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Stuck in a Bus Rut, But We Still Believe

Reconnect Rochester meets with the team at RTS on a regular basis. We listen and ask questions. We share feedback from transit riders and offer ideas. We seek to understand and strive to be a good community partner.

Many of you might be wondering what’s going on with all the service changes over the last few years. We want to share our latest understanding with the general riding public, and anyone else who cares about having reliable public transportation in our community. Read on for our take on what happened, what’s happening, and what to expect.

As an advocacy organization, it’s important for us to collect input and channel it to the ears of RTS leadership so they can better understand the impact of their decisions on transit users. To that end, we’ve constructed a survey to find out from RTS riders how your experience has changed (for better or worse) since the implementation of the Reimagine RTS system redesign last spring. We also want to hear from former RTS riders about why you have stopped riding and what it would take to get you back.

We’ll be collecting this input through the month of August online and in-person, and then we’ll collate it and pass it on to RTS leadership. Please help us out by sharing this survey with your friends!

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What’s the current situation and what can we expect?

We’ll give it to you straight first with no sugar added, and then add a dash of hope and sweetness later.

RTS ridership is still hovering around 65-70% of pre-pandemic levels with no sign of an upturn.

On-demand service in the mobility zones is exceeding demand, resulting in a service denial rate of 30-35%. The service management platform has been problematic. This combination has made service in the towns and suburbs of Monroe County often frustrating and unreliable.

Five (5) of the seven (7) 15-minute frequency routes in the core service area – the big promise of the Reimagine RTS system redesign – reverted back to 30-minute frequency. The result is worse service for some riders than they had before.

RTS doesn’t expect any of this to change or improve until at least January 2023, when new buses and vans arrive, enough drivers are hired, and a new on-demand technology platform is put in place. 

Who is impacted most?

The unfulfilled promise of Reimagine RTS of more frequent and robust service is a burden that falls squarely on transit dependent people in our community. It stands to reason that transit dependent folks make up most of the 70% of riders who are still on the bus. Unlike “choice riders” who were able to choose another way to get around, this group of folks don’t have another option than to rely on the bus. 

Bus Stop

With the system as it is, a commute time that was already long, is made longer. Those who live or need to get to work in the mobility zones are especially hard hit. Because demand is far outpacing service capacity, there is a new unreliability that is arguably worse than the service that existed before. At least then you knew a fixed route bus would be coming along at a set time, even if only every 60 minutes.

How did we get here?

The pandemic took a huge toll on RTS. In June 2020, the long-awaited Reimagine RTS system redesign launch was postponed as RTS focused on pandemic response, health safety on buses, and pitching in to meet emergency transportation needs. Reimagine RTS finally launched almost a year later in May 2021.

A few months later (Sept 2021), a shortage of private contract bus drivers created a crisis with RCSD school bus transportation. RTS stepped in and provided service so that kids could get to school. However, to free up buses and drivers, they rolled back the 15-minute frequent service that had been the hallmark of Reimagine RTS.

For the last year, RTS has been struggling to get the buses and drivers in place so they can add back the frequency in regular service and meet the unexpectedly high demand for on-demand service in the mobility zones. The good folks at RTS want to restore the frequent service as much as anyone and are working overtime to problem-solve the situation.

There are two things standing in the way: 1) Supply chain issues have prevented vans and buses, ordered more than a year ago, from arriving. 2) Steep competition in the labor market has made it more challenging to hire RTS drivers. In April 2022, due to ongoing equipment and staffing shortages, RTS announced service changes that included “pausing” the new Rt 42 crosstown, another rollback of the Reimagine RTS system redesign.

It’s little comfort, but we are not alone in this. Transit ridership is down everywhere in the wake of the pandemic. Equipment and bus driver shortages are plaguing transit systems across the country, and have led to even more severe service cuts in neighboring Buffalo and Syracuse over the past year. 

Bus Ridership
Dec 29 2019 – July 30 2022 National Data (APTA Ridership Trends dashboard)

Is there any good news?

Yes, there is plenty. 

A host of Reimagine RTS service improvements were successfully implemented and have made a big difference for many riders. Things like increased weekend service hours and frequency, the Rt 40 & 41 crosstown routes, newly added 30-minute frequency routes, and two 15-minute frequency routes (E. Main & Dewey Ave) that were reinstated.

This spring, the RGRTA Board approved a new service management platform in the mobility zones to replace the problematic one, so that fix is on its way.

Ridership data collected from the 15-minute routes has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that frequency = increased ridership. Unexpectedly high ridership in the mobility zones shows there’s a strong demand for public transit in the towns and suburbs. What’s the takeaway? When we can restore the promises of Reimagine RTS, we will see huge gains in ridership.

Thanks to advocacy efforts led statewide by NYPTA and locally by Reconnect Rochester, as well as our Albany delegation’s support for public transportation, State Transit Operating Assistance funding for RGRTA will be increased by 15.17%. This removes funding as a barrier to service expansion & restoration (the problem is that money can’t solve the immediate problem of staffing and equipment shortages).

Many would say the Transit App has been a bright spot. Anyone who uses it can attest to the awesome design and functionality to guide transit riders in moving around.

RTS is leading New York State in the conversion to electric buses and also just got State funding to add hydrogen fuel cell buses to its fleet in the coming years. That’s a great thing for the environment and the quality of the air we breathe.

Finally, there’s also hope for expansion of bus amenities to improve the riding experience. Reconnect Rochester just got 23 more bus stop cubes on the ground, bringing the total to 54 bus stops around the city. Even more exciting, the City of Rochester with support from RTS, is applying for a $2M State funding grant to make a sweeping investment in bus stop amenities. This could mean shelters, benches, and bus stop cubes installed at hundreds of stops in the city that currently have no seating. Keep your fingers and toes crossed!

Rochester Bus

What can RTS do?

We wouldn’t be a very worthwhile advocacy organization if we didn’t point out some ways that RTS can do better even under the current constraints.

We challenge RTS to acknowledge what its customers are really experiencing minus any positive spin. Be transparent and communicate what’s happening. As transit riders, we’d like to know what’s going on. Share ridership statistics and denial rates with the community and explain why. Tell us what you’re doing to resolve the service issues. How many drivers are in the pipeline? How many buses are on order? What’s the timeline for the new user management system for the mobility zones? You get the idea.

What can we/YOU do?

Fill out our survey to share your experience.

Whether you’re a current rider or a former rider that has stopped riding the bus, we want to hear from you. We promise to deliver your thoughts to RTS leadership in the hope that your voice will impact future decision making.

If you ride RTS regularly, keep sending them your feedback.

They might not be able to make major changes happen, but they have been responsive to small improvements when they hear a sensible adjustment that can be made. Positive feedback is important, too. If RTS does something that improves your situation, let them know! Also, driving a bus can be a difficult and stressful job. A friendly greeting to the driver when you enter the bus, and thanking them for getting you to your destination safely can make a difference. You can play a part in driver retention!

Ditch the car and ride RTS whenever it works for your schedule.

Mary at Reconnect talking here. My own personal commute improved significantly thanks to the new Route 41 crosstown, which gets me to the office in 17 minutes door-to-door. In those 17 minutes, I get to enjoy some fresh air and a little exercise, check my inbox, give and take smiles (even if only with the eyes) with fellow passengers, and save gas money leaving the car at home.

Bus Arriving

Wondering what your bus commute would look like? Visit myrts.com or download the Transit App to find out!

We still believe

Reconnect Rochester has long advocated for a public transit system that delivers frequency. We still believe that the Reimagine RTS plan – when fully implemented – will set us on a path to a more frequent and robust system. There are tradeoffs, yes, but it will be a net positive overall.

At Reconnect Rochester, we look forward to when we will see the full promise of the new system fulfilled, and can truly welcome in a new day for public transportation in Rochester. We look forward to bringing back our Roc Transit Day event to showcase the changes and attract busloads of new choice riders – because choice ridership enriches the whole system, making it better for everyone. We look forward to the day when public transportation can serve as an integrating, rather than segregating, force in our community.

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The Bus Cubes Have Landed!

Next time you walk, ride or roll along Parsells, Lyell or Monroe Avenues, you’ll notice a bright new addition to the streetscape. This month, cubes made from fiberglass were installed at 5 bus stops along each of these corridors, offering RTS riders a respectable place to sit while they wait.

The City of Rochester and RTS have been tremendous partners on this project. Thanks especially to DES Commissioner Norm Jones and City Councilmember Mitch Gruber for championing the effort, along with City staff across many departments who worked hand-in-hand with us to see this to fruition. We also couldn’t have done it without our neighborhood partners in Beechwood, Lyell-Otis and Upper Monroe, or the funders that stepped up to contribute.

Cubes for Your Community

This is just the beginning! We hope the pilot project will lead to bus stop cubes in more Rochester neighborhoods and beyond. Reconnect Rochester will continue to work with RTS, local municipalities and community organizations throughout Monroe County to identify bus stops in the system that are well utilized but lack seating. 

Would you like to see cubes at bus 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.

Why Are We Doing This Anyway?

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.

How Did This Project Come About?

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! It took about three years of stops-and-starts to design and manufacture the fiberglass model that you see today.

To go further back in history and learn more about how the bus cube concept came to be, check out the Bus Cube Birth Story on our website.

RTS rider enjoys our temporary, seasonal solution to the dearth of seating at local bus stops.

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 (read more in this blog post). In 2021, we installed an additional 16 cubes, and in 2022 another 23 cubes — that’s a total of 54 cubes on the ground! Stay tuned to our blog and social media for updates on our current efforts.

Click this image to enlarge the map & see exact locations!

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.