On the morning of Monday, July 11, all 26 of the bus routes in Tallahassee, Fla., were dramatically re-routed, the old lines disassembled, combined, renamed, and redrawn. Not a single route went unchanged, marking the first major overhaul of public transit in the state capital in half a century.
“Some people said this would be a lot like ripping off a Band-Aid,” says Samuel Scheib, a senior planner for StarMetro, the city’s bus system. “I liked to say, ‘No, it’s more like a back wax.’ This was taking something that had been more or less the same way for 50, 60 years, then on Friday, it was one way, and on Monday it was completely different.”
The result that morning was something like chaos. But over the next few weeks, riders settled into a system that serves them in a radically new way: It actually takes them where they need to go. All of the city’s previous routes went one place: downtown. But by 2005, just 14 percent of the region’s jobs were located there. And the results of a 2009 on-board survey showed that only 6.8 percent of StarMetro’s riders were trying to get there.
Tallahassee’s growth over the last 50 years has mirrored that of dozens of other cities. First, people moved to the outskirts of town. Then job centers did. The state government has actively relocated public employees from historic buildings downtown to newer complexes near the city’s beltway (that is, in fact, where StarMetro’s office sits). In the agency’s study of local employment density, whole swaths of jobs are clustered on the eastern edge of town.
But for all this change, public transit continued to take people where they were going years ago. Miami, in the mid-80s, converted its transit system in a similar way. Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Chicago need to. If you look at cities in the northeast and south where public transit is struggling today, Scheib said, often it’s because hub-and-spoke route plans haven’t kept up with the employment distribution.
“The jobs haven’t been downtown in generations,” he said. “Transit agencies have been working harder and harder to capture as many downtown trips as they can, as the downtown trips have been disappearing.”
Star Metro's final plan—at equal cost—produced 12 routes instead of 26 (most twice as long as they were before). Only six pass through the downtown plaza. And all of them connect with at least six other lines while crossing town, meaning efficiencies on a single route improve the entire system.
The whole idea sounds like something urbanists might fear: it’s decentralized by design. But StarMetro’s survey suggests more than half of its riders don’t own a car. And buses have to get those people to work whether transit officials like where they work or not, particularly in a government town where the downtown caters almost exclusively to lawyers and lobbyists.
“If you talk to a land-use planner, typically they would want you to keep that service focused more on the downtown because they want more people to live downtown, in that dense environment. I’m all for that, I’m all for urbanization, I’m all for denser places,” Scheib said. “But the reality is that people need to get to work. And you’ve got to go where the jobs are."