Bus Jacksonville

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