To wait longer or walk farther: That is the question facing Miami-Dade bus passengers as the county’s 30-year-old route network gets an overdue overhaul.
Leaders of the Better Bus Project — a community-driven redesign of the system — presented two concepts Thursday and began seeking feedback from people who get around on public transit or who would like to if service was more reliable.
The choice boils down to coverage vs. ridership. Coverage means keeping most of the sprawling county’s routes intact, even some that meander slowly to nooks and crannies to pick up or drop off a few passengers. Coverage means a shorter walk to the nearest bus stop but low frequency — longer waiting times — on most routes.
Ridership means eliminating unpopular routes to low-density places so that high-demand routes can reduce waiting times to 15 minutes or less. Ridership might mean a longer walk but it would have buses running faster and more frequently.
Both concepts offer significant improvements to the current network, on which only five of 100 routes operate with a frequency of 15 minutes or less. Both concepts would increase the percentage of residents who live within a quarter mile of high-frequency service, which is now a mere 10 percent. Both would improve transfer connectivity and integration with trolley routes. Both would increase the number of jobs reachable within 45 minutes for the average resident — by 51 percent in the ridership concept and by 33 percent in the coverage concept.
“Is the system as useful as it can be for the greatest number of people?” asked Azhar Chougle, director of nonprofit Transit Alliance Miami, which is spearheading the project in conjunction with the county’s transportation and public works department and the Jarrett Walker and Associates transit planning firm. “Miami has changed a lot over the last 30 years but the bus network has not. We have a transit system in crisis and we need to fix it. How can we get people out of their cars and to their destinations faster? What do Miamians want?”
Ridership on the county’s fleet of 800 buses dropped to 52 million boardings in 2018 from 78 million boardings in 2013 even as traffic has gotten worse and owning a car has gotten more expensive.
“In our first survey, people indicated they are willing to walk a little farther for more frequent service, and that we should shift more service to corridors with the most riders,” said Chougle, who has also met with bus drivers.
If bus stops are spaced farther apart — a quarter mile apart rather than an eighth of a mile apart — buses could also run faster.
“The key is adding freedom so people can go more places,” said Scudder Wagg, a senior associate for Jarrett Walker who has redesigned bus systems in half a dozen cities. “From FIU, for example, where can you go in 45 minutes? Not very far because of the long wait time.”
Local communities throughout the system could lose some existing routes with 60-minute waiting times if the ridership concept map is adopted, including Pinecrest, Perrine, Sweetwater, Virginia Gardens, Miami Lakes and Golden Beach.
Other U.S. cities that have opted to prioritize ridership over coverage have seen increases in passenger boardings. Houston deleted low-use routes and shifted those buses to high-use corridors.
“Houston accepted a huge and controversial change and it’s been effective,” Wagg said. “Jacksonville, Richmond and San Jose turned the dial toward ridership. People need to get to work and school and they don’t have time to wait on an hourly bus.”
Public input is critical to the next phase of the Better Bus Project. Online on its website and in person at 50 upcoming workshops in the community, Transit Alliance will be seeking opinions so a final map can be drawn in December.
“We can do better by reallocating our resources, and we want to make sure it reflects the values of the community,” said Carlos Cruz-Casas, assistant director of transportation and public works. “We need more consistent service throughout the day so that if I need to go to the store, I can use the bus. Transit should be something you can plan your life around.”
The network redesign will serve as a springboard to infrastructure improvements such as dedicated bus lanes, queue-jumping lanes for buses at intersections, and more bike lanes and sidewalks that enable people to get to bus stops, Wagg said.
The lack of bus shelters also contributes to low ridership and negative perceptions about public transit, said Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who asked pointed questions Wednesday about why only 25 percent of the county’s bus stops have shelters to shield passengers from pounding rain and scalding sun.
“How are we doing on the [construction proposals] I’ve been asking about for five years?” Suarez asked Transportation and Public Works Director Alice Bravo, emphasizing that the shelters would be cost-free with advertising displayed on them. It took two years to repair some shelters damaged by Hurricane Irma.
Bravo said she was hoping to complete shelter-building contracts by the end of the year.