Transit: JTA's Strategy for Riders Might Worsen Routes

July 28, 2014 9 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is doing a good thing. It is eliminating duplication and redundancy, consolidating routes to better serve the market. Moving from lethargic 45-minute and hour-long headways to 15-minute waits gets us closer to the 5-7 minute headways of larger cities and our own long-lost streetcar system. Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann asks the question, will the pursuit of the evasive choice rider destroy the impact of a great makeover?

A quick look at the map of the revised bus system that JTA is preparing to roll out left me with some big questions. More buses per hour, excellent! Better stops and signage, excellent! Smart App's and pre-boarding fare collection, excellent! Missing a host of blue collar and major suburban employment, attractions or residential areas, fail. Is JTA so distracted by industry perception that they are missing the greater market to serve the few?

For a number of years now, JTA and the City of Jacksonville have ignored the voice of the people and refused to seriously consider the return of the streetcars that built a functioning city. The local government and its agencies have focused exclusively on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and People-Movers turned monorails.

Part of the reason for this is the idea of a bus stigma, and the fact that virtually every transit professional in the world is keeping score and patting himself or herself on the back whenever they gain another choice rider.

"Ridership is a key element in the transit industry. Conventional travel analysis focuses on two types of transit users:
Captive and choice riders. Captive riders are typically those who lack an alternative to transit; they therefore use it as their primary mode of transportation to reach their destination. Choice riders are those who have realistic alternatives (e.g., driving) but choose to use transit for various trips. Service reliability and availability affects the ridership of both populations. However, substantial increases in ridership are usually assumed to be derived only from choice riders."
Kevin J. Krizek
Ahmed M. El-Geneidy
Active Communities / Transportation (ACT) Research Group
Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
University of Minnesota

"With on-board surveys, transit’s policy objectives can be measured at a level at which transit makes a direct impact on providing travel choices and basic mobility. On providing travel choices, one primary measure would be the percent of riders who have access to a motor vehicle that they could have used to make a particular trip either as a driver or as a passenger."

When surveyed by CUTR on choice ridership, the question was day-specific: “Which is your one most important purpose for taking the bus today?” “I don’t drive” and “I don’t have a valid driver's license” are not listed as reasons. The answers from every transit agency in Florida were interesting. Jacksonville blows out the rest in choice ridership with the sole exception of rail in Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm. Choice riders varied from 25 percent in Bay County Transit to 51 percent in Jacksonville, and are about 40 percent for the majority of agencies.

Center for Urban
Transportation Research
University of South Florida, Tampa
August 2006

A funny thing happens when one peels back the layers of choice riders, such as in the typical JTA dog and pony show. Some guy will raise his hand and throw out a half-question like, "So if we approve the route optimization, I won't have to drive my BMW to work anymore?" Truth be told, that's an elitist question if there ever was one. The guy is not going to ride a bus if you parked it overnight in his driveway, even if it were far cheaper, even more comfortable and maybe even if it were faster. Research has shown that choice riders exhibit certain
attitudes, some negative, towards transit and preferences for travel, often auto-oriented. So the millions being flushed down the pipe chasing him/her to the exclusion of others is a lost cause.

The Achilles Heal of the choice rider game is the fact that if and when cuts come to mass transit, they are the easiest and most quickly dispatched. That being the case, your BRT system at any level will not attract the same level of investment that rail will for the simple reason that rail is a choice magnet for developers. Developers who, right or wrong, locate along rail and avoid exclusively bus locations partly due to bus flexibility, and in a large part, due to the transit industry class warfare that fuels the bus stigma.

Nobody who ever drove in a Jaguar or Mercedes believed this ad.

Nobody who ever rode rail (in this case The Pacific Electric Ry) believed this ad.

It really boils down to the word choice. There are those who would gladly sell one of the Tin Lizzy's for the financial freedom it gives to the college grad, young family, or retirees. Other people will not use transit as a choice and it isn't because of some stigma, or because of the perks of BRT, or rail. It's quite simply about class. One can move step-by-step up a financial ladder without a great deal of opposition, but few can fight their way from one class to another and thus make the pursuit of choice riders at the expense of the so-called captive riders a futile chase. There are some trends between the two groups, choice and captive, that, when considered, could attract potential riders and influence choice riders to become more regular transit commuters. If you can attract Mr. BMW or Ms. Jaguar, more power to you, but your mission should be to serve the community, the whole community, with excellent, clean, dependable and frequent transit options for all citizens. And when you finally get there, Mr. and Ms. BMW/Jaguar will take notice.

So please understand, this is the mindset at virtually all mass transit agencies in the country today, it's not about gaining a new passenger, it's about gaining a higher class of passengers, and that sort of thinking is going to cause an epic failure.

BUT...  (I know you were waiting for that so here it is)

Do we have to miss or continue to miss some of our largest employment centers, trip generators, and destinations? Could a hypothetical Bus Route 10 operate all day long along a given route, but accommodate the employees of XYZ Widgets on the 7:30 and 4:45 runs with a extra turn or loop over to the factory perhaps as Route 10A? After making such a stop, the bus would then return to and assume its regular route until the end of its operating day. Nobody that got on bus 10A would miss a single stop on route 10, but they would have the opportunity of employment of visiting a major point along the line at least a couple of times daily.

Another concept missing from the plan is that of reciprocal services, whereby a St. Augustine Sunshine Bus might operate from the Plaza in downtown St. Augustine all the way to King Street Station, while a JTA bus operates from King Street to St. Augustine, each taking a turn throughout the day. The same could happen in Clay, where high-quality shuttle buses already serve Orange Park, Middleburg, Green Cove Springs, and Fleming Island so successfully that there have been talks about expanding to Starke.

The JTA optimization misses way too many of our key locations and though budget constraints may negate the possibility of such expansion at the moment, much of this could be captured in the aforementioned way. Other locations could be brought online beyond digging into taxes in neighboring counties, by reaching out and touching various industries with a subscription bus. Publix, Winn Dixie and a host of other employers all along West Beaver in the I-10 corridor immediately come to mind. Westlake if the combined management of the various large industries were to meet, is another opportunity not addressed.

Otherwise, Baptist South and the retirement condos on Old St. Augustine around and below I-295 and I-95 are also missed. The Zoo could probably support a weekend-only limited service. The northwest BRT link will stop at I-295/Wal-Mart just a couple of miles from capturing both the Free Trade Zone and JIA via 295 and International Airport Boulevard.

JTA is planning to do a lot with very little. Though this will be a complete make-over, don't expect a sudden rush deliver of 100 new buses, 25 new motor coaches, and 30 new routes. This is more like eliminate a few lines, consolidate a few, straighten out a bunch, and greatly increase frequency on most, all within our comfortable, traditional territory. As citizens and riders, we should stand behind JTA on this and at the same time keep up the pressure to deliver the transit system, the buses, BRT, rail and monorail that our citizens deserve and honestly gentle readers, this is a very, very good move.

Here's a short list (certainly not all-inclusive) of what is missing with a hope that all of these are well within the target for someday very, soon:

Florida Air Natl Guard base
Blount Island
US Marine Corps Logistics Center
BAE Atlantic Marine
Dames Point
New Berlin
JEA Northside
Herlong Airport
West Bever Street, Winn Dixie/Publix centers
North Lane
West Commonwealth
Trinity College
US Gypsum
Stone Container
Mayo Clinic - (International visitors are frequent transit users)
San Pablo Road
Hodges Blvd
Craig Airport
Bay Meadows Road East
Gate Parkway South of Butler, including Mayo Outpatient center
No Southside Blvd link mall to mall
Old St. Augustine Road south of San Jose and 295
Bartram Park
Baptist Hospital South
Baldwin (express)

Fernandina/Yulee (express)
Ponte Vedra - local + (express)
Sawgrass - local + (express)
Julington Creek Plantation
St. Augustine (express)
Orange Park Medical Center
St. Vincent's Medical Center Clay County
Baptist Clay Medical Campus
What can you expect to see?

The embattled and grossly underfunded First Coast Flyer BRT won't qualify at the lowest levels of the international standard, so expect a lot of backtracking and a huge letdown when it fails to produce the promised Transit Oriented Development.

Prepare to be totally underwhelmed at the laissez faire approach they are taking on the BRT and other bus amenities.

Look for the Skyway to finally reach people with a slightly too-short extension into Brooklyn.

The anti-rail cabal is alive and well within JTA, FDOT and the COJ, they tossed us a bone with the first federal study, then filed it under the water cooler, don't expect to see any real change anytime soon.

The system balance that must needs be in our future, isn't here yet, and may still be a long way off, but that shouldn't stop any of us from cheering.

Article by Robert W. Mann