Updated 3 months ago
Florida isn’t exactly a hotbed of public transportation. In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area, fewer than 4% of workers commute to their jobs using public transportation, according to Governing magazine. That’s the highest percentage in the state by far. In Jacksonville, that figure is 1.5%; in Tampa- St. Petersburg, it’s 1.2%
And the trends don’t look good. After perking up for a few years during and immediately after the Great Recession of 2008- 09, ridership has fallen off at most transit systems in the state — particularly for bus systems, but also for Tri-Rail and Miami- Dade’s Metrorail, which serve densely populated areas of the state where transit should have the best chance to succeed. The SunRail commuter system in Orlando, three years after it began running, continues to underperform, with about 1,000 fewer riders a day than expected. Projected to have a $7-million annual deficit — borne now by the state, soon by counties in Central Florida — the system is losing $30 million a year.
The reasons typically given for falling ridership are that gas is cheaper and that, post-recession, more Floridians can afford car payments and insurance premiums because they’ve returned to work. But shouldn’t more drivers and more congestion prompt more people to take transit?
Indeed, the fundamental problems with public transportation in Florida, and in most places with low population densities, have to do with convenience and quality: You can’t get there from where you are, or you can’t get there when you want to. It takes too long, and even if it doesn’t, the typical city bus is a rolling stay-away message to anyone with the barest expectations of comfort or amenity
A personal case in point: I live and work within 50 yards of bus stops. A few years ago, I decided to take the bus for a week. The route to work was short, arrow-straight and required no changes. The bus drivers were congenial; the rides uneventful. But a four-mile ride through one of the lightest traffic areas of St. Petersburg took about twice as long as it takes me to drive and park and didn’t save me any money. The bus was clean, but so spartan, so colorless, that the rides, while utilitarian, could never really be pleasant. There was nothing about the experience calculated to entice casual riders like me to make the bus a real transportation option. (Or to make regular users of the bus feel like customers rather than cargo.)
It has become an article of faith among many in the business, media and political classes in Florida cities that “something needs to be done” to beef up transit. Government officials say they’re responding to clogged roads. Economic developers say companies considering relocating to Florida are demanding transit options for their employees, particularly Millennials. The media love government solutions to everything (and then love complaining that the solution is failing because it isn’t funded adequately).
But along with the belief that something has to be done is an approach that prioritizes 19th-century technology — the first option communities study when considering transit is almost always light rail, ribbons of steel rail that have to be retrofitted at enormous cost into the largely suburban environment of Florida communities. Rights of way have to be purchased, stations sited and built, crossings created or upgraded, cars purchased, employees hired.
The capital-intensive approach is a bonanza for consultants, engineers, construction firms, equipment suppliers and, of course, developers lucky enough, or connected enough, to own land near the train stops. As for whether it reduces congestion, well … some believe light-rail lines are better at steering development than they are at easing congested roads. Ridership on the much-ballyhooed Charlotte, N.C., light-rail line, which opened in 2007, has stagnated, and ridership on the city’s bus lines, which weren’t redesigned to integrate with the rail, fell by 7% in the first half of last year. Rail is given high marks for helping redevelop parts of the city along the line, however.
In Florida, cheaper options to rail are usually a second choice. In Tampa Bay, voters rejected two light-rail referenda, and a third failed to get past the Hillsborough County Commission, before transit consultants began looking at an alternate approach. They recently released plans for a 40-mile rapid bus line, with its own lanes and fixed stops, from a Hillsborough County suburb through Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg. Consultants who presented the bus plan made a point of saying the bus would be more comfortable than typical city buses and be “rail-like.” They are so sensitive to the stigma that attaches to the word “bus,” in fact, that they bend over backward to find other names for it.
The “cheaper” rapid bus line still isn’t exactly a bargain for taxpayers — $455 million instead of $4 billion (pre-overruns) for light rail. That’s more than $100,000 for each car the bus line will take off the highways if ridership projections pan out. And it was clear from officials’ comments that they view rail as the next step if the bus attracts ridership.
The truth is that the Florida cities that have avoided building rail, and their taxpayers, may have dodged a fiscal bullet. With the first autonomous vehicles expected to come into play with ride-sharing services by 2023, investments in the comprehensive mapping required for those vehicles may be just as productive as planning for rail. Cities may also want to consider better synchronization of traffic lights, redesigned bus routes, employer-sponsored routes and incentives for employers to let more workers work at home.
To be fair, there’s plenty of evidence that Americans will use alternate modes of transport if they see value and utility. But getting suburbanites out of their cars into public transportation, light rail or otherwise, won’t be easy. A Brookings study released last year found that, since 2000, the only statistically significant changes in how people commuted involved fewer people carpooling and more people working from home.
According to the study, “even with all the roads widened, transit lines built, ride-hailing services launched and bike share systems introduced, we’re still looking at the same fundamental distribution of commuter choice."
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