GMU “blueprint” study suggests avenues for expanding reach of Arlington’s transportation options

This is part one of a two-part series on a report by George Mason University graduate students. Students were tasked by Mobility Lab with creating a new transportation blueprint for Arlington, Va., geared toward connecting more people to its transportation network. This part focuses on passenger transportation – part two will examine freight and deliveries.

Arlington County, Va., has one of the nation’s most connected transportation networks, with nearly every resident living within a half mile of a transit option.

Even still, graduate students of Professor Jonathan Gifford’s transportation policy class at the George Mason University Schar School of Government and Policy have compiled recommendations – based on field observations and interviews – to make it easier for residents to forego a personal vehicle for other transportation options.

The recommendations generally fell into three areas: improving bus service, improving Metrorail connections, and improving transit information through technology.

Making ART bus service better

The report, entitled “Connected City: A Blueprint for Arlington County,” notes that Arlington Transit experiences problems familiar with many fixed-route bus systems: “ART faces service gaps in areas of Arlington County that are the least densely populated. For areas that have a higher population, buses often experience overcrowding.”

The students found that the ART 41, which runs from Columbia Pike to Courthouse, is the busiest route, with 34 percent of all ART trips in the 2015 fiscal year occurring on that route.

On the other end of the spectrum:

ART routes 53, 62, 74 and 92 fail to meet the productivity and cost-efficiency standards [identified in Arlington County’s latest transit development plan]. In 2015, these four routes combined had an operating budget of $1,264,897 (13 percent of the overall operating budget) and 131,397 riders (only 4.7 percent of total ridership). They recovered $116,245 (4 percent) of the $1,264,897 operating costs from riders’ fares in 2015.

So with some ART routes regularly experiencing overcrowding, some routes struggling to maintain ridership, and some areas where service is not convenient, the students recommend that county officials explore ways for on-demand taxi services to complement ART bus service.

Policy should require these partnerships replace underutilized bus routes with private ridesharing companies. It should also restrict service between origin, public-transit access points, and destination. Similar to other cities, cost savings as a result of bus replacement could be used to subsidize travel of passengers, or to low-income households.

More cities are considering similar kinds of public-private partnerships, but actual results have been difficult to come by so far. The report details one example worth following:

Direct Connect in Pinellas County, Fla., allows commuters to take Uber, United Taxi, or Wheelchair Transport to key bus stops and hop on a bus to their final destination. The county pays half of a commuter’s Uber fare (up to $3 per ride) if trips begin and end at designated stops, remain in a designated zone, and occur between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The subsidy is applied by entering a promo code in the Uber app. United Taxi is used by those who do not have access to the smartphone apps needed for Uber rides. Its website shows that Lyft will be an option soon. Direct Connect replaces an under-performing route with an average weekday ridership of 26. While it costs  $160,000 to operate the connector, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority forecasts costs for Direct Connect to be around $80,000.

Improving accessibility to Metrorail stations

A highlight of Arlington’s “first/last mile” options is the continued enhancement of bike- and carsharing throughout Arlington. But the students see room for improvement by way of Uber and Lyft: for people who can’t incorporate Metro conveniently as part of their trips.

Although some partnerships like this have struggled to succeed – take Bridj’s recent Kansas City program, for example – the students note that partnerships with Uber, Lyft, or other potential providers are still worth exploring and “would not only improve transit service in Arlington County, but could potentially reduce the cost of their public-transit programs.” The report cites examples from several cities to show how this could work:

  • Uber became the official ride-hailing partner of Chicago-area commuter rail agency Metra, with agreements to encourage rides to transit and an Uber payment of $900,000 for ads in Metra stations.
  • Ford’s Chariot vans service fixed routes to transit. It operates in San Francisco, Austin, and Lake Tahoe, with expansion to more cities planned this year.
  • Scoop offers ridesharing for co-workers, and it has a cost structure in place that could be attractive for companies to offer their employees.

Make transit technologies easier for Arlington residents

With technological applications in transportation moving rapidly, the students concluded that access to information is lagging when it comes to learning about and using Arlington’s transportation options.

Mobile networks play a vital role in day-to-day life and real-time tracking of services has become a necessity for busy commuters. Current smartphone applications are constrained by variations in technology platforms and do not allow real-time tracking for all of Arlington County’s transit services. [Uber and Lyft] are also not integrated with these platforms. Mobility Lab’s web-based service, CarFreeAtoZ, has worked toward integration by providing travelers with a comprehensive multimodal trip planning tool. Developing this tool as a mobile application would create greater convenience for commuters.

Whether or not the county should get involved in building an app may be up for debate, but the students explained during their presentation that this could be another area ripe for public-private partnering. Several noted that the Transit app is regarded as a leading real-time information app, and that Boston’s MBTA, for one, has an agreement to promote using it to navigate the city’s system, clearing up the problem of having to choose from many competing apps. The endorsement also allows Transit to work closely with the transit authority on piloting new features.

In a related vein, while Arlington performs TDM outreach through programs that educate residents, businesses, and property managers about existing options, the students recommended that the county could “develop strategies to facilitate two-way dialogue that encourages more public feedback on future transportation decisions.”

The My Arlington app could be more user-friendly in facilitating user feedback (much like how the ArlingtonVA Service Request app allows for the reporting of non-emergency issues) and could incorporate more engaging real-time transit information. However, the students said these apps alone are not sufficient to generate meaningful community engagement. They also noted that more intercept surveys of people at or near transit stations could provide additional input on how to improve Arlington’s options.

Taken together, the recommendations suggest improving access for Arlington residents to transportation options through a combination of better information and service.

Next, look for our summary of the group’s findings on how freight movement impacts congestion in the county.

Photo: People getting on and off an ART bus in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab; www.kittner.com)

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