The overhaul of Public Square is done and it looks fantastic and everyone is very excited.
But among all the excitement some people are pushing for the reversal of one of the major compromises that made the project possible. In the first weeks after its opening, a petition has been circulated that calls for removing all “traffic” from the square. This is a misleading way to put it because cars are banned and there was never any question about that. The whole design and construction was designed to exclude cars, but allow buses on Superior only. Below I will try to explain why removing the buses after the fact is a bad idea.
#1. Removal of Buses Would Compound RTA’s Financial Crisis and Cause Real Harm to the People Who Depend on it
According to a study by the consulting firm Nelson Nygaard, shutting Superior to buses would cost RTA an additional $2.6 million in annual operating costs. This comes as the agency is staring down an $18 million shortfall — and just after painful fare hikes and service cuts. The closure of Ontario to buses already increased RTA’s operating costs by $1 million.
As important as great public spaces are to cities, strong public transit systems are equally if not more important. Undermining the quality of our transit system for the sake of public spaces works at cross purposes. Below I will try to explain why bus traffic shouldn’t harm the square and may benefit it anyway.
#2. Removing Buses Seems Easy — But It’s Not
I get why a lot of people think, ‘oh closing Superior to buses is no big deal. They can just go around!’ It SOUNDS easy. But actually it’s really complicated.
Closing Superior to buses would require RTA to reroute about 75 percent of its routes. All these routes will be forced to do a series of turns and wait at a series of light unnecessarily. Also, they would no longer have dedicated transit lanes, the way they did before the square was redesigned, so they’d be forced to wait in traffic.
About 20,000 transfers from bus to bus used to happen in Public Square every day. It was the center of the whole bus system, which carries more than 100,000 rides per day. Such a large number of transfers — a lot of people — requires a fair amount of space. You can’t just force all those people onto some narrow sidewalk. Also, moving them further from the square would put them farther away from transfers to the Rapid and to the Healthline, undermining the usefulness of the whole system.
#3. Buses Shouldn’t Hurt Public Square Anyway — And May Benefit It
I reject the whole idea that buses are going to reduce enjoyment of the square in any real way. On the contrary, more people can enjoy the square if it is used for yoga classes and picnics as well as for people waiting for buses.
Buses are slow moving vehicles and in this case they’ll mostly use Superior for stopping, not speeding through. Buses, unlike cars, are supportive of pedestrians — they deliver them to walkable spaces without hogging urban space for parking.
Bus riders, in addition, will be “eyes on the street” helping keep the square populated at all hours and deterring crime. Real cities — great cities — are full of bus riders and various types of activity. Rather than trying to segment every place into a single type of activity, they thrive off diversity and variety.
#4. The Square Was Designed with Stakeholder Input After-the-Fact Petitions Ignore
Ultimately, the decision to close Ontario to buses but leave Superior open was made after hearing out a number of different stakeholders — not just the kind of people that will drive to the square to do yoga, people that had been using the square prior to this redesign as part of their daily lives (well at least agencies representing them). The best projects consider not just the hoped-for outcome but also whether any groups might be harmed and if so how that will be managed. Disregarding that process after the fact is unfair and not in keeping with the best practices of city planning.
#5. If You Want to Get Concerned About a Threat to Downtown’s Image, Worry About the Giant Parking Lot to the West
Photo: Green City Blue Lake
Here’s the great thing about bus riders. They come to your city and they don’t require a parking space. That means more space can be dedicated to cool urban amenities like picnic hills and less space can be devoted to dreary asphalt dead zones like the giant parking crater just to the west of this project. The more drivers that be converted into bus riders, the better downtown will be.
I urge people to email the mayor using this link and encourage him to leave the square open to buses.