MINETA TRANSPORTATION INSTITUTE
On July 11, 2011, StarMetro, the local public transit agency in Tallahassee, Florida, restructured its entire bus network from a downtown-focused radial system to a decentralized, grid-like system that local officials and agency leaders believed would better serve the dispersed local pattern of population and employment. The new, decentralized network is based on radial routes serving the major arterial roads and new crosstown routes linking the outer parts of the city, where population and employment is growing. this major service change occurred literally overnight, but it followed several years of public discussion and debate about the future of public transit in the community. The change has been embraced by some segments of the community and opposed by others, which is to be expected given the dramatic and unprecedented change that the service restructuring represents.
This research seeks to understand: 1) the effects of the service restructuring on the transit agency and its performance, 2) the effects of the service restructuring on transit riders and the larger community, and 3) the roles, influence, and attitudes of important local stakeholders (public staff, elected official, and private sector stakeholders) who engaged in the restructuring debate and shaped the form of the restructuring.
The authors examine each of these issues with the important caveat that the restructured system has been in place only a short time and the community is still adapting to it, so it is likely that the short-term results presented here will differ from the results that would be obtained in a longer-term analysis. Nevertheless, these short-term, or preliminary, results still offer important lessons to transit agencies, local officials, and transportation researchers who are interested in the consequences of major transit service changes for agencies and the community.
Restructuring’s Effects on Ridership and Agency Performance
StarMetro officials hoped to improve transit agency performance through the restructuring, to maintain ridership levels or minimize ridership losses during the transitional period immediately following the change, to improve operations, and to provide a framework for future service improvement and expansion. At a system level, the service restructuring in Tallahassee did not generate the higher ridership numbers or increased service productivity that its proponents sought. the number of unlinked passenger trips for particular calendar months dropped by between 4 percent and 19 percent, with the decline generally decreasing as time passed. Ridership at many suburban stops has increased, which suggests that many riders are availing themselves of the new destination opportunities that restructuring has provided, but many of the new decentralized routes have among the lowest performance in the system.
Simultaneously, the number of boardings at the central hub (C.K. Steele plaza) has been reduced by 80 percent, which confirms that in the old system the hub was used primarily as a transfer point, not as a final destination. The analysis suggests that StarMetro has added very unproductive service in some corridors, although many of these routes are likely needed in order to make the network fully functional.
One possible reason for the lower-than-expected ridership and productivity numbers might be the relatively infrequent service provided on many routes, which poses particular problems when riders are seeking to transfer at locations without timed connections. A second reason for the lower-than-expected ridership numbers might be the length of time the new system has been in place. the service change has been in effect for about a year, and it is possible that the community is still learning how to use the system.
Restructuring’s Effects on Riders and the Larger Community
StarMetro officials sought to improve access to decentralized travel destinations and to broaden transit’s appeal to choice riders through the service restructuring. The authors found that the service restructuring increased overall accessibility in Tallahassee, by providing access to new destinations and by reducing transit travel times to existing destinations. the service restructuring pulled bus stops from neighborhoods onto arterial roads, resulting in longer average walks to bus stops, but once riders reached the stops they had shorter total travel times to their final destinations due to more direct routing. The change in accessibility and travel times did not disproportionately benefit or harm any particular neighborhoods or socioeconomic groups. StarMetro was primarily a student and transit-dependent-oriented system before the restructuring and it remains one after the change. Still, there have been modest increases in the use of transit by occasional riders.
Roles, Influences, and Attitudes about Restructuring
The route restructuring proposal represented a significant change in local transit service, and numerous stakeholders engaged in the discussions that occurred prior to, during, and following the implementation of the restructured system. StarMetro’s public outreach efforts calmed some stakeholder fears, while others took a more critical view of these efforts and their results. Key areas of concern continue to be the length of headways, access and safety issues around stops, loss of stops and routes in certain neighborhoods, and a lack of resources to make necessary service improvements to make the system more attractive and accessible to transit riders. StarMetro’s extensive public outreach efforts during the period preceding the restructuring transformed some skeptical stakeholder groups into supporters of restructuring, highlighting the importance of effective public information and community engagement strategies in allowing agencies to make major service changes.
The results from Tallahassee indicate that a decentralized transit system can provide better access to destinations for all members of a community, if carefully designed. the results also indicate that major service change requires significant public outreach and careful listening by agencies to elicit and respond to community concerns, and that once adopted, significant time is needed to see the ultimate results of that change. The service restructuring in Tallahassee is barely a year old at the time of this report’s development, which provides only a short window within which riders and the agency have been able to adapt to the service. During this short time period, new riders have been attracted to the system in the new service areas, but other riders have also been lost due to the shifting of stops and routes from some neighborhoods. the net result is a modest decline in ridership
About Mineta Transportation Institute
“The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) conducts research, education, and information and technology transfer, focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. It was established by Congress in 1991 as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and was reauthorized under TEA-21 and again under SAFETEA-LU. The Institute is funded by Congress through the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration, by the California Legislature through the Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and by other public and private grants and donations, including grants from the US Department of Homeland Security. DOT selected MTI as a National Center of Excellence following competitions in 2002 and 2006. The internationally respected members of the MTI Board of Trustees represent all major surface transportation modes. MTI’s focus on policy and management resulted from the Board’s assessment of the transportation industry’s unmet needs. That led directly to choosing the José State University College of Business as the Institute’s home.”