Recent blog posts have focused primarily on urban design issues, while transit – no pun intended – has taken a back seat. I recently performed some transit data collection for the bus system, because the Max Bus System could not afford to hire a consulting firm. While I have my own theories to explain why public transit is so abysmal in Birmingham, I will refrain from theorizing (too much) and report only my observations.
The Max’s budget woes are complex, and its finances and funding structure will have to be addressed in another post, along with a more detailed analysis of the specific routes. For now, the HC will focus on the more general problems. Meanwhile, just don’t shoot the messenger.
First, only a handful of the bus stops are ADA compliant. In the absence of a concrete pad, handicapped passengers are dumped in the street or onto the grass. Many of the blue stop flags are practically invisible because of poor placement, vandalization, damage incurred from truck mirrors or obscured by vegetation (a number of the stop flags inventoried were behind trees, inside bushes, etc.). The buses I rode did not have functional air conditioning. At Central Station, I was witness to what appeared to be either numerous sunstrokes or heart attacks. It was not an uncommon occurrence for the paramedics to show up at Central Station several times a day. The system also has incredibly poor wayfinding, which makes it even more difficult to use. Many of the stops lack sidewalks and pedestrian connectivity and are thus difficult to access. Some of the flags posted at designated bus stops have no route number. Others have been vandalized such that the route numbers are illegible. Unlike bus stops in other cities, such as Boston, which posts route maps on all stops, Max’s stops have no information whatsoever concerning routes, timetables and schedules, etc.
In the City Center especially, the stops are too frequent, which inhibits its efficiency and significantly slows service. There’s no reason a passenger should not walk a few extra blocks to a bus stop. The assumption behind placing a stop at every block downtown is that passengers either do not want to walk , or are otherwise incapable of walking. In areas such as Lakeshore, the the bus is routed into labyrinthine parking lots to provide door to door service for passengers who should be walking to the bus stops. In order for the bus system to work, it must stop chasing ridership.
Many of these buses are routed into low-density neighborhoods with hilly terrain and light industrial zones and business parks in places like west Homewood. A basic principle of transportation planning is that mass transit works most efficiently in high-density areas. A “planned shrinkage” approach to the city’s bus system would profoundly increase its efficiency. Buses are routed in areas like west Homewood and Lakeshore (I focus on these routes, because I spent the most time on them) with low-population densities, but relatively high employment densities. Whereas a neighborhood such as Southside might have a higher household density than Lakeshore Drive, fewer people are commuting to Southside for work. This is partly the consequence of the separation of uses that has plagued not just Birmingham, but cities all over the country. When we separate uses - where we live and work - we do two things: we enable motor vehicles, and thus sprawl, and debilitate the efficiency of mass transit. The hilly terrain is a major obstacle for these spavined buses. I rode the 14 over the course of a week, and the engine failed every time it tried to climb the same hills. This happened on Greensprings Avenue, which I quickly realized was a public relations crisis for the Max Bus System. Irate motorists began honking at the bus. God only knows what expletives they hurled at us as we waited patiently in the bus’ sweltering heat for a repair crew to show up. Several passengers debouched from the bus and continued their journey on foot. The more bus failures motorists witness on the roads, the more it reinforces the impression that the Max bus service is unreliable and the less likely people are to use the buses.
An unsightly and uninviting bus stop in the eastern quadrant of the City Center. Any number of Max’s bus stops are in completely illogical places where no one would possibly want to go. This is particularly true on the west side of the City Center, where I inventoried a number of bus stops that are surrounded by blocks of urban blight. I took myriad photos like this one that all tell the same sad story.
I was also left with the impression that the various municipalities served by the bus system actually dictate the placement of bus stops. If Homewood wants a bus stop at Brookwood Mall moved, then it’s moved. And, of course, much of the system’s operating budget comes from the city of Birmingham, while the new bus fleet was purchased with a federal Tiger Grant. There is no steady state source of funding. The outer-ring municipalities thus have a somewhat parasitic, welfare relationship with the BJCTA and Birmingham. There is not, to my knowledge, a single transit system in the United States that does not run on a deficit. A dedicated source of funding must be provided to create a viable system, and there are arguments for and against privatizing “public” transit.
The interstate highway system is arguably the largest public works project in the history of our species. The country marshaled its available finance capital and made an unprecedented public investment in mobility. Everyone uses it: rich and poor. Or do they? Not everyone in Birmingham can afford an automobile and there are those few who, like myself, would prefer to do without an automobile despite having the wherewithal to purchase and maintain one. There is a huge disparity between those who use the bus system and those who use the interstate highway system as motorists. Many of the riders on the Max use the bus system out of sheer necessity and survivalism. If they had the money, they would be the first at the car dealerships. If we can squander an entire generation’s wealth on unsustainable transportation infrastructure such as the interstate highway system, we can make a damn city bus system work. It’s a matter of priorities and political momentum.
If there is a God, then God - or someone - bless the Max Bus System.
Because the Max Bus System also did not have usable route maps, their transit routes had to be mapped as a part of the data collection process.
A Google Earth conversion is provided below.
The current bus service. It won’t look like this after routes are axed. Notice the route in the northeastern sector which goes out to Centerpoint. This route has one of the system’s lowest riderships.
Bus service in the City Center. A number of routes are made redundant because each bus runs the same downtown loop after egressing from Central Station.