Reliable BRT Connects

Austin, Texas, is one of the fastest growing cities in America today with an additional 110 people moving into the city every day, adding 70 cars a day to the roadway. The infrastructure isn’t big enough to absorb that and it’s too costly — and in some places impossible — to add enough roads to accommodate the growth.

“We have been developing Project Connect,” explained Dan Dawson, vice president marketing and communications with Capital Metro, “a vision of high-capacity transit throughout the five county region of central Texas.” In creating this whole network of connecting quickly growing centers around the area, it’s helping people move from the north corridor into the central core and back home.

Dawson said, “People are often frustrated by transit that makes these plans that are way far out. They want them now.” He continued, “Project Connect already has one thing on the ground, rail, two new bus rapid lines in 2014, a new express bus lane in 2015 and probably going to an election to the voters to add high-capacity transit to the central core of downtown Austin.”

In Winnipeg there was a realization that public transit is important to a thriving city. Congestion was getting bad into the downtown and there was no room for expansion. “If we want to deal with issues of travel time, reliability and things like that, the only way was to get going on rapid transit,” Bjrn Rdstrm, manager of service development, Winnipeg Transit, said.

“In 2007 we started a new master planning process called OurWinnipeg,” explained Rdstrm. “In that we produced a new transportation master plan. It identified all the rapid transit corridors, reiterated the priority was the southwest corridor and then a list of the other corridors we’re looking at doing beyond that.”

When going through the initial alignment study to determine what they were going to do for the Southwest Transitway, they looked at what the best mode was and Rdstrm said BRT came out quickly as being on top.

“We could build 3.6 kilometers of it and still have it very useful,” explained Rdstrm. “If it was light rail, not only is there a higher cost per kilometer, you have to build many more kilometers for it to be useful at the outset.

“Really, it was the flexibility of BRT that made it come out on top.”

Dan Blankenship, Roaring Forks Transportation Authority CEO, explained that in his community, transit has played a major role in terms of reducing auto congestion and moving workers from the bedroom communities where they live and can afford to own a home, to the economic centers where they can make a living.

2008 was a landmark year for RFTA, he said. “We had epic snowfall which always contributes to higher ridership and that was followed by fuel prices that spiked to more than $4 per gallon. We had standing-room only during major portions of the day and hit an all-time high of 4.8 million passengers.”

People were turning to transit because they couldn’t afford to drive and they didn’t have the best experience when they had to stand. Blankenship said there were many new people that had tried the service and understood they might want to use the service again in the future.

It wasn’t a matter of “was transit necessary,” but about which mode of transit they should have. “One of the goals of the project was to make travel times for users competitive with automobiles,” Blankenship said. He said back in the late 90s there was a push for light rail but after a couple of years of studying it, they found it financially infeasible. The next-best thing they felt, was BRT. This system is the first rural BRT to operate in the U.S.

 

Vehicles on the Move

Construction for Austin’s MetroRapid began in September 2012, occurred in two phases and the two routes will form an X across the heart of Austin, serving approximately 25 percent of Capital Metro’s service area. The first route, the 801, runs north-south

connecting Tech Ridge at the north with Southpark Meadows. The 803 connects Domain in the northwest with Westgate in the southwest. The routes converge in downtown Austin.

BRT elements are key for reliability in these corridors. “You have to have reliability to get new riders to your system,” Dawson said. “We havededicated lanes in the most congested downtown core. Then we added signal priority along the entire line.” He continued, “It allows the vehicle to get through the light if it’s running late.”

Adding to the reliability of not worrying if and when the next bus is coming, there’s enough frequency on the line, Dawson said, so that people feel comfortable even if things slow down.

“Research shows people value their time more when they’re waiting; it’s that wait time that drives people insane.”

He said they don’t publish timetables. “It helps calm people down. They can wait 11 minutes.” Adding to that is the real-time information on the website, at the stations and on the mobile app. Peak service frequency is every 10 minutes and there is a 15-minute off-peak frequency.

There are limited stops to keep the running times quick, with stations every half-mile to mile apart.

Winnipeg’s stage one of the Southwest Transitway construction began in 2009 and opened in 2012.The Southwest Transitway is a high-speed roadway for buses physically separated from the regular street system. Buses operate at speeds up to 80 kph, roughly 50 mph. It runs from downtown to Pembina & Jubilee, 26 kilometers, about 16 miles. Rdstrm said they’re active in the planning of stage 2 right now, which adds another 7 kilometers — almost 4-1/2 miles.

Rdstrm said, “We’re not just BRT light. We’ve got a dedicated transitway that is open to transit vehicles only, and emergency vehicles, of course.” And there is signal priority.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the customers on it,” Rdstrm said. “People like the fact that they’re not subject to congestion anymore through basically the most congested intersection in the city.”

There is near-level boarding Rdstrm explained. At the stations they did 10-inch platforms instead of the standard six or eight-inch. “If the bus kneels it’s perfectly level. Plus there’s the ramp if we need it.”

The rapid service has shaved six to eight minutes off the trip. “Bus rapid transit is somewhat misleading because it’s not just about the speed, in my view, because I take the bus every day,” said Rdstrm. “It’s the schedule reliability.

“I can live with a trip that’s going to take a few minutes, but I can’t live with a trip if it takes 10 minutes one day, 18 the next day. Schedule reliability is the most important thing.”

Three stations are located on the transitway and feature large heated shelters, real-time information and convenient pedestrian and cycling amenities.

RFTA’s BRT route connects Rifle and Aspen, about 70 miles apart. The regular fixed-route service took about two hours. One of the goals, Blankenship said, was to make transit competitive with automobiles. “Over many years, working with the department of transportation, we have found innovative ways to shave minutes off travel times.”

Along the 70-mile route when the four-lane highway goes down to two lanes, traffic backs up all the way from the entrance of Aspen to the airport, about three miles. Blankenship said, “With dedicated bus lanes we can jump in and save maybe 20 minutes.” He continued, “We also worked with CDOT to get a bus lane from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays on the outbound side of Main Street. There again, four lane to two.”

In the mid-valley area, where it gets very congested in the evenings, they worked with CDOT to get permission to allow buses to run on the shoulders.

RFTA went to the voters in 2008 to propose increasing the sales tax .4 of a percent and it passed in all eight jurisdictions. Blankenship said because they were successful in the polls, it was a large reason the FTA approved their Very Small Starts grant of about $25 million.

With a bus every 10 minutes, they don’t need a schedule. “We’re finding that the riding public is catching on to BRT and they recognize that it is more frequent, travel times are more rapid and it’s more convenient in many ways,” said Blankenship.

There are eight stops on the BRT route and 43 on the regular route. Passenger shelters include enclosed waiting and seating areas, ticket vending machines, and covered and uncovered bicycle storage.

 

Unique Brands

Capital Metro has made its MetroRapid service “the bus that outsmarts traffic.” The two primary messages it was looking to communicate were that it takes transit service to the next level and that it’s the next step toward better mobility.

The sleek new vehicles and stations coupled with sophisticated technology deliver convenient, fast, high-tech service. The MetroRapid fleet consists of clean diesel Nova buses, including 22 60-foot articulated vehicles and 18 40-foot vehicles. The vehicles feature new colors, three extra-wide doors for faster boarding, and other modern amenities, including Wi-Fi. In just under four weeks of the launch of the service, the number of people that have accessed the Wi-Fi had been more than 100,000.

Prior to launch, Capital Metro provided “sneak peaks” of MetroRapid to elected officials and media. It also launched a promotional Web page, transit lanes outreach, a teaser campaign and videos. The teaser campaign featured such things as a billboard ad of a red curtain asking, “What’s 60 feet long and has free Wi-Fi? Find out on January 26th.”

When the service launched, the red curtain billboards were switched out to 3-D billboards of a MetroRapid bus coming at you with the message, “Introducing MetroRapid. Smart Ride. Smart Station. Smart App.”

The marketing campaign included other messages, including, “Something this amazing only comes along every 15 minutes,” “So special it has a dedicated lane through downtown,” and “So smart it catches more green lights.”

In Winnipeg the rapid transit New Flyer fleet also features the extra amenities, including the real-time data for the passenger information systems.

“The biggest challenge,” Rdstrm said, “was the understanding of BRT. And this involves the understanding of everybody in the city — the riders, decision makers, other people who work for the city.”

Because it was the first corridor, people were mixing up attributes of BRT with light rail, he explained. They didn’t really understand how BRT worked and why it was the right decision. “We were facing an uphill battle in terms of educating everybody until it opened.

“Once it opened, people saw it in action, realized how it works, we don’t get those complaints anymore,” Rdstrm said. “It really took people to see it, which I can fully understand.”

RFTA was feeling community pressure to look at CNG but they were concerned about operating at the high altitude. Engine technology has come a long way with several locations operating CNG at high altitudes so they procured Gillig BRT-style CNG buses and a CNG fueling station.

The brand VelociRFTA gets its name from theficticious dinosaur Velociraptor. The message is VelociRFTA: Fast. Fun. Frequent. The fun element is carried in the logo with the dinosaur and at the station with dinosaur footprints in the sand and dinosaur eggs at the stations.

Blankenship said, “Operating a BRT system in a 40-mile corridor is a challenge. It’s going to take some time for our passengers to understand how it works and RFTA staff some time to learn how to operate the system most efficiently.” He explained there is a tremendous amount of data they believe they can use to make the system operate more efficient over time.

“What we have been implementing isn’t the end of transportation planning,” Blankenship said. “It’s the beginning of a new era of transportation in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

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