Weekend’s traffic jam nightmare a dream for mass transit
Written by Michael Lewis on February 19, 2019
If we needed reason to ditch our cars and climb aboard something else, the long Presidents’ Day weekend handed it to us. Unless you stayed home for five days, you must have been caught in the traffic snarls.
Blame simultaneous events galore, including two boat shows, two art festivals, a concert downtown and more. Miami drivers in stalled lines of traffic grew more frustrated and testier than usual, and far ruder. They arrived hours late.
Routes generated by GPS pathfinders like Waze extended to the grotesque as tens of thousands of us tried to beat unbeatable traffic.
The jam-packed weekend won’t be a one-off. Not every day will be like that, but we know that our population is growing with Miami’s popularity, meaning more events hosting even more people in the heart of our county. There’s no escape.
But as we hunt for routes and shortcuts that either don’t exist or are already jammed by drivers trying to beat the crowds like we are, remember this: some transportation assets have underused capacity.
Those assets are mass transit. I know it’s imperfect and not where society’s “smart set” will be found, but more and more mass transit is becoming the “smart way” to defeat overcrowded roadways.
The good news for those who’ve viewed with alarm Miami-Dade’s plummeting mass transit use is that the loss has been slowing. For what is now the third month in a row, mass transit use declined less than 4% year over year in December.
If that sounds more like bad news than good, it isn’t, because use had been plunging by alarming double-digit percentages year over year. So the latest use drop of 3.6% from December 2017 is far slower, and with what is now four consecutive months of slow fall (a big September gain is in comparison with a hurricane month the year before), it’s time to see the slowed loss as a trend. The last time the system had three consecutive months of less than 4% loss was well over five years ago.
The next step is to turn the trend from a slow fall into a slow rise.
For Metromover and Metrorail, that too is happening. Each has gained four consecutive months. Prior to the past four months, Metromover had had 21 consecutive months of lost riders even though the system is free to all and it serves the heart of the community, downtown and Brickell.
Buses are another issue. Other than on a few express routes, they share the road with cars and get no priority, so they logically can’t arrive faster than cars using the same roadways. When cars jam, most buses also stall. The advantage of a bus is that someone other than you gets frustrated driving in traffic, but speed is not an asset. Time gains by buses will be in any new express routes or bus-only lanes.
Even so, the three-month dip in bus use that in December was 6.8% year over year was the lowest in well over three years, showing how badly bus use had been falling.
Blame for the rapid decline in mass transit use has been attached to free trolleys in cities and the convenience of Uber and Lyft. That’s true, but it can’t be the end of the story.
Why, for example, is the decline in mass transit use suddenly slowing? Did trolleys just get worse or Uber and Lyft rapidly raise fares? Or is part of the relative uptick due to new clean Metrorail cars and increased downtown and Brickell traffic congestion? Could the slowing in exits from the bus be due to placing better buses in service?
We’re sure the county is trying to pinpoint which factors are helping in order to build on them for real gains.
As we’ve said before in reporting monthly since autumn on transit improvements, the county should heavily market those special factors. If the transit department told the public clearly and specifically how to get around boat shows and art shows and concerts traffic last week, we missed it – but it was a golden opportunity.
We hope a transit events team is being formed to take advantage of traffic’s disadvantage and lure the non-riding public onto mass transit. We were all grumbling last week, but we’ll forget about it by next Presidents’ Day. Repeat marketing is as vital as the expensive new rolling stock.
Transit has had so few good days in recent years that gains haven’t seemed possible. With new equipment and operational improvements, it’s time to lure new riders aboard, not just because it makes six new Smart Plan transit corridors easier to sell but because, with traffic congestion getting rapidly worse, we all need our transit system to succeed.