Sunday, October 28, 2012

Will Megabus serve Fresno this time?

It's been a badly kept secret, but Megabus is returning to California later this year. Megabus originally entered the California market in 2007, but left in mid 2008 due to poor ridership. Believe it or not, but Megabus served California before they began operations in the northeast corridor, which is now their strongest market.

Back in 2007, service was focused on LA, with routes to Vegas, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego. The Central Valley was not served, as the buses used I-5 to express between LA and the Bay Area. Megabus was unhappy with ridership, and took all their buses east.

After pulling out of California, Megabus focused on the northeast (based in NYC), where they've constantly expanded. They then set up a hub in DC, Atlanta and most recently began operations in Texas.

If Texas can support Megabus, California sure as hell can. The bus network here is extremely underdeveloped, but that means a huge opportunity. Megabus was not patient last time, but hopefully they come in wiser.

Earlier this year, the WSJ reported

Megabus plans to expand its network of U.S. intercity coach services by 50%, purchasing assets from a rival to push into Texas and California.


Dale Moser, president of the U.K. company's Coach USA Inc. unit, said the proposed deal would provide facilities and extra buses to expand from its existing network serving 80 cities, mainly in the Midwest and the northeast, though it has more recently moved into the southeast and Canada.
Wall Street Journal

At the time no date was given for service, but now has reported seeing the giant buses in San Jose, making training runs. (Pictures at link). They're the same buses you now constantly see on the east coast.

Here's one of them in Boston (they now load inside South Station, not Back Bay)


And the easily identifiable logo


So what is Megabus? If you're reading from Fresno, you probably haven't noticed the enormous expansion in US intercity bus travel over the past 5 years.

Basically what happened is that a few different express services launched, which have successfully re-branded bus travel. Actually, let me restate that....there was a whole bunch of express service already available, but it was entirely based around Chinatown. Cheap, but with a side of risk. Then Megabus and Boltbus came in, giving the market a little bit more visibility.

If you think of Greyhound, you're probably thinking of 11 hour bus rides, cramped seats and not the best clientele. Indeed, that's the kind of service you'll get if you venture to the Greyhound station in downtown Fresno, although the company recently began to introduce newer buses and more direct service in the state (branded as Greyhound Express).

Besides Greyhound, Fresno is also served by three or four Mexican bus lines, which begin their routes as far north as Seattle and terminate at the Tijuana airport (but you're more than welcome to simply ride between Fresno and LA). As you can imagine, 95% of this customer base are Mexican nationals heading home.

The SF-LA market is somewhat similar, with a large market-share going to Vietnamese and other Asian bus lines, in the same way NYC was dominated by the likes of Fung Wah. 

Unlike these traditional bus lines, Megabus (and their competitors like BoltBus) attempt to spruce up travel in a few significant way. I recently took BoltBus on a trip to DC, and while the travel time was longer than advertised, the trip was comfortable.

1. More comfortable than yesterdays Greyhound bus. More leg room and better seats. Megabus uses double-decker buses, which allows for a more comfortable bathroom and also higher odds you get to sit alone. TVs with headphone audio are inside the bus, but sadly never used.

2. Amenities like power outlets and free wifi

3. Guaranteed seating (Greyhound isn't)

4. Low fares. Megabus starts their pricing at $1.50. Every run has a single seat (or two) at this price. Prices then rise to $3, $6 etc until the bus fills, at which point the last seat is something like $25-$60 (depending on route length)

Here is what the interior looks like


What's also important is that the buses run with very few stops. LA-SF for example, might see a single stop in San Jose.

There's also one last thing that makes these buses more desirable.

The clientele. Again, this isn't your average Greyhound crowd.
While it started targeting young professionals and seniors, Moser said female passengers between 30 and 55 have emerged as its second-largest demographic, sandwiched by the two other groups.
Basically, your Amtrak California crowd. College students, retirees, and young professionals who prefer to text for 5 hours rather than sit behind the wheel.

Is it as comfortable as the train? No way. But it's not too far off. 

On the east coast, Megabus has begun serving many small market towns, which makes it likely that Fresno won't be bypassed this time, and that's a very good thing.

If you're a fan of Amtrak, then you might be surprised to learn that this kind of bus service, which competes with Amtrak in some ways, is also very complementary, and can actually increase Amtrak ridership.

How so?

Think of it like this.

If Amtrak offered one daily departure and return from Fresno to LA, odds are, the timing wouldn't be suitable for your trip. Even if the outbound trip was perfectly timed, there's a very small chance the return would match your schedule.

In that case, you either take a car for the entire trip, or not do the trip at all because the timing fails.

If a second daily trip is added, the odds increase that the timing works for you, but it's still a long shot.

Today, Amtrak offers six daily trips each way from Fresno. That's good, but it's far from perfect. Coming back from LA? The last train is at 3:20pm. Way too early. Amtrak also offers a bus at 7:05pm, but it requires some hoop jumping to actually book it.

So how does Megabus fit into this?

Let's say Megabus comes in with 4 daily trips between Fresno and LA or San Francisco. That means the person wishing to travel without a car, now has 10 departures to look at, instead of 6.

Most people have no problem booking one way on a train and return on a bus, as long as the ride is comfortable, fast and at a convenient time.

And that's great news for car-free travel in California. Suddenly trips that might have been forgone (say, to a big concert or event) are now possible. other trips may switch from car to bus and/or train.

Indeed, the more departures that come in, even through different companies, the more convenient the trip is, and more likely that the traveler will do it.

Think of it like the "rising tide lifts all boats" statement. That means Amtrak might gain customers, even if half the trip is being served by a competitor. As the car-free intercity market grows in California, as it has in the northeast, that means improved travel options for all.

So expect to see the big buses rolling around California before the year is out, and if I'm right, in 5 years traveling between Fresno and LA or SF without a car will be as common as those kinds of trips are in the northeast.

One last tip: Enjoy the cheap fare when you can. Back in 2008, getting a $5 ticket with a week's notice was common. Today, you have to plan over a month in advance to get below $10 between major city pairs. That's not because prices were hiked, but because demand has grown so quickly. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Thoughts about DC (mostly biking)

This past weekend I was in DC for the first time since the summer of 2009, when I lived there for three months. While I've followed the transportation developments in the city, thanks to excellent blogs like Greatergreaterwashington and Washcycle, I hadn't actually set foot in the city since. I got to appreciate the large difference in reading about changes vs experiencing them in person. In this post, I will talk about what I saw during my weekend there. Unlike my trip to Philly, there aren't AS many pictures sadly.

Back in 2009, the city was a very different place when it came to bike infrastructure. Capital Bikeshare didn't exist, it was still the tiny Smartbike system. Pennsylvania Avenue was without the center cycle-track, and the 15h St cycle-track was just a design in a notebook. Generally, bike lanes were rare, and indeed during my time there in 2009 I barely used a bike. While I had one, I used it only a couple of times for recreation near my home in Takoma, and never downtown. This weekend, I must have ridden a loaned cycle at least ten times over the course of two and a half days.

I actually didn't ride metro at all this time. No train, no bus, no circulator.  It wasn't just because I couldn't find my Smarttrip card (and DC has the nerve to charge you for the luxury of paying, if you need a new one), but simply because bike share was so much more convenient. Fatser AND cheaper? How could I say no? My friend has an annual subscription and loaned me her key while she rode on her bike.

I arrived in the city via Boltbus, which I've ridden before. The trip was fine, although we did take quite a scenic tour of Baltimore (which isn't exactly disclosed when buying a ticket). I've been to Baltimore, but hadn't quite toured the less touristy sections. I didn't realize the Baltimore close to their Penn Station was in such bad shape.




It was like mile after mile of this.

As we escaped Baltimore, I took this picture of this interesting highway infrastructure...didn't even notice the return BoltBus was there!


One note of warning for those taking Boltbus: My trip to DC was supposed to arrive at 4pm. There was little traffic, and we arrived at 5:30pm. My return trip was supposed to arrive at 4pm, and we didn't get back until 5:10pm...on a Sunday with zero traffic. Some more honesty with the schedule would be nice, as 4pm was never going to happen. Would have helped me make plans.

Anyway, so while I lived in DC before, I never actually had been to Union Station. Yes, I rode through it every day on the red line, but never got off.... I was impressed.

THIS is what a train station should look like


Very fancy.


Reminded me of Milan


I'd say it's quite fascist, wouldn't you?


The bus area? Not so nice. But at least they sort of have a station now. It's makeshift, but much better than NYC and their annoying sidewalk boarding. An improvement for sure.



I had some time to wait for my friend, so I did get to enjoy some of the bike infrastructure around the station. The lovely bicycle rental and storage station


And the world's shortest bike path.

Begins here


And ends like 30 feet later


Ah well.


Anyway, so we headed to Eastern Market for dinner, where I'd also never been. And then it was time for the bikes. A large bike share station was conveniently close by, so I checked out a bike for the 4 mile ride to her apartment in Georgetown.

Let me start by talking about bikeshare, and then onto the riding experience.

I've ridden a Bixi bike before, in Montreal, but my initial reaction was the same: holy crap this thing is heavy. Too heavy, really. And the basket was just as useless as I remembered. I last rode a JCDecaux (Paris Velib) bike in 2009 but I don't remember them being anywhere near this heavy, and I believe they have real baskets. The weight caused an issue at one point, when it caused me to sort of tip over when making a very slow turn. I didn't fall, but it was an uncomfortable lean I bailed out of. Never had that happen on a regular bike, and the weight of the handlebar area was to blame.

Despite the weight, the bikes are easy to ride, after some initial testing. The seats are easily adjustable, and the gears are of some use (two of them anyway, the third is pointless). I did like how I rode maybe 10 bikes over the weekend and they were all in working order. The tires look bulletproof, and maintenance seems to be well done, in almost all areas.

The biggest failing? The brakes. Terrible on almost all of them, which was a problem in one particularly steep hill on a trail. Knowing the brakes sucked, I lowered my seat (so my feet could act as emergency brakes) and coasted down, emitting quite the squeal. I dared not let the bike gain any speed because I had absolutely no trust in it stopping in time.

I was also unhappy with the lights on the bike. They're useless in terms of illuminating stuff. I'm sure they're highly noticeable for drivers, but for something that's dynamo powered, the light is very weak. The battery is also bad on them, so if you're stopped for longer than 10 seconds at a traffic light, the lights turn off, making you a target for a rear end collision.

The bells are also pretty much inaccessible, but I'd wager many find that to be a good thing.

I also got some good insight into the distribution of stations in the area. I've said it before, but the stations are too spread out, especially compared to Paris where you can pretty much see one station when standing at another one.

My first poor experience came at the zoo.  According to the website, there's a station directly outside the zoo entrance (the middle one in this picture).


We couldn't find it, even though we were standing at the address indicated, and checked both sides of the street. The next closest station isn't really that close. Not a bad walk, but still, a hassle. Anyone know the exact location of the Zoo station?

The larger problem came in Georgetown when I was dockblocked, and there was no bike share station in the region to park at.

This is Georgetown. The three stations on the left were all full. The one on the right was available, but it feels much further away than it looks, thanks to a bunch of highway infrastructure. It is essentially not an option if you're heading to Georgetown.


This is what the highway zone looks like


When we checked at the Zoo, M and Penn had 4 spaces, when we arrived it was full. We checked the other two stations, and they were also full. We returned to the M and Penn station as the app now said one dock was available...

What we found was some good luck. A van was there emptying in the station.....and there were four riders waiting for the CaBi employee to get going so they could dock. Poor guy, every time he removed a bike, someone would dock.... Clearly there aren't enough stations in Georgetown for the demand.

Downtown is better, but full/empty stations still appear to be a problem. As I write this, DC has 14 full stations and 17 empty ones, out of 191. That's a pretty bad ratio.

In this picture, there are 11 bikes available.....and a staggering 246 empty docks. Bigger stations help, but I'd like to see some more redundancy, to spread the bikes out so there's always a station close by.

(blue is empty, red is full)

Mind you, the distribution is many times better than Boston, just not perfect.

And I do want to say, despite the fact that the bikes could use much improvement, having bike share in DC really revolutionized how I explored the city. Finally, no more 20 minute waits for a late night metro train, with fares quite possibly higher than the boltbus ticket. Indeed, with my friend's membership and a strict adherence to timing, my transport in the city didn't cost a cent. It also meant I had more money (and time) to spend at many fine dining establishments. Bucket of mussels? yes please.

So how was the actual road experience?

Let me start with one thing I was really impressed with: the drivers. Really, seriously. We biked on many streets that didn't have bike lanes (like L, which will soon), and took the lane due to parked cars....and at no point did I feel intimidated, honked at, swerved at etc etc. Cars simply changed lanes and moved along. Not even Dupont Circle was an issue. Mind you, this was a weekend, so I can't speak for weekdays.

It does help that DC has freakishly wide streets, and 2 other lanes were usually available to cars.

Taking the lane

I also rode some of the bike infrastructure, not because I sought it out, but because it was a convenient route.

On my first night, that meant the Penn Ave cycle track, which I'd read so much about. It was fun to ride, but has many shortcomings I'm not excited about. For one, if you don't know it's exists, there doesn't appear to be any signage or instruction on the matter.

I was following my friend, and we entered the lane at Constitution Ave. She knew to swerve three lanes left, but I didn't as there were no signs and I didn't realize Pennsylvania was the cross street. As such, I got stuck on the right while I waited for the cars to pass so I could merge left into the lane.


Looking back at it, I see no signs for cyclists, and remember, it was night at this point. As a tourist, would you know to be in the left lane here? Or what to do?


Once in the lane, it was mostly smooth sailing, although it took less than two minutes to witness the infamousillegal u-turn. Aside from blatant law-breaking, the path is pretty good, with the exception of the intersections.

For one, the lanes go through the pedestrian islands, which is somewhat of an issue at night because the avenue is poorly lit. With oncoming headlights, bike-share lights that are useless, and poor ambient lighting, some of those pedestrians can be very hard to see.

The signals were also problematic, as it wasn't always clear who the green was for. I don't know what signal heads DC uses, but their turn arrows are very poor, unlike the very clearly defined ones I'm used to in California. Arriving at the 15th street cycle track, where cyclists are expected to turn right across traffic, it was hard to understand if the signal was an arrow or a bike, it appeared like a green blur. Perhaps the ones in DC are smaller or something? I don't know.

The same trip took us along the 15th St cycle track, which I used the next evening as well. I thought this path was more enjoyable, but it might be because of the lighting? The lack of pedestrian obstacles did help.

The other big piece of bike infrastructure I used was the Rock Creek Trail. I've heard it's insanely popular, and I was super disappointed. The path is remarkably thin, goes along more of a highway than a creek, lacks amenities and is generally more of a poor sidewalk than any kind of trail. It was also along this trail that I had the scary braking experience (by Connecticut Ave) although the slope is obviously not the fault of the trail. My friend kept insisting that it would be easier to take the roads, but I wanted to see the trail. I guess she was right, next time I won't even bother taking it, unless they widen it by 4 feet.

Overall, it was great to see all the changes in DC, and it's also exciting to know that a new cycle-track is going in this week, as the 15th St one was a pleasure. I just hope the current administration starts actually improving bike and pedestrian access again, as from what I understand, even the L and M street projects are simply leftover from the Fenty administration. Would be a shame to see DC stall for a few years once those are done.

I'd also hope for more bike-share stations downtown (and Georgetown), versus any form of expansion to the north. One thing I forgot to mention was that there were clearly many people using the bikes, but there's always room to grow.

Bonus Picture: I found the one and only New Jersey Transit train with a working visual board!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

An analysis of Fresno/Clovis rail-trail (3): Old Town to Sierra

Sorry for the huge gaps of time between these posts, but they actually take a fair amount of time to put together.

Today we continue our look at the Fresno-Clovis Rail Trail.

We started south of Shaw, and made our way to Gettysburg.

Then we went from there onwards towards Old Town.

Now we keep going, through Old Town and then north of it to Sierra. Theoretically, the Old Town section of the trail would be the nicest and busiest, since it's a very popular destination. Sadly, it's one of the worst section of the trail. For one block, the trail completely disappears. There are multiple intersections that do nothing to accommodate trail users, and the trail has very little connection into the part of Old Town that people care about. Indeed, you can shop, dine and explore without even noticing the trail exists.

Here's today's map, starting at Barstow and moving north. You can guess which section has no trail.


On to the pictures...


The trail is pretty much the same as before, with zero connections to all the side streets, on either direction.


Here we approach the first major fail. The trail crosses a small (but still trafficked) street.



As you can see, there's no crosswalk painted, even though the crossing is at an odd angle in an unexpected place.


I've asked the city for a crosswalk, right after the section was repaved.

The response I got was the same tired fallacy about crosswalks and "false sense of security". So the answer was no, no crosswalk was to ever be painted here.

Except the question wasn't "could you paint a crosswalk to protect trail users"  it was "can you paint a crosswalk so motorists are aware that a popular trail crossing exists, a crossing that is pretty much invisible currently". But no, when it comes to trails, paint is a problem. Stop bars? Sure. Lane markings? Absolutely. Curves? PLEASE! But a crosswalk? NO.

Trail users have to deal with high speed vehicles making a turn from Clovis Ave to go east (helped by a very generous turning radius). They also have to deal with traffic approaching from the east that is focused on the major avenue ahead, AND they have to deal with cars on their side turning into them as they head towards Clovis.

It doesn't help that the ramps aren't aligned either.


Lets get off the trail for a second, and look at this crossing from the perspective of a motorist.

If the cyclist wasn't there, would you know this was a crossing where trail users have the right of way? The trail is very hidden off to the right.


No signs. No paint. No bulbout. No warning.

I didn't stake out this spot to get pictures with trail users, I didn't have to, there were many.


This giant truck did not yield to the lady waiting to cross. Hard to blame the driver, how is he supposed to know this is a crossing?


Would you be comfortable letting your 8 year old kid cross here alone? Probably not.

The area is also not lit at night, making it even more dangerous.

Anyway, let's continue....


As you can see, the trail has no real connection with Old Town.


You want access to the shops? Good luck.

Now we pass the rodeo grounds, which sit empty most of the year, but do host some significant events.


We get near another crossing, one which the city is proposing to the benefit of motorists parking for the rodeo.



Again, no signs, no crosswalk, no direction.

Fortunately, very few cars actually go through there. But still, why is paint such a difficult concept for trails in Clovis? The town is packed with paint for cars.

There is one positive thing you might have noticed in many of these pictures. See the bollard? Theres only one, the pavement tells us at one point there were three. Glad to see those barriers were removed.

Moving on...


Tight fit between all this auto infrastructure, but the pines are certainly nice. One concern is that they block views at the turn up ahead.


As we continue, we approach what is probably the largest failing of the entire trail.


Wait for it...

We've arrived at a road crossing. This one is actually a good crossing. Actually, it's better than a good crossing.

There is a raised crosswalk! There's paint! There are signs! The curb ramps are fantastic! It's on a bump-out! Why, there's even a streetlight!


One tiny little problem though.

There's no trail on the other side of this crosswalk.

Riders have to make an awkward transition to this side street, and use standard bike lanes.


What there is...

What cyclists have to do...

So suddenly that crosswalk isn't very helpful to cyclists. In fact, it might make things worse, as motorists may become upset when they see cyclists making odd (but required) diagonal movements. "Why won't those pesky cyclists stay on the crosswalk!" Great for pedestrians though.

 The street itself isn't terrible to bike on....but this is supposed to be THE trail. Why, at the center of Clovis, does it disappear to allow for parking?


It doesn't just disappear, there are ZERO signs telling users that the trail does indeed continue up ahead. Didn't scope out the trail on google maps before using it? Then you might think it's over, you have no idea what you're supposed to do.


Biggest problem comes at the end of this short block, where the trail exists again. Users going north have to cross to get to the right side of this small street and then cross it again to get to the path.

A simple solution is a cycle track on the left side of the street. No room for a real trail? No problem, just place it on the street, the way many other cities do. Keep the parking, keep the trail. Not so hard.



Make this....


Into this....


Cost? Paint and signs. No reduction in lanes, no change in parking.

That would require some effort. A small amount, but effort nonetheless, and what this trail shows is that effort is too much to ask for. As we get to the next street, we find ourselves lost again. Where is the trail?

It's on the left. Users must cross a street that has no stop signs for cars, or crosswalks. Unlike the past two intersections, this one does have a good amount of traffic, meaning there can be quite some wait as the cars don't stop, and without a crosswalk, they're not expected to.

Where's the trail?


Is it straight?

Nope, we turn left. See the entrance to the trail?


There's a sign pointing to a wildflower trail....but the trail we've been following has never been called that. No idea what the sign actually refers to. In this immediate picture, also make note of the width of the street.


We finally do find the trail entrance.


Coming back, the transition is actually worse because the crossing isn't at the intersection.


A good amount of money has been spent on the trail here. A statue! A shelter! A map! Seating, bike racks and garbage!

That's great to see.....but wouldn't a SAFE and USEABLE trail be considered a little bit more important than these amenities? Maybe it's just me, but I'd quickly trade in that shelter for some marked crosswalks and a cycle-track.

I mention effort before because fixing this section of the trail would be very cheap. Paint and signs, that's it. It just requires a tiny bit of effort, and actually understanding the trail as it exists for the users, and not just as a line on a map.

Here's how we could transform it, from what exists....


To what it could be. No land taking required, as the street is so wide. Note that I left the car (just moved it slightly, but the size is the same) to show the huge amounts of room to play with. Space is not an issue, effort it.


Let's go ahead and appreciate the amenities anyway.


As we continue north, we approach some development on the trail. This hotel is built right up to it, but doesn't really interact with the trail. An entrance exists, but I doubt it can be used.

Onwards, we pass doggy bags, and this blue pole which I don't know what it is used for. Photobucket

And we near another intersection....but I'll keep that for next time! Can't have too much negativity in one place (here's a hint, it's also not very good)


While this next intersection sucks, the area beyond that is probably the best portion of the trail, so something to look forward to!

One last note, we just crossed all of old town....did you see shops, the library, restaurants etc etc? Nope, the trail is hidden. Yes, that's because it was a rail line, but that's why connections should exist.

I was also recently in DC, so I'll be writing about some of their bike infrastructure as well.