize fixing what we have. We should not build anything new until we’ve figured out how to pay to maintain what we’ve already built.
  2. Anything new that is built must not be the result of paybacks in a system of pork-barrel politics but the result of a rigorous, independent financial analysis.
  3. The users of the system should pay for the system. That includes those hauling freight as well as those hauling kids to soccer practice.
  4. We can’t just keep building highways. Our approach to transportation has to acknowledge the limits of more road building and the benefits of alternative approaches.
  5. We cannot ignore the complex relationships — positive and negative — between the way we approach transportation and the impact that has on our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Allowing these to continue as separate undertakings — transportation and land use in different silos — is self-defeating and economically suicidal.



Cover photo: Bill DiPaolo, Palm Beach Post