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Right Road For Transit: Faster Buses Adding Express Runs On Main City Commute Lines Would Boost Ridership

Tom Condon

April 05, 2009

I took the bus on a snowy day last month. On the return trip, no one had shoveled the snow at the bus stop. So we the passengers lurched onto the bus, from a stop with no shelter, hanging on to whatever we could get our gloved hands around, while trying not to drop passes or money.

We have bus service in much of Connecticut, but we don't have first-class bus service. It is time that we did.

Since the state Department of Transportation took over service from the old Connecticut Company decades ago, the state has viewed bus service as welfare on wheels, a program for the poor.

It is well past time for that attitude to change. Good bus service is something that benefits the entire community, not just the transit-dependent. When car owners choose transit, they cut down on fuel use and pollution, and usually save money. Good bus service encourages development along routes and jobs in center cities, both ways of combating sprawl.

People are getting wise. Transit use across the country is at a 52-year high. Rail and bus ridership were going up before gas passed $4 a gallon last summer, and the numbers are holding. Ridership in Greater Hartford for the first eight months of the current fiscal year is slightly ahead of the same period last year, 9.2 million to 9.1 million, even with the sagging economy. Bus ridership across the state has increased from just over 34 million in fiscal 2006 to just over 37 million in fiscal 2008.

By the way, the price of gas is rising again.

Greater Hartford has commuter buses and a local bus network. What it needs is an intermediary service.

The Farmington Avenue bus, which I sometimes take, has good frequency of service, every 10 minutes or so in rush hour. The fare, $1.25 in my zone, is not unconscionable. My biggest complaint about it is that it is slow. It stops at almost every corner, and at every red light. The bus doesn't have to be as fast as driving, but it ought to be as fast as jogging. One of the busiest bus routes in the region shouldn't be one of the slowest.

What the main corridors leading into downtown need is something called bus rapid transit, now employed in cities around the world. The Metro Rapid Program in Los Angeles is one such system.

The problem on Wiltshire Boulevard was the same as Farmington Avenue the buses were too slow. A study found that half the time the city's buses were in service, they were stopped, either at a bus stop picking up passengers or at a light.

The Metro Rapid program, initiated in 2000, has decreased travel time by as much as 29 percent.

How? There are fewer stops. There is the simple innovation of traffic signal priority. When a bus approaches a traffic signal, it stays or turns green (unless the bus is way ahead of schedule, in which case a central computer will stop the bus at the light to prevent "bunching").

The distinctive red buses have low floors that allow level boarding, so the lift isn't going up and down all the time. Buses come every three to 10 minutes during rush hour. The canopied, well-lit stations provide such helpful information as when the next bus is coming.

With these and other innovations, ridership in the four Los Angeles County corridors now served by Metro Rapid has increased 40 percent, and a third of the new riders had never taken transit before.

Metro Rapid overlays a local bus system in a huge metropolitan area. What Greater Hartford may need to do is something more on the line of Kansas City's MAX system, in which rapid transit buses are being deployed to augment local service in a few primary commuting corridors. The system began in 2005 in a six-mile section of the Grand Boulevard and Main Street corridor, again with traffic signal priority, stations with next bus information and fewer stops. Travel times in the corridor are down 20 percent, and ridership is up almost 50 percent.

The system, which augments local bus service, will be expanded next summer.

The stars are aligned to do something like that here. Indeed, transportation planners at the Capitol Region Council of Governments are about to study whether bus rapid transit can be initiated in the Farmington Avenue corridor. The state, with $70 million from Uncle Stimulus, is replacing more than 100 buses, with hybrids if they are available. Also, there will be bus rapid transit in the New Britain-Hartford busway.

Transit is the future. For reasons of cost, ecology and energy use, it will no longer make sense for every person to drive his or her car on every trip.

Connecticut will have commuter rail in a few major corridors; bus rapid transit makes sense in other places. It can be done much faster than rail Kansas City had its first line open in just over three years and at a fraction of the cost of trains.

Then there's your money. It costs $5,000 to $6,000 a year to own and operate a car. Commuting by bus can be done, in my zone, for less than $900. Finally, I like the idea of reading while someone else drives.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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