In the loop

May 3, 2013

Temple Ligon
May 2, 2013

Among American urban transit bus systems, word has come out that downtown circulators can be made to work with federal and state help.

Orlando, for instance, in 1997 started running its downtown circulator at a construction and bus purchase cost of $21 million: 50% federal, 25% state, 25% local. Annual ridership on the circulator is rising above 1.2 million passengers a year. The Orlando circulator uses its own buses separate from the citywide bus system. Ten buses run the 18-minute, three-mile circuit, including 11 stations. The circulators annual operating budget is about  $1.5 million.

The Orlando downtown circulator is called LYMMO and is described as fast, fun, frequent and free.

Columbia has a lot to learn from the downtown Orlando circulator, both how to do it and how not to do it.

The Columbia bus system was downsized over the past few years while it waited on a dedicated funding source. Now that the bus system gets a piece of the recently voter-approved one-cent sales tax, the morning rush-hour bus count is climbing back to 30, and most of the buses still adhere to a hub-and-spoke route system focused on downtown.

But 30 buses at morning rush hour for Columbia is nothing to brag about. If Columbia had the same number of buses on a per capita basis as Austin TX and Madison WI, say, Columbia would see almost 200 buses on the street every morning. And like these cities and many others across the country, school kids take city transit buses instead of school buses.

Minimally adequate bus service for Columbia would probably call for 60 buses in the morning, more than doubling the current bus count, just to achieve a national average in bus service – not the best and not the worst, just average.

Columbia has what Orlando and most American cities don’t have, an ideal downtown grid street plan. Some academic circles call such a street layout a Cartesian grid, citing the 17C French philosopher Descartes. Columbia’s original 1786 grid town plan is based on 10 blocks to the mile, running one mile north and one mile south of Senate Street, and also running one mile east and one mile west of Assembly Street.

As first discussed 20 years ago and rejected by SCANA, Columbia has the opportunity for the ideal downtown bus circulator, running buses along a clockwise loop defined by Sumter, College, Assembly, and Calhoun. By running the loop clockwise, the bus doors are always oriented to Main Street. From Sumter to Assembly is two blocks, and from College to Calhoun is 12 blocks, connecting the 30,000 students at USC with the downtown office population.

Every morning, the 30 buses leave downtown on a staggered schedule for routes farther out, returning in about an hour, which means downtown sees a bus coming every two minutes. Many buses already run a common route through downtown Columbia.

If Columbia could establish a bus loop along Sumter, College, Assembly and Calhoun, each bus downtown would enter the loop and exit the loop at the same point, running clockwise past six bus loop stations on Sumter, one every other block, and a corresponding six bus loop stations on Assembly. At any of the 12 bus loop stations there is a bus coming by every two minutes, taking maybe 10-15 minutes to run the loop before going back out on its appointed rounds.

Besides the bus names on the front of the buses, the loop exit street is also identified. The Ft. Jackson bus, for an example, says Ft. Jackson and it also says exit Taylor east.

Bus passengers pay fares when they get on the bus coming downtown. When passengers get on the bus anywhere among the 12 stations on the loop, they don’t pay. Going away from downtown, having left the loop, bus passengers pay their fares when they get off the bus.

So getting on and off the bus along the loop is free. In fact, it’s fun, fast, frequent and free.

Or, put a little differently, Columbia has a superb downtown circulator without spending any money.

For a few dollars more, each of the 12 bus loop stations can have a European-style steam-cleaned public rest room. Practically all the major cities in Europe have public self-cleaning rest rooms; some charge for the use, but in Paris they’re all free. In Vancouver, Canada, they’re free, and Starbucks has followed the courtesy rest rooms around town because the city doesn’t require restaurant restrooms if there’s a city job on the sidewalk right outside the front door.

And after every use, held to 12 minutes as advertised, the place is steam-cleaned and sparkles for the next pedestrian.

Each station along the loop is its own little transfer center since every bus comes by every station. As school choice comes around, the fairness of an adequate city bus system combined with an accessible downtown that allows system-wide transit transfers means a whole lot to kids who can’t drive, particularly if the city issues bus passes to its students, like many, many cities around the world.

(Ligon will present this loop concept to Columbia City Council this Tuesday night, May 7, at six o’clock.)

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