Monday, August 20, 2012

Un-intended consequences?

“Un-intended consequences”

These words are usually spoken when an action, taken for very good reasons, is responsible for a debilitating harm done to a minor portion of those affected by the action. It is always nice to see it when those actions actually help that minor portion.

I don’t think that I have been shy in my outspoken criticism of the downtown circulator “trolley” and it does look like some of the suggestions that I made have been incorporated into the current routes, especially the Green Route. I am glad to see that many more of the local businesses have embraced the service and that Lextran has responded in such a positive manner. This service has had a much bigger impact than the initial downtown concept ever imagined

As I understand the original concept, the circulator was to enable those on the farthest edges of downtown to get to the center of activity and back to their offices with enough time to actually eat or shop during lunchtime. Evening activity was for downtown residents to traverse empty city blocks from housing to the nightlife and back safely. Though these are still of concern, they seem to be more minor today.

Today, we not only can get from one end of downtown to the other but also just a bit farther out and hit a little bit more shopping, dining and nightlife. I have seen and heard of many uses for the circulator since the routes expanded but I have not read any hard figures of ridership. Hopefully these will be forthcoming.

I have heard from my friends at West Sixth St Brewing, that quite a number of their patrons are arriving by ”trolley” since it eases the parking situation and the risk of driving while intoxicated. This will work to their advantage if those folks are coming from the Aylesford – Bell Court area and not just downtown.

But this is a two-way benefit. There are also folks from the Coolavin apartments just next door to West Sixth’s taproom who are making their way to the Kroger store on Euclid and coming home with the groceries for the week. In an area that has been identified as a “food desert” this access to fresh food without carfare is a win.

Coolavin is not the only example of this. The circulator travels past other assisted living facilities downtown so I doubt that this activity would not go on there also. Mrs. Sweeper and I watched as two ladies made their way from the Christian Church facility on Short St to the designated stop just to ride around town on a warm summer evening. The simple pleasures of life know no age limits.

So far, this phenomenon exists on the Green Route which cycles between the affluent neighborhoods near Chevy Chase and the resurgent commercial parts of Jefferson St. The Blue Route, running between the two University campuses, sees some mixing of the student bodies but mostly just due to their choices of dining and drinking locations. The other neighborhood residents do not tend to use the service much.

I believe that none of this was intended by those who arranged to fund the operation just a few years ago. Who could have thought that things would change this much? And does this mean that the local businessmen, who banded together to promote their downtown businesses, and now see as many or more folks leaving the downtown confines for other businesses, could give their support? I suppose so, but I hope not. If so, then the additional beneficiaries will need to stand up and continue this proven success.

I also believe that if it works in the downtown, then it can be successful in the subdivisions too, if done right.

If you have any thought on this, I would appreciate hearing them.


danny said...

I've been thinking about COLT for a while, too, Sweeper, and have held several of your critiques.

Some thoughts on the Trolley. I think there's good and bad:

(1) The trolleys, or at least the Chevy Chase/Sixth Street Brewery route, have become more used over time. The extension to Jefferson Street, and now West Sixth, have added to the use, and they should continue to grow. (I'd guess if the north/south lines were extended to Loudon on the North, the UK/Transy lines would become more popular.)

(2) While I agree that "non-bar-goers," (the elderly and poor) make limited use of the service, that ridership remains extremely limited, though I'm sure a number of downtown-dwellers use it like my wife and I have (and as you've observed above)--as a getaway to Woodland or a visit with beer on a Friday night to our friends in the Hollywood neighborhood behind Kroger.

(3) The extension up to Sixth, though, seems to be a significant extension for 1 single location (West Sixth), and at least a couple weeks ago, didn't offer stops at Jefferson and 4th or 5th (places where non-gentrified people currently live...or 1/2 of the additional route). If I'm a business owner who's been around for a while (or a resident of Jefferson Street not newly bought in), I'd be thinking, why is the city so intent on throwing everything, including a subsidized free bus-route from one of the city's richest neighborhoods, to support that business. Couldn't they have been more inclusive in their choice than adding 25% onto a route for 1 , maybe 2 stops?. It's a great place with a lot going on, but it remains an extension for basicly one place.

(4) I spent the better part of the summer bringing and picking up my daughter to daycare on Georgetown Road. I can say with absolute certainty as a user of both the pay (LexTran) and free bus services that the COLT trolleys are nowhere close to as filled as LexTran rides, both in general and at the retirement home you cite. (The Georgetown route had a return stop there.)

This was exceptionally true on the one day of the summer when LexTran fares were free, and the place was packed-standing with people out for rides and visiting friends and pools. I've been on COLT semi-regularly, and as a regular walker of downtown, I can say that despite increased ridership, even on their best hours free COLTs came/come nowhere close to for-pay LexTran.

My own experiences as a rider make me uncomfortable that the city has extended free bus service, which even dispenses with stops at the main pay-bus station downtown, to what remains a mostly white, relatively wealthy, neighborhood in the near-suburbs that is in no danger of losing its land value (as other near-suburban neighborhoods are), people like me who make less use of it because, having cars, they/we don't need to.

(5) Having a free way to get to Kroger is good, but having a greater impact I would think on Jefferson at Sixth is the absence of a mini-mart-type store that the owners of West Sixth have had closed. And for COLT riders wanting to get to Kroger, the trolley only runs for 3 lunch-time hours for 3-4 days a week (seasonally?), and night-times (seasonally?) for between 3-4 nights.

Anyway, just a couple quick thoughts. I use COLT (not regularly, but I use it) and enjoy its service, but I find it very limiting, both in terms of its conception and layout. At any rate, here's something that is thinking along the lines of what you mention at the end of your post on connecting the rest of Lexington.

Streetsweeper said...

The "non-bar-goers" may not currently avail themselves of this free service only because, to most of us older folks, that seems to be thinking out side the box. Most of these elderly were brought up to not take what you did not earn and a ride to town cost money.

I do not see this as a city subsidized transit service. If I recall, the subsidy is coming from local businesses and grants. The request to extend the Green Route came from both the businesses in Chevy Chase and along Jefferson St, not so much the residents. In that the businesses will benefit so much more, then they should be the ones to pick up the additional tab of the operations cost. Likewise on the Blue Route or any other neighborhood circulator which may be envisioned in the future.

danny said...

Woops. I should have edited my response a bit more for clarity.

By non-bar-goers, I was thinking of the people that often get cited as being beneficiaries of the COLT service who fall outside the dinner/drinks demographic. I see this demographic as separate from, say, people over 50 from Chevy Chase (or recently moved-in downtown residents) who do not use COLT to hit the clubs, but do use it to hit restaurants, Thursday Night Live, etc. I agree with your initial post in that I do see that demographic picking up, though I think your claim about that older population not taking things they didn’t earn a little bit confined to Chevy Chase crowd (and I’m not sure how it applies to them, either.) My own experiences riding LexTran on a free day suggest that people over 50 have no problem taking advantage of free services.

By non-bar-goers, the people I was thinking about who get over-sold as benefiting from COLT (I've seen this from several recent discussions of the new COLT line, very rarely with evidence, more often with variations of "they could use it, too...") are the ones at the retirement center and the gentrifying neighborhood around Jefferson above Third. A couple fixes that might help actually cater to this demographic would be to have more stops along Jefferson and to have posted pickup/dropoff times, as LexTran busses do. Also, to have service that is not just commercial service (Thursday-Saturday during lunch/drinking hours). In other words, make it LexTran. As it is now, one has to wait and guess whether a bus has recently passed by or not. This is OK for people with leisure to take a fun bus ride for food or drinks or Thursday night live, but it doesn't help people who need it for real transportation. I think recognizing that is important when discussing COLT's place in the city and its transportation energies. COLT remains a service, whatever its benefits to car-less people, focused on attracting car-goers from one of the richest neighborhoods in the city, and bringing them to one of the fastest-gentrifying areas, the "hip" place city leaders use to sell things like $500 million Rupp Arena renovations (more fun public giveaways targeting the same Chevy Chase crowd). This isn’t to say I don’t use it, or that it doesn’t have positive benefits, or that it can’t be improved upon. But I think we should be honest about who COLT serves and how, and to place that targeted service in a larger perspective of where other public moneys go.
On city funding, my understanding was that COLT was initially a federal grant (or federal money of some sort), both for the trolleys themselves and the initial service. Going into year 3, I haven't heard where that money now comes. I recall, I think from a Chevy Chaser blurb several months back, that when businesses had discussed paying for its service, there was also discussion of charges for riding; I haven't heard much from that since then, though the trolley is obviously still free. It'd be interesting to see how it gets paid for.

But even if the money isn’t from Lexington, it’s still backed in part or whole by public money (federal public money, not local public money), and it still requires the intellect and energy and people-power from humans in this city to make it run. Personally, I’d rather see that energy and intellect and energy and public relations to be focused on addressing more pressing public transportation needs, and be used to stimulate businesses that don't already have the capital to buy into already-rising neighborhoods.

Put differently, if we are going to attempt to give a free bus service to stimulate a demographic to move about town, I’d rather see that demographic not be Chevy Chasers or bar/restaurant-going downtowners, even though this includes me. Then we could have articles about how Cardinal Valley bus-ridership has risen with free bus service, with side-notes about how Chevy Chasers, too, can make good use of the service!

Lex Streetsweeper said...


I see that you are quite fixated on the concept that the Green Route extension was done to benefit just the affluent of Chevy Chase. I am of the opinion that the extension was to bring more shopping traffic into Chevy Chase businesses and other such places along the route. The published route does show that it passes through a fairly well off Northside area which may now frequent the Chevy Chase dining places as well as their own regular haunts.

The Downtown Lexington Corporation has regularly urged people to come downtown for scheduled events and, in my opinion, the only one which has really worked is the free Thursday Night Live series. The Gallery Hops are also well attended but the social mix is not the same. The side shoot of the Colt nighttime service is that, again, the social classes are mixing and of their own accord.

I, like you, have seen the City spend large amounts of funds on efforts to create something, which if allowed, that would occur on its own. West Short Street is the best example that I know. North Limestone (aka Al's Bar et al) is in early stages but definitely headed in the right direction.

In light of all that, I say again, the businesses which are gaining the greater benefit of this better access to their venues should begin weaning the service off of the public funds, both Federal and Local, since there is better use for them in other sector of Lexington. The costs of providing this service is probably not more expensive than providing and maintaining a sprawling parking lot for free to those who currently have to drive there.

Hephaestion said...

Thank you for your excellent blog. Lexington is fortunate to have you. I live in Washington DC where I have just used the subway & buses for the past 13 years. When I retire in the year 2020 I am thinking of moving to Lexington since I went to grad school at UK in the 70's and I still have friends there, though I haven't been there since the 80's. I want to live there car-free if I can, and I hope the trolley lines will help to make that possible. I will have to visit Lexington next year to see if retiring there is realistic for me. If Lexington has something like the ZipCar system by 2020 that would cinch the deal!