Miami’s inefficient bus system is about to get better

The Better Bus Project aims to improve the efficiency of Miami-Dade County’s fleet of 750 buses.
The Better Bus Project aims to improve the efficiency of Miami-Dade County’s fleet of 750 buses.

For the millions of riders who take the bus each year, Miami’s troublesome transportation mode is about to get better. For the millions of riders who used to take the bus each year but gave up, it’s time to get back on. For the millions more who want to escape their gridlocked cars and try the bus, the future beckons, “Come aboard.”

The Better Bus Project is revving up. A community-driven campaign to revamp Miami-Dade County’s antiquated and inefficient network of roller coaster and roundabout routes will deliver change within the next two years.

Transit Alliance Miami, a non-profit transportation advocacy organization focused on improved mobility and safety, is partnering with the county’s Department of Transportation and Public Works and the office of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, which contributed $250,000 to the $630,000 project.

“The mayor has a practical understanding of the needs and potential of the bus system,” said Transit Alliance Director Azhar Chougle, who met with Gimenez on Thursday. “It’s a marriage of forces you wouldn’t necessarily see in other cities. Both sides agree we can’t waste this opportunity.”

Fontainebleau hotel housekeeper Odelie Paret can spend up to four hours getting to work on county buses. Her story is common in the Miami-Dade County hospitality world where high rents in the county have pushed workers farther away from their jobs

Redesigning the sprawling system of 96 routes served by a fleet of 800 buses and supported by a $228 million annual budget offers a cost-effective way to make a relatively quick impact, Chougle said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Danielle Levine-Cava take a ride on the South Dade Busway. Miami Herald file photo

“The SMART Plan is not going anywhere,” he said of the county’s much-ballyhooed and much-derided plan for six commuting corridors. An audit showed the county spent $80 million on consultants’ studies years ago that are now obsolete, and those projects are under study again for many millions more.

Transit Alliance will pay for technical analysis of the bus system but will also depend on input from people who ride the bus or would like to ride the bus. Workshops, public meetings and an interactive website will allow citizens to collectively plot solutions.

“We’ll have widespread community engagement,” said Chougle, who does not own a car and rides the bus frequently. “How can we make the bus system more usable for more people? Transit riders have never been asked, but they know the pain points. I met a man who commutes from North Beach to Key Biscayne, but the system breaks down in the Brickell area, so he ends up riding his bike to the Key in the rain and the heat.”

The Better Bus Project would strengthen corridors with highest demand, upgrade reliability, integrate trolleys that fracture the system and increase the amount of dedicated lanes, which now stands at a mere 20.4 miles.

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.

Two of every three public transit trips are taken on county buses, but ridership has declined because of service cuts that in turn exacerbate the decline. From March 2017 to March 2018, Miami-Dade cut frequency or shortened 38 routes and increased service on one, affecting half of all riders. Only 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.

Here’s an example of a Miami-Dade bus system route in need of redesign. Transit Alliance Miami

Chougle and Transit Alliance Researcher Richard Hankins rode the system for 24 hours straight during a Dec. 14 exploratory marathon. They Tweeted live about the good and the bad. At one point they got stranded and instead of waiting an hour for the next bus walked a mile to find a connection. They encountered ghost buses, malfunctioning signs, a fast cruise on the South Dade Busway, loyal and frustrated passengers and nonsensical routes like the one in Flagami.

“Where do I even begin?” Hankins said of the brain-teaser map of the route. “Abstract art? Building blocks? Mythical sea creature?

Linda Robertson has written about a variety of compelling subjects during an award-winning career. As a sports columnist she covered 13 Olympics, Final Fours, World Cups, Wimbledon, Heat and Hurricanes championships, Super Bowls, Soul Bowls and Orange Bowls, Cuban defectors, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, Tonya Harding. She golfed with Donald Trump, fished with Jimmy Johnson, learned a magic trick from Muhammad Ali and partnered with Venus Williams to defeat Serena. She now chronicles our love-hate relationship with Miami, where she grew up.