Improving use and experience for public transit

single-meta-cal May 22, 2018

When viewed in national rankings, Huntsville’s approximate population of 200,000 places the city in a “mid-tier” category. Yet, when viewed in terms of reach, there is nothing mid-size about the municipality.

Huntsville city limits encompass 218.2 square miles within Madison, Limestone, and Morgan counties. That makes it, in terms of land mass, the largest city in Alabama and among the top 40 biggest in the U.S.

We’ll be looking at things like using Uber, Lyft, and taxi cabs…”

Size matters and Huntsville’s generous and pleasing topography brings opportunity and challenge. That’s evident from the 24,000 new jobs created here in the past 10 years. While the City has invested heavily in road infrastructure to keep cars moving and relatively short commute times, delivering a robust transit network is dependent upon population – not distance.

“It’s an enormous challenge when you look at the cost per rider, which is how the federal government determines its transit funding,” said Tommy Brown, Director of Parking and Public Transit. “We know we have a lot of need, but our numbers don’t get us a lot of financial support.”

Smart solutions

In 2011, Huntsville hired Nelson Nygaard, a consulting firm specializing in improving municipal and regional transit networks, to study its public transit system and make recommendations. Without increasing the transportation budget, Nygaard helped the City restructure its routes and operations, resulting in a 19% increase in ridership in the first year.

With Huntsville’s steady growth, the City is turning again to the company for a new study that will look five to ten years down the road and provide insights and direction on three critical areas of transportation:

  • Saturday service
  • Aging population that will live longer and more independently
  • Growing workforce in the western industrial corridor

The nine-month comprehensive study will examine Huntsville’s current operating situation and suggest ways to be more efficient and effective.

“We’ll be looking at things like using Uber, Lyft, and taxi cabs to provide potential ambulatory transportation or Saturday service where it makes physical and financial sense,” said Brown.

Stretched to capacity

Huntsville’s public transit network serves about 4,000 citizens every day. The Shuttle bus has 12 traditional routes – two routes running every 30 minutes and the others every hour. Handi-Ride operates 17 smaller buses by appointment to serve the elderly and disabled.

For Brown, the transit network has maximized its capacity and must expand to meet greater demand. (Read: Bus Stop: Huntsville Public Transit)

“The Mayor and Council have been so effective recruiting industry out west that we’re going to have thousands of people working in that area and many are going to need and want a public transit option,” said Brown. “When you combine that with the needs of our aging population, demand for transit services is going to increase dramatically.”

The United Way of Huntsville-Madison County and the Community Foundation of Huntsville have both ranked public transportation as one of the top critical needs in the community.

The road ahead

Mayor Tommy Battle’s BIG Picture master plan has been focused on the City’s overall transportation mobility network, everything from public transit to multi-modal options with improved access for bicycles and pedestrians.

“We know mobility is central to well being and prosperity,” said Battle. “With the uncertainty of state and federal transportation dollars, Huntsville can’t afford to wait on someone else to fix our problems. We’re going to do what we do best – think creatively and work toward solutions that improve people’s lives.”

With the support of City Council, the City authorized the $90,000 transit study (80 percent federally funded) with Nygaard in early May. The study should be complete in January 2019.

Priorities include:

  • Design Saturday Bus Service – Includes service planning and budget
  • Evaluate existing fixed bus routes, propose bus route adjustments to improve efficiency, miles, and hours, to achieve faster trip times and improved service frequency.
  • Evaluate Paratransit Service (known as Handi-Ride). Propose strategies to reduce the cost of paratransit service by providing incentives to transition “highly functioning” disabled riders to the fixed route bus system. Additionally, evaluate the possible use of Uber, Lyft, and Taxicabs for ambulatory paratransit trips.
  • Evaluate and propose the most cost efficient ways to provide transit service in evening “non-peak” hours and weekends. This objective item will compare the potential ridership and cost of Uber, Lyft, and Taxicabs versus fixed route buses during off peak hours.
  • Evaluate and recommend the best strategy or most efficient, cost-effective service or method to provide public transit service from low/moderate residential areas of the city to manufacturing jobs on the west side of Huntsville, the region, and along the I-65 corridor. Non-traditional options such as subsidized carpools, vanpools, and smart phone applications will be explored.
  • Fare Pricing and Fare Media Structure. Recommend the appropriate improvements to be made over the next 5 years; with corresponding fares models.
  • 5-Year Capital and Operating Plan