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Miami-Dade Transit will be taking comments on their annual recently released their Transit Development Plan 2011 update. You can find the document here. The Transit Development Plan is required by State Law to, “present the operational and capital improvement needs of Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) and also serve as a planning tool to project future MDT needs for the implementation and operation of transit service.”

The Transit Development Plan is an important planning tool as it provides a complete picture of funding sources, revenues, and expenses (on the operations side), while also describing the existing transit network, demographics and planned service changes. It is the closest document we have to a ‘People’s Transportation Plan’.

In the years following the demise of the Orange Line MetroRail extension, the TDP has been focused on reducing the operating budget and squeezing efficiency from the existing system, while not really providing a clear framework for increases in ridership. The October 2009 update described its budgetary strategy as, “an avoidance of any major service expansion except for the MIC-Earlington Heights Metrorail connector service.”

Two years later, the TDP doesn’t paint a rosier picture for premium service expansions; none are envisioned in the near term.  But what the document does reveal is a department that is trying to do more with its existing infrastructure, both through increased efficiencies in the network and improved passenger amenities.

Several new ‘enhanced’ bus routes are also discussed, including the North Corridor Enhanced Bus project, and the SR 836 Express Bus Project. We’ll talk more about those later. What we can say now is that the service expansions envisioned by this latest TDP are very modest – and incremental – improvements to service around the county as an alternative to the ambitious and extensive PTP.

Aside from some new routes, MDT has been working on implementing improved passenger amenities, such as real-time bus tracking and WiFi access. MDT began rolling it its popular  Wi-Fi service in 2010, and currently provides service in all Metro-Rail trains, and approximately 20% of the bus fleet. The coming year will see the program expanded to the entire fleet of MetroBuses and all station platform areas. Future service expansions, such as the NW 27 Enhanced route, will also come equipped with Wi-Fi as a standard feature.

MDT is also moving forward with implementing a new AVL (Automatic Vehicle Location)  software system that will replace the current system (which dates from the late 90’s). The new system will provide for real-time tracking, and transit signal prioritization – elements that should help MDT make modest ridership gains using existing infrastructure. The real-time tracking will allow full integration with smart phones, and will also be a standard feature in future service expansions. This improvement will finally give the South Dade Busway the signal priority it was designed for, and shorten commute times along this heavily used transit corridor. MDT plans to issue an RFP for the system this year, with a launch scheduled for mid-2012.

Kudos to MDT for advancing these needed technological improvements - they will pay for themselves and then some. One need only look at the EasyCard system and Automatic Passenger Counters (APCs), implemented in 2009, which MDT has been using its to make targeted improvements to service schedules. The efficiencies created by using this data (adjusting/eliminating empty routes) has allowed MDT planners to use infrastructure more wisely.

This year’s TDP includes numerous service changes that involve adjusting routes using the APC data, along with staff recommendations, according to MDT Planner Maria Battista. Among the data used to make service changes, Battista said, “administrators have held monthly meetings with the drivers and superintendents that let us know what is going on in their routes.” The adjustments in service respond to the current ridership demands. Some routes are being reduced by 15-20 minutes at non-peak hours (prior to the morning rush, or during evening hours) based on data that showed no usage during these times. These surgical adjustments will help ensuring that MDT facilities are being used when and where they are needed most.

The TDP 2011 shows an agency working with what it has. No premium service expansions, but important improvements to existing service. This all comes against the backdrop of an agency - it would seem by the media- in disarray. No Director, serious FTA funding problems, a lackluster commission directive, and a newly installed Mayor whose commitment to transit involves converting a transit corridor into a highway. The changes proposed by the TDP 2011 set the stage for premium expansions sometime in the future. The incremental ramp-up of ridership in new enhanced bus routes, along with the improved passenger amenities, and GPS tracking abilities will allow our elected officials to take hold of the agency and provide the premium service expansion that this community demanded almost a decade ago.

Suggestions and comments on the annual TDP update can be sent to BPB@miamidade.gov.

The Miami streetcar seems to be generating plenty of controversy. Before we convince ourselves that it’s good or bad, perhaps we need to look at another streetcar. Seattle’s streetcar, nicknamed “S.L.U.T.” for the South Lake Union Trolley, made its debut Wednesday to large crowds of riders. It also generated its share of controversy (even to the point of sabotage), so lets look at some of the issues.

The Seattle streetcar apparently does not use signal preemption. It has to stop at all traffic lights just like a bus would. This is rather ridiculous, as even Bus Rapid Transit usually calls for signals to change to give priority to the bus. An effective Miami streetcar needs to have signal preemption.

Bicyclists don’t like it and organized a protest. Seattle put the tracks on the right side of the road, precariously close to the bicyclists’ paths. Rails in the road parallel to a bicycles direction of travel are a recipe for disaster. As a bicyclist myself, I share their concerns. Streetcars like Seattle’s carry a lot more people than bicycles, and that should give them at least a slightly higher priority. At the same time, streets need to accommodate as many modes as possible-especially if we ever hope to implement a decent bike sharing program. The needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, transit, and auto all need to be considered carefully in the design of Miami’s streetcar. One alternative that has been used before is to put the rails down the middle of the street.

Seattle’s streetcar is expected to help retail business. That’s probably an accurate expectation, but we’ll have to wait and see the numbers. Most rail transit systems have increased local business, and we could probably expect the same in Miami.

There’s one unique issue that Miami will have to worry about. Every time there is a hurricane, the overhead electric lines will have to be repaired. We all know how often that happens! This makes it worthwhile to consider alternate technologies such as Innorail, which have the added benefit of removing unsightly overhead wires.

It sounds like Seattle’s streetcar was packed the first day, just new like light rail systems. Charlotte’s Lynx light rail is exceeding projections in its first weeks. Surely Miami’s streetcar would do the same.

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