Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Somebody hurry up and fix the buses..

..before Pete White kills the streetcar. For those who saw the news tonight (a day late), streetcar is once again coming under fire after voters already approved the measure. The veteran City Councilor, known for his sharp criticisms of certain things, absolutely hates the streetcar project and has made no bones about it. He's not anti-transit, he's coming from the viewpoint that city buses are more important and that he wants the money to go to bus service.

I've been relatively quiet on this since it happened yesterday, waiting for other people to go first. I didn't want to be first because I spoke at the meeting yesterday and was in the room when Pete was being slightly disrespectful to Jeff Bezdek, a key figure behind the scenes for streetcar. I actually think Pete has the right idea, he's just going about it the wrong way. Very few people who support the streetcar don't support bus service, and the two are not at odds with eachother..they both have vital functions in any possible plan to revamp transit all over the city. It's just that he's playing a no-sum game. I'd like to opine in response to him, and I have just a few main points.

Facts that Pete White is ignoring
And when I say this I don't mean "Councilor White is the enemy." I just think he doesn't get the streetcar, or the realities of what the MAPS funding can do. I don't disagree with anything he actually says, because I can acknowledge that bus and streetcar are separate things. The idea is that you've got to divide and conquer, and come at transit from many different angles. We can't serve such a huge area as OKC without using a variety of different modes. I do agree with Mayor Mick's position that Mr. White and Mr. Bezdek are both right.

1. He's ignoring the entire idea of bus v. streetcar. He doesn't seem to understand how multiple modes of transit can work together and are needed to complete each other. He also doesn't understand WHY streetcar is better for downtown.

2. He's shown that he's out of touch with downtown. He doesn't regard it as a viable, important place--he regards it as city hall and Bricktown and that's it. He wants to talk about "normal people" who are waiting at the unsheltered bus stops at 74th and Santa Fe. To this I say: In 5 years there is no question that downtown will have more density and vibrancy than anywhere else in OKC, and it will not even be close, so there is no question where this streetcar has to go...downtown. There are even quite a few "normal people" living downtown who would use transit if they could.

3. He is not actually being proactive in presenting a solution for buses, he just wants to attack something that doesn't address buses because it doesn't address buses. I don't understand why he is playing this no-sum game.

4. He has not thought through the long-term costs of maintaining a MAPS transit system. Over 10 years you'll probably spend the same on a bus route that you will on a streetcar route, the difference being that one has enormous capital expenses and the other comes with enormous operating expenses. MAPS is a temporary tax and can not be a viable funding source for long-term transit operation, and furthermore, it is supposed to be spent on capital improvements and not operating. That at the very least IS in the MAPS 3 resolution, so they are at least legally bound there, I believe (or hope, admittedly).

5. Voters didn't approve a bus system. They approved what they voted for, which was downtown streetcar, nothing more, and nothing less. Furthermore, streetcar was the only big-ticket item that voters actually liked a lot. So to that extent, you could said the issue carried the ballot, because obviously sidewalks or senior centers that make up 10% of the overall money did not carry the measure unless voters are really really stupid.

6. He also doesn't understand what will happen as a consequence of streetcar. In fact the idea is so foreign to him that he blows it off and thinks a bus route would have the same effect.

What do we do now?
This does sort of change things. At this point, you have to start counting votes if you want to see transit actually happen. Unless you can find a compromise, it's very possible that Pete White could end up being a vital swing vote on the council, and we know what would happen then. Skip Kelly isn't going to be a reliable vote unless he feels his whole district is being served, despite that Deep Deuce and Bricktown are part of his district. Sam Bowman is going to want to see the system be bigger-picture than just downtown. Could he be placated with seeing a 10-year plan that includes expansion, or will he want to see the bigger picture represented in the first phase, and is that even possible? I understand other councilors have certain concerns and conditions of support, but I don't want to speculate on anything that hasn't been made public.

We have to evaluate how badly we want to stick to downtown, and what close-in options there are that be easily worked into a route. A downtown-only streetcar system right now (including "downtown" surrounding neighborhoods) is fool-proof in my opinion because of the geographic size of downtown (a narrow definition still gives you 2 square miles) and you can at least focus really good service on a small 2-sq mi region. It would be successful if the routes make sense. The risk with including some of downtown and some of the inner city is that you're trying to combine two incomplete systems into a complete system and hope that there is strong interaction between activity nodes. That's harder to rely on. Virtually every route I've seen that goes further out from downtown with only 6 track miles looks like a very fragmented beginning to an overall system. It's vital that the first phase be able to function as a complete system on its own because it's success will have an integral role in securing additional funding to expand the system and to do just what Pete White wants to see: offer comprehensive transit for the entire city.

Here are two examples of where we could be headed if political forces insist on the first phase going further than downtown. The top one is an example of a good downtown circulator that could be a phase all on its own, with the expansion routes already determined and just including phase 2 in the system preliminarily. So essentially, just emphasizing the future expansion of the system. The bottom example is if the first phase has to cover more ground, which is the only thing I see Pete White remotely accepting. That whole system is about 7.5 miles, so you could build all of it at once if OKC is able to secure more federal funding, or build all of except just go as far on the Plaza District line until you run out of funds.

I actually like the bottom route. I don't think it is possible to go to the south or northeast sides of the city no matter the political pressure on the streetcar process simply because of the black holes in the city that stand in between downtown and south and northeast parts of the city. You could have an urban vacuum in the middle of your 6-mile route, there has to be interest along the entire way, so that's where it's going to difficult to make a small starter system cover more ground than just downtown, which is still a larger area than we realize.

Step 1: Fix! Step 2: It!

If Pete White wants to play this no-sum game, then good lord, somebody hurry up and fix the damn bus system so we can move on! In order to do so, here's my suggestion: Actually talk about ideas for fixing the bus service. Some good ideas might include:

1. Funding. You have to make a long-term commitment to bus operating costs. There is no way to get around the fact that we simply need to increase the percentage of our annual city budget that goes toward bus service, currently it's not enough. However, it's a LOT more than what Mr. White infers. I have no idea what he's talking about when he goes off on a tangent about "scrounging around" to find $40,000 for bus service. That might be the salary of one bus driver, but I don't even know where he's coming up with that figure. OKC spends millions and millions on crappy bus service, and COTPA it still incredibly underfunded. What OKC needs to do is spend millions and millions more on bus service, and oh by the way, you can't even legally procure that from a temporary sales tax that was passed for capital expenses unless you want to spend $120 million on nothing but new buses and sheltered bus stops. That might be enough to put one out by 134th and Henney.

2. Focus more on the inner city. Ignore areas north of Nichols Hills and south of 240. There is no doubt that it will be politically difficult because there are people with transit needs all over the city, but OKC is not dense enough to justify it. All transit is subsidized, we just have to make sure revamped transit service is the most effective it can be. If it's effective and meaningful, who cares what it costs? There is no question that you have to provide public transit, and just to be clear, I certainly recognize Pete White as one of the prime proponents of that thinking. We just have too large and too sprawled a city to even come close to our goals if we don't narrow down the region that we will provide A+ bus service.

3. We have to re-do the routes. We have to get rid of the spiraling maze of confusion that is OKC's current bus route map and replace it with a grid system. Just have one or more buses follow ONE arterial for its entire length through the A+ service area. That way to get across town, from say N 36th and Walker to S 44th and Penn, just take the Walker bus down to 44th Street, and then take the 44th Street bus over to Penn. Easy.

4. Make the buses cleaner. I definitely don't want to get on a bus when my only experience with the OKC buses is being covered in fumes every time one passes me when I'm on a downtown sidewalk. They also need to introduce the blue florescent on-board lights that cities are switching to, because they prevent your fellow-riders from being able to find their vein.


Anonymous said...

Not sure Jeff did his side any favors on Tuesday....

Mark said...

You say "He wants to talk about "normal people" who are waiting at the unsheltered bus stops at 74th and Santa Fe." Well, that's where the normal people are.

A compact CBD was needed in the past because you had to have all the major players together for finance, business, what have you. Technology developed to house people densely and transport them to and from the CBD.

That's not the case today. We don't all need to be packed in so tightly to have businesses function.

And a transit system that was truly for the people of the area, rather than the downtown merchants, would let people get from one part of the city to the other without having to transit the CBD. Like say The Underground in London does. I don't think there's a US mass transit system that adequately supports that, Boston maybe.

NR said...

Well Mark, you're going to have that in any situation where something has over time become the status quo. It was not always that way. In the 50s when the decisions were made to lay down wider concrete and rip the rails out of the street it was not simple darwinian was keynesian economics, it was a very government supported and forced action because the Ike administration made a deliberate decision to put Americans to work building cars and roads, and that's what we did.

Now there is folly in that. So when you talk about the suburban way of life, it's true that due to technological conveniences not only could you live your entire life without stepping foot in a CBD, but you could live your entire life without stepping foot out of the bathroom and I doubt that's what something you would argue. So to that extent, it boils down to the same thing. Socialization is important, and if it's not being used for business, it will be used for recreation, relaxation, entertainment, etc.--some of the very things downtown OKC has catered to.

And back to the technology--that's something that obviously was not there when suburbanization first occurred. So there is no cause and effect since effect came before the proposed cause in this case. Non sequitar.

NR said...

I mean non sequitur..

Mark said...

If there's not the argument to be made for a CBD then you're left, if I understand correctly, with socialization and entertainment and relaxation. If we're going to spend governmental dollars on these things for the citizens then how about let's see if smaller, more local to where they are living now in today's age, and where they will be living in the future, are better spend than to force people back to the CBD just because it is there? Eliminate the need for a commute for recreational purposes.