Friday Five: Transportation Improvements II

The Friday Five for August 29: More public transportation improvements for Phoenix.

friday five logoAs it turns out, one list of five items to improve Phoenix’s transit network isn’t enough! There are certainly a lot of areas for transportation improvements in this city. Building on last week’s installment of The Friday Five, here is another set of five improvements for public transportation in this city, with a refresher on the first five:

1. Get rid of the $2 bus tax; reintroduce transfers.

2. Designate high-capacity / high-frequency routes.

3. Retrofit existing light rail stations with cooled spaces; shade all bus stops.

4. Have bus system achieve schedule parity with light rail.

5. Introduce stored-value fare cards for all riders.

6. Connect transit to trailheads. I’ve written on this extensively in an essay comment from Monday so I will refer you to that for more detail.  In summary, if we want to alleviate parking problems at some of our most popular parks, trails, and mountain preserves, we must think about different ways to get people there.  I propose connecting our bus system to those trailheads.

7. Establish site guidelines for bus stop locations, especially during construction. Especially in central Phoenix, bus stop locations can be located quite a distance from the intersection they serve. For instance, the eastbound Thomas Road bus stop is 250 feet from its corner, which doesn’t include any street crossings needing to be made by passengers. During construction, as we are seeing on 19 Ave for light rail’s extension, bus stops can be 1/8 – 1/4 mile away from the intersection and can constantly change. When transfer times are in the 1-2 minute range instead of 5-6 minutes and especially in unshaded environments, bus connections are missed. Guidelines should be created and enforced (especially during construction) that bus stops should be no more than 100 feet from the intersection.

8. Improve bicycle infrastructure on buses, trains, and at major stations. Public transportation is a great way to get from point A to point B without having to pedal everywhere. Most times when I ride the train, the hanging bike racks are full.  Often times, too, bicycle racks on buses are full.  (Trains can hold four bicycles per car; a bus can hold two or three bicycles.)  Bicycles are not allowed on the bus so if a bicycle rack is full, a rider has to wait or cycle to their destination; on trains, when the bike racks are full, bicycles and their riders are blocking aisles and doors.  As METRO orders new rolling stock for its system and evaluates its current equipment, more bicycle racks are certainly an imperative!  Something that’s equally important is the addition of practice bicycle racks at major transit centers. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen try to load their own bicycles into the trains with bad results. I know that I’ve had problems loading my own bicycle into the hanging bike rack. “Practice makes perfect,” as the saying goes, and I am sure that some practice bicycle racks at major transit centers would provide some no-pressure/no-stress practice for both novice and experienced transit users alike.

9. Update schedules with real data. More often than not, there is a disconnect between what the schedule says and when the next bus or train arrives.  On a recent bus trip, the schedule was off by 10 minutes.  Trains are usually off by 1-2 minutes.  As Valley Metro updates their schedules for the future, perhaps they should add this experiential information and realize that while schedules are nice, they are often aspirational.

10. Make Valley Metro data, including real-time positions, truly open source. We’ve heard that Valley Metro is in the process of creating their own in-house app for bus and train schedules, route guidance, and general information about the system. While their limited release of GTFS data is welcome, why not make it open source for everyone? There are great mobile apps for getting transit directions, many often times better than Valley Metro’s own website. In addition, some of these apps contain GTFS-Realtime information, meaning directions are based on realtime bus and train positions, not predetermined schedules.

Transit to Trailheads

An easy fix to alleviate parking problems at Phoenix’s most beloved parks and preserves: create a Transit to Trailheads program.

There’s been much debate and political posturing over the discussion to make parking at Phoenix’s mountain preserves paid instead of free. While, certainly, this is to look at making up some much needed revenue in Phoenix (something economic development would do much better, but that’s a different essay), it’s also to look at alleviating parking problems at some of the more popular preserves, like Camelback Mountain and Echo Canyon.

transit to trailheads exampleI’m in favor of this plan at some of our most popular preserves, like Piestewa Peak and Camelback Mountain.

One of the criticisms of this plan is that residents of the City of Phoenix already pay for these preserves so we shouldn’t be charging to access them. The logic is flawed because while we pay for most city-maintained infrastructure like water or trash, we have to pay an additional monthly service fee for what we use. Parking at a popular preserve is just that: paying for what we use.

There is a way around this, something that hasn’t been mentioned in the discussion: How about giving Phoenix residents a free or discounted season parking pass for these preserves? It is, after all, Phoenix residents and property owners footing the bill to help maintain these spaces, not the residents of Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, or anywhere else.

But here’s my ideal solution, and one that I have suggested to the Phoenix City Council: Create a Transit to Trailheads program that connects our local bus and light rail system to the trailheads, which includes rethinking the METRO light rail South Central Avenue line to extend into South Mountain Park. Right now, the main trailheads and park welcoming facilities are removed quite a bit from the nearest bus stop. Some examples:

  • South Mountain Park – walk 2.1 miles from the Route 0 stop at Central Ave & Dobbins Road
  • Phoenix Mountains / Dreamy Draw – walk 1.3 miles from the Route 80 stop at Northern Ave & 16 Street
  • Piestewa Peak – walk 1.3 miles from the Route 70 stop at Lincoln Drive & Squaw Peak Drive
  • Echo Canyon / Camelback Mountain – walk 0.3 miles from the Route 44 stop at Tatum Blvd & Rovey Ave

It’s a shame that as other cities around the world are starting to think about connecting places without the need for cars, we can’t think that far ahead yet here in Phoenix.

Three words: Transit to Trailheads. Write your Councilperson to have them support this plan.

 

The (Almost) Friday Five: Transportation Improvements

The (Almost) Friday Five: Some thoughts on public transportation improvements in Phoenix in light of City Hall’s push to collect our feedback.

[editorial note: On some Fridays here on edwardjensen.net, we publish “The Friday Five” — a quick list of some things that catch our attention either about our community or anything in general.  Today, we are talking public transportation improvements. This week’s “Friday Five” is published on Thursday because there will be a Friday Essay.]

friday five logoThe City of Phoenix announced a new online initiative called talktransportation.org to collect Phoenix residents’ ideas about transportation improvements and the future of transportation in our fair city.  While my verdict is still out on these online forms of citizen engagement and the quality of information received, I applaud the City for doing this again.  Here are some thoughts I’ve shared to improve transportation in this city:

1. Get rid of the $2.00 bus fare tax and reintroduce transfers. At the moment, it costs $4.00 to purchase an all-day pass except if you’re on a bus, where it’s $6.00. While the reason given was that it is to encourage riders to purchase their passes and tickets at transit centers or third-party retailers, there is no practical reason to keep it. An all-day pass should be the same price no matter where it is purchased.  Conversely, the two-hour transfer should be reintroduced because our bus system is designed around Phoenix’s grid streets system.  To get from one point to another on bus or light rail, there is a great chance that you’ll need to take two (or more) bus lines or connect from bus to train.

2. Designate high-frequency routes and increase service and capacity. When METRO light rail opened after Christmas 2008, it ran one train every ten minutes between 7am and 7pm on weekdays.  Today, the headway is 12 minutes between trains on weekdays, with less frequent service outside of those times.  For buses, a quick glance at the schedule shows that the most frequent line is the Thomas Road line, Route 29, which achieves a 10-minute headway during weekday morning and afternoon commutes.  Using ridership data, Valley Metro should identify these routes with high ridership and create a high-frequency service promise for these core lines.

3. Retrofit existing light rail stations with cooled spaces and put shade at all bus stops. Train and major bus stops in many Midwestern cities have adapted quite well to the extreme cold that comes their way by installing heated areas on platforms and stations.  Having traveled to some of these places during the winter, it is very welcome for this native desert dweller whose idea of cold is anything beneath 50º F!  While I know that physics and electromechanical engineering state that it’s easier to heat than to cool, the number 1 hallmark of a great city is adapting to climate.  We’ve created two light rail platforms in downtown Phoenix that have cooled spaces.  Let’s make them all have cooled spaces.  In addition, let’s put shade at all bus stops.  Too many bus stops are just a sign with no shelter from the heat.  We live in a desert; it gets hot here.  Let’s adapt to our warm climate.

4. Have the bus system achieve schedule parity with light rail. Right now, the last city buses leave downtown Phoenix around 10:15pm on weekdays and 9:00pm on the weekends. Meanwhile, the last light rail trains leave at 11:30pm Sunday through Thursday and 2:30am late night on Friday and Saturdays. Bus service needs to be enhanced to match light rail or light rail service needs to be cut back to match bus services because the two methods complement each other.

5. Introduce stored-value transit fare cards for all riders. Washington’s WMATA has SmarTrip. New York City’s MTA has the Metrocard. Boston’s MBTA has the Charlie Card. In Minneapolis, they have the GoTo Card. All of these cards are reusable cards that have combinations of stored value and day / week / month unlimited-ride passes for bus, subway, or commuter rail. These cards can be purchased by anyone from a vending machine or a station agent. Phoenix doesn’t have that system and it’s long past time we have something like that. Our closest thing is the Platinum Pass but that’s only for companies through trip-reduction programs. Paper tickets for various passes are available. If we want to make public transportation a truly viable and equal option for urban dwellers as we want it to be, a stored-value card program available to the masses has to be introduced.

iPhone Emergency Alerts

Many of us with iPhones in Phoenix received a mobile emergency alert yesterday. Learn about your options to disable them if you want.

In amid the sad and tragic news of the passing of nineteen Arizona firefighters yesterday near Yarnell, there was one other big piece of news: iPhone users in the Phoenix metro area were all startled by the activation of the mobile Emergency Alert System to alert us of a dust storm. We heard the usual EAS alarm tone (which is intentionally jarring!) and we received a notice on our phone screens: “Emergency Alert: Dust Storm Warning in this area til [sic] 12:00 AM MST. Avoid travel. Check local media. -NWS.”

You can turn off these alerts on your iPhones if you want to do that. (I am neither saying you should or shouldn’t!). To do that, go to Settings and tap Notifications. At the bottom of the screen is a section titled “Government Alerts.” At the moment, you can select to enable or disable AMBER alerts and Emergency Alerts.

With the Monsoon season having started in earnest in Phoenix, warnings for dust storms are very prevalent. You’ll be getting a lot of these notices if you keep them on — just be prepared for them.

Balancing Computing and Commuting

Planning ahead is a key part of commuting and one’s computing needs are something that should be considered in your travel planning.

"Amsterdam Commute" by stephenrwalli/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)It’s no secret that I do a lot of traveling in Phoenix by non-automobile means. I’m one of those crazy Phoenicians who doesn’t have a car. I live within a stone’s throw of one of Phoenix’s METRO stations and I choose places to go and meet that are likewise near a station. It’s called a 20-minute city, which is defined as places to live, work, eat, shop, and have fun that are a 20-minute walk, bike ride, or public transportation trip from each other. (In central Phoenix, it’s sort-of here.)

I also do a lot of bicycle commuting. But unlike a lot of other Phoenicians, my bicycle commuting is done in conjunction with another method of transport, e.g. bicycling to a final destination after taking the train for the first part of the journey. (I’ll write more on that in a later post!)

The point that I’m trying to make here is that when I travel by my usual means, I’m cognizant of what technology I bring with me. My computing/commuting theory is this: Bring only as much technology as you need to do while you’re running errands and nothing more!

My main computer is my MacBook Pro. In addition to being a significant investment that I made, it’s got my entire digital life on it (photos, music, personal & professional documents, and some irreplaceable/invaluable information). Consequently, it rarely leaves the house. If my travels include bicycling, it will never travel with me. If I get into an accident while commuting, what would happen to that machine? Would it be ruined? I never want to find out so that’s why it rarely leaves my house.

To bring some element of computing power with me when I meet with community partners or clients, I have an iPad and wireless keyboard that I bring with me. It can do about 95% of the tasks that I require of a computer when I’m on the road: scribe notes or a document, send emails, preview pictures, and check my finances as well as my firm’s balance sheet. It’s small in form so it fits easily in my backpack or in my bicycle panniers. Also, because it’s designed as more of a mobile device, it’s more robust in its design. That being said, it has a form-fitting case as well as its own bag for additional protection.

There are times when I know that I’ll need to bring a computer with me which is why I recently purchased a refurbished Dell Latitude XT2. While I listed my reasons to purchase it on that post, I purchased it because it is a lightweight computer that I can throw in my backpack or bicycle panniers and not be overly devastated if it gets damaged or destroyed should the worst happen. If I am going to do some longer typing sessions, this is the device that I’ll bring with me. Or if there’s a time when I need a full computer with me, it comes with.

That’s how I commute. What tips do you have for commuting and to successfully balance your computing and commuting balance? Share them in the comments.

iOS 6 and transit maps?

…in which we wonder about Apple’s new mapping application.

On Monday, Apple is set to release the sixth major version of iOS, its mobile operating software. Normally, however, changes are a good thing and each new version of iOS has been better than the last.

One of the big stories that’s flying around in this weekend before iOS 6 is formally announced is that Apple is dropping from Google Maps in favor of using its own mapping solution. Apple and Google have been trading punches lately and Apple has purchased several mapping companies. Of course, these are all rumors and we won’t know for sure until Monday morning. But if the rumors are true, then I’m sure that Apple will call their new mapping application “amazing,” “revolutionary,” “magical,” and other synonyms.

But, will it really be that?

I’m sure that it will be aesthetically pleasing. And that the graphics will be great. But one of the best features of Google Maps — and the big reason why I use it — is that Google Maps offers transit directions. You see, I don’t have a car. The option for me to get reliable directions to get from Point A to Point B via transit, as in the screen capture on the right, is absolutely mission-critical.

The other problem, at least for Phoenix, is that Valley Metro is very protective of their transit schedules. It took several years after Google Transit’s launch before one could plan transit trips here in Phoenix. If there is a transit feature in Apple’s new maps, what data will be there? I highly doubt that Phoenix’s will be there at launch.

Thankfully, we can still access Google Maps via the browser. But a native app was so much better. Ah, there’s something to be said about restricting an ecosystem.

Youth Desire More Transportation Options

…in which I weigh in on some good news: Young people are driving less!

photo Michael Loke/Flickr (used under a CC license)I received this lovely bit of news from Arizona PIRG: Youth are driving less. Long live cities!

A new report released today by the Arizona PIRG Education Fund demonstrates that Americans have been driving less since the middle of last decade. The report, Transportation and the New Generation: Why Young People are Driving Less and What it Means for Transportation Policy, shows that young people in particular are decreasing the amount they drive and increasing their use of transportation alternatives.

“For the first time in two generations, there has been a significant shift in how many miles Americans are driving each year,” said Serena Unrein, Public Interest Advocate for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. “America needs to understand these trends when deciding how to focus our future transportation investments, especially when transportation dollars are so scarce.”

Transportation and the New Generation reveals that for the first time since World War II, Americans are driving less. The report showed that by 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004.

This trend away from driving is even more pronounced among young people. The average young person (age 16-34) drove 20 percent fewer miles in 2009 than the average young person in 2001. The report also notes that a growing number of young Americans do not have driver’s licenses; from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.

“With one of our largest ridership groups being between the ages of 18 – 24, we have to provide them frequent and comprehensive mobility choices that support their lifestyle,” said Valley Metro CEO Steve Banta.  “The total transit network, which is many modes working in concert, will help keep our young people in the region and support our local economy.”

“I would rather have good public transportation options than the hassle and expense of driving a car,” said Nicole Barrett, a student at Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus. “It’s time for our leaders to stop debating how much to spend expanding our grandparents’ transportation network and start figuring out how to build the infrastructure that my generation will need for the future.”

“The shift away from six decades of in­creasing vehicle travel to a new reality of slow-growing or even declining vehicle travel has potentially seismic implica­tions for transportation policy,” says Benjamin Davis, analyst with Frontier Group. “It calls into question the very wisdom of our current transportation investment priorities.”

“America’s transportation preferences appear to be changing. Our elected officials need to make transportation decisions based on the real needs of Americans in the 21st century,” concluded Unrein.