When Regional Transit Service officials rolled out a consultant's recommendations for its fixed bus routes, they received some mixed reactions.
The recommendations came out of the first stage of Reimagine RTS, the transit agency's effort to plan for the Monroe County bus system's future. Transit advocates praised the emphasis on direct routes, more frequent bus arrivals, later in-service hours for the buses, and transfer points outside of the downtown Transit Center. They also liked that the recommendations placed a priority on maintaining bus service in the city and parts of the inner ring suburbs.
But some bus users and elected officials immediately raised alarm over recommendations to eliminate lesser-used lines that extend into suburban communities such as Brockport, Henrietta, and Webster.
"I'm not happy with the plan as it currently stands." says Henrietta Supervisor Stephen Schultz. He notes that if RTS were to implement the recommendations, a line servicing Rochester Institute of Technology would be cut, and the new VA facility that'll open soon won't be covered.
But Reimagine RTS will enter its second stage this month, and its focus will be on filling the service gaps that would be created by eliminating some of the suburban lines. Transit agency officials say they're not stripping transit service from the suburban areas that are losing lines. Instead, they want to take a new approach with them: they're calling the areas mobility zones, and they want to find ways to provide a public transit service in them without relying on full-size 40- and 60- foot buses.
To be clear, no Reimagine RTS-related route changes have been made as of yet. Any decision to alter, add, or remove routes will be made by the agency's board after the full Reimagine RTS process is complete. Officials expect that changes coming out of the process will take effect in 2020.
The mobility zone approach was born largely out of necessity. RTS has a limited budget and it can't rely on the state and federal governments to provide additional funding. Running big buses costs a lot of money, and often the ones that make trips into the suburbs aren't very full. RTS staff and officials know this because staff rode the lines and collected detailed data about where riders are getting on and off the buses, says Bill Carpenter, RTS's CEO.
Carpenter uses the route between downtown Rochester and Webster as an example of the inefficiency of some of the routes recommended for elimination. Each day a full-size bus makes 10 trips between downtown Rochester and Webster, carrying a total of 140 people; a 40-foot bus can carry roughly 40 passengers.
Other routes are in a similar situation. Carpenter says ridership is a little higher on the Henrietta route that the consultant recommended chopping, but it's lower on routes serving parts of Irondequoit, North Greece, and the Pittsford-Eastview Mall area. RTS has designated all of these areas as mobility zones.
Also, RTS has reduced the bus frequency on these routes in an effort to sustain them, which makes them less convenient for existing and prospective users.
"Our customers are looking for us to find better ways to serve them," Carpenter says.
The mobility zone concept is new, and RTS doesn't have a firm plan for how each will function. Each community could see a different approach.
Potential solutions floated by RTS officials range from comparatively simple to intricate. For example, RTS could make broader use of smaller buses – similar to the vehicles it uses for its paratransit service – to serve transit customers in the suburbs, which are less dense than the the transit system's urban core. Or there may be a way to use smaller buses or vans to provide some degree of on-demand service. The smaller vehicles cost less to buy and operate.
Van pooling, where a group of people who live in a community and commute daily to the same area share an RTS van, could be incorporated into some of these mobility zones, RTS officials say. Ride-sharing services and the city's Pace bike share may also play a role.
And some mobility zone approaches may not even exist yet, says RTS spokesperson Tom Brede. The transportation industry as a whole is in the midst of a transition due to the rise of things such as bike sharing, Uber, and Lyft.
Brede and Carpenter say RTS will be reaching out to town supervisors and mayors in these new mobility zones to help gather public input. The agency plans to hold some public events on mobility zones.
A consultant will help RTS gather and analyze the public input, and will develop recommendations for the organization regarding mobility zones.
"One of our messages, hard as it is to ask, is to just please be patient with us because we've got to go through this step," Brede says.
But RTS users and some suburban elected officials are still anxious about the prospect of losing fixed routes, in large part because they don't know what to expect out of this next Reimagine RTS stage. Pittsford town officials were initially alarmed by a suggestion to trim back a route in the town; Carpenter talked to the Town Board and has been in contact with officials.
Henrietta's Schultz says he talked with RTS officials about a few possibilities, including a route that loops through the town that stops at some key destinations and maybe even Monroe Community College, where riders could catch a bus downtown. He says he likes that idea, but he's still worried by the lack of concrete detail.
"There's a bunch of stuff left out of the plan that I'm not happy with," Schultz says.
The next stage of Reimagine RTS will focus on finding alternatives to traditional fixed-route bus service for some parts of Rochester's suburbs.
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Reimagine RTS | Rochester public transit | RTS mobility zones | suburban transportation