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

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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.

 

 

 


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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.


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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.

 

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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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Pivotal agreement reached for commuter rail; FDOT consent last remaining hurdle

The pressure on the Florida Department of Transportation to approve expansion of Tri-Rail service along the Florida East Coast Rail Corridor has reached its peak. After today’s unanimous vote of support from the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) Governing Board, FDOT consent is the last remaining hurdle before communities and neighborhoods along the FEC can begin planning their own commuter rail stations in earnest. It could soon be possible for residents of Jupiter or Delray Beach to walk to a train station and head directly into Downtown Wilton Manors or Midtown Miami. Alternatively, the same resident could take Tri-Rail to connect with All Aboard Florida’s trains to Fort Lauderdale or Orlando.

FDOT consent involves two key commitments: written confirmation of their contribution of $17.2 million, and permission to SFRTA to “reprogram” money set aside for the Metrorail/79th St station to new Tri-Rail stations and/or related costs.

In return for this, FDOT gets unlimited rights to run Tri-Rail up the FEC corridor with a significant reduction in maintenance costs since they will be shared with All Aboard Florida.

By SFRTA’s own estimates, this will generate $18 million in local tax revenue, 28,000 new permanent jobs and 2,300 tons of annual CO2 reduction per year, among other benefits.

More importantly, South Florida residents will finally have commuter rail service AND a real alternative to I-95.

Join Walkable West Palm Beach in supporting Tri-Rail Coastal Link by following Friends of Tri-Rail Coastal Link on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TriRailCoastalLink and using #BringTriRailDowntown in your own social media posts.

#BringTriRailDowntown


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Uber provides better service and transportation choice

The Palm Beach County Commission is scheduled to consider an ordinance regulating Uber Tuesday. The ordinance would allow Uber to operate legally in the County, with several conditions, while acknowledging a distinction between traditional taxicabs and vehicle for hire companies like Uber.

If taxicab companies sought any sympathy for their cause, they’ll find none here. Our regulatory regime essentially enforces a cartel, and they’ve long been in bed with the agencies that regulate them in order to maintain monopolistic pricing power. On a recent trip between downtown WPB and PBIA, I compared a trip of the same length on Uber versus a taxicab. The taxicab cost $16 versus $8 for Uber. My last experience with a taxicab was getting off Tri-Rail in downtown WPB to take a cab to my apartment. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did. The driver didn’t speak English, the cab smelled, and the credit card reader was broken. As my wife and I exited the cab and tried to find enough cash to pay, the cab driver kept the meter running. And if you need a receipt for business expense purposes? Good luck with that.

Innovation in this space is long overdue and that is what ride hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft are bringing to the table. The key point that needs to be understood in this conversation is that self-regulation is working better than government regulation in this market. How often does the County inspect its drivers and their cars? There are thousands of cabs in Palm Beach County, certainly. I would be surprised if the cars were inspected once per month. With ride hailing apps like Lyft and Uber, feedback is instantaneous and drivers are rated after every ride. Uber has a policy that if a driver rating falls below a certain threshold, they are kicked off the service. Economists surveyed strongly agree that ridehailing services improve consumer welfare (economist speak for well-being of consumers).

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Source: Vox.com, University of Chicago

Ridehailing services hold the potential to be much more than a better taxi service, though. Uber’s stated goal is a world with less cars, not more, with UberPool –  truly ‘ridesharing’. Here’s an infographic explaining how it works. uber_UK_infographic_v3

South Florida isn’t blessed with a resilient, multimodal transportation system, to say the least. We’ve put all our eggs in one basket: Automobility and prayed for the best. Never-ending lane widenings and congestion seems to be our fate. How do we break this vicious cycle of car dependency? I believe ridehailing services are part of the solution. Not the answer, but part of the response. Since these ride hailing services came into existence, I’ve cut my driving even further, namely on regional trips. Before Uber, taking Tri-Rail was more daunting. Hailing a taxi is always a dicey proposition; I’ve had numerous experiences with early morning flights and unresponsive taxi companies. Call, call, call… Finally have a taxi dispatched, promised to arrive in 10 minutes, only for it to arrive in 30. This unreliability is part of the reason I chose to drive in the past.

With ride hailing, I know exactly where my ride is and how long until it arrives.   This makes for reliable transportation to/from the station and solves the ‘last mile’ problem of transit to a large degree. This problem is especially relevant in South Florida because Tri-Rail isn’t built around walkable neighborhoods, so connection to your end destination is usually inevitable.

Example screenshot of Uber hailing: 

Now, I’ve been using Tri-Rail for my regional trips to Fort Lauderdale and to FLL. I credit Uber for making it a cheaper, easier, and more convenient option. In fact, I’m on Tri-Rail as I type this, on my way to downtown Fort Lauderdale.

If a marginal number of people decide to forego car ownership because services like carshare and ridehailing make it feasible to do so, we can start to reclaim the parking craters in our downtowns and walkable neighborhoods. With less car ownership, less parking can be provided in new developments and parking craters can be redeveloped.  A virtuous cycle of lowered car dependency, less need for parking, more walkable neighborhoods, and still lowered car dependency can take hold. This strategy must be coupled with smart transportation investments to connect our productive places (walkable downtowns) first. Chief among them: Tri-Rail Coastal Link and All Aboard Florida. Ridehailing services and carshare for intracity trips, when you need a car. Tri-Rail Coastal Link and AAF for intercity trips in our region. I can already hear the naysayers. “That won’t work here, South Florida is a car place!” Trends can reach a tipping point sooner than one might think. Our charge as a region is to allow choice and competition, and a better South Florida will result.

Email the County Commissioners, let them know you support ridehailing services:

BCC-AllCommissioners@pbcgov.org 

Detail from the Palm Beach Post story:

Palm Beach County commissioners will take a first vote for new plans for firms such as Uber at 11 a.m. Tuesday at their regular meeting. A public hearing and final vote is set for Aug. 18.

  • The industry would be split into two categories: regular taxis and app-based ride providers.

  • Taxi firms would have to have commercial car liability insurance, but the app-dependent freelance drivers could have either commercial or regular liability insurance with a minimum of $1 million per occurrence. The issue of when an Uber driver is covered by whom has been debated nationwide. Uber says drivers are covered by their personal insurance until the moment they tap their smartphone to accept a fare, and Uber’s insurer is a backup.

  • Freelance drivers would not need special taxi IDs but instead could use a company ID badge or a smart phone app for identification.

  • Taxi drivers would need “Level II” background checks, in which drivers’ fingerprints are checked against state and federal criminal history databases. Freelance driver firms could do their own background checks through an accredited agency.