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Kutsuplus

Carrin Patman’s vision for Metro

I commend you to read Christopher Andrews’ report of a recent meeting between Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and group of local transportation-interested bloggers. I quote here from his recap of what Patman has in mind for Metro while she is Chair:

HoustonMetro

1. A Regional Transportation / Transit Plan
The last plan dates back to 2003, and much has changed in Houston since then. The plan gave us the existing rail lines, except for the University Line, which has now lost any form of federal funding that was once available. Patman said that it is time to start a new plan, likely asking for bonding authority to pay for future improvements, possibly specifying routes or modes of transit. As Houston continues to grow, it’s inevitable that there will need to be increased opportunities for transit, not simply adding highway lanes.

Patman said that the agency needs to continue to look at adopting every mode of transit, whether rail or bus rapid transit. She also noted the possibility of a Hobby Airport rail extension as part of the plan, and the need to establish an east-west connection into Houston’s Galleria / Uptown District area. It is arguably Houston’s fastest growing center, but still does not effectively tie into METRO’s Park and Ride system, although this problem is slated to be relieved with the Uptown BRT line. (It’s worth noting that the Galleria is linked to Downtown Houston through the 82 bus route, which has been the backbone of the bus system for a long time, and has routes with peak 6 minute frequency, and off-peak frequency of 10 minutes.)

2. New Bus Network Improvements
In her most recent Houston Matters interview Patman noted that change sometimes brings unintended consequences, which METRO has experienced in select areas with respect to the New Bus Network. Selected bus routes were changed, especially in low ridership areas, leaving some riders without bus options. this is especially difficult because many of those left without bus options rely on the bus for transit.

Patman assured that the agency will not leave out those that are without bus service. I think that’s a tough promise to keep as many parts of METRO’s service area may not justify a route that transports a small number of riders. As seen with the New Bus Network, there is a balance for the agency in providing coverage compared to frequency. Without adding additional resources, likely at a cost, greater frequency (which is probably the more important of the two to many riders) cannot happen.

METRO has been using their Community Connector service in Acres Homes, with fair ridership according to METRO staff. The Community Connector acts as an “on-demand” service within a particular zone to provide connectivity between major destinations and the Acres Homes Transit Center. This program was compared to Helsinki, Finland’s now-defunct Kutsuplus program, which acted somewhat as an Uber Pool-type program. Aimed at decreasing the need for private cars and providing a connection between many of Helsinki’s north-south oriented bus lines, the program was initially successful, then came to an abrupt end at the end of 2015. The program needed a larger scale in order to be more profitable, and the cost of doing so would have been heavily supplemented by taxpayers. It’s important to remember that this is a method for supplementing trips in areas that may not warrant as many frequent bus routes.

3. Marketing and Ridership Experience
Patman’s final major goal was the continuation of improving the ridership experience on METRO’s bus and rail lines, as well as marketing the system to new users.

Andrews notes my post on how Metro might market itself, then goes on to make his own suggestions. There are themes from my other posts as well. Patman specifically said that she reads what those of us who were there have to say about Metro and what it is (and should be) doing. My reaction after that meeting is that they’ve already got this figured out, and are doing or at least studying plenty of the things all of us had in mind. It’s encouraging to see, and again I urge you to read Andrews’ report as well as the one that was posted on the Metro blog.

I still have a post to write about where things are and where they may go with rail, but I’m still thinking about it. In the meantime, there were some more tweaks applied to the new bus network.

The transit agency makes service adjustments three times a year. Those changes are made in January, at the end of the school year, and at the start of classes in the fall. The latest changes affect over thirty Metro routes and that includes both local buses and park and rides. They went into effect last weekend.

Metro’s Jerome Gray says one thing they’re trying to do is ease overcrowding on some of the more popular routes.

“We’ve added some trips earlier in the morning to accommodate people asking for that,” Gray says.

Changes also affect the park-and-ride buses. Gray says ridership usually dips toward the end of the school year and they also thought they’d have fewer riders because of oil and gas layoffs. But it turns out that wasn’t the case.

“Interestingly enough on several of those park and ride routes we’ve actually seen an uptick in the ridership,” says Gray. “I think a number of people are just opting to not drive their car all the way into work. They’re opting to park it and get on the bus.”

You can see all the changes here. As the KUHF story notes, there will be more to come, with a new Manchester/Lawndale route to the Magnolia Transit Center set to debut in July. I promise to have my rail post done before then.

Reimagining public transportation is hard work

Noted for the record.

Four years ago, Helsinki launched an innovative bus service as part of a long-term plan to make cars irrelevant.

It was called Kutsuplus—Finnish for “call plus.” And it was one of the world’s first attempts to reinvent carpooling for the algorithm age.

The service matched passengers who were headed roughly in the same direction with a minibus driver, allowing them to share a ride that cost more than a regular city bus but less than a taxi. It was a bit like anUber for buses—or more accurately, likeUberPool—except that Kutsuplus was running for nearly two years by the time Uber got into the ride-sharing side of its business.

Operated by the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority, Kutsuplus was the best-known component of Helsinki’s and Finland’s intelligent traffic system. Ridership grew steadily. But late last year, Helsinki authorities shut down Kutsuplus, deeming its cost to taxpayers too high. The blue minibuses picked up their last passengers on December 31.

[…]

For passengers, the system was fairly straightforward. You would log onto a website, top up your account, select the starting and ending points for your journey, and walk to the closest bus stop to wait for the pick up. The average fare in 2014 was around €5—about US$5.50. By comparison, a single ride by bus or metro is €3. Taxi fares start at €6 and can go much higher depending on the distance traveled.

The project had two main targets: assessing technological feasibility and user acceptance. Judged on these goals, it was a success.

“The research proposal tackled a number of different problems and we were able to solve them to a surprising degree,” says Sampo Hietanen, who until recently worked at ITS Finland, a nonprofit that promotes intelligent transport systems. “We made some wild promises, such as predicting arrival times. That’s not really something you can control yourself, because congestion and other circumstances affect it too.”

Riders took to it. The growth rates matched what the researchers had projected: Eventually the system had 21,000 registered users.

[…]

Two things ultimately killed Kutsuplus. First was the need for massive scale to make the economics of ride-sharing really work. Second was the significant public cost of doing that.

The transport authority had big expansion plans for Kutsuplus. From the original 15 buses, the fleet was to grow to 45 vehicles in 2016, 100 vehicles in 2017, and later into the thousands.

Achieving scale with this model is crucial in order to optimize trips across an entire fleet. With a small number of buses and users, it’s more difficult to match up passengers who are going in the same direction around the same time. This explains why Kutsuplus buses were frequently close to empty. The two times my family and I used Kutsuplus, we had the bus to ourselves.

The math looks different if you add lots of riders and lots of buses. Scaling up to 100 vehicles would have increased the efficiency of Kutsuplus threefold, Rissanen says. Hietanen agrees. “There’s a huge difference between mass transit that works in some areas some of the time, and mass transit that works everywhere all the time,” he says.

Scale could not come without funding, however—and in an austere budget environment, that was a problem. Although the €3 million it cost to run Kutsuplus was less than 1 percent of the Transport Authority’s budget, the service was heavily subsidized. The €17 per-trip cost to taxpayers proved controversial.

Rather than investing many millions more into Kutsuplus to bring it to scale, city officials backed away. They let the pilot come to an end. Rissanen wasn’t happy with the decision.

“The minibuses were meant for high-volume usage,” Rissanen says. But the politicians “got scared and didn’t want to invest in it in an economic downturn.”

See here and here for some background on the Kutsuplus service. Thomas highlighted this story in a comment on my post about driverless cars and the future of mass transit, in Houston and elsewhere. Kutsuplus is an awful lot like what Tory Gattis had hypothesized, except that these vehicles still had human drivers. Given the economic factors cited, it may well be that taking those human drivers and their salaries out of the equation would have made this viable, but we’ll have to wait awhile to know that for sure. (Although there are some services like this in other cities, including New York and Washington, DC, so perhaps we’ll have a better idea sooner than that.) A couple of points to note here: One is that the reason this system came about is because Helsinki’s existing mass transit system has a key flaw: its buses run mainly north-south, so taking east-west trips are hard to do. Two, despite the initial success of the Kutsuplus, there’s no evidence to suggest it caused any reduction in driving. To be sure, it may not have lasted long enough for an effect to be seen, and as we know from Christof Spieler, it’s not about getting people who drive now to stop and change what they’re doing. It may be this was a glimpse of our future that was snuffed out before it had a real chance to succeed, and it may be that this was another pie-in-the-sky vision from people who will support any form of transit except the ones we have now.