Tuesday, June 6

Jacksonville's Bus-ted

Two stats about Jacksonville jump out to me as someone who cares (at least a little) about public transportation: we are among the worst cities for public transit usage as well as pedestrian deaths. Those two stats may not be related, in that I don't believe a more robust public transit system would make crossing Beach Boulevard outside of a crosswalk any less dangerous. However, the answer to anyone's question about transportation in Jacksonville is clearly that you better have a vehicle of your own. The traditional solution for a city like Jacksonville would be to expand the bus system (or that weird skyway dealio) and/or improve pedestrian access. What if we went totally against the grain and did NEITHER? Hear me out before you decide I'm some kind of misanthrope. 

Everyone hates the bus: riding it, getting stuck behind one, paying for empty rolling rectangles so one old-ass lady who talks to herself can get to the hairdresser. Also, everyone who isn't a daredevil hates daredevil pedestrians, which includes morons on bikes, motorized bikes, scooters, golf carts, and anything else of dubious legality clogging up roads, paths, and bike lanes (and often going the wrong direction). We also hate giant wastes of money like re-creating the skytron or creating pedestrian bridges.

I have urban planning credentials and I'm supposed to love public transportation. But, really, no one loves it. Planners can see it as the best alternative and commuters can accept it as the only alternative, but they'll never love it. In fact, in several years of taking urban planning classes at UW-Milwaukee, I never saw an urban planning (or any other) professor getting off a bus. Maybe a few biking profs and even walking profs, since the surrounding neighborhoods are fairly upscale. But no bus-riding profs. They weren't totally hypocrites, just pragmatists, since the fastest way for those professors to get to UWM was to drive. And in Jacksonville, the fastest way to get anywhere, even to the next neighborhood over, is to drive.

Granted, we could decide as a city that bike, e-bike, and other motorized devices are important, in which case we'd need to create separate connecting grids (and probably bridges) for these paths. Turn all major roads into highways with no pedestrian access. Basically, two separate systems.

The only way to fix our current roadway problem is to literally cut new roads. Not just widen the three major roads in one direction, but double the roadways in that direction (or at least stop having major thoroughfares dead-end into country club neighborhoods). Maybe increase bike and golf car lanes, but not the bus.

I read this study that promoted the economic impact of the bus system, but it's a farce, claiming a $200 million economic impact. OK, right, the poorest people in Jacksonville riding the least-used buses in the country generated $200 million? Well, not exactly. $74 million of that impact was from salaries paid to bus drivers who drove mostly empty buses (and probably lots of managers). Most of their salaries are paid by taxpayers. Another $23 million was in savings realized by the people using the buses. So these people saved on owning a vehicle, but their savings are also a result of our taxes, since JTA only took in $10 million in ticket sales in the study year.

The other economic impact is from $118 million in total added value. I think I can confidently say not a single resident of Jacksonville would believe a crappy bus system adds over $100 million in added value to our lives. I'm not sure if that's partially based on value of the buses themselves (which we buy or lease) or the fact that a few dozen people use the bus to get to work. A lot of public transit leaders will make the mistaken connection that local businesses along the transportation corridor benefit from the bus, but those are pawn shops and SNAP benefits grocery stores. It's not like a bus route is going to spur hotels, luxury goods stores, or sit-down restaurants, if they spur any business at all. 

Anyhow, the bus probably adds very little value and it probably costs taxpayers a lot more than the $74 million in salaries because of the millions in equipment and infrastructure. With only $10 million coming back from fares, I'd guess the city is $100 million in the hole every year, though I wasn't able to find actual numbers for you.

So what could be get for $100 million a year? You'd probably be able to partner with a ride share or taxi company to provide a much better experience for a fraction of that price. Everything is so far away to use the bus for most transit in Jax. JTA can't do anything about the fact that most of us need a car just to get out of our neighborhoods. Or the fact that our city's nearly half the size of Rhode Island.

I'd take the top bus lines near downtown and keep them. I'd continue some flyers to and from popular spots. And then I'd tell everyone else that the city will kick in x% for using Uber Lyft or whatever. Even if we paid $2 a mile to ride share companies that would hopefully pay drivers over $1 a mile, the total cost would be under $130 million year (based on miles traveled). No retirement plans for drivers or elaborate bus stops or bus purchases. It could probably cost much less (like half that), but we're talking high-end. And you'll have to offer these drivers more than a typical ride to pick up smelly people with no chance for a tip. But in a city like Jacksonville, some kind of hybrid mass transit and rideshare solution might work the best. At least it would be more convenient.

The only thing buses can do that rideshare fails at is reducing congestion, but I'm not sure most people will notice, especially if fewer buses mean fewer chances of getting stuck behind one.

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