Jacksonville’s Transit Future, at Least for Now, is in Bus Rapid Transit

» New segregated bus lanes downtown will form core of future regional system of rapid transit routes.

There was a time, just a few decades ago, when cities like Jacksonville, Miami, and Detroit imagined their future downtowns and saw elevated automated people movers running in and out of the most important destinations, getting “choice” travelers out of their cars and into what was seen then as a super-modern transportation apparatus that could restore the center city to its previous glory. Jacksonville got its Skyway back in the late 1980s and suffice it to say that it didn’t accomplish as much as its designers hoped: The system attracts fewer than 2,000 passengers a day and doesn’t even run on the typical weekend.

Fortunately, the local transit agency JTA has moderated its ambitions enough to put a priority on its bus services and has now introduced a plan for a realignment of operations along dedicated lanes in the central city. Bus lanes along short east-west and north-south corridors constructed at a cost of $12 million will open for service in late 2012, at which time most operations will be consolidated, as shown below. The result will be a significant simplification of the way buses travel through the center city.

Existing downtown bus circulation Proposed consolidated downtown bus circulation

In association with the implementation of rapid bus routes along routes extending north, southeast, southwest, and east from downtown, Jacksonville may be able to revolutionize its transit services by making them faster, more frequent, and easier to understand. In the downtown, virtually all routes will be easy to find rather than spread out seemingly at random; elsewhere, most operations will be concentrated on visible mainline routes. Other mid-size cities with limited public transportation offerings may benefit by imitating this approach. Jacksonville, despite a metropolitan area with a population of more than 1.3 million people, is only able to attract 37,500 daily bus trips today: It can use an upgrade seriously.

Jacksonville’s bus rapid transit proposals come in the context of a regionwide re-imagining of the role of public transportation in the area’s mobility systems. Planners are in the process of highlighting potential commuter rail and streetcar routes, extending out from an improved transportation center where multi-modal connections between these services, downtown trolleys, the Skyway, Amtrak, and Greyhound will be offered. Yet buses have clearly been given precedence here.

The city has already installed some dedicated bus lanes, but the four new routes planned, in addition to the downtown corridor, will feature a vastly improved experience for the typical rider: Ten to fifteen minute headways, big and well-marked stations, transit signal priority, better signage, and queue jumps at intersections. With stations only every one to two miles on the major corridors, travel times will be significantly sped up. The four-part program, to begin with the North line, will cost a total of $74 million and be completed by 2016 if the Federal Transit Administration approves aid for the system. Funding is not yet assured.

The efforts of this north Florida city to improve its transit offerings will undoubtedly increase the use of buses among the population simply because the clarity offered by the obvious bus corridors, reliable services, and more significant stations will encourage people to consider public transport. In addition, the creation of bus lanes is likely to improve the streets by including the installation of trees and more generous sidewalks, both of which will make for a better pedestrian experience. Downtown, the immediate consequence of the project will be the removal of 75 parking spaces.

The downtown focus of the new transit system is in part a reflection of the users of the existing network, in which 80% of riders start or end their trips in the center-city, and in part a recognition that only in the largest cities can frequent bus lines work between peripheral locations. There’s nothing wrong with the logic there.

One potentially problematic effect of the route consolidations, however, will be a reduction in direct service by the north-south lines (the first to be implemented) to the heaviest-used sections of downtown, including Hemming Plaza, where the city hall, library, and museum are located. Though bus riders will only be asked to walk a few blocks to get there — and could arrive there directly via a transfer to the Skyway or one of the downtown bus circulators (a “choice” mode) — the fact that the new downtown bus lanes will intentionally skirt around downtown clearly puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Despite Jacksonville’s interest in improving its bus network, other modes are still being prioritized, though it should be noted that the east-west routes will run within one block of the square.

Is the message that people using the regular buses should stay out of the most vital part of the city? Or is the road alignment chosen for the bus lanes simply a direct result of the simplification of bus routes?

Whatever the answer, the willingness of this auto-oriented city to invest in bus related improvements is a sign of the general growth of interest in making the regular transit system work first before moving on to more expensive projects. Indeed, it is refreshing to see Jacksonville push these investments before demanding a streetcar or commuter rail line, both of which would likely benefit fewer passengers.

Images above: Proposed Jacksonville downtown bus alignments, from JTA

11 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • It’s great to see that Jackonsville is also getting in on Florida’s renewed interest in mass transit. From a Tampa perspective, this looks similar to the Marion Transit Mall in our downtown, though with several improvements (signal priority, an east–west line) that should make the experience a lot better.

    As far as access goes, as long as the sidewalks are in good shape, I don’t think it’ll be an issue. Lack of decent sidewalks is the number–one issue to downtown mobility here.

  • Before electrifying to trolley buses or installing track to share the transitway with streetcars, they might want to review the layout of the north south corridor …

    … but if that alignment is what is needed to get 10min~15min headways, the frequency is critical. Wallking a couple of blocks to a bus you are confident will be there is a much smaller hit than waiting for a bus that may be 5 minutes gone and 25 minutes to the next one.

    And who knows … maybe it will help the white elephant people mover see some patronage.

  • The streets on which the system would run are very wide. For Jacksonville to use one-way pairs instead of convert them to two-way running just screams, “We care about drivers more than about bus riders.”

    • Nathanael

      Still, I’m surprised and pleased that they removed *any* “general purpose” lanes to create bus lanes. After all, Los Angeles has never done so even on streets with 6, 7 lanes in each direction.

      Or did Jacksonville just eat up median space? :-P

  • Danny

    Does anyone feel like dedicated lanes are a bit of a wasted resource if frequency is only 10-15 min? Increase frequency to 5-10 min if you have dedicated lanes!

    • I feel that judging whether the bus lanes are justified based on a threshold requirement of taking a system with over thirty minute headways on weekdays and over sixty minute headways on weekend to five minute headways would be a substantial analytical mistake of oversimplication.

      For one, building the system so that it is close to capacity at the outset is normally underinvesting: ideally, systems should be built so that they have some room to grow before the next major capital investment is required.

      Second, higher frequency is obviously desirable, but the benefits of the bus lane are greater transit speed and greater reliability of service, both of which should be significant benefits at headways of 10 minutes to 15 minutes apart.

      Based on the number of intersections that are bottlenecked during peak hour (in the link for “improved experience” above), increasing headways to fifteen minutes without a dedicated bus lane would likely be a waste of resources: , since under those congested conditions even 15 minute headways would be purely paper fictions during the peak. And given current ridership, without improved reliability and transit speed, it might not be possible to sustain an increase to twenty minute headways, let alone ten to fifteen.

      The system is presently crawling. It’d be nice for it to sprint right out of the gate, but more realistic to step up to a brisk walk or steady jog.

  • Good post. Note that there’s no need to wait for BRT to fix your downtown circulation. Consolidating buses onto fewer streets, so that they can have better lanes and amenities, is common sense, and it also permits other streets to be specialised around non-transit uses. See for example the Access Minneapolis project that I worked on, which consolidated buses on to fewer streets in downtown.

    http://www.humantransit.org/2009/11/minneapolis-unlocking-downtown-with-transit-malls.html

  • AlexB

    For a city the size of Jacksonville, this is a common sense first approach. It really begs the question of why this hasn’t happened sooner. I know $12 million isn’t nothing, but shouldn’t this be within the range of what the Jacksonville Transit Authority can do on its own, without federal help? Before any city in America with anemic transit use wants to build a streetcar or light rail line, they should be doing things like this first.

    • Nathanael

      Well, this makes sense for a city with wide roads where it’s easy to convert general purpose lanes to bus lanes. It doesn’t work so well for those older cities in the Northeast where roads are much narrower.

  • NCarlson

    Overall this proposal looks fairly good as far as it goes, as does the commuter rail, but that streetcar system looks ridiculous. All the proposals I’ve seen are mostly duplications of the Skyway, with the remaining sections in places that could easily be served by very short and entirely workable Skyway extensions. As much as the peoplemover probably didn’t make sense in the first place, building it out now is probably cheaper, and will certainly provide better service than grade level mixed traffic streetcar to the same areas.

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