A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why Route 8 Has to Go

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the local bus company is looking to raise fares in order to fill-in a big budget shortfall this year. But while METRO's fares have long been a bargain compared to other transit agencies (and compared to car ownership) there are serious and legitimate concerns that raising fares will impose a regressive tax on some of the city's poorest residents.

But in all the talk about raising fares, I'm astonished that there hasn't been much consideration to cutting costs. With that, I'd like to take a look at the bus route that goes right next to my apartment: Route 8.

In the four years I've lived at this address, in spite of the fact that its nearest bus stop is closer to my front door than our car's parking spot in the driveway out back, and in spite of the fact that I am a fairly regular bus-rider, I have never ridden a Route 8 bus.

I don't ride Route 8 for the same reason any other healthy and able-bodied person doesn't ride Route 8: if you live in any of the in-town neighborhoods "served" by the 8, it is almost always faster for you to walk where you're going than to wait and ride its serpentine route through the city.

A couple of winters ago, a local doctor and blogger thought he'd do the right thing for the environment by riding the 8 from his apartment in the West End to his office downtown. He chronicled the fiasco here; it's an excellent critique. An excerpt:

The city transit system boasts the motto "Convenient, Affordable, and Eco-Friendly!" ... I live in one of the two major in-town residential neighborhoods. My office is in the major business area. There is a city bus that stops right at my driveway, and I had seen a bus with the same number going right by my office.

I'm sorry to report that the experiment was not encouraging. The good news: the bus indeed picked me up in front of my house and dropped me in front of my office, for $1.25. The bad news: everything else. Convenient? Dubious. The true route turned out to be even more serpentine than the map, to which it bore little relation. After ten minutes of riding, we had driven ten blocks but were still only two blocks away from [my house]. Passenger stops tended to be agonizingly long, due to the need to deploy various ramps or pneumatic lowering mechanisms for persons with walkers or other disabilities-- even then, these people had difficulty getting on and off. Then at one point a boarding passenger shoved a handful of coins into the till, causing it to jam... In the end, it took 22 minutes to travel the 0.9 miles to downtown-- about 2.5mph.

Affordable? Also questionable. Through a subsidized city program, I could probably park my car in a downtown garage for less than the $2.50 it would cost me to ride the bus to work and back. Eco-friendly? Again, I am skeptical. Even at 8am on a Monday morning, there were only five people on the huge bus. The route was so circuitous, and the bus probably so grossly oversized, that I'm sure it would've used less fossil fuel if each of us had simply driven our own small cars straight from home to work. Also, as we lumbered along we frequently blocked car traffic behind us, slowing down the general efficiency and gas mileage of everyone on the road.
In short: the 8 is so inconvenient that the only people who ride the 8 tend to be people who have no other choice - the elderly and the handicapped (plus the occasional hapless do-gooder like Dr. Turbo, who rides it once and never makes the same mistake again). It's probably not the most environmentally-friendly option and it gives city-dwellers who try it the false impression that all of METRO's routes are just as inconvenient. And as long as it's burning lots of gas to serve only a handful of passengers, it's not budget-friendly, either.*

Route 8 is important for the few many people who use it, though. Its route is circuitous because it needs to cover all of the city's affordable housing complexes and social services. Still, smaller vans equipped with lifts would be easier for the elderly and the handicapped to ride in than big, unwieldy city buses.

In the same blog post, Dr. Turbo the one-time rider offers these suggestions to improve the 8:
1) Run speciality vans, properly outfitted, to transport people with significant disabilities door-to-door as needed (this should be a free service, in a civilized country.)
2) Streamline the routes of the in-town buses such that average, car-owning people might actually choose to take the bus instead of drive.
3) Publish accurate maps that a person without a PdD in cartography can make sense of.
4) Buy smaller buses.

These are all great suggestions, and they happen to coincide with recommendations from Portland's new Peninsula Transit Study. The Transit Study advises METRO to make Route 8 a direct shuttle between the West End, downtown, and the USM/Hannaford area, and to establish a new "Community Bus" that hits the major destinations with no fixed route - that is, it would go wherever the riders wanted to go on the peninsula. Thus, no more wasted trips out to the fringes of East Bayside when there aren't any riders who want to go there.

Plus, "community bus services can often be operated at significantly lower cost than traditional fixed-route services by using smaller transit vehicles," the Transit Study points out. "All current riders of the Route 8 could experience a higher quality of transit service than they receive today from both a dedicated community bus as well as more regular service on improved METRO routes."

It would cost less: the savings from streamlining Route 8 and establishing a community bus service for the handicapped would easily be enough to save monthly-pass riders from a fare increase.

And a newly-simplified Route 8 - a shuttle that directly links the West End, the ferry terminal, and the USM/Hannaford area - would help attract new riders, like Dr. Turbo, by offering a transportation option that's actually faster and more convenient than walking. Federal funding for bus services is now tied to ridership gains - transit agencies that serve more passengers will receive more money - so this would also help METRO's future budget outlook.

This sounds like sensible advice, doesn't it? After all, a one-time bus-riding doctor and the experts at Nelson-Nygaard both came to roughly the same conclusions about Route 8.

Unfortunately, I wouldn't expect METRO's Board of Directors to embrace changes. Like any bureaucracy (especially one tied to a unionized workforce) they'll resist the idea of changing their operations - probably the closest they'll come to action is to call for a study. They might actually decide that it would be better to raise fares and lose customers than to make any money-saving improvements to Route 8.

That's why the City of Portland should force their hand, by cutting METRO's funding until Route 8 gets fixed. That's right: I, Christian Neal MilNeil, do hereby ask City Hall to reduce METRO's funding in the upcoming budget process unless it can proactively improve Route 8, cut costs, and save monthly riders from a fare-hike.

Your move, METRO.

*Footnote: In a follow-up email to this post, City Councilor and METRO Board chair Kevin Donoghue pointed out that "surprisingly, the #8 has a similarly strong ratio of passengers per vehicle miles as [METRO's] other strongest routes - the #1, #4, and #5 - and is much stronger by these measures than the #2, #3, #6, and #7." The 8's route is shorter, which would skew the ratio higher with fewer passengers, but nevertheless, this statistic indicates how many people rely on the route, in spite of its inconveniences.

4 comments:

Kevin Donoghue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Portland Planner said...

Christian-

Thanks for making this point.
The truth is that the 8 can really go:

On top of all that you said, we already have a service that can do the curb-to-curb for those who have no means or other choice: It's called RTP - www.rtprides.org

-Carl @PACTS

Kevin Donoghue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Turbo said...

Hear hear!

Since my quoted rant in this post, I've moved to an area serviced by the #7 bus-- which, to my delight, is actually a functional commuting option. I've been riding it off and on all winter. But now my new townspeople are threatening to cancel financial support for #7.