Five Years Later

2013-06-24

This past Thursday I went to my last Corridor MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) meeting as a policy board member. My five year term feels like it flew by, but during that time I learned a lot about transportation planning, state and metro funding, and local politics.

When I first applied I had no clue what was going on, but I knew that I wanted to bring more focus to alternative transportation in our area. I didn’t expect to be appointed to an open position, much less get the longest term since I didn’t have any previous government experience. During my interview I basically scolded the Cedar Rapids council for how terrible our infrastructure planning was and how using the money appointed to this board for transit and trails would have a bigger impact on the metro area. Not expecting to be chosen, my final question during the interview was how I could continue to provide input if I was NOT chosen. I clearly remember one council member looking at me and saying, “oh, we’ll find you!” After I had been appointed, it also made me feel great to hear another council member say that I was the first candidate chosen the only candidate that was approved unanimously. <internal happy dance>

Anyway, I’m going to take a trip down my five year experience and share some personal thoughts. Some will be general about serving on a public board, maybe helpful for anyone considering doing this too, and some will be more specific about this particular board and the changes I’ve been a part of.

The first comment I want to share is first because if you stop reading after this, I hope you at least remember this part. Money is tricky in government. As a typical citizen, I used to view government money as one big pot that just gets moved around or distributed as needed. Buzz, wrong. There are hoops and criteria, and stipulations, and brick walls that guide the flow, or lack there of, for money. And this happens at every level. The federal government has their rules, the state then has their rules, and, in this case, the policy board they has its rules. So in short, you may want something funded, and at least one of your local government officials probably wants to fund it too, but it’s most likely not that simple.

However… that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. When I first joined the MPO I wanted to get more money to transit and trails. I remember the first allocation meeting where I made a motion to fully fund a bus for CR Transit. The rest of the policy board looked at me like I was eating roadkill and offering them some. The “policy” at the time was that our Technical Advisory Council would recommend the projects we should fund (almost all were road projects) and no more than 1% of our funding would go to transit because some research said that only 1% of our population used public transit. This thinking was, and still is, a large problem we have locally. Of course only a small number of people will use something that isn’t functional if you don’t make strides to improve it! Only 1% of the population would use a proper toilet if only 1% of the area had them available. Back on track now… the recommendations and thinking weren’t wrong, they just reflected what the TAC thought the policy board wanted (roads) and their ranking was based on numbers from congestion and safety studies. Hard data that engineers appreciate and can work with. The results, however, were that the MPO board would get a set of recommendations, and would basically rubber stamp them, meaning our budget allocation meeting would be us looking over the list, saying, “sure, looks fine I guess,” and we’d approve the allocations and move on. This was frustrating.

Next lesson, boards that frequently have new members swapping in mean that they need time to ramp up and learn the rules. I didn’t like this because major decisions were being made by people who didn’t really understand what was going on, and a year or two later, someone new would be in and we’d start the whole learning curve over with them. It’s great to have new people weighing in, in fact, I wouldn’t have had my chance to join if this didn’t happen, but there needs to be a better way to educate new members quickly and easily. Also, remember that people you vote for are likely going to be serving on these types of boards and they need to have some level of intelligence to wrap their heads around complicated, intertwining concepts and projects.

As representatives changed, some of us started to ask what our big picture goal was. We receive approximately $3.5-4 million per year for projects and yet it didn’t seem like we were making any tangible progress. An intersection here, a new lane there, but shouldn’t we have a PLAN? It also didn’t make sense to me to be funding so much sprawl, and then scrambling to try to maintain all of the roads we had, when we could instead be using our existing infrastructure and developed land to promote alternative transportation which would benefit our local budgets, our air quality, our health, and be amenities that would attract people and businesses. I’m not against roads, but I am for an overall comprehensive plan that is balanced and smart.

The big turning point was when the Cedar Rapids mayor proposed using all (100%) of our Surface Transportation Funds (STP) for trails. I will admit that I was not for this idea, not because I didn’t love it and want to see it happen, but because it sounded a battle cry to the other jurisdictions who thought our money should be used for roads since it came from the gas tax. By jumping to 100%, there was tons of opposition to the idea. After this was brought up several times, our meetings went from jovial gatherings to borderline political battles with side meetings, feisty comments, and and disgruntled members. I’m not saying that everyone should be happy, but the lines that were drawn were pretty much one jurisdiction against four. Each leader has a different way of leading, this just wasn’t my way.

During the following year, we debated how this would work, whittled down numbers, received our Long Range Plan that was pulled together by a consultant, and because our ratings were so poor in terms of trails (meaning all types, off road, on road, wide sidewalks, etc), and because Cedar Rapids had enough representatives to pull a majority vote, our policy was finally changed to support using 80% of our funding for trails and 20% for the rest of the projects. Huge deal! Unfortunately, public transit is still getting left behind, but perhaps it will get its day in the spotlight yet if the change in tides is any indication of our local government being open to alternative options. By focusing on our trails, and a SYSTEM of trails, not just individual segments, our metro area is developing a huge attraction for visitors and people looking to move here. I truly believe that this improvement will have a gigantic, positive impact on the area and I am proud to have been a part of it.

A part of me is sad to be leaving the MPO, and I’m going to explore that for a brief moment. I’m sad because joining the MPO takes a lot of learning, and it takes someone who is motivated and cares a lot to want to learn. I’m sure that the others representing will do their part, but I’m afraid that they won’t speak up and think beyond what they’ve been asked to do. All of the new representatives will be either city council members or city staff, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll do their part to think outside of the box. The board has become so political, that it would be hard for an average citizen to jump in, but yet it’s the average citizens that bring up things that are important! I don’t think that people understand the importance of this board until a road in front of their house is being widened and they don’t want it, and that is too late. More people are aware of the MPO now due to the trails publicity, and that is wonderful! But there is still rarely any input during open comment periods, and the default community response is to complain after a project has been completed. It’s certainly not easy to be involved since the open comment periods aren’t widely publicized, but after five years, I still don’t have an answer to that problem. What I want to see for representatives on the MPO is positive character focused on improving the metro area in a way that actually makes sense. If we’re funding a road project that covers an area that will also need sewage improvements soon, please please please try to sync the projects to save money and frustration of residents by not tearing up the same place twice! Just as an example of commonsense.

Although I am slightly sad to be done, I am very proud for one of my initiatives to have stuck, and be mentioned at almost every meeting now. The concept of selecting projects to fund based on an overall transportation SYSTEM. I hated the fact that our projects were so scattered and so hyper-focused on individual problem areas. If we were going to switch to funding trails as our main priority, I definitely wanted it to succeed and for us to end up with something that was functional. I knew that if we followed our old methods, we would end up with random trail segments throughout the metro area, but few of them would connect and the project would seem like a failure because few people would use separated segments. The idea is so simple, yet that it is a major focus of the MPO’s decision making process, and even a ranking criteria makes me beam within. I’m sure everyone else on the board became annoyed at one point by me constantly bringing up the concept of a system, but now they talk about it themselves and it’s remembered. There is hope!

My time served on the Corridor MPO was a great period for me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to learn and for the changes I was able to be a part of. At my last meeting I was asked to serve on the City Planning Commission, so my board time for the city is not over. I am told that this will deal more with zoning and developers, so, in theory, I can focus on making alternative transportation planning an important factor here. I am eager to see if this is a fit for me. Along with the CPC, I’ll still be chairing the Transit Working Group for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance Development Committee (longest. name. ever.), a board member for NTS, attending Transportation Advisory Group meetings when I can, and working on Transit Art projects. Any transportation groups I’m missing? Just kidding, I think my time is pretty well used up at the moment!

Amtrak with a Baby

2012-01-25

Two weeks ago my husband and I took our 6 month old daughter to Sandusky, Ohio to a developer conference my husband was speaking at. The conference is hosted at the Kalahari, an indoor water park, and is family oriented in that they have activities for significant others and children to do while the conference goer is busy. This was our second trip to this conference and last year we also took Amtrak, so we learned a few things to prepare us for this route with an infant which was very good for my sanity.

First, why did we take Amtrak? Why didn’t we just fly or even drive? After all, we live in Iowa and Sandusky is only about 9 hours away from us. Our reasons this year were pretty much the same as last year. If we didn’t want to drive 9 hours without an infant, we definitely didn’t want to drive 9 hours with one. Plus, adding our daughter into the mix guaranteed that it would take longer than 9 hours because we would have to stop more frequently to attend to her needs. Another big factor was weather. We were going in January and we couldn’t be sure of safe weather conditions the entire way there and back. Last year the Midwest experienced a blizzard while we were traveling. We didn’t want to risk that with a baby.

Flying there wasn’t a good option either. It would have taken us at least two flights to get to a major city in Ohio and then we would have had to drive at least an hour still. See the previous paragraph about not wanting to drive. Flying directly to Sandusky was waaaay to expensive and flying from one small airport to another doesn’t provide good flight options. So we decided to go by train. Amtrak has a station in Sandusky and we could take a 10 minute taxi ride to the resort! And pricing couldn’t be beat. Round trip tickets for all of us (infants are free), plus sleeper cars for the ride portions between Chicago and Sandusky came in at the price of one plane ticket. Sign me up!

So how did it go? I would definitely do it again.

It took us 16 hours to get to Sandusky including driving time to and from the train stations. That made for a long day of travel, but we could relax the whole time, as much as one can with an infant, and all of our trains arrived on time or within 30 minutes of the stated time which was fantastic! We also had 3-4 hours to hang out in Chicago both ways, so we took those opportunities to wander the city with our daughter, eat, and visit with friends we have in Chicago. A nice break, and better than hanging out in an airport in my opinion. Since we had a sleeper car both ways, we also had access to the private lounge in the Chicago train station. This was one of the best things for us. It provided a much quieter waiting room than the general waiting area and there was free, secure luggage storage so we weren’t lugging suitcases around Chicago while we explored. A wonderful perk to the sleeper cars in addition to free meals on the train. I especially appreciated having a quieter area for our daughter to nurse and nap while we were in the station.

The ride on the trains was pretty standard in our experience. The cars weren’t very full, so we had plenty of room to move about and keep our daughter entertained. We took her to the lounge car for better views of the scenery speeding by, and had enough room in the coach seats to nurse, use laptops, and play. We even made a few friends thanks to Tabitha, including a little Amish boy and an Indian woman traveling with an eight month old and a three year old.

While the additional perks that came with purchasing a sleeper car room were awesome, having the rooms for our night and early morning rides were worth them alone. We were concerned about keeping Tabitha’s sleep schedule somewhat regular and also not disturbing others if she woke up screaming at some point. The coach seats were fine for her short naps, but the sleeper cars were a must for her longer period of sleep. Our train from Chicago to Sandusky left at 6pm and arrived in Sandusky around midnight. Tabitha usually goes to bed around 7pm, so we were able to simulate her bedtime routine enough that she went to sleep pretty close to her usual time. The problem that we did have was squeezing dinner in while she was trying to go to sleep. Since it was included with our tickets, we could have gone to the dinning car, but that would not work with our sleepy baby’s bedtime, so luckily we were able to order to our room and eat a fairly chaotic meal while one person wrangled the fussy infant. But once we were fed and Tabitha was dozing off, the swaying of the train kept both her and myself snoozing through our trip out. We had to bring along her car seat for the taxi ride, so we put her to bed in it and set it on the bottom bunk where I slept. My husband decided that sleeping wasn’t for him at the time, and took off for the lounge car to work on some development. The accommodations were tight, but adequate and I felt fairly rested when it was time for us to disembark.

As a side note, we had two different sleeper car rooms on our trip. The first (shown to the left), I believe, was meant for up to 3 people, included bunk beds with a single bed above and a wider bed below. It also had a private shower/toilet room, sink area, and a chair. When the beds were put away, there was a tray “table” that could be pulled out. We could cram all of our luggage and people into this room, which isn’t necessary as you’ll see when I describe our other room, but it was very nice since we could easily access Tabitha’s things to get her ready for bed.

Our return room was the smallest available, and functioned just fine, but would have been challenging for our night trip. It was meant for up to 2 people and had bunk beds again, but both were only singles. It did not have a private shower, but did have a seat/toilet that was open to the room and a sink that flipped down when you needed it. We could not fit everything in this room, but instead stored our larger pieces in the luggage area of our train car like one would normally do for coach. My husband and I readied ourselves for the day at the hotel and we just changed Tabitha’s clothes in the train station lounge when we arrived. Our room use was pretty similar for this trip, but my husband decided to go back to sleep until Chicago too.

Something that is probably the same in all of the sleeper rooms, but I noticed during our return trip because we were all in the room and on different bunks, was that the sound is pretty muffled in them. If one of us was trying to talk to the other on different bunks, you really couldn’t hear each other unless you stuck your heads into the open area beside the beds. I can’t confirm this, but I’m assuming that the sound barrier between the rooms is just as nice, which is helpful if you do have a little one screaming their head off.

We ate breakfast in the dining car on our way to Chicago from Sandusky and met two nice ladies who enjoyed Tabitha’s constant attempts to grab anything near her on the table. The train staff was friendly throughout our whole trip and quite helpful which is even more appreciated when you’re traveling with a little one. And if you’re curious about the necessary diaper changes, they were pleasantly uneventful during our trip. The public toilet rooms on the trains were similar to the toilet rooms on planes, but with more room. And each car also had a room that included a changing area which offered double the size of the normal toilet room and had a bench and hooks that came in handy. We also took advantage of the very tidy restrooms in the Chicago station lounge.

To sum up our travel experience, I was very happy with how our trip went, and although I don’t think it’s ever easy traveling with a baby, the train helped make our trip less stressful and more enjoyable than I think other modes would have. At least for this destination, we will continue to take Amtrak any time we visit. It works well for us and it just makes sense. One major benefit that I would like to add is a closer station to Cedar Rapids. Mount Pleasant is about 90 minutes for us, so something, say in Iowa City would be wonderful…

Have any of you traveled with small children and want to weigh in on how it went? Any bad experiences traveling with kids on Amtrak? I’m sure there are lots of opportunities for things to go wrong especially if there are unexpected delays!

And for anyone who is interested or perhaps taking their own little one(s) on a train trip, here are some key things we packed and how we carried it around. We’ll be flying to Florida to visit my grandmother soon, so we’ll see how much this list, and our experience, changes for that trip.

We took 6 pieces of “luggage”:

  1. Wheeled luggage for Tabitha (her backpack was attached to the outside of this for easy access)
  2. Wheeled luggage with our stuff
  3. Large canvas “diaper” bag
  4. Backpack with my laptop & food
  5. Backpack with Keith’s laptop  & other things
  6. Car seat/baby carrier

Downtown Shuttle is Back

2011-10-31

Do you remember about 5 years ago when there was still a downtown Cedar Rapaids shuttle that took  workers from parking lots to their buildings? I barely do. I mostly remember people complaining that they could walk to their buildings faster than the shuttle could get them there. Well that was then, and now the Downtown District has worked with Park Cedar Rapids, Neighborhood Transit Service (NTS), and downtown businesses to bring back a service that should be better! It’s really quite smart and I’m excited to see it start up on November 7th.

This service has been in the works as a way to solve some temporary parking shortages due to construction, and some limited parking perceptions, to continue to please existing companies and attract new ones to the Cedar Rapids downtown. One hope is that more people can use the parking areas that are farther from the downtown center and not have to trudge to work in the freezing cold that we’re sure to get soon.

The shuttle will complete its loop in 10  minutes, which is an improvement from the complaints I heard about the previous service. It will be making use of NTS buses and staff during times that their main service is in low demand, so we’re using existing resources more efficiently and adding a new revenue source for NTS. And the service will be FREE to everyone! I, and others, are hoping that this breaks down some more barriers and stereotypes about riding the bus by providing a very useful service and helping people get familiar with our local buses. Now the buses in use won’t be the long CR Transit cruisers that you see on the streets, and instead will be smaller ones that are more typical for tours or private rentals, but hey, its still public transportation!

The service will begin on November 7th and all of the details can be found on the Park Cedar Rapids site. A great big thanks to Park Cedar Rapids, Intermec, Iowa Health System, NTS, and Downtown District for making this happen!

Now, I would love to hear if you’re going to try this out, and then what you think once you do. Will you be willing to park farther away with this service? Or are you just hoping that others use it so that you can park closer?

Drawing a Line

2011-09-09

Or in other words, we are buying a second car. And I am sad. Very sad.
The Sad Panda
But my husband kindly let me throw a tantrum already, so I will try to not whine here and stick to the facts.

For the past 3.5 years we have chosen to live a single car life. In a perfect world we could be car-less, but the transit system in Cedar Rapids can’t support our lifestyle and social involvement without at least one car.  A few months after we were married we realized that we rarely used my car and after a few weeks of no use due to a pile of mulch blocking it, we gave my old car to my brother who needed it more than us at the time. Since then we have settled into a very good routine to get both of us to and from work and even to our many meetings, appointments, and volunteer commitments with just one car. This has survived a few job changes by my husband and both of us becoming more involved in the community. Some things required creative solutions, but the “pain” was quite low most of the time.

Flash forward to this July and we now have an infant!

For nine months I told my husband that I really wanted to continue our single car life as long as possible, and, although very skeptical, he agreed to give it a try. Well, from the beginning of this post, you can guess that it hasn’t worked out so well and the looming winter weather doesn’t make my husband comfortable at all. He held up his end of the bargain to let us try it, so now it’s my turn to hold up my end and agree that he’s (very unfortunately) right.

Let’s run down the list of things we were preparing for and planning on to prevent buying another vehicle:

  • Day care center near a bus stop. We looked at options near bus routes that would still get me to work and found one that we were comfortable with that is also very close to my current route. This was also key for me being able to get to our daughter during the day if she became sick and needed to be picked up or go to the doctor since my husband works out of town. The center has a 1 hour pick up policy if a child is sick, which could just barely accommodate the bus if I got the call during the 30 minute frequency portions of the day and was able to promptly leave work. Tricky, but something that could be worked (in my mind).
  • Day care center with a (comparatively) late pick up time. Another “perk” of the center we chose was the 6pm pick up time. Other places we looked at were 5 or 5:30pm which would not work very well with my bus schedule or my husband’s driving schedule.
  • My husband’s carpooling. This isn’t new, but it was a huge bonus in my eyes. My husband carpools with 3 other guys so he only really needs the car during the day every 4 weeks. This frees up the car for me in case of a sick child, emergency, or general use. The downside is that he requires the car every 4 weeks, and while we can schedule check-up appointments around this, we can’t schedule when our baby may get sick. Bummer. This also doesn’t include times that he would need to drive himself separately from work for meetings after work or appointments.
  • Me being the primary driver. With the car in use for the carpool only every 4 weeks, I would have likely become the primary morning driver. This has frequently happened during my leave. We would pack up our daughter and I would drive my husband to the carpool meeting place and then drive back home. This would have continued most days only with me then going to the day care center and parking the car in their lot during the day. I would then have walked to the bus stop and bused downtown as usual. See the first open hurdle below for why we wouldn’t just be dropped off at the center. This may still happen to limit wear and tear on the newer car and to leave one car covered in the garage when possible.

And here is a list of our open hurdles that made my husband give me “the talk” about realizing what was practical and when to admit that our area’s transit can’t continue to support our single car life at this time.

  • No guarantee on my husband’s return time. He works in Anamosa, carpools with 3 other guys, and doesn’t leave at a set time every day. This means that sometimes he doesn’t get to my bus stop right when I arrive, especially in the winter when the weather can throw in an additional wrench. This has been one of the situations that we have been flexible with and it mostly lands on me, which I am perfectly fine working around. In pleasant weather I would usually get off at my normal stop and either walk to a nearby store or wait for him outside. Many times I would just walk the 1.5 miles home and enjoy the outdoors. In unpleasant weather I would continue a few stops farther and wander the aisles at Target until he was able to get to me. (This almost didn’t work when I was in my early pregnancy and constantly eating, but then I realized that Target has food and would buy an enormous tub of pretzels if I would be “stranded” for a while.) The problem now is that we have a little one that doesn’t yet realize the benefit of being flexible when delays occur. And the even bigger problem that I didn’t want to admit is that it’s probably not the best idea to be trudging through freezing temperatures to get somewhere warm when the day care center closes and our ride can’t make it to the center before 6pm. This is the biggest problem for my husband. He’s not comfortable with this situation at all and I can’t blame him for that. He’s a concerned father in this case.
  • Babies have needs. They need to eat when they’re hungry. They need to be changed when they’re dirty. They usually need some sort of schedule to be comfortable and to help keep the parents sane. Our flexibility would often times require a bit too much flexibility from our daughter at such a young age. I see many families that are transit dependent and they have to make it work, but this is something that we personally don’t have a close example of and it is overwhelming.
  • Emergencies and illness. Above I talked about some of our plans to handle our daughter needing picked up due to illness, but our solution and additional options we looked into had my husband really putting his foot down. I will be going back to work part-time, so there will really only be three days that I will be away from our daughter, but let’s think about those three days. The worst case scenario would be for me to get a call at work right after an off-peak bus has just passed. I would then have to wait an hour to catch the next bus which would exhaust the hour policy that the day care has. Likelihood of this happening is low, but still needs to be considered. The next worse scenario is the most likely to happen. I wait a few minutes (1 – 30) to catch the bus to the day care center. I then walk to the center, pick up my daughter, and walk back to the bus stop. Hopefully I have been able to make a doctor’s appointment during this time if she needs one, and hopefully it could be scheduled close to the time we would arrive at the office that day. Also, hopefully we would make it back to the bus within 30 minutes to catch the next bus back downtown to the doctor’s office. If not, it could be a VERY long day. We might need to take a taxi to the doctor or to home, and hanging out with a sick child for hours at a doctor’s office doesn’t sound like a good idea even to me. If it happens to be one of my days off and I don’t have the car (only 2 days in the span of 4 weeks), I would either have to walk to the closest bus stop (which only arrives every 90-ish minutes) or the second closest route which is 1.5 miles away (not going to happen in freezing weather). Or I could call a taxi. The fact that this is the longest section may have some indication into its level of importance in our decision.

Now let’s take a look at some alternatives that we researched.

  • Taxis. This one has me shaking in my boots after hearing tales of how expensive it is in Cedar Rapids. It would most certainly only happen in emergencies.
  • Neighborhood Transportation Service (NTS). One of the first options I looked into, but unfortunately it only serves riders during the evenings and weekends when CR Transit routes are no longer running. You also need to schedule your ride 24 hours in advance, which doesn’t happen with a sick child, and you have to be traveling “to and from work, school [or] life-skills classes”. Day care is currently not a destination option, although I talked about this with the executive director and they have talked about it, but only talked so far.
  • Rental car. This was one of our contingency plans when we first went to a solo car. If we ever really needed a second car we could rent one and it would still be cheaper than second car insurance, maintenance, gas, and the other extra costs that come along with a car. This would still be a valid option with a baby except in the case of an emergency. Those situations don’t accommodate the time it takes to fill out paperwork, and there isn’t a guarantee that they’ll have a car (although unlikely a problem). Plus, while it’s economical if it will be used for at least a day, a need for just a few hours isn’t such a good deal.
  • Good friends. We’re currently doing this and are wearing out our welcome. This may also be the biggest driving force in getting a second car. With adjusting to the new baby and all of the physical, emotional, and social changes that come along with her, friends and coworkers have been more than generous about being flexible, but we really don’t want to have to lean on this as often as we have had to so far.

I am still very torn about getting a second car, mostly due to it being an “in case of” car. Most of the time it will be sitting somewhere unused because it’s purpose would be for emergencies and the one week that my husband drives for the carpool. Yes, it will make life easier, but that’s not what I’m looking for. I like more garage space and fewer bills and things to maintain. There is also the sad punctuation on the holes in our transit system. I have fought so hard to carve out an alternative transportation lifestyle, and here this typical milestone in a person’s life (having a baby) has proven that the system cannot support the needs that many people have. It also shows that we really haven’t advanced in the past 3.5 years and that is the most depressing concept for me.

And where does that leave us? We are car shopping for our immediate, short-term solution while I continue to support improving local transit or at least starting a Zipcar location (pretty please!!). I will continue to ride the bus to and from work, but plan on leaving a car in the day care parking lot for use between the center and home, and emergencies if necessary.

Although my husband and I have been discussing this issue for almost a year, I would love to hear any other ideas you have on potential solutions we didn’t think about. Has anyone made this transition? Are there things that work in other, more transit friendly areas that we could modify and use here? I am still determined to keep transit a part of our lives and make sure our daughter (and future kiddos) respect and appreciate the role public transportation can play.

Tips and Tricks: Busing for Your Car

2011-08-26

Often times potential choice riders have a hard time justifying the use of our transit system because driving is just so familiar and convenient. I understand this because I was there once.

“Oops, missed the bus, I guess I’ll just drive.”

“I think I’m running a little late today. I’ll drive instead of try to catch the bus.”

Well here is a little tip on a situation where riding the bus can be quicker and more beneficial, and you may be surprised…

Servicing your car.

Car Repair Shop

That’s right. I have found several times that taking the bus after dropping off our car to be serviced is much quicker in getting me to work than taking the courtesy van.

The first time I experienced this I didn’t take the bus because I thought, “how could the bus possibly be quicker than the courtesy van?” Little did I know in my naivety that the courtesy van is NOT just hanging out waiting for me, and this particular one didn’t even start until 8am. I ended up waiting 30 minutes just for the driver to arrive and in that time I could have definitely caught the bus and arrived at work. Once the van did take me to work, I wasn’t the only person being dropped off, so it was like a miniature version of an on demand bus route anyway.

Since that first experience in comparing the transit options, the only change I have made when dropping off our car is to arrive at the shop a little before the bus is due. And this is possibly one of the easiest ways to test out using public transit since the car shop isn’t going to turn away a customer if you do miss the bus and need a ride. No worries!

I encourage you to check out the CR Transit site and see if there is a bus route that goes near your car service shop of choice and where you work to give this use a try. You could find that it is easier and quicker for you too.

Are there other similar situations that you can think of where using the bus might be easier or quicker? What hurdles would still exist in this situation for someone new to the transit system?

Shelter Me

2011-08-10

Oh happy day! I just saw an exciting announcement through the City of CR News email, and it’s long over due. Almost two years ago I heard about CR Transit looking into partnering with Creative Outdoor Advertising to get new bus shelters. Like most things with an overworked, under funded organization, progress can be slow, but at least there is progress! The current bus shelters are owned and maintained by the city and they are super outdated and many are frequently vandalized. The benches in them tend to be a mess, most leak when it rains, and many tend to have broken glass, making them useless if rain isn’t falling straight down or the wind is blowing.

The city’s release about the new shelters says:

“Transit riders in Cedar Rapids will soon be seeing welcome changes at their local bus stops in the form of innovative new bus shelters. The shelters are supplied by Creative Outdoor Advertising (COA) at no cost to the city. The shelters will provide transit riders with shade from the hot Iowa sun, as well as shelter from the rain, wind and snow. The shelters will also provide local businesses with a visible and affordable advertising venue.”

The new partnership with COA will put the maintenance in their hands as well as provide opportunities for local businesses to advertise in these locations, and possibly the best part for CR Transit is that they are F-R-E-E. COA makes their money through advertisements and they are supposed to only work with local businesses, so the advertisements are relevant to the community.

You can see the full list of shelters going up in Cedar Rapids here (39 in all), and view their locations on this map. And for those interested in seeing the shelters without going to their location, you can find that information here. Just select Cedar Rapids, IA from the “Area Name” drop-down list and click the “View Site Photos” camera icon shown below.

I haven’t investigated all of the new shelter locations, but I believe they are just replacing existing shelters, not adding new ones. Hopefully this partnership works well and we can start to see more shelters in new locations after the initial switch. I am excited to see the new shelters pop up and try them out myself!

Check out the city’s release for the full scoop on these new bus shelters.

Tips and Tricks: Summer Discount Opportunities

2011-06-14

This past Sunday my husband and I went to hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra play downtown for the second year in a row. This event has become my reminder that the Freedom Festival has begun in Cedar Rapids. It’s a great way to ease into the feeling of summer, plus there is good music and good company. Unfortunately, this year the orchestra was only able to play one set before a rain shower interrupted our entertainment and canceled the show.

This event reminds me that summer is already here, and it also reminds me to buy a Freedom Festival button for $3 that will get me into some great events, and also get me free bus rides until the 4th of July! You can’t beat that deal anywhere, except maybe the week that bicyclists get free bus rides

Along with the Freedom Festival deal, students get a discounted cash rate between June 6th and August 20th this year. Much cheaper than buying them a car or paying for gas.

See official announcements and dates on the Cedar Rapids Transit site, and get riding this summer!

Bus Babes

2011-01-14

Another year has come and gone, but this isn’t a look back so let’s move on with some new news! The post title doesn’t mean we’re not a family friendly site anymore, nor does it mean that our bus system is trying a new way to woo riders. It does allude to me and my husband expecting our first child this summer, though. Why in the world would you care? You might not, but I am excited to add a new dimension of content on this site and share our challenges and experiences in adding a little one to our busing adventures!

We have already started discussing how our current setup will work with a bambino in tow and what changes we may need to make. We’ve been researching day care options if we go that route and have been thinking about how that will work into our choice of transportation too. I am somewhat comforted by the several families I see using the bus now, but I am well aware of the problems that the current system has for them too. So welcome to the new year (half a month late), and tune in as my energy increases and I update this site with new information and a new personal view!

New CR Transit Website

2010-09-16

You asked, and someone listened! Cedar Rapids has had a new website since this summer and, at least for the transit section, a lot of the feedback we gave was incorporated. There is more information than the previous site provided including instructions on how to use the bike racks, a section with news and updates on what is happening in the metro area transit world, and more information about the routes (points of interest, woo hoo!). The change is definitely an improvement. There is even a section listing the current route detours so you can limit the surprises you’ll get on your next ride, if you remember to check.

While you can tell that other areas of the Cedar Rapids site were simply copied and pasted, I think the transit site has actually made a step forward. I can’t say that I’m a fan of the general look and feel of the site, but I am pleased as punch that they finally have a map of all the routes, and I’m a firm believer in incremental improvements, so I’ll take what we can get this round. My major complaint with the transit site as is… the FAQ page still has “To-Do stubs” in place of links to the answers. Maybe the staff is still learning how to use the Share Point back-end, and I can understand that, but let’s get this seemingly simple task checked off!

So with the praise out of the way, how about a list for the next round of improvements? Users are starting to get many of their basic technology needs met with the site. Updates, comprehensive map, and all stops listed for each route go a long way for making it easier on us. That means it’s time to up the ante and start making CR Transit a top-notch, user-friendly, communication savvy service. I know that sounds like a tall order considering the state of things, but many of the items below are completely in reach. Or you can feel free to argue differently.

  1. Google Transit. My completely valid love for Google aside, this is the obvious next step to move CR Transit up the food chain in the transit world. We have a comprehensive map, but planning a trip still takes multiple trips between multiple PDFs and is even frustrating for a veteran like myself. I recently took a friend on her debut using CR Transit for a day, and was disheartened by how complicated it was for me to navigate timetables and stops for routes I wasn’t as familiar with. Sharing a little secret now, I have been working on converting CR Transit data to Google Transit formats, but I could use some help with the last push to clean up, validate, and tie up loose ends. If you’re interested in helping, please leave a comment and help give me the encouragement I need to finish this project up!
  2. Limit the clicks. This is getting into the experience of using the site, but since we’re going for top-notch, this needs to improve some more. Transit sites aren’t known for their ease of use or good looks. In fact, I would love to see an example of a great transit site, so please share links if you know of one! I dread looking at sites for cities I’ll be visiting because they tend to be so bad. This has been excusable in the past since more money should be spent on improving transit services, but more and more the technology is part of the service. Enough of the ranting, and on with a suggestion. CR Transit’s site now has a lot more information on it and it has been segmented into separate pages. The information is great, but the increased number of clicks is annoying and can make it hard to find the information that is now there. There certainly could be a way to better organize this site.
  3. Real time updates. Posting information like the detours on routes is great! The next step to make this useful? Let us know in real time! I’m not going to check my route’s site every day to find out if there is a detour, and so far I haven’t remembered to check other routes when I need to deviate from my usual schedule. But using a tool like Twitter or RSS so I can subscribe to these changes, now that is top-notch! Now I can get the alert and check the site later if I need more information. Oh, and if you update the Google Transit information to show this temporary change on the map, WOW, now you’re talking!
  4. GPS bus tracking. Yes I know I need to show up early for the bus. Yes I like to use every last minute before going to wait for the bus. Therefore, I want to know if I’m patiently waiting for the bus, or if I cut it too close and need to use one of my backup plans. This item is very important to becoming a top-notch transit service, but provide the other three above and I’ll patiently wait on this one.

Those are my top 4 requests for CR Transit’s next steps in technology, but what am I missing? Are there steps that should come first or more that are farther in the future? How would you prioritize the requests? Should a mobile app or mobile friendly site be included? Share your thoughts!

Route 12 Bus Party Recap

2010-07-24

Today we rode Route 12, the last of the 14 metro area fixed routes. We made it through them all! At first this route seemed very efficient. We knew that Westdale was a major destination, and the route swiftly cruised down Wilson, approaching this area. But then instead of going right to Westdale, we turned and passed Van Buren School, continuing through residential areas before passing between Target and Walmart. Technically we passed the back side of Westdale Mall next, but we looped way out to West Post Rd. before stopping at the actual mall stop. Of course there are many other destinations along Route 12 that would get frequent use, but since we were focused on Westdale, this route felt like a long trip before we got there.

Brewed Awakenings was our lunch destination this time. They had some delicious sandwiches and a relaxing atmosphere!

We have now completed Bus Parties for all 14 of the metro area fixed routes, but we’re not done yet! Although the Bus Parties will be taking a break, we will kick them back up once the current routes start getting updated. And speaking of… please attend the next Cedar Rapids City Council meeting on July 27th to show support for the changes proposed through the Fixed Route Study conducted last fall. Brady has written a nice summary and you can read our reports for Open House One, Two, and Three. If you can’t attend, please send your comments to Office of the City Clerk, 3851 River Ridge Drive NE, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402 before Tuesday.

Thank you for all of the support so far!


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