In Defense of ART – A Response to Save Route 66 Central’s Open Letter

By Dan Majewski

Edited by Jessica Carr, Chad Gruber, Leila Salim, Michael Vos and other UrbanABQ team members

February 21, 2016

Preface

 As of Tuesday, February 9, the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project, otherwise known as ART, was approved for $69 million in federal funding from President Obama’s annual budget. This budget has not yet been approved by Congress so the funding is not guaranteed. However, there is a very good chance this funding will be approved and allocated, based on similar projects being approved in the past.

Regarding opinions in the community around this project, attendees were surveyed at a recent public meeting. The results were split in three ways with “38 percent of [the] 134 citizens who were polled — out of 247 who packed the rehearsal hall for the meeting — [saying] they don’t support the project, compared to 30 percent who said they do ‘very much’ and 57 percent who said they desire improved mass transit in the corridor.”

An Open Letter from Concerned Citizens

At the end of January Save Route 66 Central, the foremost antagonist in the effort to bring bus rapid transit to Albuquerque, published a critique of the city’s newest plan for the project. The entire letter can be found at this link.  

save rt 66 webpage
Click here to read the entire letter pictured above

We would like to say, in short, that this letter is well-thought-out. It is filled with ideas that could be successful if implemented in conjunction with the ART project. Unfortunately, the letter is also filled with misinformation and other data taken out of context.

Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) will be a positive project for the City of Albuquerque. This project will feature widened sidewalks, which will create major improvements to the pedestrian environment. Central Avenue is notorious for being the most dangerous pedestrian corridor in a city that is dangerous for pedestrians and the ART project will go a long ways towards improving this. The reduced speeds which will result from this project will create a more nurturing environment for retail, specifically for small businesses. Of course, the greatest strength of this project will be the creation of an frequent, reliable and consistent transit spine for the City of Albuquerque. It will allow Albuquerque to develop a transit culture and set the stage for the creation of other high capacity transit corridors throughout the city.

pedestrian fatality map abq
This map from a recently released study shows pedestrian involved crashes from 2009-2013. Central is the most dangerous street in the city for people on foot. Click here to read the entire report.

The first objection to the ART proposal from the open letter is below, emphasis ours:

Overall, our analysis concludes that in the Build Condition (of A.R.T.), the operational performance at several intersections would be deteriorated [compared with No Build]. Several segments would have diminished operational performance, thereby increasing queuing and congestion along the Central Avenue corridor. This can clearly be attributed to the reduction in capacity of the general purpose lanes along the majority of the corridor.

This is the essence of automobile oriented language. This type of wording is used to create fear around projects that could, in any way, reduce the ability for people to drive fast. Increasing queuing and congestion should be the goal of any vibrant, urban retail corridor. If this sounds crazy, please bear with me.

Driving Slow Allows Retail to Grow

Let’s assume that once the ART project is complete, the same number of cars will be driving on Central. After all fewer, narrower lanes in each direction will actually be able to accommodate the same number of cars as the lanes today, just at slower, safer speeds. For most of the day, speeds will likely be close to what they are today. It is primarily during rush hour that average speeds may decrease.  

Nob Hill Main Street recently hired Robert Gibbs Planning Group to do a retail health analysis of the Nob Hill retail district and the Central corridor in that area.  When discussing problems with the corridor, the first statement from the report, linked here, states that “Central Avenue needs to be slowed down. The noise, nuisance, and threat to safety are a major impediment.”

Other notable aspects of the report included the portion stating that “walk-ability, both as an index and as experienced by most shoppers, is poor; sidewalks are narrow and cluttered, street crossing is difficult and dangerous.”

ped fatalities central
If you don’t like seeing these headlines, you should support ART

Recommended strategies to fix these stated problems include “slow Central Avenue to 25 mph” andreplace parking kiosks with modern ‘smart’ parking meters at each space.”

Recommended structural changes from the report included “wider sidewalks, more pedestrian crossings, more traffic lights, and public spaces” and “reduce traffic to one lane each way.”

The ART project will accomplish all of these goals.

Overall, ART will greatly improve the retail environment on Central Avenue. If I were a Nob Hill merchant, I would be working closely with the city to improve the parking situation in Nob Hill. This doesn’t necessarily mean Nob Hill needs MORE parking. Nob Hill needs parking that is that is easier to find and priced appropriately.

Lessons from Houston

The letter includes a section which recommends creating a transit line that “connect[s] properly to the grid network of N/S arterials, following the example of what Houston is currently doing.”

On the contrary, careful analysis of transit infrastructure in Houston supports the construction of a high capacity, high frequency “spine.” For those who aren’t familiar, Houston recently redesigned its entire bus transit network to be more efficient and effective . The city did it without spending a single additional cent. So far it has been a huge success and ridership has already risen. Transit planner Jarrett Walker of Human Transit led the redesign. The premise of the redesign was to build a high frequency grid—generally, high frequency means at least every 15 minutes—with the grid allowing easy transfer between the routes.

houston bus networks both
These maps compare Houston’s “frequent network” before and after the changes, with red lines representing transit corridors where you catch a bus or a train every 15 minutes or more. It is important to note that these changes launched at the same time that two new light rail lines opened.

Start Where You Are

There are many reasons why the Houston project was successful. The most important fact is that Houston is home to the busiest light rail line in the country, the Red Line. Houston has built a successful transit culture because it first invested over $300 million into a high frequency, high capacity spine similar to Central Avenue in Albuquerque. You have to start somewhere and Houston’s new high frequency transit grid is built around this and other high capacity light rail lines.

The ART on Central will serve the same purpose, setting the stage for transit improvements system wide. The fact that Houston used light rail and Albuquerque is using buses doesn’t matter. The ART project will have many of the same design elements as the Houston light rail line such as dedicated transit lanes, level boarding, pre-board fare payment, the ability to roll bikes onto the vehicle, frequent service and more.

Houston is the fourth largest city in America. It experiences soul-crushing traffic and major parking challenges. Albuquerque does not experience much of this but if we continue to grow without building better mass transit, we could easily end up like Houston. Building ART is a step in the right direction towards building a city where one does not have to drive to every destination.

Building Upon Our Strong Transit Grid

The open letter notes that the ART project “appears to ignore the potential to realign the multiple, existing bus routes (many of which also use Central Ave) into a ‘grid network’ that would greatly increase connections, serve more people, and enhance ridership without increasing fleet size.”

Below is a portion of the current ABQ Ride bus route system map with an emphasis on routes that interact with East Central:

abq ride system map
ABQ Ride routes on the east side of Albuquerque

As you can see, much of the ABQ transit network is already a grid. In fact, this is one of the greatest strengths of our existing transit network! The weakness of our current transit network is the low frequency of our buses, or the fact that they don’t drive by a given stop often enough. As Walker often says, “frequency is freedom.”

To amplify the strength of our grid network, we should increase the frequency of our buses to at least every 15 minutes. Currently, most ABQ Ride routes only run a bus every 30 minutes or less. However, there are no $80 million federal grants available to pay for more frequent buses. This is something we have to finance ourselves, and we should!

The Ripple Effect of ART

The letter also notes that ABQ Ride and the ART planning process “does not view the entire metro transit system comprehensively.” Since the planning process for this project began in 2011, the scope of the project was always Central Avenue. However, 32 ABQ Ride routes intersect with Central Avenue, many of which can be seen in the map above  .

Increasing the quality of service on Central has a ripple effect on the entire system. In fact, the Mid-Region Council of Governments conducted its own study on this idea. It found that completing the ART project would lead to a 61 percent increase in jobs accessible within 45 minutes via transit in Albuquerque.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 9.10.57 PM
A map from the report showing the ripple effect of improved transit service on Central Avenue

Regarding North / South Connections and Improvements

The ART project is about Central. That is the reality. However, there are plans in the works for a North / South BRT line, starting at the Airport and ending in Rio Rancho. Below is an image of the proposal and here is a link to the project website .

planned-brt-corridors-abq-lg
The green and yellow lines represent a proposed regional north / south BRT line

Regarding the “N/S grid network”, ABQ already has a great transit grid; it just needs to be more frequent.

When it comes to the ABQ Ride network, we should build upon our existing grid and strengthen it by making it more frequent.

Recognizing Special Interests

There is an odd statement in the letter if you read it carefully. It mentions that “a primary feature of the [proposed alternative] system described above is that the buses run in the outside lanes, adjacent to and serving an enhanced sidewalk … discharging directly onto the sidewalk, thereby INCREASING accessibility to businesses, rather than buses traveling in dedicated center lanes with ‘island stations’…”

The statement above is filled with language that reeks of special interests, especially the statement about “INCREASING accessibility to businesses”. Walker warns against this type of language in the transit planning process. He writes:

When our elected leaders make decisions about transit, they face a noisy mix of competing interests. A senior citizen had trouble walking to a bus stop, so wants the stops placed closer together. Others want the bus stops farther apart, so that the buses run faster. A merchant wants the bus to deviate into his shopping center, to bring customers. Another merchant wants the bus out of his shopping center, because it’s bringing ‘undesirable’ people.

cornell station
A rendering of a median station in the UNM area. See all the different station configurations and design details on the ART website: http://www.brtabq.com/Map

The letter goes on to say that “this approach would allow buses to move nearly as quickly as with the dedicated lane system…”

This simply is not true.

Putting the bus in the middle is the correct speed hierarchy. The correct speed hierarchy means faster moving traffic should be in the middle and as you get closer to the edges of the street, the speeds should go down.

The right lane is always slower because drivers are turning right onto streets, into businesses and trying to parallel park. Transit on Central will be far more successful if you put it in middle of the street. Put the fast moving bus in the middle, the medium paced traffic in the right lane and allow the on-street parking to protect the sidewalk.

Remember that statement earlier about the project being “economically feasible”? Center running stations are the essence of economic feasibility because you only have to build one station instead of two stations. Instead of one station on either side of the street, there’s one station in the middle. It cuts the cost of building stations in half.

Knowing The Project

The open letter asks “what if Albuquerque developed a transit system that became a primary attraction for citizens and tourists alike due to its’ innovation and its attractiveness, in addition to being highly functional, safe, economically feasible, and just plain fun to ride?”

The ART project actually fills much of this criteria!

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is becoming popular across the globe partially because it is an “economically feasible” high capacity transit system. BRT is flexible, versatile and very economical.

No one selects transportation based on the fact that it is “just plain fun”. Transportation should be functional, intuitive and safe and the ART is also designed to fill this criteria.

As Walker points out, transit quality and therefore usage is dictated by elements such as dedicated lanes, prepaid boarding, frequency of service and quantity of stops.

emx eugene
BRT systems across the world are both “innovative and attractive”, as shown by this BRT system in Eugene, Oregon

Regarding the project being innovative, Albuquerque resident and frequent transit rider Bob Tilley says it best:

I know plenty of people in Nob Hill … who are looking forward to the improved transit along the Central Corridor and beyond. If you think Albuquerque is 20 years behind, not building ART will do nothing to improve that. Perhaps you think Chicago is 20 years behind also – since they just opened their first BRT. Or maybe Boston is 20 years behind since starting their Silver Line BRT (2002), or Los Angeles’ Orange Line BRT (2005). BRT has become the 21st Century choice for many cities, big and small, to improve transit at a more affordable cost.

Learn More About Transit Planning

To conclude this defense of ART, we would like to recommend the book “Human Transit” by Jarrett Walker. It’s an easy to read image filled guide to transit planning theory and if it is something you are interested in, there is no better place to start. In the meantime, you can get a quick intro to Jarrett’s work on his blog, Human Transit