Five things I’m thinking about transportation, Feb. 29 edition

The Vancouver skyline. Photo by hatdow, via Flickr creative commons.

WHAT IS A T.O.D? I thought the highlight of last week’s Move LA summit was the keynote speaker, former Vancouver council member Gordon Price. His main point is that cities should not think of a transit-oriented development as just a new apartment or condo building plopped down next to a transit stop.

Rather, Price said, cities should think of creating entire transit-oriented districts that cover several square miles. Within that district, there must be all the transportation amenities — wide sidewalks, bike lanes, roads for cars and taxis and transit operating so frequently that everyone knows they will catch the next bus or train within a few minutes.

The idea is that there is no dominant mode of transportation — but there’s a lot of choices because there’s a vast network of sidewalks, bike lanes, roads and transit. “You count the efficiency of a city by the number of meetings you can attend in a day,” he said, repeating an old maxim. “Once these grids are in place, once people have the freedom of frequency, the car begins to drop as the dominant mode.”

Fascinating stuff. And Price had stats to back up his views. In the past couple of decades, Vancouver has doubled the number of downtown residents, seen a 25 percent increase in the number of downtown jobs — and the number of car trips into downtown has dropped. (It helps that Vancouver never built a downtown freeway).

“It’s so counter-intuitive,” Price said.

Yes it is. Density can help create networks and allow for frequent transit. But in many quarters of the L.A. area, density is seen as the enemy — when it may be precisely the thing needed to help get people around.

PANEL DISCUSSIONS: I’ve had to attend my share of transportation panel discussions in recent years, time on Planet Earth I’ll never get back.

Here’s my quick advice to organizers of such events: The best discussions are with a panel of one or two people, max. After the third person, the discussion just devolves into a series of shallow sound bites — precisely the thing the world doesn’t need any more of.

NEW METRO APP:    I had the chance recently to give a test drive to an almost-completed version of the new Metro smartphone app. I thought it was terrific, especially in terms of getting bus arrival information and trip planning. We’ll have a lot more about the app on The Source very soon.

SERVICE ALERTS: Obviously there has been some serious service disruptions this month on the Red/Purple Line subway and the Blue Line. While I think Metro does a pretty good job of quickly getting service alert information out to the public via the media, Metro home page, text message and social media (via the Metro Alerts on Twitter), it’s also clear that many of our customers expect information in true “real-time” — as it happens.

There is certainly room for some improvement in terms of Metro using all the tools at its disposal — announcements on trains, buses and in stations, social media, the video screens now in many stations, etc. That said, “real” real-time is always going to be difficult to achieve because agency staff need time to assess what happened, how to fix it and figure out alternative routes for Metro passengers.

As far as I can tell, the biggest complaint from customers is the inability to hear p.a. announcements in stations, trains and buses. Is this right?

THE 305 BUS: The impending cut to the 305 after the Expo Line opens got the attention of the New York Times last summer and the L.A. Times last week. Both stories — pretty much identical in tone and anecdotes — noted that the route stairsteps across the region between Willowbrook and Westwood and is a key tie for many low-income workers between South L.A. and the Westside.

Fair enough. As with any service change, there will obviously be some riders that are impacted and inconvenienced and that’s regrettable. That said, I think it’s fair to counter three of the criticisms:

One, While the 305 offers a direct ride to Westwood for some, it’s not very fast and can take almost two hours to get from Willowbrook to Westwood in rush hour on weekdays. There are alternatives to the 305 that take about the same time, although they do involve transfers.

Two, while some riders told the newspapers that the transfers will increase their transit costs, we don’t know how many 305 riders have Metro passes. A monthly Metro pass costs $75 and is good for unlimited rides on the system for 30 days. There are also discounted fares for seniors, the disabled, students and Medicare recipients. In addition, there are also discounts available for low-income families.

Three, the bigger issue here is this: no transit system can be set in stone. All transit agencies have limited resources to operate their systems on a daily basis, maintain them and plan and build for the future. That means making some difficult decisions, such as the loss of the 305.

I also think the 305 raises the question about bus routes that zig-zag across the region. Is it better to connect distant places through limited stop buses or create a more intuitive network using the region’s street grid? That’s a tough one. Transit planner Jarrett Walker tackles that one in this excellent post on his blog from last year; he favors a grid system with high frequency transit as the best way to move people around.

If any readers here can recommend alternative routes for 305 readers, please do so in the comments section.

11 replies

  1. I think a high frequency grid makes the most sense as long as the following conditions are met:

    1. The max wait time is no longer than 15 minutes during all service hours.
    2. The bus stops are properly sheltered.
    3. The stop spacing is no less than 0.25 miles (with the exception of super dense downtown type areas).
    4. Buses have a way of avoiding heavy traffic queues on large regional thoroughfares via a system of queue jumping or bus lanes if possible. This ensures reliability and keeping on schedule.

    This, I believe, is the model that Metro (and other municipal agencies) should follow for the bus network as it would create a much more effective anywhere-to-anywhere type system as well as serve as an effective connector system for the rail and busway lines.

  2. Alternative route for the 305: Buy a car and test out those soon to be HOV lanes (Metro marketing at it’s best)

  3. In some Metro Rail stations the audio is loud enough to be heard yet some announcers at rail operations do not speak clearly. A combination of that and a weak PA system can make announcements inaudible.

  4. “Two, while some riders told the newspapers that the transfers will increase their transit costs, we don’t know how many 305 riders have Metro passes. A monthly Metro pass costs $75 and is good for unlimited rides on the system for 30 days. There are also discounted fares for seniors, the disabled, students and Medicare recipients. In addition, there are also discounts available for low-income families.”

    This, is why data tracking is important. Had Metro implemented some sort of tap-in/tap-out data collection scheme from every bus rider that gets on and off the bus, they would’ve had hard data to see how many people use the bus with passes versus how many get on with cash fare, and see hard data figures on how 305 riders actually travel (where they get on, where they get off, at what times) on that bus to see whether the 305 cutback is warranted.

    If Metro had hard data, maybe Metro could’ve altered the route to bypass bus stops where people don’t get on to save fuel cost. If Metro had hard data, Metro could’ve adjusted their bus schedules based on time and hour of the day (more frequencies in the morning and afternoon commuting hours, less frequencies outside of those hours).

  5. also the 305 is hands down the best crosstown route in LA. I am happy the BRU lobbied to make it happen, the MTA shouldn’t take it away. The MTA needs to budget capitol projects with operations and maintenance in mind. I love trains and think they are incredibly useful, but you have to be able to afford them in life-cycle cost basis. The federal and state governments should make it a mandate before giving away capitol money to any project (highway to pedestrian crossing) for a life-cycle cost analysis so you cant have people saying, because of the expo line we cant afford a bus!

  6. This is the first time I have ever been on the receiving end of a specific stand alone service reduction. I really support the MTA and what they have been doing over the past several years, but I definitely have mixed feelings about the loss of the 305. In my opinion crosstown bus routes are one of the best kept secrets in LA. They are not heavily utilized (which is why I can see why the MTA puts them on the chopping block so often) and sometimes can take a while (although the VAST majority of the time they are in fact much faster), but there’s nothing like a 1-seat ride from your place of dwelling to your place of work.

    LA transit system has too many current confounding factors to to make the case for the grid based bus transit system. That system really only works if you have:

    1. High frequency: To prevent dwell time at transfers – if anyone has ever transferred off a crowded bus in the middle of the summer or in a winter storm from a conditioned space to an uncovered bench for 10-20 minutes then to another crowded bus you will see the case for single-seat crosstown routes

    2. Larger Capacity Vehicles: Crowded buses also make the transfer process a pain due to the fact that crowded buses pass you by more often than not in LA especially during rush hour where your theory regarding expediency is completely debunked no matter what route you take.

    3. R.O.W.: The quickest way between two points is a straight line. Most often in LA those points are diagonal from each other on a map. If you are telling me I have to go out of my way North, then head West then you better have something to make up for the lost time in traffic headed in the wrong general direction. Right of Way (R.O.W.). The reason the Pacific Red Car and the Surfline and all those guys did well is because even though they took local streets they had the right of way. Cars in all directions had to, and for the most part did, stop/yield for them. Without this its just buses stuck in primarily personal vehicle traffic either way you go. In that case you might as well take the direct route not the “up and over” method.

  7. As far as I can tell, the biggest complaint from customers is the inability to hear p.a. announcements in stations, trains and buses. Is this right?

    – Yes. I was waiting for the Red Line at Pershing Square this morning and the train was late. They made an announcement about it, but I had no idea if they were saying the train was coming soon or would never show up. It’s like Charlie Brown adult talking!

  8. One thought about the 305. I heard Art Leahy say to someone who was complaining about multiple transfers [cost, time and fallibility] His suggestion was to move to a place which was more transit convenient. I’m thinking that some of the folks, who take the 305, when looking for housing, considered convenience of transit as well as affordability of housing in their decision. While the 305 may not be the shortest ride, a one seat ride can be a blessing. Loosing that would be a reason to complain, and I don’t blame them.

  9. Do you know if Lines 30 and 330 will extend from Indiana Gold Line Station to West Hollywood when Expo Line opens. Do you know about Line 42 will renumbered as Line 102. Line 102 will extend from Huntington Park to LAX City Bus Center when Expo Line opens right? Line 217 also will extend from Hollywood/Vine Station to Culver City Transit Center right? I hope they will make service changes in March or April of 2012?

  10. I to read this story in NY Times and 305 substitutes are available, however to get to Westwood, one may have to transfer to a municipal line like the Culver City bus. However, a monthly pass holder can simply take the Blue Line, to the Purple or Red Line, and connect to a 720. I have done this to get out of South L.A. many times and find it much more efficient than taking the 305. There are also the 105 and 108 that go into the westside as well. So while the stories of the riders in those articles sound sad, they will have to find alternatives; which there are many available. Change is constant, and the beauty of being a human being is that we can adapt and critically think if and when that change arrives.