Miami-Dade County’s bus system is underutilized, and its power to free commuters from the torture chamber of their cars is underestimated.
What if taking the bus became a fast, reliable, appealing transportation option?
The Alliance, a nonprofit organization advocating for improved mobility and public transit, finished the first phase of its Better Bus Project on Friday and found that the critical choice facing transit planners and bus passengers boils down to frequency versus coverage. Should the network provide waiting times of 15 minutes or less or serve every corner of the sprawling county?
“The choices are tough, the opportunities great,” said Azhar Chougle, president of Transit Alliance. “If some areas lose service or some people have to walk farther to a stop, the counterbalance is that areas with high demand, density and walkability would see vastly better, more frequent service.”
The evaluation of the system, called the Choices Report and prepared by the planning firm Jarrett Walker + Associates in conjunction with the Alliance and Miami-Dade’s Department of Transportation and Public Works, showed that how often a bus arrives is a critical element of service. Yet only five county routes have a bus arriving every 15 minutes or less during midday; most routes involve a minimum 30-minute wait. Although 60 percent of residents are near transit service, only 6 percent are near frequent transit service.
The most productive routes tend to run more frequently, run throughout the day rather than only during rush hours, and run in straighter lines through the grid, not in the loops and curlicues and jutting tangents that characterize some of the county’s slow and far-flung routes.
“The traditional thinking is to increase service at peak times for people carrying briefcases, but the reality is, with the exception of the South Dade Busway, buses are on average less full at peak than they are throughout the day. People are traveling all the time, especially when they’re working different shifts,” Chougle said.
The popular 11 route, which runs along Flagler Street from downtown to FIU, averages 40 boardings per hour. Other high-productivity routes with at least 20 boardings per hour on average include the 119 S and 120 MAX, which go from downtown to Miami Beach and north to Aventura, and the 112 L from Lincoln Road Mall west to the Hialeah Metrorail station.
Spacing between stops reflects Americans’ reluctance to walk, especially in Miami’s steamy weather. International standards call for a quarter mile to a half mile between stops. In the U.S., it’s typically a quarter mile or less, making for a choppy, stop-and-go ride.
Similarly, Miami’s MAX or express routes stop every half mile. In foreign cities and on Los Angeles’ revamped system, they stop every mile.
“Our express routes aren’t usually worth the wait because they are not super fast,” said consultant Scudder Wagg, who examined ‘geometric tradeoffs’ in the study. “The speed benefit is concealed by the waiting time.”
Municipal trolley service, which has expanded rapidly over the past five years, should complement bus service rather than duplicate it, the study found. The routes and role of trolleys need to be refined, “otherwise the rider will pick whatever comes first and you’re splitting the market,” Wagg said.
“Buses and trolleys are currently cannibalizing each other with no real benefit to the taxpayer,” Chougle said.
“If you build a network that maximizes freedom and opportunity, then you maximize ridership,” Wagg said.