Miami’s got a transit fix, but so far no one wants it

How do you make bus systems sexy?

That’s the weird task handed to the county as it tries to relieve South Dade’s hellish traffic snarls. When the county brought a plan for bus rapid transit to residents last month, the residents said absolutely. no. way.

“Unless you’re talking about light rail, don’t bother coming to South Dade talking about bigger buses,” said state representative Kionne McGhee, according to the Miami Herald.  “There’s not a single pastor, a single mayor, a single city council member who is asking for bus. They’re all asking for rail.”

Light rail is admittedly a pretty sexy transit option. But it could be 10 years before it’s a reality — an expensive reality (one cost estimate puts light rail for South Dade at $1.5 billion, and bus rapid transit at $15 million) .

But bus rapid transit can be sleek too — take a look at Latin America.

You just wouldn’t know it in Miami-Dade. When we hear bus rapid transit, we think of lumbering, wheezy, inefficient buses that stop for red lights and people who pay their $2.25 fare in nickels and dimes.

That’s partially because terms like “bus rapid transit” and “express bus system” keep getting misused by transit officials to describe more traditional systems like the busway that runs along US-1 (like in The New Tropic in February). Now, when residents are offered that, they think they’re getting the second-rate option.

“We don’t have bus rapid transit in Miami or Florida, so most people don’t have an experience to what know what is bus rapid transit. A lot of people think the new buses on the busway are rapid transit,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine-Cava, who brought the bus rapid transit plan to South Dade.

“If it doesn’t have raised platforms, if it doesn’t have prepaid fares, if it doesn’t have intersection preference, it’s not bus rapid transit, it’s something else.”

Why won’t anyone just stick with the program?

“The problem with bus rapid transit is it’s easy to water down,” says Benjamin de la Peña, director of community and national strategy at the Knight Foundation and an expert on bus rapid transit systems worldwide.

When money gets tight, leaders start chipping away at all the add-ons. Maybe they get rid of the raised platforms. Maybe they delay the preferential treatment at intersections.

“Pretty soon all you have is a nicely painted bus,” he said.

To help prevent this, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy came up with a list of requirements  of bus rapid transit. A few examples:

  • Prepaid fare
  • Right-of-way for buses at intersections so that they only stop to board passengers
  • Raised platforms to make the boarding process faster
  • Bus lanes in the middle of the road, rather than the shoulder

This is the list you can cite the next time the city promises a bus rapid transit system — and then comes back with another freshly painted normal bus.

Why light rail seems so much better

Light rail is a pretty fixed package deal. There’s not much you can eliminate, so when you are promised light rail, you get light rail. (The fact that it’s hard to cut costs is also why fixed rail ends up with runaway costs you can’t seem to stop.)

Plus, residents are worried that if they accept bus rapid transit, they won’t get the light rail they really want —although Commissioner Daniella Levine-Cava insists she sees it as a short-term solution to the gridlock while they wait for rail to be laid. (By the way, the light rail residents are gunning for was first promised to them more than a decade ago.)

But de la Peña’s point is that if you do bus rapid transit right, it’s not a bad permanent solution.

“I understand they were promised that. But what do the 14,000 or 15,000 [daily bus riders] deserve? [They say] they deserve fixed rail. I think they deserve good service now,” he said.

“What you need to do with bus rapid transit is live up to the promise of really, really good service.”

Sometimes bus rapid transit can actually be better than rail, de la Peña said.

It provides a lot more flexibility. Buses can easily overtake each other if they’re getting backed up, and they can be quickly taken on and off express service. It’s also easier to shift routes if the population moves.

Plus, in a city where saltwater is seeping up onto the streets through storm drains, fixed rail is at risk of corrosion, he notes.

The transit agencies are clearly hoping that something will bring residents on board. Metropolitan Planning Organization Vice Chairman and City of Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez wants more open-mindedness to bus rapid transit and any other transit solutions that may arise.

“If someone came in and said, ‘I’m willing to provide this option for free for six month or nine months to prove to you that it works and works no worse than light rail, I don’t see how we as a community can say no to that,” he said.