Management & Operations

Suburb-to-Suburb Service Creates Robust Challenge for Pace

Posted on July 13, 2007 by Steve Hirano, Editor

Serving an urban core with timely, efficient public transportation has its challenges, but delivering quality transportation services to the suburbs also has significant, and often disparate, challenges. Pace Suburban Bus, headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, is a prime example of a transit property trying to better understand the changing demographics, market segments and travel patterns in its six-county service area and, accordingly, adjusting its service levels and the makeup of its fleet. “Over the past 100 years, transit has really focused on supply,” says Michael Bolton, deputy executive director of Pace. “We go out and buy the biggest buses we can get, the biggest railcars we can get. We believe that if we build it, they will come. Because we’re a suburban operation, we have to look at things in a different way.” Quite a bit differently, actually. This is partly because of the complexity of its charge: providing transportation to a population base of 5.2 million residents in six counties — suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will — that encompass 284 municipalities. The service area sprawls across 3,446 square miles, nearly the size of Connecticut. To accomplish this task, Pace operates a fleet of 680 fixed-route buses, 364 paratransit vehicles and 719 vans. By fleet size, it ranks sixth among transit systems in the U.S. and Canada, according to METRO Magazine’s 2006 ranking of the largest 100 transit bus fleets in North America. Although the number of buses it operates is high, the size of those buses is getting smaller. Bolton says the 35- and 40-foot buses that had dominated the fleet are being retired in favor of smaller vehicles. Smaller is better fit
“The big buses that we’ve been using don’t fit the neighborhoods that we have to run through,” Bolton explains. “We’re going to smaller vehicles, such as 30-foot buses, to serve those satellite cities. The market conditions in the suburbs demand a very different vehicle. For us, smaller is better.” To that end, Pace is creating a family of services that includes vanpool, ridesharing and contracts with taxi providers. Another factor in Pace’s move to smaller buses, Bolton says, is that the larger buses appear “more empty” than the smaller ones when they’re, say, traveling back to the suburbs from a run to an employment center in the morning. “We might want to call it excess capacity, but elected officials call it empty,” he says. “We can have a 40-foot bus running with five people on it and it’s viewed as being empty, but we can have a paratransit van with one person on it and that’s considered good service,” Bolton says. “We’ll still buy a few 40-footers and some 60-footers for our arterial rapid transit (ART).” Currently, Pace has more than 1,000 vehicles that are 30 feet or shorter, comprising nearly 60% of the fleet. This is part of the “right-sizing” initiative that T.J. Ross, executive director of Pace, has been championing over the past few years. But Pace has done more than procure small buses to more effectively serve its constituency. Market demand scrutinized
Pace has also taken on an extensive analysis of the market segmentation of its service area. “We have to understand the transportation needs of our customers,” Bolton says. “It’s part of what we need to do to find innovative and reliable solutions.” For example, using market demand data, that agency was able to get a better fix on why three routes that should have been low performers based on traditional transit planning models were actually among the top 10 best-performing routes. “They don’t have the jobs; they don’t have the densities either,” Bolton says. “So what’s happening? The passengers are taking the route to the [Chicago Transit Authority’s] Red Line station at 95th Street and the Dan Ryan, where they’re able to get to jobs along the rail line. So, it’s the connectivity, not the density.” A more intelligent system
Helping Pace get a more accurate, and practicable, view of its service is a fully deployed intelligent bus system that provides data every day on the on-time performance of its buses. The system has yielded some surprising data. Last year, Ross reported to the board that the agency’s on-time performance was actually 78%, not 92%, as previously reported. “That’s because we were getting 15,000 observations a year before,” says Bolton. “Now we’re getting 5 million.” Pace also has begun to collect passenger count data. It has fitted 20% of its fleet with passenger counters. “We are getting a much better idea of what’s happening in regard to our ons and offs,” Bolton says. Partnerships are fertile
The numbers tell the story, and Pace is acquiring a lot of numbers. For example, it has partnered with the Will County Center for Economic Development, as well as the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, to acquire data. “We have engaged them and the 80-plus communities in this area as part of our planning effort,” Bolton says, adding that by managing and mining that data, Pace has been able to link people with jobs and provide mobility and accessibility in moderate- to low-density suburban areas. “The suburb-to-suburb market is going to be huge for us, so we have to prepare on how we’re going to deal with it,” Bolton says. One of those ways is to add an express service on major roads that will connect with services at regional and community transportation centers. ART (arterial rapid transit, as mentioned earlier) won’t feature a fixed guideway like some of the more sophisticated bus rapid transit systems, but will incorporate traffic signal priority and provide real-time bus arrival information at the stops to create “connection protection.” “A lot of fixed-route systems talk about tying one bus into another bus route,” Bolton says. “We have the ability to do that, but the other piece we’re looking at is being able to schedule paratransit service so it also ties in with ART stops, which are essentially one mile apart. It’s a different way of looking at providing solutions to people’s problems.” Elderly are gaining ground
Last year, much attention was given to the first wave of the baby boomers turning 60, but Bolton is not expecting a rush on Pace’s buses just yet. “We believe that the boomers are not going to have a significant effect on our bus service for at least another five or 10 years, so we’re not worried,” he says. Looking down the road, however, Bolton sees a critical need to address the transportation requirements of the elderly population, and not just in northeastern Illinois. “In the U.S., there were 35 million people over the age of 65 in 2000,” he says. “In 2010, that’s going to be 40 million. And in 2020, that’s going to be 54 million. Who in transit is preparing for that?” In the meantime, Pace’s service area already includes plenty of 70-, 80- and 90-somethings, allowing its planners to gain some important real-world experience about their needs. “We have an opportunity to learn an awful lot about these people,” he says. “The current longevity provides the test bed for future growth.” Pace has just completed work on a four-phased research project with the following elements. It was designed to investigate seniors’ transit needs in the six-county area Pace serves. 1. Secondary research review 2. Key management interviews 3. Ethnographic research 4. Transportation usage segmentation survey Among the findings was a willingness by seniors to use regularly scheduled service over dial-a-ride service because it gave them a feeling of independence. “When we tested the concept of flex routes with residents of a few senior residential communities, we received a number of ideas on destinations, times of day and days of the week,” Bolton says. Funding is a dilemma
Key to Pace’s success to meet the needs of its customers will be to shore up its financial health. The agency has been forced to cannibalize its capital account over the past few years to cover shortfalls in operational funding. To help address the funding issue, a collaborative effort called Moving Beyond Congestion (MBC) was launched earlier this year. It is spearheaded by the Regional Transportation Authority, which is the planning and oversight agency for Pace, Chicago Transit Authority and Metra. In late May, MBC unveiled a funding plan that asks state legislators for $452 million of new revenue each year to fund operating costs of the three agencies. “It’s critical that we find a way to stabilize our funding source,” Bolton says. “We also have to have everyone aligned in terms of the company culture. We have to know what we want to look like in five years, what it’s going to take to get there and who’s going to help us get there.”

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