No Comments

Rolling Out the Changes: A Transit Ambassador’s View on the New RTS System

Guest blog by Nicholas Russo; an RIT graduate, civil engineer, & passionate urbanist

On May 17, 2021, a re-imagined Regional Transit Service kicked off in Rochester. As a hired Transit Ambassador for the first week of the rollout, I had a firsthand view of how the new bus routes and infrastructure were set up and how they functioned, and also got to hear the thoughts and experiences from transit users. In this post, I’ll recount my time visiting three of the new Mobility Hubs around the metro area, as well as my car-free week in Rochester! I am currently living in Massachusetts, so I was excited to have an excuse to visit my old college town, and get paid for it!

For those who may be unfamiliar, the Reimagine RTS initiative began several years ago, with the ultimate result of more efficient bus routes, including three new Crosstown lines (which I made extensive use of during the week), and an all-new On Demand service. The On Demand service is like micro-mass-transit, with shared vans that can be called for pickups and drop-offs anywhere inside specific On Demand zones. There are no fixed routes or bus stops in the On Demand zones. 

The existing fixed-route bus service is named RTS Connect. The RTS Connect fixed-route services that run to On Demand zones now terminate at Mobility Hubs. These are more formalized bus connection points that are all served by an On Demand zone, as well. Here’s the map to help you visualize the new system.

The Week Begins

My journey started at the Albany-Rensselaer train station, where I finally got to try the roll-on bicycle storage service. I packed a week’s worth of supplies into my camping backpack, and climbed on board the train. Once I arrived in Rochester, it felt great to throw my backpack on, hop on my own bike, and get myself over to my host’s house for the week. No waiting for an Uber or walking to the Transit Center. I was very grateful to also make it to the Flower Pedal Populaire Sunday bike ride to kick off my week. It was great to catch up with so many people, and see how the city has grown over the past few years!

On-board bike storage on the Empire Service

My RTS Transit Ambassador schedule for the week was one for the early birds: 5:00am-1:00pm for Monday and Tuesday, then 6:00am-9:00am the remainder of the week. Reporting for 5:00am at the Hylan Drive Mobility Hub meant that I needed to plan my alarm time for the 45-minute bike ride to Henrietta with a little buffer time, and time to get out of bed and get ready for the day. 3:30am it was. My bike rides took me mostly on a straight line along Winton Road, which was eerily quiet at 4:00 in the morning.

The standard Ambassador uniform for the week was a blue RTS-branded apron, black RTS-branded mask, and a lime green RTS-branded visor. Hopefully it was clear that I wasn’t someone just loitering all day at the bus stop. Each Ambassador also received a small swag-bag with sunscreen (thank you!!), sanitizer, and information about the new bus lines and On Demand zones.

Showtime

Monday morning started quiet, dark, and empty at the Henrietta Transit Hub on Hylan Drive, where I was assigned. The Hub consists of two metal and plexiglass shelters facing each other across the street at the Wegmans driveway entrance. The shelters are enclosed on three sides, with the side that faces the street open except for a center plexiglass slat. 

For being on a suburban arterial, it was incredibly quiet and peaceful watching the sunrise and listening to the hundreds of seagulls and geese making their morning rounds. As the way went on, though, the traffic and noise levels became dangerously high at times as cargo trucks zoomed by at 40 miles per hour no more than twenty feet away from my seat. I would honestly suggest flipping the shelters around and having the opening face away from the street. Keeping the noise and fumes out would create a much better ride experience.

My home base for the first half of the week

The first customer of the morning was a recent graduate from RIT, and an even bigger fan of transit than I was. He informed me as he walked up to the bus shelter at 5:50am that he wanted to be the first customer to try the new On Demand service. The On Demand hours begin at 6:00am, and at that hour two RTS-branded passenger vans drove up and staged at the far edge of the Wegmans parking lot. The customer boarded and went off to continue riding the new bus system for the day.

I was also happy to be joined by fellow Ambassadors across the street, and an RTS supervisor who was on duty for the day at the Hub to make sure things ran smoothly. As the morning progressed, I was extremely grateful that he was there and had direct access to dispatch communications, as I’ll explain.

Connection Hub-Bub

Many of us are used to having first-day jitters, bugs, and hitches with new programs and initiatives, and Reimagine was no exception. Being a completely new service, On Demand had a quiet start on Monday morning. Those who did try out the passenger vans sometimes found themselves waiting at the Hub long beyond their scheduled pickup time, but with no clear reason why. When someone called customer service, the representative found that they were indeed scheduled to be picked up at the Hylan Connection Hub at their specified time. But the On Demand vehicle was nowhere to be seen. 

Luckily, RTS’s supervisor who was assisting us that day was able to speak directly with dispatch and the operators. It turned out that the location of the Connection Hub was incorrectly placed on the vans’ GPS units as being at the terminus of the bus routes (at Walmart on Clay Road), and not at the Hylan Drive shelters. So, operators were driving to Walmart when instructed to pick up a passenger at the Hylan Connection Hub. This was ironed out as the week went on.

Another change that was unexpected by some passengers was RTS Connect bypassing the Marketplace Mall entrance, which was where the fixed-route buses previously would pass through. The new routes were laid out to run directly down West Henrietta Road to Hylan Drive, without diverting into the mall property. While this was more efficient from a bus scheduling standpoint, the change proved to be less efficient for many passengers who were taking the bus to the mall. They now had to walk from the Hylan Drive Hub, and then halfway around the outside of the mall, to get inside. This feedback was passed along to operators who then updated the route by Tuesday morning to once again pass through the mall entrance.

Hopping Around Hubs

I offered my flexibility to the Ambassador supervisors during the week, and they took me up on the offer. Besides Henrietta, I helped to staff the Connection Hubs at Dewey Ave & Ridge Road, and Irondequoit Plaza. Each offered their own unique logistics that show just how diverse the neighborhoods around Rochester are. 

On Wednesday and Thursday morning, Dewey Ave proved to be an important Connection Hub for commuters who work at the industrial centers on the west side of the city. This hub really served as a stress-test for the On Demand service, which had an On Demand zone comprised of all of the industry on the west side between Ridge Road and Lyell Ave. The flexibility of the On Demand service meant that pick up and drop-off times were not guaranteed, and it became apparent early in the week (before I was at that hub) that passengers would need to book additional “buffer” time for pick-ups and drop-offs to be on time for work. It was an evolving situation as the week went on. 

Another piece of the puzzle involved the “long” and “short” fixed-route lines that served the Dewey Connection Hub. The long and short lines are basically overlapping bus lines, with one line running all the way to the far end of Dewey Ave at Northgate Plaza, and another stopping short at the Dewey Ave Connection Hub at Ridge Road.

My bike at a bus stop with a Reconnect Bus Cube

Irondequoit Plaza was the quietest hub of the week in my opinion, mostly since I was stationed there on a Saturday morning. There were not any commuters to speak of in this bedroom neighborhood, and a smattering of early-morning Wegmans shoppers did alight from the fixed-route buses that terminated here. It was a good opportunity to chat with some of the bus operators as they laid over at the hub.

Finally, I ended my week on Sunday morning back where I began, at the Hylan Drive Connection Hub in Henrietta. 

As I reflected on the week during the sunny and quiet Sunday morning, I was grateful to be on the ground to see how this system worked in the real world. As someone from a city so small that our buses only run once an hour, it was so much fun to get fully immersed in a city-wide bus system serving thousands of passengers a day. I’m looking forward to my next return visit, when I can be a full-time passenger on the RTS buses, and remember how vital our public transit is for a healthy and strong city.

Bus Stop Cubes: A place to rest while you wait

Anyone who has ever used public transportation in Rochester is painfully aware of two things:  At some point you will have to wait for your bus, and when you do, you will probably be standing. 

For senior citizens, people with disabilities, and parents with young children, being made to stand for any length of time can be less than ideal. Even for those passengers who are physically capable of standing, having no place to sit while waiting on the side of a busy roadway can cause anxiety and discomfort.

Our bus system is the only transportation mode that requires its passengers to stand while waiting for the service. Not an ideal situation if we're trying to encourage folks to use public transit.

Why is our bus system the only transportation mode that requires its passengers to stand while waiting for the service? The single biggest issue is the sheer scale of the system. There are thousands of bus stops in the RTS network, and the resources of the transit authority are already spread thin. 

If this issue could be remedied, not only would we make the lives of current riders a little easier, but we might also encourage more people to use public transportation. This is why Reconnect Rochester has decided to make bus stop seating a priority for our community.

A Solution

In 2014, Reconnect Rochester set out to find a solution. What we came up with was a design for a bus stop seat that is a simple 2’x2’x2’ cube. Our bus stop seating cube comes in 4 primary colors (red, green, yellow, and blue) that add beautification and brightness to the street landscape. The compact size allows the seat to fit easily within areas where space is at a premium – such as tree lawns or that little bit of space between the street curb and sidewalk. 

This woman says her legs have a tendency to give out on her, and the CUBE is the perfect height for her - not to low to the ground.
RTS riders enjoy our temporary, seasonal solution to the dearth of seating at local bus stops.

In 2017, after 3 years piloting seasonal bus stop cubes made from high-pressured wood, Reconnect Rochester set out to find a permanent, year-round amenity for bus riders. In our research, we came upon a local manufacturer of fiberglass — a nearly indestructible, weather resistant material that was perfect for the job!

In September 2020, Reconnect Rochester installed the first 15 fiberglass cubes on Parsells, Lyell and Monroe Avenues (read more in this blog post). Stay tuned to our blog and social media for updates on our current efforts.

Cubes for Your Community

Reconnect Rochester will continue to work with RTS, local municipalities and community organizations throughout Monroe County to add bus stop cubes at stops that are well utilized but lack seating. 

Would you like to see bus stop cubes at stops in YOUR neighborhood or community? Contact us  and we’ll do our best to work with you to secure funding and make it happen. 

Are you from outside the Monroe County area and interested in purchasing bus stop cubes for your town or city? Contact us and we’ll put you in touch with the manufacturer. Reconnect Rochester receives a sales commission that helps fuel our effort to put more bus stop cubes on the ground locally.


The Bus Cube Birth Story

The bus cube was born in 2014, when Reconnect Rochester set out to come up with a temporary solution to the dearth of seating at local bus stops. Here’s how we did it…

We could just chain a plastic patio chair to a bus stop sign, but to be honest, we're not fans of plastic furniture. And we really don't think the neighbors would appreciate this look very much.

We spent countless hours brainstorming. We scoured the internet. And we even met with a local furniture designer, Staach (we really admire the way those guys balance form, function, and sustainability). But we needed something that would be relatively inexpensive and easy for regular people like us to build and duplicate. It would also need to be compact, sturdy, and weather resistant.

We could have simply taken a page from the guerilla bus stop seating playbook and chained a plastic patio chair to a bus stop sign, but to be honest, we’re not fans of plastic furniture. And we really didn’t think the neighbors would appreciate this look very much.

Then one day, almost like it happens in the movies, the solution hit us like a lightning bolt…good old-fashioned children’s blocks!  It’s amazing how sometimes the best ideas are inspired by the simplest things. Children’s blocks. Durable, easy to use, easy to construct – and what could possibly be more fun? Quite fitting for Rochester, the home of the National Toy Hall of Fame!

Our bus stop CUBE seat was inspired by ordinary children's blocks.

We put pencil to paper and designed a simple 2’x2’x2’ cube. The compact size allows the seat to fit easily within areas where space is at a premium – such as tree lawns or that little bit of space between the street curb and sidewalk. Our prototype was constructed using pressure-treated lumber and decking materials for a total cost of about $100 per cube. 

We put pencil to paper and designed a simple 2’x2’x2’ cube to fit easily within areas where space is at a premium.

We tested the prototypes at two locations within the city of Rochester: The PriceRite at Dewey & Driving Park and N. Union St. at the Public Market. The results were very positive. Interviews with transit riders and passersby can be viewed in this video.

The idea quickly won community support as well as accolades from RTS which encouraged the effort. Over the next three years (2014 – 2017), in partnership with the City of Rochester, Flower City Habitat for Humanity and many neighborhood and community organizations, we built and placed a fleet of over 30 bus stop cubes at bus stops all around the city. 

The seasonal cubes go out on the street in May and are brought back in and stored in October. As the fleet grew, the job performed by Reconnect Rochester volunteers of placing, removing and storing the cubes each season, became harder to manage. That’s when we decided it was time for a permanent, year-round solution. 

It took about three years (2017 – 2020) of stops-and-starts to research, design and manufacture the fiberglass model that you see today. But we’ll save THAT story for another day.