A Cost Effective Way to Make Transit Work Better
As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript; February 19, 2009
Thursday, February 19, 2009
To avoid intolerable gridlock, the region has got to do a better job of encouraging more commuters to get into buses, trains and trolleys. There is an exciting development in Portland, Oregon that helps to do just that, and regional leaders committed to keeping San Diego moving need to look at the program that is putting the City of Roses on the cutting edge of technology and mass transit.
This is a critical issue because, irrespective of where you come down on concerns like climate change, the cost effectiveness of mass transit (or suburban sprawl), the demographic and geographic math means we can not build our way out of traffic. At present rates, by the year 2035 the region is going to grow by another one million people. Meanwhile, there is almost no undeveloped right-of-way left along our region’s major freeways and what little is left will be almost entirely consumed by SANDAG’s planned expansion of Interstates 5, 15, and 805. Freeways have become so difficult and costly to build that it is unlikely we will see in our lifetimes another major highway in the county.
Nor can we address congestion through the old ways of thinking about transit. The region has rightly been recognized for the nation’s first modern light rail line and from obtaining a high percentage of its cost recovery from fares. But all too often San Diego has been a follower when it comes to rethinking how it approaches mass transit and how it makes it attractive to commuters who have a choice between getting in their car or using mass transit.
This isn’t because there are no innovative approaches being tried. One is a program called “TransitTracker” in Portland. It addresses one of the biggest obstacles in getting commuters into mass transit - uncertainty. Research has consistently shown that while people are willing to put up with a bit extra time to avoid the hassles of driving, uncertainty and fears about inconvenience lead them to put down the transit pass and pick up the car keys. The penalties for missing an early bus or adopting a rigid time-table driven schedule are, for many people, just too great.
With a few clicks of a computer mouse or a cell phone keyboard TransitTracker solves these problems. Leveraging GPS and wireless technology, Portland allows transit users to get real time updates on how long it will be before the next bus or trolley arrives at any particular station. Riders know whether they missed the bus or whether they have time to pop into a store to pick up a newspaper and a cup of coffee.
But Portland’s innovations go further. Transit officials there have embraced a much more open and transparent way of offering up the information that is flowing through the system. While the operator provides this information on their own web site for users, they also have been extremely accepting of user-developed applications such as Windows desktop “Widgets,” iPhone applications, or web sites which link to just the transit routes that serve a particular neighborhood. Embracing this more “distributed” and open source approach to how the information is used acknowledges that people get their information in different ways and that empowering users is a great way to get innovation out there and make it useful to transit users.
And Portland’s approach is not unique. Smart Bus is a company that has developed similar systems for over 50 transit agencies, including AC Transit in Alameda County and SF Muni here in California.
Meanwhile our own local transit system lags. Though “511” is a number that anyone can call to get information about road conditions, information about transit is hard to find. There is neither a web based interface nor support for an “open source” approach to letting others aggregate the data. In many ways, the region has tried to put everything - road, transit, and construction updates - under this one tool and like a committee trying to put together a horse, we have gotten a camel ill-suited for certain jobs.
Increasing transit ridership will ultimately cost money. Greater service options need to be made available and new infrastructure constructed. In the short term, however, leveraging technology in a manner similar to Portland is a cost-effective way of increasing the percentage of commuters who choose to ride buses, trains and trolleys. It is past time that San Diegans look at this best practice and build off its success.