POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 26, 2012:
Where's The Bus?
City/Transit Authority needs to get it together
We say we want everybody in this society who can work to do so. About 5-8 percent of Tulsans don't have reliable access to a car. A sizable share of these people are disabled and can't drive but another portion of folks can't afford to purchase a car or maintain one. Many of these people are working or feverishly seeking work -- but their employers reasonably require on-time attendance. There is a moral imperative to support the working poor and mobility-challenged seniors, and it is called "the bus".
But there is also an environmental, sustainability imperative -- and a competitive dimension to having a superior transit system in play. Cool, carefully designed and broadly supported bus systems are luscious pieces of the most vibrant communities in America and a grand part of the fabric of a whole range of great towns in Europe and Asia.
At the moment, Tulsa spends about $19 million annually on our bus system -- this is, by several accounts, about half of what a town our size typically spends.
Recently, the city council decided to look at transit with "new eyes." A couple of veteran observers I've talked with in recent days, say this new interest springs from a great meeting that Tulsa City Council Chairman G.T. Bynum hosted so many days back with elected leaders from Oklahoma City.
OKC is invested much more heavily in transit operations, stations/substations and vehicles and has an appreciably larger operating budget than Tulsa. Some days ago, transit director Bill Cartwright was asked to look at which routes in the current system are the least productive. Basically he's been asked to identify "segments/corridors" that can be shut down to provide additional funding for high demand routes. This is a daunting task since Tulsa's bus system is far from "fat" and shutting down "marginal routes" would be a catastrophic blow for workers and families already having an exceedingly difficult time in our still fragile economy.
Cartwright and the INCOG transport planning people who support the analytic side of transit in Tulsa have a good conception of productive routes and the counter set. And they have a passel of advanced computer modeling to support their observations and the sometimes counter intuitive impact of routing changes. So transit chief Cartwright has an exceedingly difficult task. He should simply assert that "pruning" the routing system in a significant way will compromise the good, if super thin, coverage that is one of the best parts of Tulsa's system.
Interestingly, a rigorous survey conducted by INCOG, our regional planning agency, two years ago, indicated that a surprisingly large fraction of Tulsans might use bus transit on a regular basis. This work upends the routine assumption, recently re-asserted editorially by the Tulsa World, that Tulsans have no use for buses or transit -- that we are fanatical cars freaks.
There are challenging qualifications in the survey findings; a larger, more varied group of T-Towners might use transit routinely if the system had dramatic frequency, say at 15 or 20 minute intervals, uber-comfortable vehicles, and a more nimble and understandable "routing" interface than the convoluted, downtown-centric geometry that distorts current operations. A bus system with this kind of superior "look and feel" would benefit greatly from what planning pros call "choice riders" -- a cadre of folks who would bring articulate and politically powerful backers to Tulsa's transit "venture."
Weirdly, it looks increasingly as though one of the laggard parties -- one not pressing quite hard enough for a more rapid evolution of transit in Tulsa -- is the current Tulsa Transit management/board.
If Tulsa's transit leadership has a half-hearted conception of the way forward -- who else in our local universe will fight for a dramatically better system? An example: Tulsa riders and the transit authority's own people need to be able to track buses and monitor fleet kinetics in real time. And Tulsa Transit needs a fully automated passenger-counting regime so they have reliable numbers on route ridership, transfers and the rest.
This is essential, and it's far from quantum mechanics.
In fact, these technologies/systems are run-of-the-mill in most American cities with even minimal bus systems. I'm told that a voluntary effort, being pushed by a pro social "hackers" group in town, has offered to put together a bus track/system app for doing real-time scoping until something more permanent can be put in play. I was also told that Tulsa Transit has not been forthcoming in providing the data needed to run the mash up that the coding volunteers have offered to put together.
What is the problem?
There are some promising "trim tab" efforts to move transit ahead in Tulsa. One is an on-and-off-again attempt to get a downtown "circulator system" going. This might take the form of a hyper flex minibus/large van system that would route people to and from events and the various venues in Tulsa's rapidly reanimating downtown. This effort bears watching and has immense potential: If it ever comes together, it could be a vivid, extremely tangible demonstration of the utility of a high-quality transit to downtown workers/biz leaders -- folks who could be mobilized to help improve the larger system.
Another effort: a trial to expand and improve bus service quality, frequency and ambient operations on the heavily used Peoria/Riverside bus corridor. The trial is designed to evaluate whether riders and potential ones will up their use of the system when some of the most requested enhancements are in play.
Another change: Tulsa Transit Director Bill Cartwright's ongoing plan to outfit all 100 or more fleet vehicles with compressed natural gas systems: This retooling could lower transit fuel costs by a third or more.
Interestingly, much of this very good effort is funded with cash from the Obama stimulus package, which was used across the country to redo aging city bus fleets. Notably Tulsa's system was very much in this category. This is highly material if it can be completed post stimulus.
Absent that, it would be good to look at more radical alternatives, like hooking up with Proterra -- a venture-capital backed, electric and hybrid bus hardware company out of Colorado. Proterra is revolutionizing intra city transit with zero emissions, low maintenance electric buses which transit leaders are using to dramatically push down the always vexing operating expenses for bus transit.
Get On the Bus
So -- we need to build on some of the demonstration opportunities and demand that they get executed in a dramatic and visible way. And if public funds aren't available short term for doing this, a full press effort, lead by Tulsa Transit, the excellent transport planning folks at INCOG, the city council /mayor's office and Tulsa's transit advocacy folks, needs to secure some of T-Town's great philanthropic and private dollars. And then the city council, Mayor Dewey Bartlett and MTTA's leadership need to get on the bus --they need to find the critical operating funds needed to craft a system worthy of Tulsa's better impulses.
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