Tuesday, May 30, 2017

CR's new bus routes in effect July 31

The Cedar Rapids City Council this week approved route and schedule changes for the bus system, and while not the "major shakeup" ballyhooed by the Gazette headline writer, it's the biggest change since 2002. As I argued in March, the changes are positive--substantial room for improvement remains, but it's not clear to me that more extensive revisions are possible at this time.

Jarrett Walker, a prominent transportation consultant and the author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives (Island, 2011), notes that transit agencies are expected to maximize ridership numbers and coverage area while keeping operating costs on the budget. The natural opposition of these goals means choices have to be made: both the frequency of buses needed to attract riders and the circuitous routes needed to cover territory cost money, and the more circuitous the route the less attractive riding the bus is to people who have the choice to drive personal cars. Cedar Rapids's bus system has long been designed to maximize coverage, which has been somewhat mitigated in the current plan: with the new array some routes will lose the vastly underused portions at their extreme ends, and will gain in directness, while the transfer hubs at Lindale Mall and the two Wal-Mart locations will help people get from point to point in those areas of the city.

Rationalizing the route structure, even as incrementally as this plan does, means consolidating service towards areas of high use and away from areas of low use. The Gazette quotes a southeast side resident who currently has a bus stop near her home and will now have to walk two blocks. The inconvenience to her is obvious, particularly in inclement weather, but no bus system without a huge subsidy--and apparently not even UberPool--can afford to pick up every passenger at their homes.

Walker's "basics" suggest some other directions that Cedar Rapids Transit could think about, and probably already are:
  • more frequency along high-use routes--"Frequency is critical to transit, but frequency costs," Brad DeBrower told the Gazette--which in a perfect world I would pay for by further contraction of the rest of the system;
  • more duration into the evenings and Sundays, on the argument that the people who need transit most tend to work odder hours than the rest of us, and as Walker argues, if you can't take the bus to work every day you won't take it at all;
  • move the Lindale stop, and possibly others, closer to 1st Avenue, on the grounds that going all the way through the parking lot and back wastes time for people who are traveling through not to that location;
  • grid-like routes are possible where the city is dense enough to support multiple productive sites. Cedar Rapids is too sprawled for this, and all indications are that a lot of future development will be low-density. Maybe a downtown/Kingston Village/NewBo/MedQuarter circulator could generate ridership?
Any of these initiatives would take either an infusion of money or some difficult sacrifices, and neither is likely to be politically saleable. And in a town the size and spread of Cedar Rapids we may never see transit usage rise above the mid-single digits. But we can continue to improve our amenability to those who do use the bus, and our attractivness to those who might.

P.S. An important correction to my earlier post is that $3 day passes can be purchased on the buses, enabling more riders to take advantage of the new transfer points.

SOURCES
B.A. Morelli, "Catching a Bus Around Cedar Rapids? Major Shakeup Coming," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 28 May 2017 [includes a snazzy graphic allowing instant comparison of the old and new route maps]
Jarrett Walker, "Basics," Human Transit [see especially "The Transit Ridership Recipe"]

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