Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Revamping Urban Bus Routes: Data Analysis Tools Show the Way

As cities across the country wrestle to reconcile increasing demand for transit services with budget challenges, optimizing transit service can be a key tool for squeezing maximum value out of every available transportation dollar. Data-powered evaluations offer the potential of making those decisions easier and provide better outcomes.

The transit agency serving Houston just revamped its entire route structure and schedule in search of improved efficiency.

Like in many cities, Houston’s previous route plan was 30 years old, and was based on residential and employment centers at that time. And as in most cities, what updates have occurred were modifications based on the old system, making only incremental attempts at accommodating the major shifts in urban living and working patterns over the decades.

Now there are tools that can help policymakers and the public understand what those shifts mean, offer ways to respond effectively, and potentially even keep pace with changes in future years.

Houston’s new plan, scrapping a downtown-centric hub-and-spoke layout in favor of a citywide grid system, is slated to take effect in August; anyone interested in urban transit systems should watch how the transition goes there, to learn what to do as well as, perhaps, some pitfalls to avoid.

Regardless of how Houston’s effort fares, cities across the country are going to need to transition their 20th century transportation systems to ones ready for the 21st century. Fortunately, there are new tools that can help policymakers and residents alike better understand the systems that exist now, and model the potential results of proposed changes.

For inventorying the service potential of existing systems, there are several examples:
For imagining how transit systems could work better overall, and for testing potential results of changes, Transitmix, an online system allowing people to create their own bus lines on data-filled maps of the real world has transitioned from game to tool used by professionals. The Oregon Department of Transportation is the first to sign up to use Transitmix to assess service statewide; the modeling potential is significant.

With these new data-powered tools, planning transportation for the city of the future can involve more people, more perspectives and more potential options.