Orlando – my city – and the surrounding Central Florida area – is at important crossroads with respect to transportation. The area has grown largely through car ownership, with sprawling suburbs, multiple highways and, at least historically, anemic public transportation options. To get most anywhere in Orlando requires that you get in a car and drive there, because a car is the fastest option, and in many cases, the only option. These days, Interstate 4 often is a slow-moving parking lot during work commutes. If you are traveling to the attractions area (Disney, SeaWorld, Universal Studios, etc.), the stretch of Interstate 4 to get there is crowded more often than it is not. Like frogs in a pot of water being brought to a boil, most Orlando car drivers are becoming increasingly uncomfortable, without realizing that in the long term, they’re not going to last in their cars.
So, the crossroad choices for Central Florida: (1) Remain largely a “car town”, let the water temperature continue to rise and allow traffic congestion to grow until we grind to a halt; or (2) Embrace public transportation options that exist now and that are on deck. Currently, Orlando has an established bus transportation system (the Lynx), and two rail projects are up for approval: a high speed rail connecting Orlando and Tampa, and the SunRail commuter train connecting a number of Central Florida cities, including Orlando. The two rail projects, in connection with the Lynx bus system, have the potential to transform Orlando from a “car town” into the realm of much larger cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, where public transportation is, for many people, the most viable transportation option.
Florida’s newly-elected Governor Rick Scott recently nixed Florida’s high speed rail project, turning away $2.9 billion in federal funds which, as of this writing, have been made available again for bidding (Cities Should Apply for Rail Funds – The Ledger.com, March 13, 2011). A few days ago, Governor Scott also announced that he would wait until the summer to make a final decision on the Sunrail commuter rail project, throwing supporters into a tailspin (Scott Sidetracks Central Florida’s Sunrail commuter rail project – Florida Courier, March 13, 2011). But if either or both of these projects go forward, would people actually ride the Lynx bus system and rail instead of driving their cars, especially those who own a car and have a choice about how to get around?
This is the question I set out to answer, at least for myself, by committing to take the Lynx bus to work for a week. I’m an attorney, a white collar professional who typically drives my car to work, parks in a covered garage, and then drives home at the end of the day. I’m a “suit”, so if I’m going to ride the bus, I’ll be wearing wear a coat and tie. Like many other professionals, occasionally I need to drive somewhere to a meeting during the week.
A little background on the Lynx bus system: Central Florida’s Lynx bus system operates three counties, with a service area of over 2,500 square miles. With 290 buses, Lynx provides transportation for more than 26 million people each year. Forty percent of the riders have no other form of transportation, and 73% use the bus to get to work each day. Lynx also operates a free downtown shuttle, called the Lymmo, which is a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system with easily recognizable stops in the downtown Orlando area, and with its own segregated bus lane and traffic signaling. Lymmo buses run every 10 minutes on a well-marked route, which includes stops at City Hall, the Orange County Courthouse, Orlando Public Library, a downtown parking garage and the Lynx Central Terminal. The Lymmo is easy to use and very predictable, making it a good choice for attorneys who have hearings and trials at the courthouse. It is much, much more convenient than getting in your car, exiting a parking garage and then traveling to another side of downtown, finding yet another parking spot, and heading on to a meeting. Lymmo has been in operation almost 15 years. One drawback is that in that time period, downtown Orlando has grown east and west, and there currently is no Lymmo route to serve the Lake Eola/Thornton Park area, nor the developing area on the other side of the Amway Arena. With our firm’s two offices, and my need to attend meetings during the work day at our Eola office (my office is next to City Hall, almost a mile away), it would be very beneficial to have a Lymmo route which runs near that area, connecting downtown with the multiple residential condo and apartment complexes, restaurants and offices in the Lake Eola/Thornton Park area.
I picked a bus travel week that looked to be fairly uneventful from a schedule standpoint, in that I’d spend most of my time at the office without the need for out-of-office trips. I knew on the front end that I was going to have to drive my car on at least one of those days due to a client breakfast meeting in nearby College Park.
On the Friday before my “bus week”, I took a Lymmo ride from my office to the Lynx Central Station. I purchased a 7-day unlimited pass for $16, which seemed like a huge bargain, considering gas and the cost of operating a car, plus the parking garage rental. I also picked up a schedule for my bus and discovered that the bus I would ride runs throughout the day every fifteen minutes, and then every thirty minutes after 6 pm. The closest bus stop to my house is a short ½ mile walk down one road to a main thoroughfare in Maitland, about 9 miles away from my office.
On Monday, I left my house about 7:30 am or so and took the short walk down a tree-covered street to the bus stop along Highway 17-92, a busy thoroughfare that I had to cross (with a traffic signal) to get to the bus stop. After waiting only three minutes, the bus arrived. The driver showed me how to activate the pass and I took my seat, with plenty of room for my briefcase. I was the only “suit” on this trip. On the bus, I was able to open my planner and review my work for the day. I realized that I had a meeting at our Eola office that evening that I hadn’t planned for. The Lymmo stops within about ½ mile of our Eola office, so I just planned on walking from there if I couldn’t find another attorney to ride with.
The trip into town was uneventful and relatively quick. I was at the Lymmo stop at 8:31 am and minutes later I arrived at my office. So far, the bus commitment was working out fine. I figured that although the bus trip was twenty minutes longer than a car drive, the ability to work on the way easily made up for the extra trip time. In the afternoon, I started thinking about finding a ride to our other office, and got busy with client work before I realized it was time to go and everyone else I could ask was already gone. Lesson #1: without a car, I would need to do better advance planning on how to get from point A to point B. I took the Lymmo to the public library stop and walked the remaining ½ mile to our Eola office, in time for the meeting. Our meeting ran to 9:00 pm, so I asked one of my partners (who lives in nearby Winter Park) if I could ride with him to Winter Park, and get off near a bus stop for my bus. He offered to take me all the way home, but with some explaining I convinced him to let me off in downtown Winter Park, where I knew my bus would come by. When I got out of his car, I started walking along the bus route, thinking that I’d quickly find a bus stop, but I had to walk about ½ mile before finding the closest stop. There weren’t many people around, and no one else was at the bus stop. I ended up waiting about 15 minutes before my worried wife (who was at the grocery store) came to pick me up about 10 minutes later. At night, when you are the only one waiting, 30 minutes is a long time to wait. In retrospect, I should have researched the route better and (Lesson #2) better timed my arrival at the stop.
On that short trip following the evening meeting, my friend (and ride) asked me how I felt when I was on the bus. His impression was that the only professionals who ride the bus are those who have lost their license because of a DUI arrest or other removal of driving privileges. Frankly, I had never thought of that! I certainly didn’t feel out of place riding the bus, but perhaps for some, there is a respectability issue that would need to be overcome. It seems so strange to me, having seen many people from all walks of life riding public transportation in larger U.S. cities. Why should there be any such stigma in a town that desperately needs public transportation options? Maybe this is one of the growing pains for “car towns” that must be overcome before residents will embrace more sustainable transportation options.
Tuesday was a routine trip on the bus, except that one person talked so loudly on her cell phone that I decided to listen to a podcast with my headphones to get away from it. Lesson #3: bring something to do, and a way to tune out from interruptions and annoyances. Wednesday was my day for the client breakfast meeting in College Park, so I skipped the bus that day. Thursday was another routine trip on the bus. By now, I was quite used to how things work. I was able to use the travel time to plan my day and answer emails. I never came home wearing my suit jacket – it made sense just to leave them on a hanger on my office door, since I hardly wear them anyway. It also occurred to me that I carry around too much stuff in my briefcase – laptop and charger, too many papers that I don’t look at, folders, etc. My briefcase weighs too much and I really don’t need all that stuff. Lesson #4: Look for ways to travel lighter.
I had planned to ride the bus again on Friday, but a last-minute morning meeting fifteen miles outside of Orlando prevented that from happening.
At the end of the week, I had only used three days’ worth of my pass, but it expired on the weekend. For the rider who will always ride the bus, the weekly and monthly passes work quite well, but for riders like myself who have to choose each day whether to ride the bus (call me a “choice rider”), it would be more attractive to have the pass tied to actual use. Better yet, what about having a card that ties to my expressway toll account? That would certainly simplify using the bus.
Fortunately for Central Florida, John Lewis, Lynx’s new Chief Executive Officer, is razor-focused on getting “choice riders” to choose to ride the bus. Lewis assumed his role on December 1, 2010, following his leadership as CEO of the bus system in Richmond, VA. Lynx is already doing a pretty good job of transporting people to work and back, but many of those folks don’t own a car. Lewis wants to increase the number of riders who have a choice of whether to drive their car or ride public transportation – those he refers to as “choice riders”. In a recent interview, it became clear to me that this dynamic young leader is working very hard to make it easier for “choice riders” to select public transportation. Lewis said, “if we can get you where you want to go within a few minutes of the time that it would take to drive, and with a reliable transportation system that is easy to understand, then we have a chance of getting you to choose public transportation.” Lewis pointed out, and I agree, that the downtown Lymmo service is a prime example of a reliable, visible and easy to understand system. Lewis nodded in understanding when I related my experience of having to walk and wait at night in Winter Park, looking for the next stop. He said Lynx is working on a number of new initiatives to make Lynx easier to understand and use, such as a simple smartphone app that lets you know where and when the next bus is coming.
Lynx is also working on “right-sizing” buses to meet the correct demand, so that larger buses would be used for the heavily-used routes, and creating express routes that have limited stops to reduce travel time for commuting riders. Lynx is also considering free wifi connectivity so that riders can use their laptops, iPads and other wireless electronic devices while on board. Those initiatives seem clearly targeted at the “choice rider”.
Lewis also mentioned the planned expansion of the Lymmo service with additional routes which would connect more of the downtown area, such as Lake Eola and Thornton Park, which have residential condominium and apartment complexes, restaurants, a grocery store and professional offices. That route would open up a whole new set of riders who live in that area and work downtown, plus those downtown workers who could take a quick ride to the many restaurants, offices and services located in the Lake Eola/Thornton Park area, all without having to drive. But where Lewis really gets excited is the possibility of the SunRail commuter train, which could be operational in just a few years and which would have a stop at the Lynx Central Station. “Adding rail adds value to the transportation equation”, Lewis says. “People perceive rail as being reliable and efficient. And rail connected to the Lynx bus system and the Lymmo opens up new worlds of possibilities for public transportation in Central Florida.”
So, with my experiment completed, would I continue to ride the bus as a work transportation option? My answer is a qualified “yes”. For those days when I know I’m just going to work at the office and come home, then the bus is a smart option that I’ll consider. Could Lynx make it easier for me? Yes, with a modified pass system, a smartphone app that lets me know where all the stops are and when the next bus will arrive, and expanded Lymmo routes downtown. And with a connected commuter rail system, I would frequently choose that option for work commutes, Magic games, concerts, etc. Will my white-collared buddies choose to ride the bus now? Probably not – yet. I think there’s some work to do to make the system more reliable and understandable before I’ll see more “suits” on my bus route. But time and traffic are on Lewis’ side, and if the commuter rail comes to fruition, the game will change considerably in Lewis’ favor.