Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
Don't Rail at Traffic; Make Buses Better

By Neal Peirce
Web-posted: 4:43 p.m. Dec. 9, 2000


Rail is all the rage these days. Just ask officials at the Federal Transit Administration, now in the bulls-eye for every region with hopes to build rail transit. The feds grapple with an unprecedented number of rail applications from U.S. regions, all scrambling to start some sort of serious transit system. In Dallas a decade ago, you couldn't find anyone who would believe that people with nice cars would take transit to work. Today they're expanding a popular fledgling system of light rail service. This is Texas, no less, where the SUV is the contemporary horse.

South Florida already has more miles of rail than most large metropolitan areas with Metrorail and Metromover in Miami and the regional commuter train Tri-Rail connecting the three counties. But as a rail-transit system, Metrorail, is conspicuously incomplete and more an example for how its neighboring counties shouldn't plan such a project. It lacks the connections and routes essential to building a larger market, and the funding source to expand. Meanwhile, the technology of bus service is changing in revolutionary ways. Buses as comfortable as trains are showing up in many regions, along routes equipped with modern waiting areas. You might think of them as trains on tires, they can provide good, quality service instead of the more costly rail to a region facing massive traffic headaches.

Think of Los Angeles as the laboratory. Here's a place with legendary pain over slow traffic. And a place that has spent unprecedented sums for a relatively few miles of rail service. What usually passes without mention is the El Monte Busway, the oldest one in America, linking eastern LA County to downtown. Three bus companies use this busway, and carry more than 45,000 passengers every day. Now Caltrans (California's department of transportation) has completed the Harbor Freeway Transitway in the median of I-110 and is working feverishly to build a network from old railroad corridors and in the median of Wilshire Boulevard, a busy bus zone with more than 70,000 passengers a day.

Los Angeles' transit authority also took an overdue look at how to speed up bus trips. Imbedding electronic loops into key streets, they can fine-tune the traffic lights so that, without producing other traffic snarls, buses flow through intersections more rapidly. Those loops also trigger message boards so passengers know when their bus is coming. Simple things like getting passengers to exit at the rear while new passengers enter at the front reduced waiting times; low-floor vehicles speed boarding, too. Coordinating the timing with rail schedules is creating thousands of trips now that are faster than the same trip by car.

South Florida cannot yet claim bus transportation faster than cars, but it has a useful example in the 8.5 miles of exclusive busway between a Dadeland Metrorail south to the Cutler Ridge neighborhood. It's a principal reason, according to FDOT District Secretary Jose Abreu, why Miami-Dade has half of all the transit trips in the state. Running buses in an old FEC corridor, the Miami-Dade Transit Authority is finding enough passengers that there's now demand to extend the busway south to Homestead and Florida City. In its fourth year of operation, it raised ridership by 49 percent on weekdays, 130 percent on Saturdays and 69 percent on Sundays, all in the first year of operation.

The trips aren't faster, but with ridership settling at about the 56 percent level, they are seen as a reliable alternative to driving. On many other routes MDTA also makes shrewd use of mini-buses, which weave in and out of neighborhoods. They are less intrusive, make less noise and cost considerably less to buy and operate.

What's missing is an integrated, quality system in the region, which needs to raise its sights. All parts of the system, such as Tri-Rail and Metrorail and each county's bus system, will one day need to be connected by more coordinated routes and schedules, utilizing the flexibility and affordability of buses of many sizes and designs, to provide east-west feeder services to the more-frequent north-south bus and rail routes. A goal should be that someday it will be possible to get to most major destinations in the region with or without a car. A serious study is in the offing, looking at the potential of using the FEC rail corridor to provide passenger service, either sharing track for regular rail cars or building light rail. Ambitious as it sounds, finding out whether this is feasible is a good sign that South Florida is waking up to the threat of paralyzed roadways. But even if the political will and sufficient funding sources emerge to support passenger service in the FEC corridor, it is a long way from reality.

Bottom line: Rail is nice where you can get it. But trains on tires are a strong next best for a mobile South Florida.