The future of transit in Rochester

If city government performs at its potential we will see a radically different transit system in Rochester in the next 5 to 10 years.  Technology, congestion, growth, and demographics are combining to create a new Rochester that we must adapt to.  If we are successful we will have a far more efficient, effective, and far reaching transit system.  Pedestrian, Bicycle, Park & Ride, Development, and Transit will merge into one seamless entity to the benefit of our citizens.

First we have to finalize our current contract.  We need to complete the transition to First Transit, make sure that they are appropriately staffed and ready to hit the ground on day 1.  Hopefully our frivolous lawsuits will be coming to an end shortly.  The city has rightfully won every court decision to date, and that should continue.  But expensive lawyers can draw this out for a long time.  One thing that I have never said (but friend Ray Schmitz’s suggested to me) is that we should thank the Holter’s for being a good stewards of the transit system for 45 years.  Despite my recent frustrations, I do have to agree with the suggestion and tip my hat for their service.  I should have said this more, even with the strained relationship.

Once the current drama ends we have great things that we can accomplish.  Here are some of the thoughts as to where I want to go.  I can’t do these by myself, but we as a community can achieve these outcomes.  The fact that our new transit service contract now costs millions less gives us a good place to start.

  • Major re-branding of Rochester’s transit system.  Finance folks like myself hate this type of activity, because it costs money and the returns are uncertain.  However based on my experience seeing the Dubuque transit system last year at the Midwest Sustainability Conference, I am certain what a difference better visibility, access, and communications can make.  I put an image of their buses below, note the outstanding color.  I say outstanding, because it stands out.  Their transit operators said that as soon as they made the buses more noticeable, their ridership increased.  Part of that was that people suddenly realized that “these things are everywhere.”  The fact is that they always were, but you notice something like this more.  We are so far behind in this area that we can make tremendous gains.   Hey if you tweet @votewojcik your best potential name for our re-branded system, I will pass it on for consideration!

  • It is long past time to merge services in Rochester, and I am talking about going big on merging services.  I hate the fact that at our most congested times we have multiple city buses, charter buses, ZIPS buses, school buses, and close to 100 shuttle buses all congesting our busiest streets.  How about replacing all of this with one bus?  The savings would be immense.  The opportunity to expand service to unserviced areas would be incredible.  There are many challenges to this, but the payoff is so great we need to pursue it.  We will have to instill a mentality that bus transfers are OK so long as they are reliable.  We will need to get private industry like Mayo and Hotels to be willing to merge their services with a larger transit system.  We will need to make sure that we protect school kids on our bus (which I have no doubt we can do, like so many larger communities already have).  I truly believe that if we put kids and adults same buses, kids will behave better AND adults will too!  Instead of having every bus go downtown we need every bus to either go downtown or to some transit center where a quick transfer to downtown is available.  Technology makes this easier than ever before.  As a civic leader I know how much it would mean to families if kids could reliably jump on a bus, using there Boys & Girls Club card, Y Membership,  or library card to get to and from those locations when they need the services.
  • We really need to improve the access and hours to our transit system.  We have a great transit system if you live on a line and work normal business hours downtown.  If you don’t, we have a lousy system.  Already 40% of Minnesotan’s don’t drive and that number is only going to increase.  The last thing we want to do is face the enormous social cost of moving thousands of seniors out of their homes due to a lack of transportation options.    By reducing the overlapping overhead of all the existing organizations we can focus more resources on more routes covering more areas at more times.  Instead of a 40 minute loop through limited areas in NW Rochester that spends 25 minutes to and from downtown, I want to see a continuous loop throughout more of the NW with a stop somewhere like the Wal-Mart area where people can work, shop, or transfer to downtown.  This same idea can be repeated throughout most of Rochester.  A frequent loop through neighborhoods that link community resources, transfer points, retail, and jobs is far easier to use than limited express service to downtown.  We also don’t need to have only one size of bus, in the future I would expect to add smaller and larger buses to better match demand.  Finally we need to realize our potential and connect to transit centers in surrounding communities to better give neighboring communities access to our city.  None of our decisions have to be all or nothing, but we can do so much more with the resources we already expend.
  • New technology holds great promise for make transit more usable.  This summer I hope to show off a new technology that will hold green lights a little longer if a bus is approaching the intersection.  This should make our buses more effective at getting through congested areas.  I would also like to mimic cities that have the ability to track bus locations and continuously update schedules if a bus is running behind.  I should be able to spend 30 seconds on my phone and check what time I catch a bus AND what time I will arrive if I choose that option.   We also can follow cities that use RFID, cellular, and smart-phone technology to track when and where volunteer citizens begin and end trips to better optimize our system.
  • As soon as the next decade we may be at a point where we want to investigate some form of fixed route transit.  Certainly the Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments (ROCOG) regional planning agency will be looking at traffic volume and demand as we move forward.  Even though we are a county of around 150,000 we have a downtown employment population that is more like a city of a half a million.  I’ll give you one guess why that is.  As such, an efficient fixed route transit system may be in our future.  Given our limited right-of-ways and relatively small size we would likely have something resembling a street car system.  Some people are surprised to learn that Rochester already scores better than other communities that have already started a mass transit system using the small starts program.   Fixed route transit is very different than bus routes.  It is more expensive, but offers a much higher return on investment.  Just like bus lines and highways, they require annual subsidies.  Because they are permanent in nature more significant development will occur along the routes.  The Hiawatha line in Minneapolis requires an annual subsidy, however the incremental property, income, and sales taxes generated along that line far exceed those annual subsidies.  This is why Chambers of Commerce have joined transit advocate in calling for more.  In addition there are very real savings in terms of reduced energy costs and parking needs for those along the route.  I assure you that it is far cheaper and wiser to build a ramp near West Circle Drive than it is to build in on prime real estate downtown.

I realize these are big ideas, but that is OK.  I don’t want to be accused of being afraid change or unwilling to try new things.


One comment

  1. Thanks for the plug.
    Good ideas, I still think that the time frame that you are talking about for a fixed route system will overlap with with technology, that is, the self drive vehicles that google and others are developing should be on the market by then, wouldn’t it be great to call and reserve a 2 or 4 passenger vehicle, walk to the corner and there is was and it delivered you to where you needed to be quickly and safely. No expensive rails or other infrastructure needed.
    Your idea about multipurpose buses is already in place in Europe, no separate school buses there.

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