What Does a Line on a Map Mean? How Southwest Idaho Understood the Benefits of BRT

Median, ID

Boise, ID, one of America’s fastest growing cities. Photo: John Penny

For most people, it’s hard to know what a line on a map signifies. How fast will the bus go? Will it get me to my destination on time? And for decision makers, it’s hard to know if the extra investment is worth it.

For Duane Wakan of the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS), being able to visualize choices — and costs — turned out to be the best way to win support for an ambitious transportation network in the region.

Not Enough Service

Treasure Valley — home to about 688,000 people in Ada and Canyon counties — is projected to grow by 2040 to just over a million residents. The agency is planning for the future and searching for a dedicated, sustainable funding source. It is updating its long range plan, Communities in Motion 2040 2.0, and Duane is developing more robust and necessary transportation services.

“Before I got here, there was a consultant hired to help develop a vision for public transportation for the Treasure Valley. It was building upon the existing system, and they constrained the growth of the transit system based on block density population and employment densities,” Duane said. “It didn’t provide a lot of access for the Treasure Valley.”

existing regional valley transit
Today’s transit in the Treasure Valley

Much of the existing design is inefficient, with circuitous routing. Meridian, the second largest city in Idaho, has little transit services, and Caldwell and Nampa have a combined population of 160,000 residents yet only have access to six routes. “Currently there are no high frequent routes 15 minute headways or better in the Treasure Valley,” Duane said. “Compare that to Wenatchee, Washington, population 115,000 has 19 routes with three high frequent routes.“

Public outreach during the first Communities in Motion effort Photo: The Blue Review

Through board meetings and discussions with elected officials, consensus grew for a more comprehensive vision. Leaders asked for bus rapid transit, too, which meant Duane would have to start fresh. “Successful projects are not just putting a line on a map and saying oh, we’ve got this transit system already, let’s throw in a high capacity transit line and call that something that would serve the region,” he said. “The intent is to fully integrate and redesign around high capacity transit.”

Real-time Remix Visualization

Jane — Remix’s feature that maps a transit shed instantaneously — was key. Placing Jane anywhere in a city helps not only see how far a rider can go on any given route but also the effect of bus speed.

Using Remix, Duane chose Boise as the point of origin and then isolated the proposed BRT route. In real-time he showed the transportation working group members what would happen if the buses’ average speed more than doubled. “I said, let’s show what our existing average speed is for the bus, which is 12 and half miles per hour, and how far can Jane go in 15, 30, 45, 60 minute transit sheds,” Duane recalled. “And then, as I increased the speed, I pushed it up to an average 30 mph, and then I could show, ‘This is why we need to make investments in this corridor. Investments matter.’”

BRT route photo
Duane’s image showing the impact of BRT (at a travel speed of 12.5 miles per hour)

activity center access

The dramatic expansion of access, shown as isochrones, convinced the group. To add in a high capacity route, Duane moved from loops to a trunk-and-feeder design. “Remix was really critical for us to analyze frequencies, showing how we can make improvements to our system to make it more attractive for future growth,” he said.

Duane found the software intuitive. “As I developed each of these iterations, I could identify the operations costs. I could talk about the improvements and frequency as we moved throughout time from our existing system to 2040,” he said.

“Remix was really cool. With the new vehicle types, I was able to talk about commuter rail, and I was able to find the per hour costs.”

Cost-Benefit Analysis

In developing the different transit systems, Duane used Remix to output the operations costs. “I showed that with the same amount of money, we could have a much more expansive system.”

“Using Remix was really invaluable to me,” Duane said. “To be able to produce a long range plan, put in our unfunded list — ‘Hey, we’ve got this ambitious network, here’s what it’s gonna cost. Here’s the per capita contributions that we’ll need to make this happen.’ So it’s really been helpful.”

The final plan goes forward for approval in December of 2018. Duane is pleased with the more expansive transportation network he’s developed for the Treasure Valley, and for the support it has received. Making real those one-dimensional lines made a big difference. “When you try to communicate to audiences goals, objectives, and strategies, it’s really difficult to show them, ‘what is improved access? What does that look like?’” he said. “We can use Remix to paint that picture visually. We can communicate to our elected officials and our planners why these are important objectives and strategies.”

communities in motion 2040

Duane says Remix helped him tell the story, to make the system understandable. He added, “I am more visual. If I can’t visualize things, how can I explain it to the public? That’s how I see the world.”

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