Bus to nowhere: Miami’s loopy routes need redesign

Transit Alliance Miami presents the Better Bus Project

Transit Alliance Miami presented an intensive 2-year community-driven project to build a better bus system, starting with a complete redesign of the route network.
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Transit Alliance Miami presented an intensive 2-year community-driven project to build a better bus system, starting with a complete redesign of the route network.

If it seems like you’re going in circles when you take the bus in Miami-Dade County, that’s because you are.

Many routes look like they were designed by painter Wassily Kandinsky during his geometric Bauhaus period instead of by transportation planners aiming to move passengers to their destinations along the most efficient pathways.

“Our bus routes are the most creative form of abstract art to emerge from Miami,” said Azhar Chougle, director of the Transit Alliance and a regular bus rider.

Take Route 1, but only if you have no other choice. This southern passage from West Perrine to South Miami Heights has complex polygons on either end connected by a “beautiful curve” in the middle, as Chougle says, “but if you were in a car you would never drive that way to get from Point A to Point B.”

Riding on a bus to nowhere? Miami-Dade’s antiquated network of roller coaster and roundabout routes that resemble gerrymandered voting districts needs a complete redesign.

The Transit Alliance is spearheading the Better Bus Project, a community-driven campaign to revamp the system, strengthen corridors with highest demand, improve reliability, streamline ease of use, integrate trolleys and increase the number of dedicated lanes.

The Alliance, a non-profit advocacy organization that seeks to bushwhack through bureaucracy and blaze better transportation options to get Miami moving “safer, faster and happier,” is partnering with the county’s Department of Transportation and Public Works and the office of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, which has contributed $250,000 to the fundraising goal of $630,000 to support the two-year project. It builds on the findings of the Alliance’s “Where’s My Bus?” campaign earlier this year.

Input from passengers and people who would like to use the bus system to escape Miami’s worsening gridlock is essential. Workshops will be held at bus stops, public meetings will be held around town and an interactive website will go online to enable people to collaboratively plan a new network. Who knows the flaws better than those who ride the bus?

Chougle knows. He lives downtown and does not own a car.

“When I first arrived in Miami I took the bus a lot, especially from the Omni station, but as it has become less reliable I use it less,” he said.

He and an Alliance member are planning a bus marathon. They’ll ride the system for 24 hours straight, from midnight to midnight, to raise awareness and funds for the project.

“It’s the most flexible system we have with the biggest room for immediate improvement,” Chougle said. “Frankly, we’re wasting a lot of its potential. This will be the first advocacy-led redesign in the country.

“In other cities you get on the bus without thinking about it -- New York, Toronto, Washington, D.C. Here it is the dreaded mode of last resort.”

Miamians depend on the bus. Two of every three public transit trips are taken on the county’s fleet of 750 buses. But ridership declined to 58 million last year from 78 million in 2013. Some blame that on ride-sharing. But the chief reason is that the bus system has been hurt by a vicious cycle of service cuts. From March 2017 to March 2018, the county cut frequency or shortened distance on 38 routes and increased service on only one, affecting half of all riders.

A Metrobus stops along the South Dade Busway, at one of the shelters that was not damaged by Hurricane Irma. Linda Robertson

Longer waiting time — to an average of 35 minutes — and route truncation have made certain routes unappealing or impractical. For example, Route 103 C was a popular route from downtown Miami to South Beach and mid-Miami Beach via the MacArthur Causeway, but after the portion connecting downtown to the Beach was eliminated, monthly ridership dropped 84 percent from 70,000 to 11,500.

The Metrobus system is drawn up to meander into every corner of the sprawling metropolis. Circuitous routes lead to chronic tardiness, tedious rides and gaps in service.

“We have a system that tries to cover the entirety of the county, no matter how dense, no matter how many employment or population centers are there,” Chougle said. “Put buses where they are more useful for more people. Recognize that a 40-foot vehicle that has to make stops is not going to work everywhere.”

Chougle cites Route S as a good one. It goes from downtown to Miami Beach, runs every 15 minutes or less into the night, serves people with a variety of purposes. A bad one is Route 11 on Flagler Street, which has poor frequency. Or the 35 from the Miami Dade College Kendall campus to Florida City, which looks like it was drawn by an Etch A Sketch on amphetamines. Or the tortoise-like 40, which goes from the Douglas Road Metrorail station west on Bird Road to — where else? — that major hub of University Lakes trailer park. Or the wacky 36, from Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 32nd Street to Dolphin Mall, going off on more tangents than Donald Trump during a speech. Please don’t mention 32 to regular riders who would find a trek across Nepal far simpler.

Then there’s the A, from Omni to Sunset Harbor via the Venetian Causeway. Just don’t take it from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the bus takes an extended brunch-lunch break.

The South Dade Busway or Transitway is the one piece of dedicated-lane infrastructure the system has, and it works, running 2.9 million trips per year and whisking passengers from Florida City to the Dadeland South Metrorail station. Gimenez wants to invest more money modernizing the busway into a sleeker bus rapid-transit route rather than extend Metrorail.

“Buses without dedicated lanes are fish without fins. They can’t be faster than the current,” Chougle said. “Without dedicated lanes, buses are trapped in the same traffic as cars.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioners Esteban Bovo and Daniella Levine-Cava take a ride along the signal-prioritized South Dade Busway. C. M Guerrero

Miami-Dade desperately needs more than a mere 20.4 miles of dedicated bus lanes. Other corridors that serve high numbers of passengers include Biscayne Boulevard (3.1 million trips per year), Flagler Street (4 million trips per year), Northwest 7th Avenue (2.8 million trips per year) and the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach (5.1 million trips per year).

“Hey, a bus is a vehicle with 70 people. Shouldn’t it be prioritized over a vehicle with one person?” Chougle said.

Without dedicated express lanes equipped with computerized traffic signals that turn green as buses approach, it’s a travel time gamble for motorists, and if they think they’re going to lose, they stay in their cars. So, if it takes 22 minutes to 60 minutes (depending on traffic) to drive the 6.75 miles from downtown Coral Gables to Downtown Doral vs. 59 minutes to 1 hour and 36 minutes (depending on traffic) to get there on the bus, the bus can’t win the race. The 3.8 miles from South Beach to Government Center takes 16 to 40 minutes by car vs. 27 to 45 minutes by bus.

If there’s a good chance of a long wait in the sun, with sweat drenching your body, you’re much less likely to take the bus. Only one Miami-Dade route (No. 34) has an average frequency of 10 minutes or less, while 74 percent have an average wait time of 30 minutes or more. About 75 percent of bus stops lack shelter.

Likewise, if a trip is too puzzling to plan or the real-time tracker app doesn’t work very well or if there’s a high risk of missing a connection, the bus becomes an intimidating option.

“Our buses can’t compete unless there’s a short wait time rewarded by a faster journey,” Chougle said.

Route 35.jpg
Metrobus route 35 from Kendall to Florida City, which looks like it was drawn by an Etch A Sketch on amphetamines, is part of an inefficient network that needs to be redesigned to make ridership more appealing. Transit Alliance

Aligning the trolley systems of 25 municipalities to complement rather than fragment the bus system is another objective of the Better Bus Project.

The bus has to be a viable option in Miami-Dade, where the number of household vehicles increased by 254,000 from 2013 to 2016, resulting in longer, more miserable commutes. Buses make far more efficient use of scarce urban space.

Houston, facing ridership declines, overhauled and simplified its system to focus on high-use routes. One year later, ridership was up 7 percent. Seattle also devised a new look, and ridership increased 8 percent.

“As a city we’ve never had a conversation about where we want our buses to go,” Chougle said. “A plan that relies on cars isn’t a transportation plan; it’s a congestion plan. It’s time to give our bus system the attention it deserves.”

Route 36.jpg
Metrobus Route 36 from Biscayne Boulevard to Dolphin Mall, which goes off on more tangents than Donald Trump during a speech, is part of the network in need of redesign.