Back in the roaring 20s, Stockton, like most cities of its size, had an extensive rail system, boasting 28 miles of track and as many as 40 streetcars. Taking public transportation was commonplace, with fares costing just five cents and trolleys arriving every five minutes. But as the 20s ended, the 30s ushered in the rise of the automobile. With most families now owning cars, the trolley system and its tracks were seen as a nuisance rather than a public good. By the end of 1941, the last streetcar vanished from the streets of Stockton.
Today, the car is king, and I know very few people who utilize public transportation in Stockton if they can use an automobile instead. Still, every now and then I hear friends and family longing for some form of rail system to reliably transport people around town. As you can read here, the idea of reviving Stockton’s street cars has been tossed around by some residents, and even by local government (in the form of light rail) back in the late 1990s.
But in the era of high costs and bankruptcy, how can local governments invest in transportation infrastructure that is both cost effective, reliable and attractive to the public? The answer: it already has, in the form of Bus Rapid Transit.
Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT) has become an integral part of the transportation networks of several major US cities, including Stockton. While not as headline-grabbing or glamorous as light rail or streetcar systems, BRT has become a very popular, and cost effective, transportation infrastructure option for cash-strapped cities as there are no tracks or electrical overhangs to install. BRT systems have been introduced in cities ranging from Seattle, Cleveland, Kansas City, and even nearby in Livermore.
San Joaquin RTD recently rolled out their new Hammer Lane Metro Express (route 43) service to go along with two other Metro Express routes (routes 44 and 40) running from Hammer Lane in North Stockton down Pacific Avenue, through downtown to the Stockton airport. For all intents and purposes, this new type of bus system can produce almost all of the same benefits of a streetcar or light rail system, at a fraction of the cost. So, why are most people unaware of this new form of transportation? To most, a bus is a bus, and the benefits of the BRT over a traditional bus system are not readily apparent to those who do not regularly utilize public transportation. To be sure, the differences between these two modes of travel are stark as BRT operates much differently, and many times more effectively, than a traditional bus line.
What’s so different between bus rapid transit and a normal bus line? For starters, BRT systems generally do not run on specific schedules. Instead, buses run at intervals, much more like a light rail or subway system would do. For example, Stockton’s service runs at 10 minute intervals during peak times, with 15 to 20 minute intervals during off peak hours. The Metro Express still technically runs on a schedule, but buses are more frequent. How are they able to do this? One reason is through the elimination of stops that regular, local buses would usually make. By placing routes adjacent to areas of interest, such as the University of the Pacific, the Miracle Mile or Delta College, the BRT acts much more like a rail system, picking up and dropping off at points of interest rather than making stops every few blocks or so.
Additionally, BRT buses utilize technology that gives buses signal priority at stop lights, meaning that once a BRT bus stops at a red light, the traffic signal will cycle through lights quicker to send the bus on its way. Another way BRT enhances the rider experience and improves on time performance is by having ticket stations at stops, instead of on board the buses. These stations enable passengers to purchase their fares before boarding, much like a light rail or subway, thus speeding up the boarding process. Stockton’s Metro Express routes include both of these features and then some, clearly distinguishing itself from standard bus services.
So how does Stockton’s Metro Express stack up to other systems around the country? Pretty well, actually. In a recent study, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined the features of 15 different BRT lines around the country, from cities as big as Los Angeles and New York City to as small as Reno and Albany, and SJ RTD’s Metro Express 44 line included most of the features generally present in BRT, more so than several other systems on the list. (Full disclosure, the GAO is actually my employer, though I did not work on this report, and I am not a part of the team that did the analysis).
The cost is right, as well. Unlike many big transit projects, BRT systems are much cheaper to implement. Rail projects generally involve lengthy review processes, installation of new infrastructure and displacement of homes and businesses. BRT, however, can usually bypass the cumbersome review processes of rail systems, utilizing existing infrastructure. The only big, upfront costs are buying/maintaining buses and installing bus stops with ticket machines (Some BRT routes utilize dedicated street lanes, sometimes completely separate from roads, which would obviously add to the price tag. This is not the case here, as Metro Express uses the same streets as everyone else). The federal government also plays a role in building these projects, lessening the fiscal burden on local transit authorities. Stockton’s new Hammer Lane route was largely funded by grants from the Department of Transportation.
But in car-dependent Stockton, can something like bus rapid transit get more people to use public transportation? The answer appears to be yes. Since the introduction of Metro Express route 40, SJ RTD saw its ridership double along the Pacific Avenue corridor. Specifically, 26,367 passengers boarded Pacific Avenue buses in March of 2006. As Metro Express Route 40 replaced these traditional bus lines, ridership exploded, and in March of 2010, SJ RTD reported 55,320 riders, an increase of 109% from 2006. The launch of Metro Express Route 44 pushed these numbers even higher, and in February of 2012, over 100,000 boarded Stockton’s BRT system.
Furthermore, these enhancements in public transportation seem to put Stockton on par with other major US metro areas for transportation access. According to the Brookings Institute, The Stockton region ranks 29th nationally in “labor transportation rate,” a measure of the ability of workers to use public transportation to get to work, with 30% of the labor force able to get to work by taking public transportation within 90 minutes. Stockton also ranks 43rd in total transit coverage, with 74% of jobs located in neighborhoods with transit access. It should be noted, that when adjusting the scope to include the city areas of the Stockton region, these two statistics jump to 41% and 100%, respectively.
While the streetcar in Stockton is probably never coming back, Stockton’s new BRT system provides many of the same benefits: shorter wait times, quicker boarding, faster rides, and direct routes to Stockton’s featured destinations. Metro Express also uses hybrid buses, an important feature in an area with such poor air quality. Cities all over the country, and the world, have embraced the BRT concept with positive results. I am glad to see Stockton hop on the bandwagon.
But aside from moving people from point A to point B, the introduction of BRT may have an even more unlikely effect in Stockton: encouraging transit oriented economic development, a topic I will cover in part two of this series.