Vobora anticipates that the bus outfitted for the testing will begin running this calendar year, with approximately six months of testing and data collecting. "Hopefully that will become a model for others around the country."
Lane Transit worked with New Flyer, along with GCRTA, to develop a bus based on its 60-foot articulated design but modified with doors on both sides and a new look. The specially designed New Flyer buses are hybrid electric.
"We looked at a lot of different vehicles and because we wanted to have median stations we had to have a bus with doors on both sides so that was a big part of the initial research and design of our system and we just couldn't find anyone who produced something like that; no one in America did at the time."
Initially, the system operated for free. "The reason we delayed was primarily for a system like ours, the fare machines that a lot of systems buy for rail are really advanced – $50,000, $75,000 or $100,000 machines – and for our application with the limited fare choices we had, we didn't want to make that kind of investment and it really didn't fit on our station platforms very well."
EmX found a unique solution to its fare collection. Working with a French company that builds machines that vend parking tickets, it designed a machine that fit EmX's size and function needs. "They reprogrammed it and changed the face a little bit. It's not ideal, it's a little clunky and there are some revisions we'd like to see in the programming, but for $7,000 or $8,000 a machine, it really fit our budget better and in terms of size fit our platforms better. They've worked out quite well for us," Vobora says.
Lane Transit doesn't have much capacity for outreach and marketing, and thankfully it has strong ridership and doesn't need to do much. However, it really wanted to market EmX's fast reliable service, Vobora says.
"That's what we've always heard from non riders – if you are going to get me to ride transit it has to be faster and it has to be more frequent; I don't want to have to plan my life around a bus that comes every hour or half hour and the reliability, I can't miss my transfers and things like that," he says. "That's what we really tried to highlight."
The branding surrounding EmX reflects a light rail feel – from the look of the vehicles to the stations – but with a bus.
"We wanted to really look distinctly different, clean, unique, crisp and that was a big part of the advertising," Vobora says.
The estimates were that BRT would increase ridership about 40% over a 20-year period. "That's one thing that we're learning; that the models don't predict ridership very well," Vobora says. "That segment served by traditional transit was averaging about 2,700 boardings on weekdays and in the first month of EmX service we had over 4,000 average boardings and it grew from there in the first year. By the end of the first year we were just under 6,000."
Vobora says ridership did dip slightly when the recession hit, but the whole system saw a dip in ridership at that time. He says it has all come back pretty strong over the last year.
"A couple of other changes have helped it to grow in ridership. Just because of the economy and changes in our system to save money, we cut out some routes with similar or duplicated parts of the EmX service, so that drove more people to ride it and that was good. It was a good use of those resources and it could absorb that," Vobora explains.
As of January, when the first extension was opened, ridership had grown to average 7,000 a day.
Vobora says before EmX the original line took about 17 to 23 minutes. The goal of EmX was to average 16 minutes or less, and it has attained that.
"We'll have trips that make it in 12 or 13 minutes and some that will go over the 16 minutes at certain points of the day, but we average under 16. So, it's about a six-minute savings on that trip. A lot of people didn't think that was a great investment to save six minutes, but that's pretty huge on 25% of your travel time," Vobora says. "Most people who were driving a car would pick a route that would save them that kind of travel time. For us, it means again that the same level of service with traditional transit service would have taken us another bus, so we saved a whole bus on operating costs. I think with just a few modifications and just a little bit more dual lane throughout the system instead of that single lane guideway, we could get the average down to 12 or 13 minutes. We can really move along."