County buses need more funds even while we push for rail
Written by Michael Lewis on May 10, 2016
Two new reports should frighten anyone who complains about it getting harder and harder to get around Miami-Dade. They point to a huge failure of our mass transit linchpin, the bus, to keep our roadways from clogging even more.
One report shows that almost one out of every six riders abandoned county buses in the past five years. The other report shows a chilling reason why the public is exiting: for at least half of all passengers, buses are late 30% of the time or more.
The fact that our buses are mostly too old to serve well and have been driven far too many miles no doubt contributes to both late arrivals and the discomforts of bus travel compared with any other mode of getting from here to there.
The bus is already the mobility mode of last resort and is becoming more so. Many who take buses whose arrivals are unreliable have no other choice, as Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt explained to a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce goals-setting session several years ago.
Those with choices are leaving the bus. Statistics posted last week show county bus rides fell 16% in February from February 2012, a loss of more than 1 million passenger trips that month. If those trips were all by fulltime workers to and from jobs, it would mean more than 26,000 workers quit using buses.
One reason is evident in the report on on-time service. Of the 16 routes that carry more than half of all county bus passengers, not one was on time as often as 73% of its trips. One route, 93-Biscayne Max, was on time only 53% of the time. No worker can rely on such late arrivals and keep a job.
One answer is very bad: head for work so early that even a bus that’s late an hour or so won’t make you late to work. Taking early buses so you’re not late is like working five hours or so free every week. It’s a sad waste of time and human resources.
We aren’t talking about just a few folks being late 28% to 47% of the time because they ride county buses. We’re talking about 107,755 bus trips every single day in this county with a 28% to 47% chance of being late. That’s just about 36,000 late trips every day – and the report covers only half of county bus passengers. If the other half is equally late, it amounts to about 72,000 late individual trips every day.
That takes all doubt out of why county buses have lost more than a million trips a month in five years and keep losing – they lost 4.8% in February from the prior February alone.
And remember, riders are fleeing buses even as it takes longer and longer to get anywhere by car and while car trip times also become less predictable.
As humans, we try to maximize efficiency for ourselves and minimize costs. If buses made travel better and more reliable, we’d certainly be aboard in larger numbers, because the bus undeniably costs less than driving individual autos wherever we go.
But we don’t board the bus. Regulars are exiting. That puts more cars on the road when we’re striving for fewer.
To be perfectly clear, bus drivers or operators of the system aren’t the issue.
One element of the problem is our priorities. Buses are old, often mechanically unreliable and less than pleasant. But the county has set spending priorities so that newer and better equipment comes on line too slowly to gain much on constant deterioration. Those priorities go back to the administration and county commission.
Another factor, to be fair, is that buses compete with cars for the roads. The more that people get out of buses and into cars, the slower buses will run on those roads and the more people will want to get out of them and into cars.
Yes, rail transit is an answer to this spiral of defection from the buses and growing road congestion. But rail will cost far more to add far fewer route miles, so the buses need upgrades even while we seek rail.
The report on late buses notes that the transit team is trying to straighten routes for speed, tinker with layovers between trips and pinpoint which routes need more scheduled time to finish a run. All of that can help.
But the big fix must come from a reallocation of county funds to spend more on simple reliability of service. Think about 72,000 late trips a day and compute the loss of human resources as riders do nothing but fret rather than earn a living or meet daily needs in those wasted hours.
As more and more people defect from the bus, passengers left aboard are the riders of last resort, those without regular use of a car or any other way to get wherever they’re headed. These are the people who can least afford to lose a job for being late. We should make their commute easier, not harder.