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Improving Mass Transit Through Partnerships

For six weeks earlier this year, many Baltimoreans had to find an alternative way to get to work due to the emergency shutdown of the Metro Subway line that serves the City. Students were late to school, residents were unable to get to work on time and many had commute times triple due to the Metro Subway shutdown.

Many large American cities rely on some form of mass transit for mobility. Could you imagine New York City without its subway system? Even cities that have not been historically known for mass transit like Denver or Los Angeles have begun to recognize the need and have embarked on the creation of large mass transit systems. But like Baltimore, major cities around the country–Washington D.C., Chicago and New York–have had to reduce or eliminate service temporarily due to deferred maintenance. And yet, public transit ridership continues to decline in many cities across the country, because of delays, unreliability and the additional availability of ridesharing services. A recent analysis by TransitCenter found that ridership declined last year in 31 of the top 35 metro areas in the US.

There is no sole national model of providing transit. While city leaders can recognize the impact that mass transit has on quality of life and the environment, many municipalities have little if any control over mass transit. Mass transit is owned and operated by the state, the county, or a regional authority. Moreover,each region has a different way of governing, maintaining, and operating mass transit. Each way can result in large differences in accountability, funding and can result in mass confusion, especially when something goes wrong with mass transit.

The issues that Baltimore faces are not unique. As cities across the country face a decline in ridership and others experiencing an increase in traffic congestion, many cities have tried to create or strengthen partnerships with their local mass transit providers to help bring more riders to transit.

Below are four examples of this type of partnership:

New York City, home to the country’s most extensive and expansive public transit systems, faces similar issues to Baltimore even when it comes to bus lanes. New York City’s population has grown and transit ridership on the City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has grown too. The increase in ridership has caused overcrowding of subway platforms and trains. Meanwhile bus ridership has decreased due to late buses running on slow routes. Some routes are so slow that it is possible to travel faster by walking than riding. Both transit modes issues require a different response from different government actors. The City’s bus system requires a local/state response because the majority of the roads that the MTA buses operate on are locally owned/maintained. In order to speed buses, bus lanes and transit signal priority are must-haves, but the MTA cannot restripe roads or install new traffic lights, because that  is the responsibility of New York City’s Department of Transportation (NYCDOT). Luckily, in recent years, the MTA and NYCDOT have been able to work together to improve some bus routes with photo enforced bus lanes, transit signal prioritization and other bus route optimization projects. The investments required for the New York City’s subway system include a state/federal response due to the large amount of capital investment needed for infrastructure improvements. However, subway improvements have been slow due to a lack of federal funding and a battle between state and city over cost-sharing.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), a regional transit agency, has worked with several cities in Greater Boston like Everett and Boston to create a pilot program with peak hour bus lanes to help ensure that commuters can make it to work and other transit connections on time. In most of these towns, the work only requires traffic cones and enforcement from local police. The MBTA and local municipalities decided that instead of spending money on signage and paint to make the lanes permanent, it would be easier to use cones which doesn’t require any capital costs.

Oakland, which recently created a Department of Transportation has been working with its local transit provider AC Transit on creating temporary bus boarding islands. Bus boarding islands are generally an extension of sidewalk to the travel lane that allows buses to stop without having to pull out of and then back into traffic. They are considered an island because generally they help to segregate bike lanes from travel lanes. They can help decrease boarding times and in some places can allow for buses to pull up level with the curb which eases access for those with limited mobility. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on pouring concrete and angering local residents and business owners with parking losses, a temporary modular platform is installed.

Some cities have decided that capital improvements aren’t the only way to bring ridership back. Houston has led the charge when it comes to bus network redesign. Last year, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), Houston’s mass transit provider worked with regional stakeholders to completely redesign their bus route network. They were able to extend service to more people with the same resource allocation by optimizing routes to get more people to where they want to go. Since then other cities like Baltimore have done the same thing while other cities like Los Angeles, New York and Hartford are in the process of designing new bus networks.

As cities grow and become more congested, innovative partnerships are required in order to ensure that cities remain mobile. These are some of the ways in which cities can partner with transit providers to ensure that residents and visitors to cities have better mobility without having to break the bank.

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