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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis February 10, 2012
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Strategic Planning for Improved Operations
BY JONATHAN H. McDONALD, Western Division, Rail Systems Director, HNTB Corporation, San Francisco, CA, and Chair, APTA Research and Technology Committee

On Jan. 30 and 31, the APTA Research and Technology Committee got together at its annual strategic planning session in Irvine, CA. Much was discussed about the state of the industry and the obvious benefits that transit provides, but also that public transportation provides only 1.9 percent of the 1.2 billion trips Americans take each day.

This year, unlike past years, we could refer to an illuminating study from the Brookings Institution, Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America. It shows that 70 percent of the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas are covered by transit, but only 30 percent of jobs in those regions can be accessed in less than 90 minutes.

From a numbers standpoint, we have room to grow as public transportation serves only 5 percent of all commuters. However, from a value standpoint, a 90-minute trip is equivalent to a massive traffic jam for most commuters.

The Texas Transportation Institute has estimated that the average commuter loses $15.47/hour, or up to $8,577 per year, in wasted time. This is much more than the $2,106 that I calculated on the APTA public transit savings calculator! So why would anyone ever take public transit? More importantly, how do we solve this issue and deliver the value for our riders and our communities that we espouse?

Solving this issue is not as easy as you would like to think, but here are some ideas that came out of our meeting that can help.

* Wi-Fi and/or other productivity tools on board. In today’s economy, smart phones and laptops abound. Simply providing the capability for riders with trip times in excess of 24 minutes to connect and be productive on-board may enable people to bridge the gap and justify the longer commute times. However, implementing this will require some thought, such as installing tray tables and sufficient Wi-Fi capacity to handle the expected load. A cell phone dial-up connection doesn’t cut it for 30 active users.

* Solving the “last mile” problem. This may be our most significant industry issue. High-capacity lines such as rail and Bus Rapid Transit have much higher throughput and shorter route times than traditional local bus routes, but are limited in their coverage. Extending their coverage footprint with effective public transit solutions is one way to solve this. Among the ideas we discussed were:
o Bicycle sharing;
o Ride sharing facilitated by online web sites; and
o On-demand short haul routes facilitated by call buttons at bus stops using vans or 16-passenger buses.

* Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). Usually thought of as a revenue scheme for transit, this also can be used to help provide value to riders. Statistically, 84 percent of all trips Americans take are non-work related and many are for shopping or entertainment. By bringing these services close to high-capacity routes in a TOD scheme, transit gains more of each rider’s market share of trips. This brings value to riders by reducing the time they spend driving to the store or theater.

As both our agencies and our riders face tighter wallets in these challenging times, we need to think more and more about the value proposition that transit provides. By solving some of these key issues for our riders, we will build upon the faith and good name we’ve built in our communities, thus ensuring that future funding and trust will be there when we need it.

More on this topic and others to come will follow as we finalize this year’s Strategic Plan.

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