Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Transit Commute and Me: An Enigma

The Transit Commute and Me: An Enigma

As a follow-up to my posts last Wednesday and Thursday...

So, today, I got to the bus stop on Gravois at Arsenal about 7:55 AM. Given past postings, I was ambivalent about which bus to catch: either whatever came first at the stop on Gravois, or the westbound #30 Soulard at the stop on Arsenal about 1/2 block east, behind the Kutis Funeral Home parking lot at Arsenal and Nebraska.

I did catch the #11x Shrewsbury Express on Gravois at Arsenal, at 8:00 AM. So far, so good. While we hit the usual traffic on South Tucker, seemingly hitting every red light on the way, we slowed to a crawl again on South 14th at the Highway 40 off-ramp.

But, this time, I was very lucky. I disembarked from the #11x at 8:11, because the driver let us get off a little closer to the corner with Spruce. I dashed across the pretty much stopped northbound traffic, and waited for a couple southbound cars to pass. I just caught the westbound MetroLink, at 8:11 (and 45 seconds!) at Civic Center Station. This was good.

It gets better. The train actually ran pretty much on time, and did not have to stop anywhere randomly. So, we arrived at 8:22 or so, at Forest Park station. I was very lucky that this allowed me just enough time to catch the 8:24 #58 Clayton-Ballas westbound.

I arrived on the WashU campus at Forsyth and the traffic light mid-campus, about 8:33; or more than 30 minutes earlier than 1 week before! Very strange, considering I left my house almost the exact same time as a week ago; perhaps even 3 or 4 minutes later. You just can never predict exactly how a transit commute will work out.

Also, yesterday I happily noted that the Southside express routes are now running on the regular route within downtown, eastbound on Olive.

I guess since it took Bi-State/Metro about 11 years to re-route the Southside expresses from Tucker to 14th (MetroLink opened 1993; buses re-structured 2004), I should be happy it only took a week or so to get the expresses back onto their proper Olive Street routing.

Over the years, I've had many instances when I got off the MetroLink at (Kiel) Civic Center - the signboards on the platform, by the way, still say Kiel; as does the parking garage entry signage - with the intent to transfer to a southbound bus on Tucker.

Until last year, that meant a quick 2 1/2 block hike up Spruce, to the bus stop on Tucker outside the St. Louis Police Academy. I often missed connections that way, since buses had no real reason to layover at that stop. Now that there is a transfer center, and all the South Tucker express bus routes (and the #10 Gravois) stop on 14th at Spruce, such transfers are much easier to plan.

For example, during summer 1996, I was enrolled in "Engelmann II", the George Engelmann Math & Science Institute / National Science Foundation Young Scholars Program - a collaboration between SLU, WashU, and UMSL, and led by Dr. Charles Granger and Ken Mares at UMSL, that provided high school juniors a summer research experience in science, math and technology.

The program is now called STARS and costs about $1,000 tuition; back then, it was grant-funded and free to students. My placement, though, was a little unusual: I worked with the late Dr. John Boswell, UMSL psychology professor, master teacher of statistics and research methods, and longtime alderman and mayor in the City of Greendale MO. After he passed away, Town York Dr. (called on some maps Yorktown Dr.) in Greendale was renamed Dr. John J. Boswell Ave. in his honor.

My project: developing a conceptual master plan for the redevelopment of the area around I-70 and Florissant Road. At that point, the realignment of I-70 was in the planning stage, but that's all. I proposed that the area along Florissant Road between what were then the two northern entrances to UMSL be re-built as a pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented retail and entertainment district, with landscaped pathways leading from the UMSL North MetroLink station and the (then proposed) Performing Arts Center.

While my pipe dream was kind of unrealistic, and certainly not in keeping with the university's highway-oriented research park plans, it was a fun project to develop. I got to dig through all kinds of pre-existing master plans for UMSL and for the Airport buyout areas, meet with people at the PPRC, and with the Mayor of Cool Valley, whose full-time job was as a mail carrier.

OK, so all that is just to say that I was a heavy, long-distance transit commuter that summer, at age 17. I was, of course, still living in my parents' house in the Oakville area of South County. To get up to UMSL every weekday by 9:00, I had to be out the door by 7:15 or earlier.

Crossing Telegraph Road at Golden Valley Drive on foot at 7:15 AM is damn near impossible, however. I was lucky if I could dash across the southbound lanes, then wait a minute or longer for a gap in the northbound traffic. This wait, of course, was not on a median, but just in the center left-turn lane. I'm still amazed I was never hit by a car doing this. If there was a car turning into or out of either side of the subdivision, I was really screwed.

There's just nowhere for a pedestrian to find safe haven in that kind of environment. Even on the relatively short walk from my parents' house about 10 houses west of Telegraph, there was no sidewalk to use within the circa 1960 subdivision.

And at the northbound bus stop on the east side of Telegraph, there was (and is) no concrete pad or sidewalk, much less a bus shelter. You either stand on the shoulder and risk being hit by a car turning right out of the subdivision, or stand in the (often very tall and wet) grass on the side of the road. That area is supposed to be mowed regularly by MoDOT, but sometimes they don't keep up with it.

Eventually, I would catch (at that time) either the #17x Oakville Express or the #140x Broadway-Barracks Express. Sometimes, if I really couldn't get across Telegraph, I would walk to Forder Road just west of Telegraph to catch the Mehlville-St. Louis Express (later, merged into the Tesson Ferry Express), at the very start of its inbound run. If I somehow missed the last express (about 7:30 AM), the next #40 Broadway local wouldn't be coming through until about 8:15 AM, which is way too late.

I would then ride one of these express routes to about Tucker and Clark, walk over to the Kiel Civic Center MetroLink station, and take MetroLink straight up to UMSL. From either UMSL South or UMSL North, depending on my mood, I'd usually walk to Stadler Hall, where I was working. Sometimes I rode the shuttle instead.

I guess now I'm really lucky - my commute from Gravois and Arsenal to WashU is much shorter than that, and transit service much more frequent along the entire corridor.


Anonymous said...

As always in trade-offs, one man's benefit is often another's burden. And these days, enhanced Metro service usually requires timely transfers.

Myself, I work near the eastern end of the expresses (11x does continue to the brewery), getting off at Broadway/Market in the morning or on at 4th/Pine in the evening. I always accepted that my bus took half of its trip time to just wind through downtown, as that's where virtually all express riders are destined. If I worked at City Hall, my trip time would be almost cut in half. But working less than a mile futher east, it's double. Oh well, I accepted the 40-minute commute from Southwest City for its door-to-door service. But now, since the southside expresses stop at the Civic Center transfer station, I've stopped taking the Shrewsbury Express.

I had explored other options before giving up. Transfering to the downtown bus loop along Market doesn't save any time unless you have virtually zero dwell time between buses. Now, with the added five minutes for the four turns an added intersections to serve the transfer center, it's actually quicker for me to take the Shaw-Southampton to Gravois-Russell and transfer there to an express bus.

Sure, I could have accepted five more minutes and increased fares. But after losing the St. Louis Hills and Southampton Expresses, Lindenwood evening service and past fare increases, the Civic Center route meandering turned out to be my final straw with riding the bus.

Joe said...

You make a good point about trade-offs.

I didn't really understand why, in 2002, Bi-State eliminated so many express routes that served the farther-out parts of the city: St Louis Hills Express, Southampton Express, Lemay Express, Jennings Express, Manchester Rd Express, and maybe a few others I don't know about.

I guess the ridership was just too low, given the continuing de-concentration of employment downtown, and the cuts at big employers of clerical workers like Union Pacific.

But I can understand your frustration, and your decision. With I-44, getting downtown from SW City is easy by car. No express bus that serves SW City runs on I-44. Come to think of it, the 11x is the only "express" route left serving SW City - and it runs on Gravois, not actually a highway.

Anonymous said...

After Cross-County opens, I imagine the 11x will be cut. Service on Lindenwood's route west of Shrewsbury will be increased, plus all 11-Chippewa buses re-routed to the new Lansdowne station. Thus, 10x-South Grand will soon be the only remaining southside express serving South City neighborhoods.

Trouble is, like others, I work downtown, not Clayton, and thus, to use MetroLink from Lansdowne wouldn't be any faster than bus options. Of course, MetroLink's 10-minute headways and reliable service give it a competitive edge over buses. And the new line is likely to attract Southwest Citians disatisfied with downtown parking rates.

Joe said...

I was just thinking that, too...

Most likely, several express routes will be truncated at MetroLink. The two remaining Highway 40 routes (#57x Ellisville Express and #152x Highway 40-Clayton Road Express) will probably end at the Brentwood I-64 Station.

The #11x might be replaced by a shuttle serving Webster Groves and Kirkwood, so the City portion will be dropped; it's entirely served by local routes, and the portion east of Grand is also served by the #10x South Grand Express (presumably, they'll keep it as long as ridership stays decent).

Likewise, the two I-44 express routes, 357x Twin Oaks Express and 410x Eureka Express will no doubt be truncated at the Shrewsbury Lansdowne I-44 MetroLink Station. Perhaps the same will happen with the 310 I-44 Shuttle (reverse commuter service to Fenton industrial area).

I also suspect the #58 Clayton-Ballas route will pretty much cease to exist; or at least it will only operate west of Brentwood Blvd. The #47 Cross-County is probably in for major changes as well.

Most of these changes make sense from an operations standpoint - you gotta come up with the cash to run the new MetroLink line, and dumping riders directly onto the train is the best way to help with that. Still, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to ride the train into downtown if you live at Jamieson and Lansdowne, since the travel times will be about the same as an express bus. If the express option is removed, however, that's what you'll have to do - or ride more than an hour on the Chippewa, slightly less on the #80 Shaw-Southampton.

Eventually, I think Metro wants to get out of the Express Bus business. Once Cross County gets going, by my estimate, there will only be eight true express routes left - that is, direct service into downtown from the suburbs - 4 from South City/County, and 4 from North County.

South Expresses
#10x South Grand Express
#52x Tesson Ferry Express
#240x Oakville Express
#340x I-55 Mehlville Express

North Expresses
#41x Northside Express
#141x New Halls Ferry Express
#241x Bissell Hills Express
#274x Paddock Hills Express

They might even decide to truncate one or more of those routes at MetroLink too, although it seems unlikely. More likely, they would consolidate them. Indeed, the current #52x Tesson Ferry Express has a ridiculously circuitous route, since it is consolidated from several old routes (Tesson Ferry, Forder-Union Road, Mehlville-St. Louis, and part of the #49 Lindbergh local that was eliminated recently).