Category: Transit (page 3 of 4)

Inauguration Day Mobility in DC

Extraordinary transportation measures have been planned for this coming Tuesday’s Inauguration in Washington, DC, to facilitate the record crowd that is expected to pack the city of Washington for Barack Obama’s swearing-in and subsequent celebrations. Numerous bridges and streets will be closed to auto traffic. Metro, Metrobus, and transit agencies in Maryland and Virginia will be operating increased and addition service. Still with increased service, transit alone will not be able to accommodate everyone. Biking or walking will end up being the best mode for many. It will be interesting to watch the success of transportation / mobility planning while welcoming in our new president.

More details:

> WMATA Metro: Plans for Inauguration Weekend
> Washington Post Inauguration Watch: Transportation
> BeyondDC: [Inauguration Day bridge closings]
> Track Twenty-Nine: Metro Plans for 1.6 Million Riders

Travel by Train

Denver Union Station

I arrived back in Cedar Rapids this afternoon (Tuesday) after riding the Amtrak California Zephyr overnight from Denver to Mt. Pleasant, about an hour south of CR. The train was already running about three hours behind early on Monday when I checked the train status online. Scheduled to depart Denver at 8:10pm, the adjusted time was about 10:30. Around 10:15pm, the train had arrived and conductors began checking tickets and issuing boarding passes. Then we waited, and waited, and waited. Almost an hour went by before we boarded, as they were having some trouble adding an addition coach car to the train. Unfortunately no formal announcement was made concerning the issue, so the 50 plus passengers waiting to get on were unaware of the cause of delay.

When I finally boarded I got on car 611, second from last and went on upstairs to find a seat. I didn’t see any empty row so I took a seat near the middle of the train by the stairs, next to a man who had been riding since Saturday all the way from Seattle, heading home to Kentucky. Not sure why he was on the California Zephyr (he must’ve gone from Seattle down to California, then eastward on the Zephyr), when the Empire Builder is much more direct to Chicago going through Montana, North Dakota, and down through Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The train began moving by about 11:30, and I soon made my way two cars ahead to the lounge. At this point the upper observation level was pretty empty and the cafe on the lower level was closed until morning. The lounge car was peaceful and more comfortable than crowded coach. I also planned to watch some movies on my iPod and did not want to disturb my elder seat mate.

Heading out of Denver, eastbound, the train goes through rail yards and passes mostly industrial sites in Commerce City. The TAXI redevelopment caught my eye in particular, which Will Bruder discussed in his keynote speech last Wednesday at FORUM. The eastern gateway into Denver via rail is not particularly inviting, but most aren’t. Denver Union Station is impressive, though, providing a grand gateway right in to the heart of downtown. The interior is large, but pretty plain and outdated. The elegant exterior is more dramatic at night with the charming “Travel by Train” neon sign and colorful spotlights on the building’s stone walls.

Denver plans to turn Union Station into the city’s prime intermodal transportation center, centralizing Amtrak, SkiTrain, intercity buses, RTD transit bus and light rail. This is already in progress with the C and E light rail lines terminus, endpoint for the Free Mall Ride shuttle, and several RTD bus routes. When completed it should be quite the place.

I woke up this morning around 7am, from the breakfast announcement. The northern sky to my left was a dim, gray blue, and a warm yellow glow from the sunrise to my right. It’s a pleasing view to wake up to – if you were able to fall asleep in the first place. I eventually went to the lounge car and had a hot breakfast sandwich. After reaching Lincoln and Omaha, a number of seats opened up so I moved across the aisle to two opens seats and was able to sleep for a few more hours.

I arrived at my destination, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, around 4pm, just about five hours late. An announcement had been made earlier by the conductor that nearly all connections would be missed in Chicago, and emphasized our safety was their top priority. He asked us to, “Sit back, relax, and enjoy our train trip through the breadbasket of America” – how cute.

Overall I was satisfied with my experience this time on Amtrak, but then again I was anticipating delay and understand their current situation. The consistent issue of lateness on certain Amtrak routes is somewhat out of their control. The majority of trains, especially cross-country ones like the California Zephyr, operate on track owned by freight railroads, whose operations get priority over Amtrak. As far as service, all train attendants were generally pleasant and tried to keep passengers happy considering the significant delay. In today’s case, they were offering a complementary meal in the afternoon (served after I deboarded), but I was able to benefit from a complimentary snack just before reaching Mt. Pleasant.

I have ridden Amtrak in the past, mostly on the California Zephyr, but also once on the Three Rivers (now defunct I believe) to Pennsylvania, and one short trip on the Empire Builder from LaCrosse to Fargo. It is quite obvious Amtrak service has gone downhill over the years. It is not terrible, but there are a lot of band-aids, it is merely getting by.

Passenger rail service is a critical part of our nation’s transportation system and needs to be reinvested in and expanded. Amtrak provides transportation access to numerous small communities that may be hours from a commercial airport. Train travel is also much more efficient and more affordable than flying. While cross-country train travel is no longer practical for most people, it makes a lot of sense regionally between distances about 500 miles or less. Not only is it easier and less stressful than flying, rail typically takes passengers right into the center of cities, unlike airports that tend to be located miles away from downtown.

Midwest High Speed Rail Association

Several states, such as Illinois and California have partnered with Amtrak to expand passenger rail service. Regional associations have been established to promote regional high speed rail networks around the country. The Midwest High Speed Rail Association, which includes Iowa, promotes an expanded regional network originating from Chicago and providing more frequent service to more locations throughout the midwest. The proposal includes a new line that would run through the Quad Cities, Iowa City, and Des Moines, through to Omaha. A new line from Chicago to Dubuque is currently the most promising for Iowa in the works right now.

Amtrak and passenger rail service deserves much needed investment and support from the federal level. It is a matter of national security, sustainability, and accessibility. It is my hope that we will see much greater support for Amtrak and alternative transportation from the new Obama administration.

Day 2 FORUM Update

Today was the second day of FORUM 2008 in Denver. Each night features a keynote speaker and election and business matters. As the VP of our Iowa State chapter, and the only ISU member attending the conference, I am participating in the Council of Presidents, which met this morning and will meet again Thursday to elect the next leaders of the organization. Today was the college and career fair expo with reps from a number of architecture grad schools around the country, a few, mostly, local firms, as well as a few professional organizations and businesses. I had the opportunity to speak to a few firms and visit some offices in Denver with the FORUM “Firm Crawl” today. I also stopped by two other neat firms on my own.

I’ve been commuting into the downtown for the conference each day from Castle Rock, south of the metro, where I’ve been staying with my brother’s family. I’m taking the RTD light rail from the County Line park-n-ride near my brother’s workplace up to downtown. Initially I found the numerous lines confusing since the majorities of each line are shared along the I-25 corridor (each different line has a slightly different terminus), but it is certainly easy enough to figure out.

From County Line, second to last stop on the E,F, and G lines, takes about 35 minutes to get downtown, and so far has not been too crowded. The ride is pretty comfortable, though the seats aren’t very easy to sit on for that long. My only major complaint, though understandable, is the high transit fare. $4 one way from County Line to downtown (spanning four fare zones) – soon to increase to $4.50 in January. So I am spending quite a bit of cash on transit this week.

I took the #32 bus from downtown to a firm office about 30 blocks away – on a 40 foot Orion V. The bus was pretty clean and comfortable, with padded seats. One way fare on local buses is $1.75; $2 beginning in January.

All in all it’s been good so far and the contacts I’ve made should be helpful in landing an internship this summer – especially with the economic downturn where unfortunately many architects are facing layoffs. Check back for more updates.

CR Transit Update

Cedar Rapids Transit resumed fare collection November 1, following five months of free bus rides since the June flood. An article in the Gazette reported noticeable ridership increases during that time and suggested it could decrease now that it is no longer free. Another cause could have be reduction in service during this time – only hourly trips for many routes all day, rather than the pre-flood 30-minute headways. Eight GMC RTS buses were lost in the flood, along with the Ground Transportation Center and maintenance facility.

Initially when transit service returned about a week after the flood hit, a temporary transit site was set up about 10 blocks from the GTC a city parking lot at 4th Ave and 12th Street SE. A few weeks later when downtown became less restricted, a more permanent temporary transfer site was set up at “park and ride” Lot 44 south of downtown at 12th Ave SE, along the riverfront. Since then it has been determined that buses will not be returning to the GTC. A new bus station is proposed with a new intermodal transportation facility that has been in the works for years now, with three or four different sites and programs. The latest location was somewhere by 3rd Street SE close to 8th Ave – only a few blocks from Lot 44.

Trailers have been set up at Lot 44 to provide information, shelter and restrooms for passengers in the coming winter months. Meanwhile the bus garage is being used for fueling and storage only with maintenance being done by the city fleet department.

Eight used 40 foot 1992 TMC RTS buses will be arriving from California in December to replace the eight buses that were lost. Additionally, four brand new 35 foot Gillig Lowfloor buses will be joining the fleet in April. The Gillig purchase – Cedar Rapids’ first actual new buses in many years – was planned for before the flood, just as CyRide, Iowa City Transit, and Cambus have purchased new Lowfloors in the past year.

As Cedar Rapids Transit was rebranded from “EAGL” about a year ago (read post) when transit and parking split in the city reorganizing, the new buses will bring a visible rebranding with a new livery. The new used RTS’s and new Gilligs will be painted green (shade of city logo, not the old teal color) below the windows with some striping and the city logo added. “We are switching to the city’s green because we want to be recognized as a city department, and because we want to promote the green (environmental) benefits of public transit,” according to Transit Manager Brad DeBrower.

I expressed to Brad my desire to see big improvements at Cedar Rapids Transit into a great system with expanded service. However, it’s clear they are facing many setbacks. In addition to the flood, the transit department is plagued with budget restraints, too many old buses in the fleet, and insufficient manpower. For example, all transit planning is done by Brad, on top of his regular duties as department manager. He says he’s hopefully the system’s impediments will be addressed.

The new used buses arriving in December – which are in better shape than the eight lost – will allow for increased peak service. Additional 35 or 40 foot Gillig Lowfloors will be purchased over the next few years to modernized the fleet.

NOW: Driven to Despair

NOW

On this week’s NOW, David Brancaccio travels to the exurbs of southern California where the American dream has quickly turned into the American nightmare, with skyrocketing gas prices and little or no alternative public transport available. Millions of Americans today are facing the tough question: fill up the tank or pay the mortgage? Brancaccio investigates how rising gas prices, plummeting home values, and the economy in crisis all go hand in hand. We are in desperate need of modern infrastructure and a huge investment in public transit. Could this be the country’s ticket out of the economic slump? Definitely a worth-while watch and important consideration come November 4th.

> NOW: Driven to Despair   (10.10.2008)
> PBS Blueprint America series

Take the Hawkeye Express

Hawkeye Express

Today thousands of Iowa and Iowa State football fans avoided parking and traffic headaches at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium by riding to the game on the Hawkeye Express. Now in its fifth season, the Hawkeye Express is a passenger rail service between Coralville and Kinnick Stadium operating during Iowa home football games.

Starting in 2004, the University of Iowa first leased the Denver-based Ski Train to run on a 3.3 mile stretch of track owned by Iowa Interstate Railroad. At Kinnick, a stairway down to the track preexisted from when the Rock Island Railroad used to run their own football trains from Des Moines and the Quad Cities.

After two seasons of leasing the Ski Train and a consistent increase in riders, the Athletic Department began leasing a six-car, bilevel commuter train from Iowa Northern Railway Company based out of Waterloo. The former Chicago Metra cars were repainted in Hawkeye colors and adorned with “Hawkeye Express” and the tiger hawk logo at each end.

In 2005, the train averaged 3000 fans per game and up to 4000 for each game in 2007. With the new commuter cars, the Hawkeye Express can now carry up to 6000 per game, which could happen this season with some parking areas near Kinnick being disturbed by the summer flooding.

According to a 2007 article in The Daily Iowa, the Hawkeye Express does not turn a profit, but is getting closer to breaking even. Mark Jennings, an associate athletic director for U of I, said the train was never intended to make money, but help alleviate traffic congestion and enhance the gameday experience for fans.

With growing ridership and their own black and gold rail cars, it looks like the Hawkeye Express is here to stay. This is a great opportunity to garner more public interest and support for passenger rail in Eastern Iowa. I imagine the Hawkeye Express will be used for addition events in the future. It will also be beneficial in promoting support for a proposed rail system between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

> Iowa Northern Railway : Hawkeye Express
> Cedar-Iowa River Rail Transit Project Feasibility Study (2006)

Rack n’ Roll on CyRide

CyRide’s “Rack ‘n ‘Roll” bike rack program officially started this week. The four new Gillig Low Floor buses (units 0819 – 0822) that arrived this summer came equipped with bike racks, and lane workers were adding racks to additional buses last week. The program is only a trial run, but its likely the racks will be here to stay. At this point only about a third of CyRide buses have racks due to space restrictions in the garage that is now at maximum capacity (the racks add one foot of length to each bus). So far I have driven two buses that were retrofitted with racks, but haven’t had any passengers use the racks yet. More information is at cyride.com.

> CyRide – Rack n’ Roll

Joe Biden good choice for Amtrak, public transit

I found this article via Planetizen from Daily Kos: State of the Nation, about Barack Obama’s good judgement on choosing Senator Joe Biden of Delaware for his running mate. Biden commutes daily from Delaware to Washington on Amtrak and is a tireless supporter of the national rail system and other public transit.

> A Shot in the Arm for Amtrak?

Metro Area Transit

Metro Area Transit

Fargo and Moorhead’s joint bus system, Metro Area Transit, was the first system on which I was a regular rider. For many students, college is their first experience with public transportation, whether for convenience on campus or for reliance due to not having a car. Though I wasn’t such a transit enthusiast back then as I am now, I certainly wasn’t against it and wanted to make the best of it and judge for myself how convenient and easy or inconvenient and slow it actually was. I also did not (and still do not) have a car, so before making friends it was really my only means of getting around town. Since campus is relatively small, I pretty much just walked or biked to class and my on campus job, as my dorm was only about a block from the hub of academic buildings along Albrecht Blvd.

Two circulator routes ran through campus, Route 31 On-Campus Circulator every 15 minutes, and Route 32 Near-Campus Circulator, serving University Village and other apartments nearby every 30 minutes. I would occasionally ride one of these a few blocks to or from class if it happened to be coming by at the right time. A new night circulator, Route 35 started during spring semester 2008, running between campus and University Village from 8 – 10:07pm.

My fall semester (2006) I would occasionally ride the bus out to Target or West Acres mall to run errands on the weekends. It would require a transfer downtown at the GTC so all together it probably took half an hour each way – not bad, but certainly longer than driving. Route 15 serves West Acres from downtown and was always pretty busy. One time I recall standing room only on the ride back with nearly 50 passengers on board according to a fellow rider’s count – quite crowded for a 30-foot low floor bus.

In the spring I had class at NDSU Downtown twice a week so I began taking the bus regularly, as most of my classmates did too. Route 13 connects campus to downtown ad the GTC. Presumably after NDSU Downtown opened, MAT added 13B to provide more frequent service between campus and downtown on school days. While 13A runs along the regular route, 13B does not run as far north so its a quicker trip back to campus. The two routes alternate, each with 30 minute headways, to provide 15 minute service to downtown and back during the day.

NDSU bus shelterEarlier this year MAT expanded the Memorial Union bus shelter on campus and added a bus locator display, utilizing on-board GPS to track the whereabouts of 13A and 13B. With a very simple time schedule, I’m not sure this was necessary, but with new buses it probably wasn’t a major expense to implement and has implications for more trackers around the metro that could improve legibility and ease-of-use for the whole system. The tracker should be nice in the winter when buses typically run a few minutes behind schedule due to road conditions and inclement weather.

With the growth of NDSU’s downtown campus, MAT is planning for additional bus service between campuses. Especially for business students who do not have to essentially live at studio like architecture students, this should be a convenient means of getting between classes. Evidently no student parking will be provided at either of the two new campus buildings, which is a concern of architecture students who frequently will be working there all hours of the night when buses do not run.

Generally Metro Area Transit is a well run transit system with 22 routes serving Fargo, Moorhead, and West Fargo. I always had a good experience riding, with friendly drivers, well maintained buses, and sufficient schedule/route information provided.

When I was back in the area last weekend, I stopped by the GTC to get some pictures and even rode a route for a few blocks (my old Bison Card still grants me free rides). It was fun to check it out again, especially now that I have a better understanding of the ins and outs of transit operation as a driver for CyRide. MAT is a decent system that is certainly better and more adaptive than Cedar Rapids Transit and could probably rival CyRide if it had the same resources and ridership demand.

Check out my MAT bus pictures on Flickr.
More info on MAT’s website at www.matbus.com.

Downtown transfer returns

Cedar Rapids Transit will move it’s temporary transfer site Monday back to downtown at park-and-ride lots along the riverfront at 12th Avenue and 2nd Street SE. The current transfer site, set up at the corner of 4th Avenue and 12th Street SE when service resumed after the flood, is about ten blocks east of the downtown Ground Transportation Center, consequently causing on-time issues for west side routes. Routes serving the east side have been arriving at the endpoint about five minutes ahead of time while west side routes have been running behind schedule in the afternoons when ridership appears to be the heaviest. The return to downtown should allow buses to more easily maintain the regular schedule. This new temporary site is within a few blocks of the future intermodal transportation facility that is planned to house a new bus transfer station. Transit service continues fare free for now with hourly headways on all routes.

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