Nearly two years ago, transit officials in Tallahassee did something that might be unprecedented: Overnight, they eliminated every existing bus route, created new ones, and they did it all without any gradual phase-in period whatsoever.
Although officials with Tallahassee's StarMetro said they were trying to fix a system that had become horribly inefficient, the move was controversial with riders at the time.
Today, the system's leaders may have found redemption: Earlier this year, the agency was awarded one of the American Planning Association's prestigious annual awards.
In Tallahassee, the goal was to replace the city's existing hub-and-spoke bus route system -- in which every single one of the city's bus routes led to a downtown transfer station -- with a grid-like system that more accurately reflected the population and employment clusters in Florida's capital city.
Samuel Scheib, senior planner with StarMetro, said that by the time leaders scrapped the radial system in 2011, it had become woefully out of date, essentially using the same routes that had been in place for more than 60 years. Under the old system, each of the city's 26 bus routes led to a downtown station, where all the routes would convene at the bottom of the hour so that passengers could transfer simultaneously.
Yet that model was severely flawed. Although every bus route led downtown, survey data from 2009 revealed just 7 percent of StarMetro riders actually had downtown destinations. That's not much of a surprise. Scheib says downtown's heyday was decades ago, and there's not much reason for anyone to go there today. “Nothing’s downtown anymore,” Scheib says. “There’s no retail or restaurants kinds of destinations downtown. They’re just not there. That’s been true for ages.”
Even state employees are located in offices outside of downtown. The only people who spend much time there these days, he says, are people who have business at the state capitol building: lawyers, lobbyists, and state lawmakers -- in other words, people who probably don’t ride the bus.
The system of simultaneous transfers was also inefficient because it meant buses had to spend a lot of time waiting; essentially, no bus could leave the downtown station until the last one arrived in order for passengers to make their connections. “That’s a ton of driver time that’s wasted,” Scheib says. “We were paying them to sit there and wait.”
In 2005, StarMetro got a new director, and that's when it began seriously looking at a radical redesign of its bus routes in order to better utilize the agency's resources.
Transit officials looked at their budget and came up with a number that represented how many hours each day they could have the buses in operation. Then they started figuring out how best to divvy up those hours. They plotted routes on GIS maps, based largely on employment data that helped determine what areas were most in need of service. They crafted 10 different route maps before settling on a final design (and then after making the switch, they still made final tweaks one last time).
The new routes -- there's 12, down from 26 -- is more like a grid than a spoke-and-wheel, with transfer points throughout the city instead of a single hub. The efficiency of the design allowed for more frequent service, with buses now operating nearly every 30 minutes instead of hourly. The transit agency also eliminated the distinction between peak and off-peak hours after realizing that the two periods didn't have a difference in their level of demand. That didn't come as a shock, since StarMetro's customers tend to be retail and service workers, as well as students, who don't necessarily work on 9-to-5 schedules. Now buses always operate at the same frequency.
But one of the biggest challenges facing the agency was that StarMetro didn't get a budget to phase in the service. Sometimes, when transit agencies undergo rerouting, they transition the new routes into service, essentially running the old and new routes simultaneously to make things easier on customers. That requires lots of extra money, which StarMetro didn't have. Instead, all the routes would simply change overnight.
As a result, StarMetro launched an ambitious publicity campaign to make riders aware of the switch before it occurred. The agency held dozens of meetings in the months leading up to the switch. They agency's branding was overhauled to emphasize the change and, to avoid confusion, StarMetro didn't just re-number the routes, it ditched the numbers completely and gave routes names like Azalea and Dogwood.
The city distributed thousands of ride guides at the downtown transfer before the switch and mailed out brochures to the city's utility customers detailing the plans. Dozens of public meetings were held in the months leading of to the switch, and the transit agency put alerts about the change on its website, on the radio and on billboards.
Despite the preparation, Scheib says StarMetro staff still had a hard time convincing riders that the change was for real. “I’d say, ‘I promise you: your route will disappear. It’s gone. It’s completely different.’ And they wouldn’t want to hear about it until the very last meeting, four days before the system launched,” he recalled. A final information meeting about the switch garnered more than 100 guests; in the months leading up the change, a busy meeting might have drawn a dozen.
On July 11, 2011 -- after nearly five years of preparation -- the switch finally happened. “Suddenly, it was the way it was for 60 years, and on Monday morning, it was completely different," Scheib says.
That day about 140 volunteer recruited by StarMetro rode the buses to help passengers with information, like where to get off and transfer. To make the transition easier, StarMetro made bus fare free during the first week of the new routes, so drivers -- who would face lots questions from riders -- wouldn't be further slowed down by passengers fumbling for cash.
Despite the preparation, the transition didn't occur flawlessly. By making the rides free, StarMetro inadvertently convinced many people who weren't regular transit riders to give the new routes a shot. Ridership shot up 10 percent, leading to overcrowding and delays. The transit agency had a system that allowed passengers to request information on wait times via text message, but it crashed under the unprecedented number of inquiries. Officials say problems and confusion lasted for about a month before things returned to normal.
Gradually, operations improved, aided in part to some final tweaks to the route map officials implemented in January 2012. For example, one route had required two transfers if someone was trying to visit a hospital. Another route that included a large number of housing units for community college students didn’t actually stop at the school. Those problems and others were fixed, officials said, reducing the volume of complaints.
Less than a year after the switch surveys showed that 47 percent of customers liked the change; 16 percent had no opinion; and 37 percent weren't happy with it. But StarMetro officials say they think the switch has been a success due to ridership numbers. Despite an initial and expected small drop in the early months of the transition, by January 2012, ridership numbers were up about 15 percent compared to the same month the previous year.
Brian Waterman, StarMetro planning administrator, says the agency still isn't done tinkering. It is looking at how changes in student housing will necessitate alterations to the campus bus system it runs. "We're still trying to improve the system we have now," Waterman says.