Friday, September 13, 2013

The Need to Site Bus Stops Well - An Anecdote

In the 19th century, most shoppers arrived in downtowns by common conveyance.  Some arrived by streetcar, others by farm wagon, and a fortunate few by river steamer.  But once in town, shopping usually involved moving about on foot.  Proximity of stores to the common conveyance was a necessity.  If a store couldn’t be easily reached on foot, the feedback was usually swift. Customers were absent and the store failed.

Thus far in the 21st century, that feedback loop doesn't exist except in big cities.  In much of the nation, most shoppers have cars and drive between stores.  The primary common conveyance has become the bus.  But only a few shoppers arrive by bus and stores aren’t compelled by market forces to be easily reached from bus stops.

But there are segments of the population who shop by bus.  And those segments are growing.  There are the seniors who have surrendered their car keys, but remain eager to do their own shopping.  There are teenagers who are deferring drivers’ licenses and first cars, but still want the social experience of stores.  And there are folks who, because of health, finances, or environment concerns, don’t use a car to shop.

These population segments have all been growing during recent decades.  And it’s likely that more growth will occur as we adjust to changing demographics and economics.

So today’s challenge is to build transit systems that will work for this looming future.  To help us get it right, we can use the current bus-riders as our test cases, our mineshaft canaries.

Fortunately, we know how to plan well for bus-retail connections.  Unfortunately, we sometimes screw up.

I sit on the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee (TAC).  The role delegated to us by the City Council is to provide oversight for Petaluma Transit, looking at the elements that make up an effective transit operation, such as vehicles, routes, and fares.

Under the city resolution by which the TAC was created, our land use role is limited.  But we nonetheless work with transit management to update the bus system to conform to new land uses.  We look for solutions will serve both current riders and the transit riders of the future.

In about 2009, our predecessors on the TAC reviewed a preliminary plan for East Washington Place, a proposed shopping center adjoining the freeway in Petaluma.

The TAC correctly identified the need for a transit stop to serve the proposed shopping center.  They selected a proposed roundabout near the main entrance as the best location for the bus stop.  It would have been a transit stop at which a bus could make a stop without adding more than two or three minutes to its route time.

If the TAC authorizing resolution had been written differently, the transit stop would likely have been incorporated into the project approval and developer compliance would have been required.  But lacking that land-use authority, the proposed transit stop could only be noted in a letter to City Planning.  It didn’t become a project requirement.

Initially, the transit stop not being a requirement wasn’t important.  The developer was willing to comply with the TAC request and added the transit stop to the preliminary plan.

But as usually happens with large projects, changes were made to the site plan before the backhoes arrived.  The roundabout was eliminated, along with its transit stop.  But no transit stop was added back to the updated site plan. The letter and the need for a new transit stop had been forgotten.  The omission wasn't noted until construction was well underway.

Had East Washington Place been completed without a transit stop, fixed route bus riders would have effectively ignored.  Customers of East Washington Place with a car could have parked within perhaps 200 feet of any store.  Customers with a car and a handicap placard could have parked even closer.  And people who qualified for paratransit could have been delivered literally at the front door.  But people who relied on fixed route transit would have dropped off at a bus-stop a half-mile from the furthest stores.  Petaluma would have had a transit system that served neither the present nor the future.

Although the absence of a transit stop wasn’t noted until late in the process, a couple of TAC members refused to let the matter die.  Because of their persistent efforts, a new location for a transit stop was determined.  The City concurred with the determination and the developer, although not under a legal obligation to do so, agreed to build the new bus stop.  (Actually, all the developer had to do was provide a concrete pad.  A bench and transit signage will be installed by Petaluma Transit.)

It’s a marginally acceptable solution, although not nearly as effective as the bus stop called for in the 2009 letter.

As one shortcoming, only a single transit stop in the northbound direction could be built. The shopping center site didn't include sufficient land for a stop in the southbound direction. Nor were there funds for a crosswalk between the two bus stops.  So transit patrons wishing to travel south will must board a northbound bus and travel out-of-direction before switching to a bus heading south.

Even worse, the transit stop can’t be easily served by the existing bus routes.

Bus schedules are fascinating three-dimensional problems, with the third dimension being time. A logical route can be developed in two dimensions, but if the bus can't consistently arrive in time for riders to be at their desks at starting time or to make connections on other buses, the route is useless.

In the past five years, the Petaluma bus routes have been completely overhauled, with the result that the number of bus trips has nearly trebled.  (To be fair, the slowly gathering wave of urbanism and the end of the daily bus routes by the local public schools, with Petaluma Transit now conveying students by a monthly pass program, have also been factors.)

But the improved routes didn’t include an easy adjustment for the East Washington Place.  The transit stop that was envisioned in 2009 could have been easily accommodated, but not the transit stop that resulted in 2013.  An initial attempt to serve the stop by modifying an existing route added more running time than was acceptable, so was abandoned.  With the shopping center now mostly open, the bus stop isn’t yet in use.

Nor has Petaluma Transit yet identified a good route solution.  The only fix may be a new bus route at an annual cost of $100,000 or more. 

As Joe Rye, Manager of Petaluma Transit, notes, “Petaluma Transit and the Transit Advisory Committee must wrestle with this land-use driven stretching of resources.  If we don’t, we risk being unresponsive to the needs of riders, pushing more riders towards more expensive alternatives, such as paratransit or the automobile.”

What’s the lesson to be learned?   That the transit-retail connection can’t be left to chance in the development process.  Each community must reach its own decision about how to accomplish this.  But in Petaluma, strengthening the land use role of Transit Advisory Committee would be a good step.  A revised resolution to give the TAC a stronger role in land development review is working its way through City Hall.

Our 19th century ancestors would be puzzled by the effort to which we must go to ensure that bus passengers have good access to retail, but they’d understand the need for us to succeed.  As will our descendants.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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