There's no stopping A.R.T.
When I was in high school and first learned to drive, I was excited about driving. Learning to drive meant freedom. I didn't care about how much it cost, and I didn't know about the environmental impact of driving.
But as I've gotten older, cars are no longer as charming and problem-free as they used to be. These days I have a car, but I prefer to walk, ride my bike, or take the bus as much as possible.
In 2014 the City of Albuquerque announced Albuquerque Rapid Transit, an upgrade to the existing Rapid Ride bus system. Almost immediately there arose a wave of anger and resistance to the A.R.T. proposal. Why? I'm going to describe the project, examine some of the reasons people fought A.R.T., and end with a description of where we are now.
What's my position?
I don't have any professional expertise in this subject, but I ride the bus at least twice a week and sometimes more. For years, I've been interested in public works, transportation solutions, and sustainable city planning. I strongly support mass transit.
What is A.R.T.?
First, what exactly was the Albuquerque Rapid Transit proposal? Back in 2004, the City of Albuquerque instituted the Rapid Ride bus line to upgrade the existing buses. Rapid Ride buses were twice as long as ordinary buses, they had the ability to lengthen green lights to stay on schedule, they came more often and their stops were less close together, a mile instead of every block or so. The bus stops had better signage and visibility and it was also the introduction of wi-fi on board the buses. They were popular from the start and continue to have solid ridership. But after over a decade of service, the Rapid Ride buses are nearing the end of their useful life and need to be replaced.
The A.R.T. project started construction in October 2016. According to the City, the entire project cost about $135 million. The federal government will pay $75 million. It spans 15 miles, following Central from Coors to Tramway, and another line which goes from Coors to Central and Louisiana, then north to Uptown. The buses are in Albuquerque now and will be starting service on the first of next year.
According to the Bus Rapid Transit website, key features include:
- Dedicated lanes (where possible)
- Frequent service: Every 7 to 8 minutes from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. between Unser and Louisiana, and every 15 minutes to Uptown and to Tramway.
- They can extend traffic lights
- Pre-board ticketing
- Level boarding
- Median stations: safer because riders only cross half the street
- All-electric buses: more efficient, less polluting
To me, the biggest advantage is pre-board ticketing and especially level boarding
Picture these scenarios:
- A parent is waiting at the bus stop with diaper bags, a stroller, her purse, and her children. When the bus comes, she has to shepherd her children onto the bus, haul her bags into the bus, and lift the stroller (often laden with more bags) into the bus.
- A senior citizen gets on the bus at a supermarket, pushing a shopping cart with groceries and walking stiffly up the aisle
- A wheelchair passenger is getting on the bus. To do so, the bus driver lowers the front of the bus, deploys the ramp, opens up the front space for the wheelchair by folding several banks of seats away, secures the wheelchair with straps and hooks, and then puts the ramp back in place.
Besides being frustrating for the passengers, these contribute to delays on the bus line. The new system has elevated bus stations that will be at the level of the bus doors so that people can just roll on. All buses have an improved, automatic wheelchair restraint system. They will be faster, more reliable, and more convenient.
Sounds good, right? To my surprise, there was considerable opposition to this project.
It started with the signs I saw in the businesses along Central: STOP A.R.T., they said.
These posters and the postcard campaign signaled some organized opposition... but why? Why were people opposed to this project? Where was it coming from? Why the animosity? Was it just local business people?
Opposition to A.R.T. had several reasons. It came from both liberals and conservatives. Here are some:
People dislike change
As a web designer, I often update websites and I've found that even when people are tired of their old website, invariably there are some others who have gotten used to the way it is, and don't want to invest the time to figure out the changes. I can understand this.
People argued that since they don't ride the bus, no one rides it.
I can understand this point of view. If you live in the Northeast Heights or the West Side, you could easily dismiss the buses as slow-moving obstacles to your driving.
Drivers also see the buses as mostly empty and they claim it is a waste to run the buses so often. But every person in the bus represents a car that is taken off the street. In fact, people do ride the bus. In 2016, people rode the Red and Green Lines, plus the Route 66 bus which goes from Coors to Tramway along Central, over 4.6 million times. Since Albuquerque's population is a little less than 560,000, we're actually riding the bus a lot. And that includes people who can't drive -- like seniors, teens, and the disabled -- and people who would rather leave the driving to someone else while they read, listen to music, or daydream.
People say that only losers ride the bus
Lately, I've also seen a tendency (especially on social media) to denigrate bus riders as "rapists murderers drug users drug dealers prostitutes and pedophiles". The corollary to that is it's an insult to have to pay for a service for such people.
Cynicism and skepticism played a role too
Some people argued about the route chosen, or the hours the buses would run. There were arguments that the construction would restrict traffic along Route 66 and people would stop shopping or going to restaurants in Nob Hill. There were some who claimed the project would ruin the ambiance of Route 66, ripping out the trees, causing bottlenecks and traffic jams.
Others went the opposite way and claimed the city wasn't putting ENOUGH money into the project, that it should go a different route, or that we should save the money til we could get streetcars, or fixed rail. Some people ascribed nefarious motives to Mayor Richard Berry, claiming he only promoted the project to assist his wealthy developer and construction friends.
The City held several public forums to air complaints about the project and several groups filed suit against the city. The opposition and complaining started from the beginning and continued throughout the construction.
The secretive, enormous financial interests behind the opposition
What really piqued my interest was a tip that some of the opposition arose from the Cato Institute.
Who, what? The Cato Institute is an American libertarian think tank out of Washington, D.C. One of its founders is Charles Koch, one of the Koch brothers. This is the second-wealthiest family in America, whose wealth comes from oil and gas. The two brothers alone are worth $96.6 billion.
Now why would the Koch brothers care about local Albuquerque development? Why would the second largest private company in the U.S. care about a bus line in Albuquerque?
Cato scholars have been advocating that we get rid of many government services and institutions, including NASA, Social Security, the United States Postal Service, the Transportation Security Administration, public schooling, public transportation systems, and public broadcasting. It opposes universal health care, against affirmative action.
So it's no wonder that any latent ill-will against mass transit finds a willing and wealthy partner to help whip up anger, resentment, and cynicism about government services.
But those of us who are champions of, and patrons of, mass transit and walkable, bikeable, and human-interesting streetscapes, are optimistic about the new bus lines.
Dan Majewski, who has worked as a bicycle route planner for Tucson, a route planner and mapmaker for ABQ Ride and now is co-chairman of UrbanABQ, says, “Accommodating the automobile over every other mode has a huge negative impact on vibrant, walkable economic development. Providing a dedicated (bus) lane will mean much more reliable, rapid and frequent service.”
Whenever there is city planning that prioritizes biking, walking, and mass transit over cars, people have a tendency to push back reflexively. In the U.S., we are so car-centric that moving away from all-cars, all the time feels like an existential threat.
But in other places, people have found that doing so creates inviting neighborhoods and encourages local private development. Take, for instance, the city of Groningen in the Netherlands. In 1972, progressive idealists were elected to local government. They set up a city plan in which only bicycles, mass transit, and pedestrians could cross the city freely. Cars were constrained to their city quadrant; to pass from one quadrant to another required that the cars go to the city periphery. Before the system was implemented, the project faced fierce opposition from citizens, especially business people who claimed that once people could no longer drive to their retail outlets, that their businesses would fail. What happened? Instead they found that when people move at a human pace through their neighborhoods, people are MORE LIKELY to stop and shop, or glance at windows, and their businesses thrived. Here's a fascinating, short video that explains what happened.
Now Albuquerque is not a compact city, but it does have warmer and drier weather than Groningen. There's no reason why we can't adapt some of the tactics that worked in parts of our city. For that reason, when people complain that A.R.T. prioritizes buses over cars, I see that as a feature, not a bug.
To sum up
The Albuquerque Rapid Transit upgrade felt like a major disruption to the city and some members of the public was unconvinced it would be worth it.
But I felt that the city did a top-notch job of communicating what would happen, when it would start and end, and why it was happening. Like with the Big I project back in 2000, the city put up information online so that anyone could easily inform themselves. There was solid media coverage about the project, and the construction went as planned, without cost overruns or going longer than expected.
These days, I think it's important to arm yourself with facts, and to resist the urge to be reflexively negative about all government initiatives. In this case, I feel it's a step in the right direction toward a more sustainable city. I'm looking forward to trying out the new Rapid Transit option. I hope you too will be pleasantly surprised by how comfortable, convenient, and fast the new A.R.T. system will be.