Staying On Schedule

This last weekend, I rode on Route 160 at the same time in the morning on both Friday and Saturday while on my way to work. Even though it was the same trip on the same route, the experience was quite different between the two days. On Friday, we left Dayton TC as soon as the clock said it was time to go. Over the course of the trip, there were less than 8 people, and we only had to stop a handful of times. By the time we got to my stop (the last one before Three Rivers TC), just 15 minutes had elapsed, which is also the same amount of time Google Maps estimates the drive from Dayton TC to Three Rivers TC will take on the same route. On Saturday, the bus had quite a few more passengers, with more boarding/alighting at most of the key stops along the route. By the time we got to my stop, about 22 minutes had elapsed, which according to the public schedule actually makes the bus late by 2 minutes (though regular riders of the 160 would know this is more in line with the usual running time of the route).

After the stark differences I had in my experience (as minuscule as they might seem), I started thinking about what it really means to say that a bus is “on schedule.”

Traditionally, Ben Franklin Transit has told riders that they should be at their bus stop at least 5 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive. With a large majority of the passengers being regular riders who use the bus at least once a week, the process of catching a bus is pretty routine as they largely have the schedule(s) committed to memory. Being used to this laid back approach was a bit of a culture shock for me last year when I moved twice and spent several months living in Tampa and later Spokane. As a major metro and medium-city respectively, the transit agencies did things quite differently.

It wasn’t until I was in Tampa when I learned about the concept of a “timepoint hold.” Just like BFT, they publish their schedules with times at key points along the route listed. However, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) had a strict policy for their operators that if they pass a scheduled timepoint early, they will be subject to disciplinary action (i.e. a write-up). On the very first night I was in Tampa while getting my introductory tour of HART with Jason Eames, we were on a late night Route 30 trip where the bus operator was deliberately driving the bus slow (by my estimation about 25-30mph on a 40mph road). Having never seen something like this, I asked Jason about it and he explained the aforementioned policy. Later on in my time in Tampa, I noticed other bus operators doing the same thing, while others would drive the bus at a regular pace until they arrived at a timepoint where they would stop the bus and wait until the clock said they could proceed. I also observed the same thing in Spokane while riding Spokane Transit Authority buses, though it was quite rare for it to happen there (which may be attributed to careful work by staff to develop more accurate schedules in a time of austerity measures).

When I was living in Tampa and Spokane, the concept of the “timepoint hold” seemed a bit extreme and even wasteful to me. After moving back to the Tri-Cities and riding BFT again, I’ve started to wonder if there may be something to it. The schedule is arguably the most crucial piece of information for bus riders. Whether they’re an experienced rider or a new one, it’s important to be able to know what time your bus leaves and when you’ll get to your destination, along with how long the trip will take. If the bus isn’t running within 5 minutes of that schedule, it can mean a few things. Maybe the schedule wasn’t allocated enough time and needs to be adjusted, or maybe the bus operators are traversing the route too fast and need to be asked to slow down a bit. When you’re dealing with routes that only run at 30 minute plus headways, this is especially critical. Nobody wants to be waiting outside in the hot sun or pouring rain only to find out that the bus passed by 3 minutes before they got there and now they’re stuck waiting for at least another half-hour. Even if it’s a frequent bus route (every 15 minutes or greater), a schedule is still a crucial tool to have. (You may recall earlier this year when I posted the entire schedule for Tampa’s MetroRapid North-South Line after HART neglected to do so initially).

In the future, relying on public schedules may not be such a critical issue as more and more agencies start launching real-time bus tracking apps and others starting increasing frequencies. For the time being however, we have to work on the basic issues to help attract new riders, and solving the issue of staying on schedule is probably the best place to start.

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MetroRapid – What is Tampa Really Getting?

After months of planning and work, the first BRT line in the history of the Tampa Bay area is set to launch on May 28th.

A map showing the proposed BRT and light rail network.

A map showing the proposed BRT and light rail network.

When the Hillsborough light rail referendum failed at the polls in 2010, HART changed their plans and started moving forward with plans for a BRT (bus rapid transit) system to be overlaid over the existing bus network, which included expanding service into new parts of Hillsborough County. While more of a consolation prize for the light rail network that advocates had been hoping for, it was hoped that a BRT network would be the start of the future HCT (high capacity transit) network that would span the entire Tampa Bay area.

With funding extremely limited due to current budget constraints, HART is currently rolling out the network in pieces, starting with the “North-South” line, which is largely an overlay of the currently existing Route 2 running between Marion TC and University Area TC along Nebraska Ave and Fletcher Ave. Unlike Route 2, the North-South line will continue east on Fletcher Ave past UATC to serve the Hidden River area, a part of Hillsborough County that has never had fixed route service before. In early planning, HART was anticipating that the North-South line would run every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes during off-peak hours, but that was later rolled back to every 15 minutes all day. Though it’s not clear if HART ever had plans for service every day of the week in the initial stages of planning, the final schedules only have the North-South line running on weekdays between 5AM-8PM. As part of the realignment in service along the Nebraska Ave corridor, incumbent Route 2 is having weekday frequency rolled back from the current every 15 minutes peak/every 20 minutes off-peak to every 30 minutes all day, with late night service frequencies unchanged. It is worth noting however that HART has indicated that the old Route 2 schedule will remain in effect until June 10th, 2 weeks after the North-South line begins service (The summer markup goes into effect May 26th.)

Below, I have the schedules for the North-South line.

MTC = Marion Transit Center
NEB/COL = Nebraska Ave and Columbus Drive
NEB/MLK = Nebraska Ave and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd
NEB/HILL = Nebraska Ave and Hillsborough Ave
NEB/BUS = Nebraska Ave and Busch Blvd
NEB/FLET = Nebraska Ave and Fletcher Ave
UATC = University Area Transit Center
HDRV = Hidden River Park-and-Ride


NORTHBOUND

MTC

NEB/COL

NEB/MLK

NEB/HILL

NEB/BUS

NEB/FLET

UATC

HDRV
5:00 5:13 5:16 5:20 5:29 5:39 5:45 6:09
5:15 5:28 5:31 5:35 5:44 5:54 6:00
5:30 5:43 5:46 5:50 5:59 6:09 6:15 6:39
5:45 5:58 6:01 6:05 6:14 6:24 6:30
6:00 6:13 6:16 6:20 6:29 6:39 6:45 7:09
6:15 6:28 6:31 6:35 6:44 6:54 7:00
6:30 6:43 6:46 6:50 6:59 7:09 7:15 7:39
6:45 6:58 7:01 7:05 7:14 7:24 7:30
7:00 7:13 7:16 7:20 7:29 7:39 7:45 8:09
7:15 7:28 7:31 7:35 7:44 7:54 8:00
7:30 7:43 7:46 7:50 7:59 8:09 8:15 8:39
7:45 7:58 8:01 8:05 8:14 8:24 8:30
8:00 8:13 8:16 8:20 8:29 8:39 8:45 9:09
8:15 8:28 8:31 8:35 8:44 8:54 9:00
8:30 8:43 8:46 8:50 8:59 9:09 9:15 9:39
8:45 8:58 9:01 9:05 9:14 9:24 9:30
9:00 9:13 9:16 9:20 9:29 9:39 9:45 10:09
9:15 9:28 9:31 9:35 9:44 9:54 10:00
9:30 9:43 9:46 9:50 9:59 10:09 10:15 10:39
9:45 9:58 10:01 10:05 10:14 10:24 10:30
10:00 10:13 10:16 10:20 10:29 10:39 10:45 11:09
10:15 10:28 10:31 10:35 10:44 10:54 11:00
10:30 10:43 10:46 10:50 10:59 11:09 11:15 11:39
10:55 11:08 11:11 11:15 11:24 11:34 11:40
11:00 11:13 11:16 11:20 11:29 11:39 11:45 12:09
11:15 11:28 11:31 11:35 11:44 11:54 12:00
11:30 11:43 11:46 11:50 11:59 12:09 12:15 12:39
11:45 11:58 12:01 12:05 12:14 12:24 12:30
12:00 12:13 12:16 12:20 12:29 12:39 12:45 1:09
12:15 12:28 12:31 12:35 12:44 12:54 1:00
12:30 12:43 12:46 12:50 12:59 1:09 1:15 1:39
12:45 12:58 1:01 1:05 1:14 1:24 1:30
1:00 1:13 1:16 1:20 1:29 1:39 1:45 2:09
1:15 1:28 1:31 1:35 1:44 1:54 2:00
1:30 1:43 1:46 1:50 1:59 2:09 2:15 2:39
1:45 1:58 2:01 2:05 2:14 2:24 2:30
2:00 2:13 2:16 2:20 2:29 2:39 2:45 3:09
2:15 2:28 2:31 2:35 2:44 2:54 3:00
2:30 2:43 2:46 2:50 2:59 3:09 3:15 3:39
2:45 2:58 3:01 3:05 3:14 3:24 3:30
3:00 3:13 3:16 3:20 3:29 3:39 3:45 4:09
3:15 3:28 3:31 3:35 3:44 3:54 4:00
3:30 3:43 3:46 3:50 3:59 4:09 4:15 4:39
3:45 3:58 4:01 4:05 4:14 4:24 4:30
4:00 4:13 4:16 4:20 4:29 4:39 4:45 5:09
4:15 4:28 4:31 4:35 4:44 4:54 5:00
4:30 4:43 4:46 4:50 4:59 5:09 5:15 5:39
4:45 4:58 5:01 5:05 5:14 5:24 5:30
5:00 5:13 5:16 5:20 5:29 5:39 5:45 6:09
5:15 5:28 5:31 5:35 5:44 5:54 6:00
5:30 5:43 5:46 5:50 5:59 6:09 6:15 6:39
5:45 5:58 6:01 6:05 6:14 6:24 6:30
6:00 6:13 6:16 6:20 6:29 6:39 6:45 7:09
6:15 6:28 6:31 6:35 6:44 6:54 7:00
6:30 6:43 6:46 6:50 6:59 7:09 7:15 7:39
6:45 6:58 7:01 7:05 7:14 7:24 7:30

SOUTHBOUND

HDRV

UATC

NEB/FLET

NEB/BUS

NEB/HILL

NEB/MLK

NEB/COL

MTC
5:20 5:30 5:39 5:48 5:51 5:55 6:05
5:15 5:35 5:45 5:54 6:03 6:06 6:10 6:20
5:50 6:00 6:09 6:18 6:21 6:25 6:35
5:45 6:05 6:15 6:24 6:33 6:36 6:40 6:50
6:20 6:30 6:39 6:48 6:51 6:55 7:05
6:15 6:35 6:45 6:54 7:03 7:06 7:10 7:20
6:50 7:00 7:09 7:18 7:21 7:25 7:35
6:45 7:05 7:15 7:24 7:33 7:36 7:40 7:50
7:20 7:30 7:39 7:48 7:51 7:55 8:05
7:15 7:35 7:45 7:54 8:03 8:06 8:10 8:20
7:50 8:00 8:09 8:18 8:21 8:25 8:35
7:45 8:05 8:15 8:24 8:33 8:36 8:40 8:50
8:20 8:30 8:39 8:48 8:51 8:55 9:05
8:15 8:35 8:45 8:54 9:03 9:06 9:10 9:20
8:50 9:00 9:09 9:18 9:21 9:25 9:35
8:45 9:05 9:15 9:24 9:33 9:36 9:40 9:50
9:20 9:30 9:39 9:48 9:51 9:55 10:05
9:15 9:35 9:45 9:54 10:03 10:06 10:10 10:20
9:50 10:00 10:09 10:18 10:21 10:25 10:35
9:45 10:05 10:15 10:24 10:33 10:36 10:40 10:50
10:20 10:30 10:39 10:48 10:51 10:55 11:05
10:15 10:35 10:45 10:54 11:03 11:06 11:10 11:20
10:50 11:00 11:09 11:18 11:21 11:25 11:35
10:45 11:05 11:15 11:24 11:33 11:36 11:40 11:50
11:20 11:30 11:39 11:48 11:51 11:55 12:05
11:15 11:35 11:45 11:54 12:03 12:06 12:10 12:20
11:50 12:00 12:09 12:18 12:21 12:25 12:35
11:45 12:05 12:15 12:24 12:33 12:36 12:40 12:50
12:20 12:30 12:39 12:48 12:51 12:55 1:05
12:15 12:35 12:45 12:54 1:03 1:06 1:10 1:20
12:50 1:00 1:09 1:18 1:21 1:25 1:35
12:45 1:05 1:15 1:24 1:33 1:36 1:40 1:50
1:20 1:30 1:39 1:48 1:51 1:55 2:05
1:15 1:35 1:45 1:54 2:03 2:06 2:10 2:20
1:50 2:00 2:09 2:18 2:21 2:25 2:35
1:45 2:05 2:15 2:24 2:33 2:36 2:40 2:50
2:20 2:30 2:39 2:48 2:51 2:55 3:05
2:15 2:35 2:45 2:54 3:03 3:06 3:10 3:20
2:50 3:00 3:09 3:18 3:21 3:25 3:35
2:45 3:05 3:15 3:24 3:33 3:36 3:40 3:50
3:20 3:30 3:39 3:48 3:51 3:55 4:05
3:15 3:35 3:45 3:54 4:03 4:06 4:10 4:20
3:50 4:00 4:09 4:18 4:21 4:25 4:35
3:45 4:05 4:15 4:24 4:33 4:36 4:40 4:50
4:20 4:30 4:39 4:48 4:51 4:55 5:05
4:15 4:35 4:45 4:54 5:03 5:06 5:10 5:20
4:50 5:00 5:09 5:18 5:21 5:25 5:35
4:45 5:05 5:15 5:24 5:33 5:36 5:40 5:50
5:20 5:30 5:39 5:48 5:51 5:55 6:05
5:15 5:35 5:45 5:54 6:03 6:06 6:10 6:20
5:50 6:00 6:09 6:18 6:21 6:25 6:35
5:45 6:05 6:15 6:24 6:33 6:36 6:40 6:50
6:20 6:30 6:39 6:48 6:51 6:55 7:05
6:15 6:35 6:45 6:54 7:03 7:06 7:10 7:20
6:50 7:00 7:09 7:18 7:21 7:25 7:35
6:45 7:05 7:15 7:24 7:33 7:36 7:40 7:50
7:20 7:30 7:39 7:48 7:51 7:55 8:05

A few quick facts about the schedule:

  • Northbound service will see 56 trips, while southbound service will see 57 trips.
  • With the exception of the 10:55AM NB trip, the North-South line has been scheduled to keep buses spaced at 15 minute intervals throughout the day.
  • Though it takes a bit of a closer look, the schedules show that 9 MetroRapid buses will be in service each day (12 were purchased, so 3 will remain as operational spares.)
Map for the MetroRapid North-South Line

Map for the MetroRapid North-South Line

One immediate issue that can be noticed is the 30 minute headways between UATC and Hidden River Park-and-Ride. While I can’t say that HART never disclosed this fact (though its not exactly easy to find any mentions of it), I’m fairly certain that many if not most of the potential riders on the North-South line are going to be unaware of this. Apart from the various employment centers in Telecom Park, the main draw in this area will be the park-and-ride, which has 320 spaces. Officials at HART have indicated that the hope for this park-and-ride is to draw people currently commuting from the northern suburbs along I-75 to transit. Currently, there is a park-and-ride operating about 3 miles to the north using the parking lot at Lowe’s. There are also two other park-and-ride lots further north, both which use the parking lots of churches in neighboring Pasco County. With only two AM trips and two PM trips in the peak direction on Route 51X, there isn’t much demand for service in this area currently. As of February, Route 51X is only average 16.2 passengers per trip, so it’s a bit of a “hail mary” to hope that commuters will be drawn to this new park-and-ride facility with the all-day transit service.

Another issue that the North-South line will be facing is one that many other recently instituted BRT operations in the US face: mixed-traffic operations. Along most of the North-South line, there is no separation of buses and other traffic on the road. On Nebraska Ave between Cass Street and Hillsborough Ave, there are intermittent bus lanes that were put into place as a result of the Nebraska Avenue road diet project. However, few bus operators make use of them and its not clear if there is an official HART policy regarding them. With no form of separation from traffic, the potential time savings on the North-South line is not much when compared to the Route 2 schedule. Below is a comparison of the scheduled time between each shared time point on the North-South line and Route 2. (Note that the time between UATC and Hidden River is not shown since no other routes run there currently.)

NORTHBOUND
Route 2 North-South Time Saved
MTC-NEB/COL 7 13 +6
NEB/COL-NEB/MLK 4 3 -1
NEB/MLK-NEB/HILL 5 4 -1
NEB/HILL-NEB/BUS 11 9 -2
NEB/BUS-NEB/FLET 12 10 -2
NEB/FLET-UATC 10 6 -4
TOTAL 49 45 -4 minutes
SOUTHBOUND
Route 2 North-South Time Saved
UATC-NEB/FLET 10 10 0
NEB/FLET-NEB/BUS 12 9 -3
NEB/BUS-NEB/HILL 12 9 -3
NEB/HILL-NEB/MLK 4 3 -1
NEB/MLK-NEB/COL 5 4 -1
NEB/COL-MTC 7 10 +3
TOTAL 50 45 -5 minutes

*(Note that the additional time on the North-South line between MTC and Nebraska/Columbus is because it runs down the Marion Street Transitway and through downtown, and Route 2 does not.)

Arguably, the time savings isn’t that great, even though the North-South line only has 23 stops northbound and 24 stops southbound between MTC and UATC (compared with Route 2’s 74 stops northbound and 73 stops southbound). However, it does fit in with the 10-15% time savings that officials have been advertising. To help improve the North-South line’s performance, TSP (transit signal priority) will be used on selected segments. The first TSP segment is on Nebraska Avenue between Cass Street and Floribraska Avenue, and the second TSP segment is on Fletcher Avenue between Nebraska Avenue and 42nd Street/Palm Avenue. On the Nebraska segment, there are 7 stoplights with TSP: Cass, Scott, Henderson, 7th, Palm, Columbus, and Floribraska. On the Fletcher segment, there are 8 stoplights with TSP: Nebraska, 15th, 22nd, Livingston, Bruce B. Downs, Magnolia, 42nd, and Palm. It has been indicated that there are plans to install TSP on the other 36 stoplights along the North-South line.

Along the North-South line, riders will see three different styles of stations: “A,” “B,” and “C.” All three station types feature similar features, with MetroRapid-branded shelter along with a wayfinding totem. The”A” station is the most basic design, with just a shelter awning and a information board. The “B” station features a larger shelter and seating as well. Also important is that the “B” station is designed to have a TVM (ticket vending machine) installed, though only one pair of “B” stations will have them at the opening of the North-South line (Magnolia). For most of the stops, a “B” station has been installed, partly because they can be later upgraded to a “C” station in the future. With a larger shelter than the “B” station and TVM’s located at every one of them, the stops with a “C” station are those that are anticipated to produce the highest ridership. Along with MTC, Jackson/Pierce in downtown, UATC, and Hidden River Park-and-Ride, there are just four “C” station pairs: Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Hillsborough Ave, Waters Ave, and Fowler Ave.

With just 14 TVM’s currently in place along the North-South line, any sort of off-board payment system is going to be largely unattainable. As of this writing, there has been no announcement from HART regarding fare payment policies for MetroRapid, so one is left to assume it will be the same as the current policy for regular fixed-route service: Boarding through the front doors only, where riders can pay with cash or swipe their farecards. HART is anticipating that a large majority of the current riders on Route 2 will start using the North-South line. However, without a major change to fare payment policy, the North-South line is likely destined to become bogged down by cash fare payments just as Route 2 does currently. It is important to note that HART recently announced a plan for a major farebox upgrade that will support the use of smart cards (along with the possibility of inter-agency cooperation with PSTA and other neighboring agencies), so there may be hope for the future.

With all the potential issues it faces, I find myself cautiously optimistic about the beginning of the North-South line. It does have a heavy ridership base to build upon (as Route 2 is HART’s busiest route, averaging ~4,300 passengers per day), and with continued growth along the Nebraska Avenue corridor that number can only go higher. As an actual BRT route, it has a long way to go, but as mentioned earlier there are budgetary constraints and so this is about all that can be done at this point. I do fear that regardless of failure or success, the MetroRapid system may end up plotting the destiny for the future of transit in Tampa Bay. If it were to fail, naysayers could point to it and say that it proves there’s not a need to expand transit in the area. If it did succeed past expectations, then it would be harder for advocates to press for more.

At this point, all we can do is wait and see.

UPDATE 8/8/13: Since originally uploading this post, there have been some changes made to the MetroRapid North-South line.

Back on June 7th, HART announced that effective immediately, the North-South line would not be using the Marion Street Transitway, but rather Morgan Street (one block east). With the beginning of the next mark-up (service change) on August 18th, this detour will officially become permanent. I’m not at all surprised that this was done, as I fully expected that MetroRapid buses would become bogged down on the Transitway as every other bus already does due to traffic signals running on a timer system. Unless HART and the City of Tampa find a way to solve this issue, I doubt that the North-South line will be returning to the Transitway.

With the next markup, there will also be some changes to the schedule. Perhaps most notable is that you can now find the *full* schedule on HART’s website, but there’s no word as of yet if the pamphlets will have a full schedule or at least something a little more extensive compared to the current one. With the Nebraska/Columbus and Nebraska/Fletcher timepoints being deleted from the schedule and other minor changes to reflect actual operating conditions, the North-South line will also be running a little faster now. A summary of the schedule change is below:

NORTHBOUND
Current New Time Saved
MTC-NEB/MLK 16 14 -2
NEB/MLK-NEB/HILL 4 4 0
NEB/HILL-NEB/BUS 9 9 0
NEB/BUS-UATC 16 14 -2
UATC-HDRV 24 23 -2
TOTAL 69 64 -5 minutes
SOUTHBOUND
Current New Time Saved
HDRV-UATC 20 19 -1
UATC-NEB/BUS 19 18 -1
NEB/BUS-NEB/HILL 9 9 0
NEB/HILL-NEB/MLK 3 3 0
NEB/MLK-MTC 14 12 -2
TOTAL 65 61 -4 minutes

Also note that the issue with the 10:55 northbound trip has been fixed and it now leaves Marion TC at 10:45.

*All the information shown in this post is an aggregation of publicly available data and cannot be claimed as copyrighted or proprietary.