Posts Tagged ‘transit’

The three optional pigs, all with lipstick.

Last night the RGRTA (Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority) held another public meeting to present the latest plans for the ill-considered Mortimer Street Bus Terminal, about which I have written at some length previously.

This facility is unnecessary. If our bus company (not really a transportation authority – all the transit is gone from our city save for a bad bus system) ran the system properly, a centralized downtown facility would not be needed. At all.

And if the facility, or some kind of transit transfer station, were to be planned intelligently, it would be located near other transit modes – like the intercity  buses and trains at the Amtrak facility a few blocks away. Seems like the least the RGRTA should do.

As it is we are about to spend $50m on a building and facility that we will have a good long time to regret (that’s an unbelievable $750 per square foot). I can only hope that it will be possible to repurpose the building once the bus system operates as it should.

The plan is dreadful, over and above the fact that it shouldn’t even be considered in the first place. Things are in the wrong place, the traffic simulation is terrifying as pods of buses pulse from the proposed  building at every cycle of the traffic lights, pedestrians are going to have to sprint to keep from getting flattened, the open space is in the wrong place, the curbside stop for the longer articulated buses (you know – the ones that won’t fit inside the proposed building….) is in the wrong place, and in general the whole project is most unfortunate.

Many of us expressed our opinions last night, as we have before. Nothing changed from the last go-round, and I suspect nothing will change after this iteration. The boss at RGRTA, who is about to leave, seems hell-bent on getting this ridiculous project built. What a waste.

I guess we just get to add this to the list of projects in our litany of bad city making here. Pretty sad.

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In the never-ending process of building and rebuilding our cities, we make choices about what’s important – where we live, where we work, how we get from place to place. Every choice we make is accompanied by consequences, some intended, some not. And some of the nastiest consequences of our rottenest choices stay with us in our marred urban places for a very, very long time. 

Our city, Rochester, has made some really bad choices in the last half century. Every city has done similarly. Not every city has torn itself down, built an expressway moat, paved all of downtown for parking, moved every bit of retail to the suburbs (with a few notable exceptions, thankfully), and ignored its best natural assets, it’s true, but every city does have a few lulus.

Our beloved Inner Loop.

And now our city is about to spend $132,000,000 on a couple more stinkers. A bus barn downtown for our lamest kind of bus system, and a huge subsidy for about 750 jobs in a new corporate headquarters downtown. I have written about both these projects here, and so I won’t revisit those discussions again.

Instead, I want to think for a moment about what would happen if we took that money and made a few different choices.

A recent visitor to our city, urbanist and Brookings Fellow Christopher Leinberger, observed that Rochester is being “lapped” by many other cities of similar size, and many with fewer assets. We fall further behind in assuring the vitality, value, and usefulness of our city, and region, with every passing day. Our priorities are really screwed up.

And what does Mr. Leinberger say is the most powerful tool in transforming cities, and in creating new value and vitality downtown? Transit. He calls transit, and transit tools, the rudder that steers the ship that is the city, and region.

So how could the $132m be put to better use here, creating greater value and reinvigorating our urbanism? Just two examples are amazing, and instructive.

First, Cincinnati. Population of the city: 335,000. Population of the region: 2.2 million. Bigger than Rochester, but not so much bigger: about a third larger in the city, and about twice the size in the region.

Cincy is planning a streetcar for its downtown. The alignment is set for the first phase, and the cost of the 5 mile system has been pegged at around $100 million. Already developers are investing in sites and projects along the route. The system is estimated to increase property values downtown by something like $380 million, and the system is estimated to spark $1.4 billion in development once it’s up and rolling. This is a return on investment of about $14 for every dollar in. Not bad.

The second example, Portland, is the poster child for investing in change that makes radical improvements to urban value, and quality. Their streetcar system, with a cost of $149 million, has now induced over $3.5 billion dollars in economic development. So the folks in Cincy are being conservative, as they should be, but realistic about the impact that fixed guideway rail transit (streetcars) can have on their urban future.

I have been doing transportation work across my entire career: I am a fully qualified transit geek. But I am not urging our City Council and leadership (three mayors in the last month – not bad, yes?) to swap the mistakes they are about to make for streetcars because I like to play with trains.

No, I am asking our leadership to change course because I have an abiding passion for cities, this one included, and a belief that this place can be so much better if we shift our thinking, realign our priorities, and start making good choices for our future.

Will the upcoming investment here of $132 million in our two downtown projects create value for our city? Yes. I’m not sure how to calculate what will happen, but will we see over $1.8 billion in new value created, at the rate of $14 out for every $1 in, as in Cincy? No. Will we see our downtown revitalized? No. Will we be making an investment that will change the course of our city and our region? No.   

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. At the moment, it’s an oncoming train. We can change that.

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Rochesterians happily enjoy the ride to their new bus barn.

Bus transit here in our region fell off the wall last night, as Rochester City Council turned our regional transit “agency” loose to construct a 26 bay bus transfer facility downtown. The proposal passed 7-2, one vote short of defeat. 

Some of us spoke up. It didn’t help. 

Transit in this region is stuck in the 1950s – even though life here in our region has changed drastically over the last half century. All we have are buses, and all they do is go downtown and back out on ancient radial paths. If real people didn’t have to rely on this system every day, rain or shine, snow or heat, it would be laughable.

Unfortunately real people do use this system, and the system will still be incomprehensibly obsolete despite the transfusion of massive amounts of cash. (How, exactly, do you spend $750 a square foot on a bus station: both Detroit’s and Nashville’s recent bus barns, about the same size, were built for way less than half this amount)?

For those of us who have spent a lifetime working in transit, this is pretty sad stuff. We watch some cities trying hard to get transit right, and a few actually succeeding. As of last night, Rochester has proven that it will be free of this kind of success for some time to come.

By the way, Humpty didn’t fall. He was pushed.

I’ve had a wonderful time, but this wasn’t it.   Groucho Marx

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Herewith, the text of a second communique to City Council members urging that they oppose the downtown bus facility. I keep trying….

We’re coming down to the wire now, with the Planning Commission hearing the issue this evening, and the City Council slated to hear the proposal tomorrow evening. I guess I know where I will be for the next couple of nights. Wasn’t it Firesign Theater who said, years ago, that what we need now is a really good futile gesture?

The plan.

Council members, I want to share a few more thoughts on the plan for a downtown bus transfer facility in advance of this evening’s Planning Commission hearing. In addition to my earlier communication to you, in which I offered a series of reasons why you should oppose this project, I offer a few further thoughts.

1. The largest buses with the highest capacity, articulated buses, are to be located curbside on Mortimer Street. At this location there will be no shelter, so transit patrons using these vehicles will be forced to stand outdoors in inclement weather, and they will have to cross an active lane of traffic in order to transfer to other buses inside the facility.

Accommodation of these larger vehicles inside the facility is not be possible due to the tightness of the site – the facility itself cannot accommodate their length and wider turning radius.

Why would the city approve a building that cannot serve its function properly? On an alternate site, a building could be conceived that will not leave some of the most important transit vehicles outside the facility.

2. The building now is planned to accommodate 26 buses at a time. This is a very large number of vehicles in a very limited space. One of the consequences of this decision is that buses will be forced to move in reverse to leave their bays, and as they do so, they will block other vehicular movement inside the building. What does this mean? Slower movement of vehicles, and increases in bus dwell times and headways.

3. The plan of the building makes flexible, rapid movement of buses very difficult. If RGRTA replans its routing at some future time (as I have suggested previously), and the need for 26 bays inside the facility is reduced, the building itself will prevent a more appropriate and timely movement of vehicles. Reconstruction and replanning will be necessary in order to create a facility that will be able to respond to these modified operational requirements.

Whether this facility is considered from the perspective of urban design, or from the perspective of transit architecture, the current plan is deeply flawed. It will be a mistake of substantial proportion to approve this, a mistake that Rochesterians will regret for generations to come. I continue to urge you to oppose this proposal.

Stay tuned, Town Square visitors, for news of the outcome.

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Proposed Mortimer Street Transit Center, looking south.

I am going to take one more crack at Rochester’s ill-conceived $52 million downtown bus barn. I am having a Don Quixote moment – City Council cancelled consideration of this issue until July, and then, suddenly, today rescheduled consideration for next Tuesday. Somebody is getting pretty pushy, it seems.

I drafted the text below in order to provide talking points for City Council members who might want to oppose this very bad idea. Now, it seems, we won’t get to have those discussions. I fear that we must add the bus barn to the long list of gaffes in Rochester’s urban life. How sad.

My thanks to Reconnect Rochester colleagues, and others, for their suggestions and revisions.

Proposed Transit Center, looking east.

Why You Should Oppose Rochester’s Mortimer Street Transit Center

Constructing a Transit Facility for the Rochester Genesee Regional Transit Authority (RGRTA) on Mortimer Street in downtown Rochester would be a “legacy” mistake – one the city will be forced to live with for many years to come. The best example of a legacy mistake in Rochester is our Inner Loop. The proposed Mortimer Street facility fails to meet many of its claimed objectives, and should be reconsidered.

Here are several reasons why you should oppose this facility.

1. Operations

A. Construction of a downtown transit center will not improve overall RGRTA bus operations, nor will such a facility increase ridership or make transit alternatives more available to the city’s citizens.

The system now operates in what is called a hub-and-spokes model, with Main and Clinton as the hub, making regional bus trips unnecessarily long and complex. The current operational model requires that most users must first go downtown, and then transfer to an alternate route to reach their destination in localities throughout our region.

RGRTA should remodel this system of delivery of transit services. RGRTA is not heavily dependent on electronic infrastructure for coordination and tracking of routes, and so all that would be required to make the system more accessible and efficient would be to remap the routes, and to add hubs in locations throughout the region.

This has been contemplated by RGRTA for over 10 years, and most recently in a study completed in May of 2009 entitled the “Satellite Transit Center Study.” Before coming to the questionable conclusion that only four satellite facilities were required, the study looked at 19 potential transfer stations. These satellite hubs, if constructed, would make the system a true hub and spokes operation, and would greatly improve regional transit.

Before constructing a downtown transit facility, RGRTA should overhaul its bus routing and operations, adding satellite hubs as planned. This will substantially reduce the need for a large, centralized, downtown transit center.

B. It has been suggested that the Transit Center will remove buses from Main Street. This is not true. Buses will continue to travel on Main Street in both directions. It is true that they will loop into and out of the Mortimer Street facility once downtown, but it is not true that Main Street will be free of buses, or that heavy bus traffic on Main will be reduced.

C. A transit facility on Mortimer Street will not reduce the number of high school students gathering downtown. In Rochester, public high schools do not provide bus service. Instead, they rely on the public transit system. As a result, high school students are forced to gather downtown and wait approximately 40 minutes in order to transfer to buses carrying them to or from school. These young people will continue to be a presence on and near Main Street. And of course the sometimes troublesome behavior that comes with their gathering in a focused location will be intensified at the Mortimer Street site, not reduced.

If the system routing were altered, some of this focused gathering would be reduced. A centralized downtown transit facility will not accomplish this, however.

2. Downtown Development

A centralized, large scale downtown transit center will not enhance or induce downtown development. The proposed facility may negatively impact existing downtown residential and mixed use development, and is already opposed by one major downtown developer with a project adjacent to the proposed site. The presence of a large number of buses, and the attendant traffic, emissions, and noise, will not be an appropriate neighbor for existing and future redevelopment.

The Rochester Regional Community Design Center (RRCDC), in its 2000 Downtown Charrette, which morphed into the City’s 2004 Center City Plan, imagined dividing the Mortimer street block in half between Clinton and St. Paul, making the resulting two blocks more attractive for future redevelopment. The proposed transit facility preempts this possibility, creating a nearly 650 foot long barrier to future redevelopment to the north and east.

3. Intermodality

Constructing a transit center and bus transfer center separate from other modes of mass transit does nothing to enhance, enable or support transit use. As we increasingly discuss the need for high speed rail, enhanced intercity transit, and the possibility of a citywide or regional fixed guideway (streetcar) system, any downtown transit facility must be adjacent to other existing modes, and easily accessible to any future modes. The Mortimer Street location segregates the RGRTA bus system from existing Amtrak and intercity bus transit.

A true intermodal transit center in downtown Rochester would be a single location where intercity buses meet Amtrak trains. Such a center would also provide for taxis, shuttles, car rental, and shelter for existing RGRTA bus routes.

As cities across the nation consider and construct intermodal transit facilities to meet future needs, it is incorrect for our city to construct a facility that fails to integrate bus transit with heavy rail, intercity bus, future high speed rail, a possible future streetcar, and other potential future modes such as bus rapid transit or light rail systems. Mortimer Street is the wrong location for the RGRTA Transit Center.

4. A Downtown Circulator and enhanced downtown mobility

The proposed facility fails to take into consideration the possibility of a downtown circulator. The city is currently evaluating a variety of means to enhance downtown mobility, and to more easily connect downtown destinations and parking infrastructure. The Mortimer Street facility is not planned, and may not meet, the goals resulting from the city’s study. The city has stated, in its objectives for the study, that one option for enhanced mobility could be a streetcar. If a streetcar mode arises as an option in the course of the city’s study, questions of intermodality again are important.

5. Economics

A. The federal funds earmarked for this project will not be withdrawn if you oppose the project. While it has been stated that this is the case, conversations with officials in Washington suggest that this is not the case.

Most important is to plan for a facility, and a system of operations, that enhances transit for citizens. Federal support will remain available for a properly conceived and designed facility.

B. Cost estimates for this project are not consistent with similar projects in other U.S. cities. Current budget estimates ($52 million)suggest that the facility will cost seven times more than the U.S. average (according to R. S. Means, $124.89 per square foot is an average cost for a similar facility). This fact merits further consideration.


The concept of a downtown transit center is at least ten years old. Initially, the idea emerged as an underground component of a larger, and now defunct, development proposal called Renaissance Square. It is not clear how the proposal emerged from below grade and now is a stand-alone facility in the wrong location: certainly Rochester transit patrons were not among those asking for this proposal. Instead, they would simply prefer enhanced transit operations.

And so these are some of the reasons why this proposed transit center should be reconsidered. Of the highest priority is remapping the system so that its operation is optimized. Once this remapping and reorganization is complete, the need for a downtown transit facility can be reevaluated. Until then, this project should be opposed.

A note to our non-Rochester readers. You don’t know the details of this debate, nor the geography of the proposal, but it shouldn’t be hard to see a bad idea when it surfaces. The bus barn was once upon a time in the basement of a development proposal for downtown, a project that died last year. Miraculously, the bus barn emerged from that basement, and is now stalking the streets of our city.

Onward, I guess.

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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.

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Cars are everywhere. Shopping is at one of the four major malls, out in the suburbs – there’s almost no retail left downtown. There’s an inner and an outer loop of expressways that act like walls to the now forbidden city. All that’s left of public transit is a bus system, and here in Rochester it is impossible, unbelievably, to get a single system-wide map. You know what this all feels like – everywhere U.S.A.

Not so oddly, it wasn’t always so. Rochester once had all of the buzz, and commerce and mobility, of the Erie Canal.

And a huge amount of rail service – freight, passenger, short haul and long, interurbans to Buffalo and Syracuse and beyond, and of course, the ubiquitous streetcar, complete with a line to the amuseument park in Charlotte, on the shore of Lake Ontario. A truly intermodal city. And a handsome one, at that.

Rochester even had a subway, shown below during construction.

The subway opened in 1927, and ran beneath the city until 1956. The alignment map shows a system oriented northwest to southeast. There were connections available to a number of surface rail systems – streetcar lines, interurbans, and longer range rail lines. It must have been pretty easy to move around the region in those days.

The line ran only about 2 miles in tunnels – the rest was grade-separated in a cut, most of which, before 1918, was the old Erie Canal. The Erie canal was relocated and became the Erie Barge Canal in about 1918, and the old canal bed was set for its next incarnation – rail transit.

Of course in its current incarnation, much of the canal has become home to the expressways of today – such is progress.

Rochester was reputed to be the smallest city in the world with a subway system. And interestingly, much of the old downtown subway tunnel remains mostly intact.

Image by Carol Fil/Flickr.

In fact, it has become the center of a protracted debate about the need for renewed public transit access, public safety (the tunnels are often used as shelter for the homeless), and public fiduciary responsiblity (the city pays something north of $1.2m annually to maintain the tunnel). The city has been trying for years to fill the tunnels in, and transit advocates have kept this from happening. It looks at this point as if the advocates are finally going to lose – the tunnels are slated to be filled in the spring of 2010. As a local urbanist said recently, unearthing them later is not an overwhelming task. We shall see.

And of course Rochester is blessed with more than its fair share of transit geeks (I count myself as one of these, by the way). One of the groups, the Rochester Rail Transit Committee, is outspokenly advocating a revival of regional rail transit. They have even created their own system map. 

The proposed system connects most of the region of now about 1.2 million – spread out all over the place – connects the airport to the rest of the city, gets down to the University of Rochester, the region’s single largest employer (Wegmans, the grocer, is second largest, and Kodak now a distant third), and hooks up the High Falls and the river downtown to Charlotte and the Lake Ontario beaches to the north. Oh, and reuses the old subway tunnel. Not a bad piece of work, really. The four cardinal shopping malls aren’t part of the system – they aren’t really sustainable for too much longer anyway – but the baseball stadium AND the soccer stadium are on the green line.

And so, like many other American cities, an unsustainable auto-dominated present is built upon the foundations of a past which featured a rich array of mobility assets.  

Back to the future!

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