Sometimes a cool idea catches fire and flies around with fierce intensity.
What New York magazine writer Robert Sullivan once called a "Subway on the Street" could shortly play a big role in reanimating Tulsa's anemic bus system.
The idea of radically tweaking bus transit -- an action that is in play in over 30 places across the country and across the planet, is needed in Tulsa and is an exciting avenue for improving mobility in T-Town. The new path goes by the name of the Bus Rapid Transit. The $15 million initiative is one of the projects that looks to be in the new sales tax/streets project that will almost certainly come before voters this November. And while the package is mostly about streets -- $900 million worth of surface street improvement and an array of other non street projects -- the BRT initiative is a novel, incredibly important effort.
Exciting, the new effort was crafted by a combo that includes transportation guru James Wagner, city planner Dawn Warrick, Bill Cartwright of Tulsa Transit, and Tulsa's Transport Advisory committee volunteers Bill Leighty and Jamie Jamieson. Councilor Blake Ewing and, to a lesser extent, Councilor G.T. Bynum, have been advocates for the BRT project and for some other badly needed transit related items in the new capital package.
"BRT... offers enhanced bus service with a format that is similar to light rail (without the fixed rail or cabling)," Warrick said. "There are thousands in the Tulsa area who have difficulty getting to and from work places. Crucially, directly affected folks have no other assured access to the workplace. Some years ago, U.S. economists talked about a "frictionless economy" -- one where huge transactions and fund flows occurred at the push of a button, and where workers could find jobs matching their skills, domiciles, and other needs. Tulsa's FastForward transit planning project, executed by the Transit Authority, INCOG and dozens of ordinary Tulsans has looked at a host of options including a radical but amazingly doable and very practical one -- called Bus Rapid Transit."
Tulsa's BRT project is a consequence that, oddly enough, stemmed from the city council's desire to improve bus service by looking, some months ago, at cutting marginal routes. Bus transit in Tulsa being what it is (very basic), this avenue wasn't gonna work. But Tulsa's great transportation advisory board, helmed by volunteers Leighty and Jamieson, got together with a planning consultant and INCOG transportation guru James Wagner to look at avenues that might really improve the life of the bus system here in town. This was a little over two years ago, and the BRT project emerged in part from these conversations.
Bus Rapid Transit is in use or under consideration in a dizzying variety of places, some much larger and more dense than Tulsa (Houston, Bogotá, Columbia) and some that are about the same size or smaller (Edinburgh, Reno, Salt Lake City). Classic BRT often uses fast headways, intelligent routing, and an ensemble of small- and big-bus vehicles to make busing compelling and vastly more accessible. There are lots of folks -- including many Tulsans who have one or more cars -- who could benefit greatly from BRT. But there is a stark, additional rationale for something like BRT in Tulsa: without an agile transit option, Tulsa could experience a big "crash" spawned by an explosive rise in the cost of gas. Imagine some kind of geopolitical explosion in the Middle East, Nigeria, or elsewhere that might drive up the price of gas. A super-spike would be a disaster of the first magnitude because our town is one of the most auto-centric communities in America. An explosive rise in the cost of gas could forestall tens of thousands from getting to work and would bring our economy to a standstill.
The $15 million package will go in part for new buses -- very different vehicles that are broadly consistent with the ideas that are at play in the bus rapid transit concept.
The package also includes nine amenity-packed buses that will cruise up and down the Peoria 105 line -- the most heavily used segment in Tulsa's system.
Hours for the Peoria line will be extended -- a very early morning run will be instituted, and busses would run until 10:30pm.
The headway -- the time between bus pickups on the Peoria superroute -- drops from over 30 minutes to about 15 minutes, during peak day hours and to about 20 minutes at other times.
We will be getting 36 new or drastically remodeled substation locations, many of which will include next-arrival TV monitor panels, and large format wayfinder/designation signage will adorn all the station stops.
New, in-station ticket machines will be installed, and riders will be able to buy bus tickets before they get on the vehicle, thus saving time and energy.
Finally, additional sidewalk pathways will help make some of the bus substations more accessible and easier to get to parts of the route that Tulsa hasn't seen fit to supply with sidewalks.
So the BRT project represents an important counterpunch at a growing inequality here in Tulsa, especially concerning mobility. But the project could also be the spark for a round of so-called transit-dependent development efforts, especially in parts of north Tulsa that are dependent on the Peoria superroute -- spots that are also adjacent to any second-round expansions of a Tulsa BRT system.
In several of the major sites in the U.S. where bus rapid transit has been put into play, dramatic economic development gains have come as a partial consequence. In several cases, many millions of additional investments in small- and medium-sized retail and commercial activities have come in the wake of bus rapid transit substation placements.
This kind of catalyst is badly needed in the northern end of the Peoria corridor near 36th Street North in Tulsa.
Bus rapid transit would be a dramatic advance in the quality and range of bus service that could suddenly become available to Tulsans if the sales tax/BRT package is approved in November.
We will be a much better city for it.
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