Fresno is California’s largest city without a light rail system. With the city’s sprawling nature and ample parking lots, efforts to bring rapid transit to the area have never taken off. One other reason – light rail is really expensive. Now, Fresno officials hope to bring some of the elements of those commuter trains to the city’s bus system at a much more affordable price tag. It’s a concept that around the world is called bus rapid transit – or light rail on wheels. We looked at the latest addition to Fresno Area Express service by talking to the people who use it.
Before the update, Danita Ashley was accustomed to taking the old bus route along Blackstone Avenue to attend classes at UEI College.
“It’s one way,” Danita said about her commute. “And this bus is pretty fast, it’s every 15 minutes.”
The old route included a stop near her house, and took Ashley straight to Manchester Mall.
But last week, her commute changed.
Earlier this month, the City of Fresno updated their busiest routes along Blackstone and Kings Canyon Avenues. The new route is served by the bus rapid transit system that they’re calling FAX Q.
“‘Q’ stands for quick and quality,” says Jim Schaad.
Schaad is Fresno’s Director of Transportation. He says that the nearly $50 million project is an effort
to provide better service for the city’s riders, and maybe even attract new ones.
“What we've seen is when we provided faster service with more frequencies is our ridership actually goes up,” Schaad says. “My primary goal is to see our ridership increase.”
Fresno’s bus service had over nine million riders last year, but that number is in decline from previous years. By implementing BRT along the most popular routes, the hope is that riders keep coming back.
In some ways, the new ride is an improvement. Riding from Courthouse Park in Downtown Fresno, to Woodward Park in North Fresno took almost fifteen minutes less on FAX Q than the regular bus. The website says FAX Q is “almost 25 percent faster than traditional service.”
The bright blue buses that serve FAX Q are easily spotted, as are the new shelters at every stop. Each shelter is a large, metal structure along the sidewalk, with a glass roof. Most contain a bench or two, and a digital sign hanging from the roof has real-time bus-tracking information. Unlike the old Blackstone route, there are fewer stops in total, and they’re spaced every half mile. FAX Q doesn’t stop as often, so the commute time is less. On top of that, BRT buses have priority at traffic signals, which also reduces travel-time. And fare kiosks at each new shelter means riders pay before boarding. All they need to do is hold on to their ticket.
All of these features make FAX Q more like a light rail service than a regular bus. Light rail is a faster form of public transportation, but it can be expensive to build. Creating this middle ground of bus rapid transit in Fresno is something Schaad has been looking forward to.
“I feel like a proud parent at graduation,” Schaad said, at a press conference to launch FAX Q service.
Daniel Rodriguez is a professor at U.C. Berkeley, and associate director of the school’s Institute for Transportation Studies. Rodriguez says that middle ground of better service and affordable upgrades often makes BRT an improvement for cities.
“Ultimately, I think for downtowns, for busy corridors, this is the wave of the future,” says Rodriguez.
However, Rodriguez also says BRT is not a quick fix for making public transportation popular.
“I would be surprised if there was a dramatic jump in ridership,” Rodriguez says about Fresno’s BRT. “In fact, what you're seeing pretty much across the board in U.S. is that transit ridership is going down. So this is one way of stopping that bleeding of riders.”
James Sinclair writes a blog about Fresno’s transportation and city planning. He says that while the effort is good, the city still has some details it has to work out.
“My biggest criticism has been that this bus service launched on Monday, and on the same day, they discontinued Route 30, modified Route 28 and modified Route 26 but none of that information had been provided to the public,” Sinclair says about the city’s transportation website. “So, it took until Tuesday of this week for the website to be updated with that kind of information.” Sinclair posted about this on his blog, and tweeted to the city about it. They responded, saying that the issue had been fixed.
The city did use social media and a dedicated blog to advertise new FAX Q service and changes to routes. They also held town halls to solicit community feedback. But Sinclair says that the outreach could have been better.
“The easiest thing they could do, and it would not cost a lot of money, is do a better job at sort of providing information to people,” says Sinclair. “FAX knows where their customers are, they’re on the bus.”
During its first week, FAX Q offered free rides and had ambassadors at every shelter to help people get accustomed to the service.
Joe Garrison has been riding the bus since Fresno City College offered students free rides. He sees a difference in FAX Q.
“It’s does seem to be more expedient, like it seems like I’m getting to school a little bit a faster and getting home faster than I was before,” Garrison says.
Not every rider agrees on the improvements; Danita Ashley doesn’t like Fresno’s BRT. Since FAX Q doesn’t use the stop near her house, she has to catch a bus that runs less frequently to get to FAX Q, and transfer. Depending on the her first bus, it could take her an extra 20 minutes to get to school. But Ashley is hoping she won’t be taking the bus much longer anyways.
“I’m actually gonna buy me a car,” says Ashley. “So, it ain’t too long I’ll be having to catch the bus no more.”