The Divide: The future of public transportation

The Divide: The future of public transportation

The recent passing of Lucile Brewer, the founder and chair of the local advocacy group Citizens for Public Transportation, got me thinking about the future of public transportation, both here in the Capital Region and in the rest of the country. Before getting into what I see as current and future challenges facing public transportation services, I just want to say a few words about Lucile.

I first met Lucile while working at my family’s restaurant, Calsolaro’s, in the early 1970s. Lucile was a regular patron, and sometimes I would have time to sit with her and talk about current events. Then, in the early 2000s, after being elected to the Albany Common Council, I re-connected with Lucile as she led the fight for a more effective and responsive public transportation system. Lucile recruited me to be a member of Citizens for Public Transportation and I experienced first-hand Lucile’s tireless efforts to advocate for people with disabilities, even as her own physical condition deteriorated. Lucile was an inspiration for me and her legacy will continue as we work to support and improve public transportation services. Lucile was, as headlined by the Times Union (Feb. 24, 2017), a “champion” for public transit.

Today’s public transportation systems and operations are facing many challenges to maintaining ridership levels while keeping fares affordable. These challenges are the result of: The increase use and expansion of private on-demand ride-share services like Uber and Lyft. The stagnation of government funding for operational expenses and capital investments. The push for the use of environment-friendly vehicles, also known as Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) to replace current diesel engine and hybrid buses. There is also the quickly developing phenomenon of driverless vehicles and how these vehicles may impact ALL types of vehicle uses, be it public transportation services or the transport of merchandise from factories and farms to retail outlets.

Our local public transit authority, the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA), and the other regional transportation authorities must not let the divide between the new transportation choices and services grow wider while they continue to operate like it is 1990. If public transportation is going to remain sustainable and relevant, public transportation authorities are going to have to change with the times.

I strongly suggest that CDTA, in a collaborative effort with the Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC), form a task force to investigate ways to meet the challenges outlined above. The task force would consist of professionals who have experience with ZEVs, ride-sharing services; and driverless vehicles.

The task force should look at issues like:

How to Increase the on-time performance of CDTA?  In its “2015-2016 Route Performance Report,” CDTA reported that its on-time performance “has increased to over 72 percent” (Pg. 7). In other words, more than one-out-of-every-four bus trips are running behind schedule. Buses running late is a major reason some people cite for not using public transportation. A bus running a few minutes late can result in missed connections to other buses, or riders being late for work or school. One cause for tardiness is the time it takes for passengers to board a bus, especially at heavy boarding stops. To counteract this boarding-caused delay and to better on-time performance, CDTA may want to implement “All-Door Boarding.” This was a recommendation of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). In fact. NACTO said that “every transit agency should adopt all-door boarding . . . and do it as soon as possible.”  So, the task force would need to look into the cost of implementing such a system.

Should CDTA offer a type of on-demand ride services like Uber? This may not require the use of passenger vehicles, but on-demand bus service. One scenario is that this bus would be a specific origination/destination bus. The bus would pick up passengers at a designated park-and-ride and bring them to a specific destination, say Global Foundries. One issue with our current system is the time it takes to get from point A to point B with multiple stops. The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system helps somewhat on the time issue, but still has many stops along the route. Everyday regulars on the on-demand bus would be able to reserve a designated seat and the bus would have Wi-Fi and power connections for electric devices. This would help in getting the workers to where the jobs are now that so many large employers are no longer located in downtowns.

Should CDTA use capital funds to invest in electric buses or other types of ZEVs rather than in traditional diesel-engine buses? CDTA has just purchased more articulated buses and shuttle buses. Is this the best use of capital funds, or might it behoove CDTA to investigate replacing a portion of their diesel and diesel-hybrid bus fleet with electric buses? CDTA is currently experimenting with one electric bus, could more of them be in CDTA’s future? This is also a question that university transportation services and public school systems should be looking into. If UAlbany and the local public school systems work with CDTA on purchasing electric buses and charging stations, perhaps the costs of these vehicles could be lowered and made more economically feasible. In addition, ZEVs would have a positive effect on our environment by cutting down on the carbon footprint.

If driverless vehicles are approved for general use, and buses are able to be “driverless,” should CDTA invest in automated, driverless buses? Would passengers be willing to get on such a bus? How will the unions representing drivers react to the use of driverless buses? What will they cost? Will CDTA’s insurance policy cover driverless buses? How will CDTA monitor if fares are being paid? So many questions that have to be answered before going down this road.

The time for public transportation authorities to get on-board with the quickly changing transit options is now. With the talk of infrastructure improvements, driverless cars, on-demand taxis, ZEVs and ride-sharing services, public transit must be involved in the initial discussions and not wait to react after the fact. By then, it will be too late and the public transportation authorities will be left at the station wondering what happened and where did they go wrong.

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