Buses and Subways and Trains, Oh My

Main and Clinton, 1929.

Our home place here is in the midst of considering a change to its transit system. As usual, Rochester is the perfect case study of how cities can screw themselves up with the greatest of ease. My newly adopted city, like so many of its sister places, has made a vast litany of urban gaffes over the last century, and we are about to see yet another. Let me explain.

In the early 20th century, Rochester had a system of streetcars and interurbans and even a subway, all of which provided transit options to citizens. In those days, say the 1920s, the population of the city was quite a bit larger than today, though the region was much smaller – sprawl was only just getting started.

By the mid 1950s, everything was gone. Streetcars gone. Interurbans gone. Subway gone. Left on the roads? Cars, and buses.  Retail was headed out of town, following all those who began to sprawl. Downtown’s fate was sealed.

Main Street, 1947.

So Main Street became a busway, with a lane for them and a lane for cars. As transit somehow managed to persist after WWII, Main Street became home to lots and lots of buses. Our local transit agency, RGRTA, devised a hub-and-spokes operating system that assured that there would be tons of buses downtown. If you want to go from any point in the region to any other point, you have to go downtown first, then transfer to another bus that will get you close to where you are going.

Which of course is a ridiculous way to operate a transit system. Instead of a grid operating system, which would move folks easily and rapidly to diverse destinations in the region (for us here, our extraordinary health care at area hospitals, two major and many minor colleges and universities, shopping, jobs, parks, and homes), we have the yo-yo system. No direct route anywhere, except downtown. It’s in and then out, and a transfer. A swarm of buses comes in from all directions, you jump off, hop on the bus going the next leg, and then out you go. The stories of commutes by bus in our town reach epic proportions – it really does take hours to get to any destination only 20 minutes away by car, our city’s motto. “Get In Your Car! – Anywhere In 20 Minutes!”

Annual ridership in the overall system is pegged at about 17,000,000. This works out to about 46,000 riders a day. In a region of well over a million people, this is about four percent. Of course the transit provider cooks the books to get ridership numbers that seem much higher. What they do is focus on city riders, which of course are a much higher percentage of the population. This makes RGRTA look good, and rank higher than expected in national ridership ratings. 36th in the U.S.? Really?

And while this yo-yo method provides low-quality transit service to citizens, it appears to be economically efficient. RGRTA likes to crow about how well it’s doing financially. Crappy, infrequent service that doesn’t go where you need to go, when you need to go there, but hey, a money-making proposition. And the only transit game in town.

Word has it that some of our leaders realize that the yo-yo thing is pure madness, but no change to the operating system is being planned.

In fact, if you read RGRTA’s strategic plan (you have to be up for this one – 337 pages), you see that during their SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats – old-fashioned strategic planning methodology) the hub-and-spokes routing system squarely makes the list of weaknesses.  Then they say nothing more about it.

Anyway, on to the story of the moment. As an out-of-town transit geek, all this makes me cranky – what a ridiculous way to provide transit. But onward.

So we have tons of buses on Main Street now. Take a look at this.

Main Street, 1992.

Or this.

Main Street today, image pinched from Mike G. at rochestersubway.com.

Here’s the story. A project was being planned for downtown. This was going to be “The Big One,” Renaissance Square. The project that would save the city. And as part of the project, a new bus terminal would be constructed, getting the whales off Main, and even providing for curbside parking! More parking!! Hoorah! Just what we need!

Never mind that this project was not near the heavy rail station – Amtrak and intercity bus, and we hope sometime soon high-speed rail – where it belongs. Never mind that half of downtown, including lots of space near the heavy rail right-of-way, is empty. It’s time for Renaissance Square. And curbside parking on Main.

Well needless to say, the project went belly up. Caput. And now there is about $52 million in leftover state and federal funds burning a hole in the municipality’s pocket. So what to do? Build the bus transfer station anyway, and smack in the wrong place, on a street called Mortimer.

Which solves nothing. We still have the yo-yo bus system. If we changed how the system is routed, we would not need a downtown bus terminal at all, and we might even be able to get where we’re going in a realistic trip time.

But even if we keep the hilarious yo-yo system, the terminal should be near other modes of transit, where it belongs. Logical, yes? Maybe it’s just me.

City leaders tell us that if we don’t move quickly, and don’t spend the leftover federal and state dollars, we’ll lose the cash, and the chance to spur a redevelopment of Main. But hey folks, we all know that getting buses off of Main is not going to magically repair a few decades of abuse. It will take more than getting rid of buses, methinks.

And then there are the disturbing undertones to this discussion: getting rid of the buses gets rid of crowds of “them” on Main. The others.  People who are different – by race, class, age, attitude. Urban folks. The ones who really use, and need, the system.

So what should we do? Build a bus facility at the heavy rail station, to interconnect modes. Change the bus routing system from yo-yo to we-go.

Then take the savings and build a football stadium. After all, Rochester calls itself the best minor league city in the nation. Sad, but true.

45 thoughts on “Buses and Subways and Trains, Oh My

  1. I’ve been waiting over a week for this post and you did not disappoint Howard! Any chance you can read this to City Council tomorrow in under 2 minutes?

    Hey there people… the last public input meeting on this transit center is Wednesday (May 5) 7-8:30p at Carlson Commons, 70 Coretta Scott Crossing. Show up!

  2. I agree with you about the need to move away from a hub and spoke system toward a grid system. Other cities that have so-called legacy systems are going through the same process. Tallahassee, FL (my former home) is in the process of addressing a similar issue (the complaints about RGRTA echo the issues heard about StarMetro in Tallahassee.) The City has recently approved the Nova 2010 plan that will move transit in the capital region of Florida to a grid system. This will additionally allow StarMetro and the city to sell a portion of their 1970’s era transit facility to be used for private development at the edge of the downtown area.


  3. I may get put into the stocks for this, but I feel compelled to test the water and get all your takes on this.

    I’ll start by saying that I’m not really interested in the inefficiencies of shuttling a person or two at a time between RIT and the village of Pittsford. Too many times I’ve read comments from suburbanites who say basically, “I’d ride the bus, if it runs on my schedule, picks me up at my door, and drops me off at my workplace,” in essence a super-cheap commmunal taxi.

    I’ll also say that there are already some crosstown opportunities and that they are evaluated based on potential ridership. Strong Hospital convinced RGRTA to create the S1 route last year as an express to Greece. The #12 never goes downtown, taking residents of the 19th Ward to MCC via Strong. The #18/#19 loop that I ride to work connects the U of R/Strong to 12 Corners and 12 Corners to the North Winton Village before becoming a spoke again. The #14 provides Ridge Road service in Greece and Irondequoit.

    I won’t argue that the frequency is of the greatest quality, and I can envision some tight crosstown routes such as an Alexander Street route linking the South Wedge, East End, and Public Market or a S. Goodman Street linking Swillburg, Monroe Ave, the Art Gallery, Design Center, and Cultural District/Market. Possible Circulator? 🙂 (http://www.charmcitycirculator.com/)


    Here’s a question. According to this map (http://www.rochestersubway.com/rochester_subway_poster_1928.php), the city routes we have now are essentially the original streetcar system. Would we not take that back in a heartbeat?


  4. Allow me to toss one more incendiary onto this fire and state that the developer of the Warner Building is not really interested in promoting dense urbanism.

    His #1 objective is to lease large luxury apartments to a segment of the population that looks down on the bus riders and is likely to retain their personal automobiles. In my opinion, this is a failure to take advantage of proximity to the ‘hub’ (no transfers!).

  5. Bob, you are the RGRTA bus guru, and your skepticism is noted. But some further thoughts.

    First, when I say a grid system, I do not mean we should run transit willy-nilly to places that no one visits. And not all lines in the grid are of equal weight. Some will be more heavily used than others – this is an inevitability.

    But consider that Rochester is essentially arranged in quadrants, thanks to the river, the canals, and the railroads and their bisecting embankments – central features of our urban geography. So now, if you live in the corner of any quadrant, and want to get to any other quadrant, you’re stuck going in and then out. Disincentive.

    Not that downtown isn’t a destination of importance. It’s just that it’s not the only destination of importance.

    The location of all of the freeways is instructive here. They go where folks want to be. Transit should too. Maybe using the freeway rights-of-way?

    And yes, the old subway line was a good one. But it is important to note what the old subway did not serve – two of the four regional quadrants, places where a lot of folks live and work. Problem.

    I have not made a serious study of alignment variations – I simply observe that our bus transit system is based on a time when most people in the region lived and worked downtown. I wish that was still true, but it isn’t.

    Things will change. Rising fuel prices alone will cause a lot of folks to rethink their patterns of habitation. And it may make the city much more dense. But all 1.1 million in the region probably will not relocate within the city borders.

    So I believe, perhaps wrongly but I think not, that we need to reexamine routing, the delivery of transit service, and the multiplication of transit modes available in the region.

    No stocks for Bob. Just food for thought.

  6. I think the proposed transit center is an good solution for our needs. To be honest, I’ve never really had a problem with our spoke and hub system. I’ve been able to get anywhere I need to go within forty-five minutes. I know that sounds like an eternity for people who are used to fifteen minute car rides, but I grew up on a farm that was forty-five minutes from anywhere, and I’m patient enough to wait if it means I get there in an environmentally and economically sustainable way.

    Lets not forget those people who currently have to ride the bus at 11:00 at night in the middle of winter. I used to have to ride a bus that time of night to get to work. There are vulnerable populations (elderly, small children) who are out there exposed to the elements at that time of night too. Money to provide a safe and comfortable environment for those people has sat in the bank for ten years while people debate over the “perfect” solution for public transit in this city. Are we supposed to ask them to wait another ten years while we try to create the political momentum to change the transit plan that’s been in place for two generations? Those people need, and deserve, to be protected now.

    One of the reasons I chose to move downtown when I did was to be closer to the transit hub. Why make it easier for people to stay sprawled out by creating a system of cross-town buses? When the car culture finally becomes un-affordable, let’s have a transit system in place that encourages a more dense, vibrant and sustainable city than one that allows people to be flung all over the place.

    I think we should support the bus terminal. I think it’s a viable solution.

  7. I work downtown & live in Fairport. For my commute the hub & spoke system is perfect.

    On the weekends… I visit Webster & Henrietta mostly, and pretty much stay away from downtown. Let’s face it, Downtown is dead on the weekends for the most part.

    I’d love to be able to get to Webster and Henrietta without first coming downtown and then back out (which is often a 2hr prospect). However; I recognize that ridership is a problem, and that the number of people riding the Fairport->Henrietta bus would probably hover in the single digits.

    Why not a East loop and a West loop? They can still be spokes, but rather than out and in on the same route… go:


    Run 2 buses simultaneously in both directions every 30 minutes. Sure it would be a big loop if you needed to go the whole distance but if they’re running in both directions your worst case of Irondiquot -> Henrietta (or reversed) would take far less than it does now.

    In my pickup location timing is the biggest problem. Downtown the schedules are fine but in Fairport there are often HOURS between buses and they stop running at 6:30pm.

    We have to determine what our goal is.

    If our goal is to get people downtown then the hub/spoke system works fine, but it’s a chicken and egg situation. There needs to be a reason for me to go downtown and the downtown bars would be a perfect reason if the buses ran at a reasonable time…

    If our goal is to get people where they need to go and get more cars off the road then the hub/spoke system is fundamentally flawed. The biggest complaint from everyone I know who doesn’t ride the bus is that it takes FOREVER to get anywhere and the schedule isn’t predictable.

  8. Howard, your kindness is appreciated.

    I wasn’t trying to insinuate that you’d run a Hilton to Bergen route. That was more a criticism of the prevailing county-wide attitude regarding transit. As I sit and think about it, the suburban employment landscape is honestly too fragmented to serve meaningfully in any way. In my mind a route linking the Villages of Webster and Fairport would have connectivity merit (I have a high opinion of small dense towns like these compared to the crudscape), but I struggle to figure out who the riders would be as the patterns of where people live vs. where they work would look like buckshot on the map.

    Leaving what we called ‘the subway’ out the discussion for now, I was able to use Mike’s nifty magnification feature to see that the bus routes of today (Park, University, Monroe, South, West Main, etc. etc.) where the original streetcar lines. That was more my motivation with that statement, but again it harkens to your point about live/work spatial relationships.

    What I can say in RGRTA’s defense regarding quadrants is that the through routes (similarly numbered routes with different street names on opposite sides on the hub) eliminate at least one transfer possiblility. For example, the #2 Parsells Avenue bus becomes the #2 Thurston Road bus. Really all this saves is the extra dollar however as there is a time drag downtown and again it only covers two quadrants, but I’m not sure there’s a better way to get to the Swan Market from a house on Lehigh, for instance.

    Actually, the answer to my hypothetical German sausage run from the 19th Ward is those pesky freeways, which I would certainly love to see turned into transit corridors.


  9. Be assured that this proposed transfer station has everything to to with moving “those people” to an out of the way place and has nothing to do with transit.

    Also – parallel street parking is not all bad. It forms a nice barrier between the sidewalk and traffic and it also tends to slow the traffic – can can be treaturous for bikers however. It is also a benefit for store owners if you make sure it is short term metered parking.

  10. Re: the hub and spoke system. It is, as most of us transit geeks know, a legacy of the horsecar and streetcar routes. Many of the existing RTS routes, especially the inner sections, have had some sort of transit for 125 years or more. I’m hesitant to radically change the route structure to serve sprawling suburbs that may or may not ever densify to the levels to support frequent transit service. I’d rather RTS lop off some of the more distant suburban routes and focus on providing better, more frequent, service to the city and inner suburbs where densities can better support transit. Making the network smaller yet more effective, with more frequent service, I believe, will encourage the sort of re-urbanism and “transit oriented development” that we all want.

    Re: the subway. This is where I might get put in the stocks. I know Rochesterians called it the subway when it operated. I hate calling it the subway. It was not a subway the way most people today think of a subway. It was not underground (except for a small section downtown). It did not draw its power from a third rail. It did not typically operate as multi-car trains. It was, in fact, a light rail line. Or, to use period-appropriate terminology, it was a streetcar line in its own right-of-way.

    And the route was dumb, especially heading to NW. The subway route was not chosen because it linked major activity nodes. The route was chosen because it was cheap, publicly owned former canal property. No political capital lost on buying new right-of-way or taking an existing street lane away from the already powerful auto lobby. That being said, the dumb route could have been made better if it had been extended on the east to Monroe Avenue and on the west to Kodak Park and on into Greece.

    But I digress. I’m frustrated not so much with RGRTA’s hub and spoke route system, but with their attitude and complete lack of marketing. They seem to view their mission as providing cheap, bare bones transportation to those who have no other option. Their website does not even have a system map on it. The website trip planner feature is awkward. The routes are spaghetti like and branch off into lettered sub-routes that confuse the casual/discretionary rider. The schedules are byzantine. I am an educated person. It should not take several minutes of detailed study for me to figure out how to take the damn bus.

    RGRTA could do so much to help foster a “culture of transit” in Rochester that would, in turn, attract the discretionary rider and make transit a real choice for people who DO have other options.
    -Real time message boards at stops (supposedly in the works but until they are widespread, they will remain little more than novelties).
    -More bus shelters.
    -More bus shelters that didn’t smell like urine (I’d pay an extra quarter a ride for more cleaning staff).
    -Posting schedules and maps at stops (why does the schedule have to change every few months?).
    -Posting a system map online with a graphical google-maps-like interface to plan your route (why is simply posting a PDF of a system map so beyond RGRTA? They had one on their website years ago when I first moved to Rochester).
    -Simplifying routes and naming or coloring key routes (e.g. the #7 Pittsford to Irondequoit, “the green line,” the #1 North Winton Village to Charlotte, “the blue line,”), and naming stops, to give the impression of a transit line akin to bus rapid transit. This would make the bus system more accessible and help set the stage for future conversion (restoration?) to streetcars.
    -Creating a route that linked Marketplace directly with RIT, U of R, Eastman School of Music, and the city’s SE avenues (University, Park, Monroe, South, etc.). One of the great lost opportunities for the transit system in Rochester is that U of R operates its own independent transit system. This keeps the college kids safely ensconced in their own middle-class bubble, deprives the public system of middle class riders (classism works in reverse too… we don’t want neighborhoods and we don’t want a transit system that are just “warehouses for the poor), and deprives the public from using routes that many of us might actually want to take (a bus from the SE area to Barnes and Noble at RIT? Cool!). The existing route that most closely approximates this is #24. This route has 18 (18??!!) “special travel codes” (A through U) that one must decipher. That is crazy.

    Re: the transit station downtown. I’m ambivalent. Glad Ren Square died; I’m always suspicious of mega-projects, especially mega-projects that needlessly bulldoze historic (tattered-yet-salvageable) buildings. The unspoken racism/classism of the project remains disturbing. But I don’t see how building what is currently proposed will harm anything. With all due respect to all those who feel otherwise, no one has ever explained to me why local busses need to converge at a transfer point at the train station. There’s only 8 trains a day. Even if we doubled or tripled that number with high speed rail, does that matter? Isn’t it better to have the human throngs (black white rich poor whatever) associated with local transit hubs as close to the city’s core as possible and not out at the northern fringe of downtown? No one is proposing the transit station be located at the airport, but why not? Same rationale. In fact better. There’s more flights per day than trains per day. More employees needing to get to work at the airport than the train station. To me, as long as a city’s long distance travel gateways (airports, train stations) are well connected to the local transit system (i.e. with a frequent shuttle between a downtown core transfer site and the train station), it doesn’t matter if all the local routes converge there or not. The needs of local bus riders are very different than the needs of long distance train (and long distance bus) travelers.

    Whew. Sorry for the ramble. Transit is something, obviously, that I care deeply about.

  11. My, my. Our town square is a busy place this morning – thank you all for joining in the conversation.

    Now let’s see. Jay, you and Randy need to know that a good transit system will allow you to move about a city without compromise. You both note that you settle for what are, at times, long, long waits. Most who use the system here do, including our resident bus expert Mr. Williams. It need not be that way, and isn’t in cities with well thought out routing, tighter headways, and multiple modes.

    Perhaps we should take a field trip to Portland. Arrive at PDX, and hop on MAX, the LRT, to go downtown. Once there, hop on the streetcar to your downtown destination. Going down the valley? Hop on a bus – either municipal or regional. It all works – multiple modes makes the whole system advantageous.

    Or we could save some dough and head to Washington. Arrive by heavy rail, or wings, and hop on the Metro. Presto, Metro takes you very quickly to many places in the region. Need to get to Georgetwon, where Metro is absent? Hop on DDOT’s Circulator, and poof, you’re there.

    In D.C., by using transit you get to your destination much faster than by car – much faster.

    So transit is not an also-ran in most places. It works quickly, efficiently, and usually employs multiple modes. Here, transit is at best a pain in the neck, and most folks, unless they must or choose to on principle, find faster ways to move around. Thus the city’s motto.

    I am well aware that the examples I have cited are both bigger cities than ours. And yes, there are economies of scale at work in transit. But it’s not too hard to see that our system induces car-ness, and discourages real daily reliance on transit.

    And Jay, fear not. I am certainly not advocating leaving children and old folks out in the snow and cold. Transit shelters should be provided, without a doubt. And a downtown intermodal center too, where modes connect and folks can hang out to transfer from one to the other.

    But I am skeptical of the routing system that brings swarms of buses, in pulses, downtown to the terminal. Seems counterintuitive to me. Take the $52 million, redo the routing plan, and build shelters where we need them, I say.

    David, harumph. There are 26,000 parking spaces downtown. Parallel parking on Main is nothing but what we call teaser parking – teasing you to believe that you can find a place to park there. Since I am now moving around often downtown, I can report without qualification, that I NEVER have trouble finding a spot. Use trees and plantings between the peds and the streets, and screw the parking, in my humble opinion.


  12. One more thoughts on the train/bus station/transit center linkage.

    They’re only 1900 feet apart. Depending on time of day, weather, and amount of luggage, I’d probably just walk from the train/bus station on Central Ave to the transit center at Clinton and Mortimer. Especially if the Inner Loop crossing can be made more pedestrian friendly.

    If the weather was nasty, I had a load of luggage, and/or was with someone to split the ride, I’d probably just forego the bus entirely and take a cab.

    So I really don’t think it’s necessary to have the local transit center at the train/bus station.

  13. Jason H,

    Thoughts on that 1900 feet. My wife and I have hoofed it a few times on Toronto or New York trips, but how simple and effective would a vehicle like those used by the airport to shuttle passengers/luggage from the satellite lots to the terminal be in a situation like this? One vehicle could conceivably have a 5 minute headway the trip is so short. Time it during the periods when those 8 trains per day alight.


  14. aandh – how about this – more street parking with less parking in a lot or ramp? Sure parking is a stupid thing to have to provide but streets with parallel parking are much more comfortable to use than those without it. Also get rid of any one way streets unless they are too narrow to handle two way.

    As to the craptastic nature of American public transit and its subsequent image as unreliable and inconvenient. THIS is a self fulfilling result. We build everything to auto standards and then say oh well we can’t get anyone to ride buses and then we don’t invest in buses. If you look at any mid to major sized city you will find that economy of scale is ignored when it comes to highways. I think that you will find that in actuality smaller cities have MORE road and highway miles per capita than big cities. So why is it that we tell our selves that smaller cities cannot support high quality public transit. They absolutely could if we planned in terms of public transit and invested in public transit. Public transit in America could be the transit mode of choice if it was invested in to the level of our highway system. Americans have been sold a bill of goods on highways and it has destroyed our ability to see clearly. Our cities and towns have been destroyed by this kind of thinking. We no longer enjoy our journy becasue everything between home and our destination is horridly ugly because of cars

  15. Jason, I was with you until you argued for a multi-modal station at the airport. I’ve heard that argument before from the GTC and quite frankly I still don’t get it. How does a multi-modal facility at the airport help downtown? I mean this is the ultimate goal, right? Reviving our city’s core? The argument for building a multi-modal facility downtown has many angles besides easier connections for travelers. For instance:
    • creating a lively public space
    • fiscal efficiencies both in the planning and construction and long-term operation because you’re splitting the bill between all the stakeholders
    • no need to operate yet another shuttle service to connect separate facilities
    • the creation of a lively public space that people would want to spend time, grab a bite to eat, people watch, etc.
    • ultimately leveraging the higher concentration of people to bring further development in around the station.

    Is the argument against an inter-modal station really that RTS needs to be even closer to Main Street? You just said yourself that it’s an easy breezy 1900 foot walk from the Amtrak station to Mortimer Street. Is that so far away from the urban core? Why operate a shuttle service to take a few people 1900 feet when we could have the buses and Amtrak together in one spot? This is not such a far-fetched idea. It just takes planning. More planning than I guess we’re willing to do in the time we’ve been given?

    I’m not saying we should put off the construction of this bus terminal with the hopes of one day rebuilding the Bragdon Station (even though that is what I’m thinking)… I’d just like to point out that *this* is the reason why America looks the way it does. We continually toss logic out the window because we’re so anxious to scratch our immediate itch. But hey, it’s free money and it won’t be there tomorrow. 😉


  16. Let’s see here. Jason, your comment somehow snuck in before I could see it and reply last time around, so let me respond.

    I think you have it exactly right. Lop off some of the routes if you want, and make new routes where we need them. Perhaps serve distant, less traveled routes with a different mode, a smaller vehicle. What really counts for me is efficient, safe, rapid transit that is fast and efficient. And clean would be good to.

    I have written here previously about the lack of a system-wide map. When we moved here, we tried to find one. I was shocked that no map was available. Still am. This is totally nuts, folks. And it took Amy and I quite a while to figure out how to just get downtown. We had to refer to our resident bus expert, Mr. Williams, to untangle the mess.

    Let’s get RGRTA started on Jason’s list as soon as possible. Sell transit and do all the other stuff on the list. Good start.

    But I am a bit surprised at what I am hearing from many of you – compromise. Do not compromise, Rochesterians! Cities all over the world have rapid, safe, frequent, efficient transit. That is our standard, I think. Not a 1,900 foot walk to another mode, not “Oh well, I guess I will have to wait,” not incredibly long headways so you can get downtown and cool your jets for the next bus scramble. Raise your sights, gang!

    Build the damn bus terminal if you want, but the bus service will still stink. For me, building the terminal is a bit of closing-barn-doors-after-livestock-have-exited.

    Imagine a city where you have a bus, and a streetcar too. The modes are tightly interconnected, and create a web of service across the region. Then throw in a light rail like the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis. I was astonished when I first rode their system – in from the airport at over 65 mph. Use this tool to connect to the airport in Buffalo (you can fly lots cheaper from there than from here) and their transit system, and to Syracuse as well. Now we are starting to make some progress. Lots of modes, lots of choices, lots of connections.

    How to pay for all this? Steal from the roads fund. Inact a VMT tax – vehicle miles travelled. The more you drive, the more you pay – you are using the highway system after all, and not transit. Road people pay for road use, and transit users benefit. I like how that sounds.

    I got a call the other day from our car dealership. They told me it was time to come in for my 3,000 mile service. I laughed. It’s been six months and we haven’t even driven half that yet. Drive more, pay more. Good equation.

    I know – I’m dreaming. It’s my job….

  17. Okay, more.

    Mike – yes, believe it or not, let’s build a multi-modal at the airport. And anywhere else where transit modes converge, downtown or otherwise. And yes, downtown will benefit, if people can move easily by transit to destinations of importance. If only we had multiple modes.

    My goal is simple: high quality transit in this region, by whatever mode is correct, efficient, rapid. Streetcar, bus, HSR, LRT – it’s a big tool box. And all we have here is one lousy screwdriver. Rats.

    Oh, and David – I will take your deal on parking. Street parking will be fine, but only if it is a 1:1 trade off for parking that already exists. We emphatically do not need more parking spaces downtown.

  18. Oh and one more thing. I can’t make the hearing tonight (I did make the last one), but Mike, feel free to print out this post, and all the discussion, and hand it out. Clearly some people in this town are fed up with what we have for transit, and fixing this state of mind should be high on the agenda of our leaders.

  19. Mike, I was not necessarily arguing for a transit center at the airport, but rather pointing out the fact that airports and train stations (and long distance bus station) are one type of transportation node (type A) and local bus (or streetcar) transfer points (type B) are another with different needs and different users and different impacts.

    I’m not convinced a type B facility needs to be co-located with a type A facility.

    As for the “breezy 1900 foot walk,” yes, not bad if walking with minimal luggage, no kids, and at the start or end of a trip. But local commuters using the local bus system are not going to walk 1900 feet and back to grab a coffee on Main Street while waiting to transfer from the #7 to #24 bus. The retail market is so weak in downtown Rochester that we can’t afford to establish a peripheral node of activity at the train station when Main Street and all its vacant retail space cries out for people.

    Yes, one could argue the whole racist/classist argument is to get these bus-riding folks off Main Street. Furthermore, the bus-riding masses are there on Main street right now and retail remains dead, so perhaps I’m caught in rather a pointless argument.

    As much as I mourn the loss of Bragdon’s building, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to recreate it with today’s material and construction costs and labor laws. Fresh-off-the-boat Italian tile setters willing to work for pennies are few and far between these days. Modern imitations of historic architecture often end up looking cheap and half-assed unless there are boatloads of money to do it right (there rarely are). So I’m hoping for some really spectacular modern architecture for the new train station…e.g. something akin to Santiago Calatrava’s lower Manhattan station design.

    I actually had the occasion to take the bus to Buffalo a few weeks ago and was surprised at how much more light-filled and airy the Buffalo bus station was than I remember it. The weak linkage is the actual bus boarding bays where you stand on grimy asphalt under an overhanging roof, but the inside waiting area and pedestrian street entrance worked rather well.

  20. I bet transit would improve really quickly if the board of RGRTA had to travel to their meetings by bus. That should be a requirement of being appointed.

  21. Actually, Jason, maybe that idea isn’t as crazy as it may seem. How about this:

    We convince the Mayor and the County Executive and the RGRTA Board and the City Council to all forego their cars for a week. Just a week. We do this by suggesting that they lead us in helping to create a more sustainable region. Show us all how to lead greener lives, exercise leadership, show us the way to a better future. It’s only a week.

    You know, I bet a lot of folks would pay real money to see Maggie Brooks hanging out on Main Street waiting for her ride home to Webster at 9:30 at night. Or Council members hopping the RTS after taking in a flick at the Little.

    Maybe we could raise enough dough to fund a transit map for our poor city.

  22. Howard, I will design the map for FREE. I will tell Mark Aesch on Monday.

    And Jason, I still disagree… Type A and B nodes most certainly belong together. Of course they don’t *need* to be together, but in my utopia they do. Shops and restaurants would also be part of my grand transit center… so I can grab that cup of coffee while I wait for my streetcar 🙂


  23. but remember, once the aqueduct is reflooded and all the new retail space is occupied the coffee shops will only be 1000 feet from the bus terminal!

    /cough cough.

  24. The transit map is designed. I have a hardcopy. If you beg and plead enough, RGRTA will send you a hardcopy in the mail. All they need to do it post it online!

  25. Hmmm. I am not sure why we should have to beg our public transit agency for a map so we can use their system.

    But then after reading the RGRTA Strategic Plan, maybe I do understand. Most of that document has to do with all things they are doing to remain profitable. Printing and distributing a map so that transit users can figure out how to use the system must be seen as an unecessary expense.

    While I’m on the subject of expenses, I would like to offer one more observation. The new Mortimer Street facility will be about 73,000 square feet, by RGRTA estimates. Using RSMeans (an industry standard) construction cost data for bus terminals – they say $124.89 per square foot – we get a construction cost of $9,116,970.

    That leaves $52m-$9m, or $43 million. So that means that RGRTA has about $40 million to use to acquire land and operate the facility.

    Now I have taken a bit of time to estimate the amount of land they must purchase, and have come up with about 90,000 square feet, using their documents. That means that the land acquisition costs are being pegged at about $450 a square foot.

    Now with a bit of footwork, I have found that I can purchase the building AND land at 17 E. Main for $22.88 a square foot. Or the building AND land at 79 Clinton, adjacent to the terminal site, for $30.25 a square foot.

    What am I missing?

    The neighbors may have a deal here after all.

  26. A surface parking lot at West Main and Plymouth got appraised at $17.99/sf

    Do they have to demo anything? Asbestos abatement can add significant costs. They also may have to relocate utilities from Mortimer Street if it gets abandoned.

  27. Okay, so let’s say that they pay the very high price of $30/sf. All the land they want is vacant, so any environmental remediation would have to do with soil issues. And let’s throw in a bunch for utilities and infrastructure (some of which is in the $124.89/sf construction cost, but never mind). So, being very generous, maybe we get to $100/sf all in. That still leaves about $350/sf on the table.

    I must be missing something else.

  28. Random musings on the posting and various comments…

    RTS trip planning is available on Google Transit. Just type in your origin and destination, desired time of departure or arrival, and click ‘Go.’ Pretty easy stuff.

    Top speed on the Hiawatha LRT in Minneapolis is 55MPH, average speed is 18MPH. Not sure how you convinced the conductor to rev ‘er up to 65MPH, but I’m glad you survived the ride.

    Most cities/regions in the country that have high capacity transit pay for it with a dedicated sales tax. Try selling any tax increase in this, the highest-taxed region in the country.

    Do you propose a regional VMT tax? Not sure how you’d administer that one. No one can seem to get their arms around how this would work nationally, and no politician has the cojones to suggest that either this or a gas tax increase are needed to cover our grossly underfunded transportation system.

    Hub-and-spoke is good for downtown, especially in an age of rising gas prices and uncertain economic futures. It means that downtown is the most accessible location in the region and that is a competitive advantage that should not be overlooked. That being said, there is no question that RTS should layer a few crosstown routes over the hub-and-spoke model to make it easier for riders to get from A to B without going through the new transit center.

    RGRTA requires all their employees to ride the bus at least once a month and report on their experience.

    As long as we have hub-and-spoke, we need to have the transit center in a centralized location, convenient to most downtown destinations. It’s hard enough to attract discretionary riders, dropping them off at the train station will be a deal-breaker. Besides, how many riders actually transfer between train and RTS? Five annually? Intermodalism is a great buzzword and it makes a lot of sense, where appropriate. But our city is just not set up to accommodate all modes in one spot. We will likely have a new train station in the coming years, and that station will combine rail, intercity bus, circulator/shuttle, taxi, carshare, bike, and auto in one location. Is that intermodal enough?

    Why the hostility against on-street parking? Name one successful urban shopping district in the USA not located in NYC or Chicago that does not have adjacent on-street parking? They do not exist. Even Georgetown in your beloved Washington DC has on-street parking on M Street, not to mention 15 parking garages in the neighborhood. And this is needed in one of the most accessible cities in the country! Same goes for Boston – Newbury Street is lined with on-street parking despite being served by subway. Why did the vast majority of pedestrian malls in this country, especially those not located in college towns, fail? Face it, retailers demand parking within view of their establishments.

    I hear a lot of talk about how the transit center is thinly veiled in racism/classism. Maybe so. But how about those same folks, most of them middle to upper income whites, who complain about a lack of passenger rail in Rochester? Numerous studies have shown that there is a stark difference between rail riders and bus riders and that subsidies for rail versus bus are significantly higher. So, isn’t that also racist? Is it right to subsidize white/wealthy rail riders at the expense of black/poor bus riders?

    My two main criticisms of the transit center are the awful tile mosaics proposed for the exterior (those will look outdated as soon as they’re laid) and that there has been no talk of extending Stone Street to Mortimer to break up the super block between Clinton and St Paul. Hopefully this can be accommodated in the final design.

  29. Howard, early on in the planning of this bus terminal RGRTA said they would pay for operating costs with rental from restaurants, cafes, day-cares, etc. I didn’t see anything like this in these latest plans. That’s going to leave RGRTA carrying the entire load of a facility they didn’t have before. Now I’m not sure how much of the fed’s money they can use for operating costs (maybe 50% of the capital cost?) …perhaps they are inflating the capital cost to maximize that amount 😉 We all know how much they like their surpluses.

    If that’s the case I’m surprised the tile mosaics aren’t way bigger.

  30. Mike, the tile is pretty awful, actually. In fact the whole building is very unattractive, in every way.

    It’s a little depressing that that’s all they could think of for this shed. Precedents abound, both new and old, for making distinguished transit structures.

    As to the budget for construction and operation, we clearly have some kind of mystery afoot. Not sure what the plan might be, but the numbers as presented make very little sense.

    Oh, and MAT – I know what the internet says is the maximum speed (and average speed) for the Hiawatha. I looked it up too. But I stood next to the operator, and we actually did almost 70 mph on the trip.

    And by the way, RGRTA’s trip calculator is as good as Google’s – but so what? We need a system map. And apparently it exists. So – publish the damn thing, RGRTA.

  31. Another potential issue for those of you who want streetcars — if the City kills the transit center, what incentive does RGRTA have for building and operating a streetcar system downtown? I guarantee that if the City gives the finger to the transit authority one more time, RGRTA will turn their backs on the City for at least a decade. Or do you all actually think that the City, or some magical private operator, will take on the streetcar project? Collateral damage perhaps?

  32. Whatever the transit center outcome, I wouldn’t let RGRTA anywhere near a streetcar system. As in many cities, the right approach is a separate entity for the streetcar. You can look it up.

  33. You really want to create a new, separate entity to run a streetcar system? How? Who? Why? Well, I took up your challenge, this is what I found:

    Philadelphia – Run by SEPTA
    San Jose – Run by VTA
    San Francisco – Run by Muni
    Portland – Run by TriMet
    Little Rock – Run by CAT
    Tampa – Run by HART
    Savannah – Run by CAT
    New Orleans – Run by RTA
    Charlotte – Run by CATS
    Memphis – Run by MATA
    Dallas – Run by NonProfit
    Galveston – Run by Island Transit Authority
    Seattle – Run by King Co Metro
    Tacoma – Run by Sound Transit
    Kenosha – Run by KAT

    Some receive funding support from non-profits, but virtually ALL real streetcar transit systems (both modern and heritage) rely on the local/regional transit provider for operation. So, if the good folks with “Reconnect Rochester” want to have more success than the “Rochester Rail Transit Committee”, they ought to consider not alienating the only people who can make their dream a reality.

  34. MAT, I don’t believe Reconnect Rochester has ever said anything about a separate entity for running a streetcar system. To the contrary they have been very open to working with RGRTA— even coming out in strong support of their Fixed-guideway study request last year—and many of its members are RGRTA/RTS customers. Having said that, Reconnect Rochester is just getting going and at this point the only thing this group knows for sure is that ALL possibilities are on the table.

  35. A few quick points here.

    First, MAT, you better go back and do some more homework. Example – Portland. While the Portland streetcar is operated by TriMet, it is owned and governed by the City of Portland. Seattle is similar. Washington, D.C. is similar – they haven’t even decided yet if the city or WMATA will be the operator. Many of the most recent, and successful, systems are owned by municipalities, who then hire operations from existing transit providers. Not all, I warrant, but many.

    Second, this question of ownership is a critical point here in Rochester, in my opinion. A streetcar here should not be owned by a seven county transit provider. Operated perhaps, but not owned. Ownership and operation, if separated, will prove to be more successful. Especially here, where City, County and regional jurisdictions are layered and overlapping, making governance a difficult proposition. This is my opinion.

    Third, you should not confuse my thoughts and opinions here with the thoughts and opinions of “Reconnect Rochester.” This seems like an obvious and unnecessary thing to say. I am speaking for myself, and you are free to disagree with me. But be very clear – you are disagreeing with me, not a group, organization, or committee. Let “Reconnect Rochester” speak for itself, when it’s ready.

  36. What a waste of existing infrastructure!! I think it’s time to bring the SUBWAY back!! A modern, functional, efficient subway would bring businesses back to the city. They would be vying for a location near a stop. It would be perfect for riding to frontier field for ball games or for concerts. You wouldn’t have to deal with parking. I think we should install a maglev train. Zero emissions and zero noise. The problem, as always, is MONEY. Aren’t their any wealthy private donors out there who can recognize a good investment?? Imagine how beautiful we could make all the stops. Have a coffee stand at each one, a different mural on each wall. We would have I-phone apps that tell you when a train is nearing. Oh the possibilities are endless!! It’s been 54 years since the subway last ran in Rochester. Times change. The city is ready for a modern train we can all be proud of. One that could set the national standard. I think that beats the hell out of what the alternative is to put in the tunnel: dirt.

  37. Here is a question for everyone – has the RGRTA even considered looking at an alternate location? Are there any studies showing the feasibility of the bus terminal at the Amtrak site? I dont think there are, but I could be wrong.

    So to me, it sounds like the RGRTA is saying, “bus terminal at Mortimer Street or no bus terminal at all”. And they are using the possibility of losing Federal funding to hold the city hostage (Robert Moses tactic anyone?). I’m not an expert but shouldnt all options be considered before a generational decision like this should is made?

  38. Many planning efforts take on the characteristics of high school biology class lab experiments… everyone knows ahead of time what the desired result of the “experiment” is and you work backwards to make sure the desired outcome is reached.

    Not that that is what necessarily happened with the transit terminal, but an entity can put on the public charade of “considering all options” when the real decision was made before the process even started.

    This Appendix to the Environmental Assessment for Ren Square, found buried on the RGRTA website, provides some really interesting background into the whole project.

    Click to access 26_Appendix%20A.pdf

    So yes, to Daniel C’s question, RGRTA did look at alternative sites. But they set up (rigged?) the critera so that every alternative would “fail” the screening analysis and therefore not be studied any further. So if one of the main criteria is to be as close to Main and Clinton as possible, the train station site fails. Clearly, intermodal linkages were not one of the main criteria.

    I find some details on page 2 of the appendix very telling. It lists three consecutive Long Range Transportation Plans, which are documents prepared by Genesee Transportation Council (GTC) the region’s metropolitan planning organization (MPO).

    The 1995-2005 plan recommends transit be integrated with ALL other transportation modes [emphasis added]. The plan update for 2000-2025 only recommends “convenient connections” to other local buses, intercity bus, passenger rail, air travel, etc. The final reference only lists, rather specifically, connections to Greyhound and Trailways buses.

    Is RGRTA picking and chosing the parts of the long range transportation plan to suit their needs? Perhaps. Is GTC self-censuring (or forced to censur) their plans due to RGRTA pressure? Perhaps. RGRTA, after all, is the host agency for GTC.

    Oh how I long for good local investigative reporting.

    All that being said, I’m still not convinced the transit terminal, as now proposed, would be a terrible thing or somehow preclude future streetcar service. Actually, the design reminds me of a streetcar barn, which I rather like.

    However, there is much about the whole process that smells. My main criticism of RGRTA, like all authorities in New York State (water authorities, industrial development authorities, etc. etc.), is that they remain shadow entities, spending public money, making critical decisions that have enormous impacts on our communities, yet are virtually unaccountable to the public.

  39. I invite you, Jason and Daniel, to recall Mencken’s words: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”

    So apparently we’re going to get the Mortimer bus barn. Wrong place, wrong solution. But hey – we’ll have a long, long time to rue this one.

    And Dave, think of this: streetcar systems these days run about $12m to $15m a mile. So with the $52m, we could get over 3 miles of streetcar.

    I know, I know – if we don’t spend it on the Mortimer Street solution, the money will be gone. Notwithstanding that transit expert John Robert Smith, here this week to make a talk for RRCDC, told us that he had talked to an under secretary of the federal DOT about Rochester’s bus transfer station funding dilemma, and John Robert was told the feds would not pull the dough.

    Oh well. Defective urbanism wins again. Onward.

  40. And just to be clear, I have nothing against bus barns. In fact I have designed bus barns – big, big ones. But we are building a bus barn for bus transit that is routed incorrectly (which requires the big barn in the first place), and we’re putting it in the wrong place.

    At a breakfast meeting the other day, it was pointed out that downtown must remain a critical and central destination for bus transit – for workers, visitors, future residents, and all others. I DO NOT DISAGREE WITH THIS STATEMENT.

    But this fact does not preclude changes to routing to eliminate the pulsing, periodic bus squadrons, nor does it compel the Mortimer street location.

    Think of this: at this very moment, the city is undertaking a study of a possible downtown circulator (which they say could even be a fixed guideway mode – streetcar), while RGRTA plops a bus barn in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. So much for coordinated, thoughtful planning.

    I guess all that’s left is to hope that a future circulator will make a stop at the bus barn and a stop at the heavy rail station. Sounds backwards to me, but there you have it.

  41. I think more examination is necessary of the accounting here as Howard’s May 6th comments were very thought provoking.

    As part of the Milwaukee-Madison rail improvements funded by stimulus, only $24 million is earmarked for a TRAIN station near the state Capitol at Monona Terrace.

    J.R. Smith also seemed to think $52 million was notably high for what is actually being built.

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