More public transportation for southern Chester County?
● By Steven Hoffman
A report released earlier this year by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) looked at the potential for more access to public transportation for southern Chester County residents—specifically, public transit service connecting southern Chester County and New Castle County in Delaware. The report concluded that there is a need to explore public transportation options to solve some of the transit gaps that already exist.
According to Amy Bernknopf, a senior transportation planner with the DVRPC, the commission relied on data from the DVRPC Household Travel Survey and from the U.S. Census to determine where commuters are coming from and going to. Approximately 15,675 commuters travel from southern Chester County to work in New Castle County, while 6,755 commute from New Castle County to southern Chester County for work, with no public transportation options currently in place.
“Commuter travel patterns that were identified in the Chester County Public Transportation Plan show that there are more people traveling from southern Chester County into New Castle County for work than vice-versa,” Bernknopf said. “In addition, there are approximately 5,000 more people making that commute [from southern Chester County to New Castle County] than into Philadelphia.”
The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission brings together elected officials and planning professionals for a collaborative effort to improve transportation, promote smart growth, protect the environment and enhance the economy. The commission serves nine counties in the region—Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Mercer in New Jersey.
For the report about public transportation between southern Chester County and New Castle County, the DVRPC conducted a detailed analysis of who lives in the two counties, what areas they are coming from, and where they are going on their trips. This information would allow elected officials and leaders from the two counties to make a determination about what kind of transit service could best meet the needs that exist.
The project team examined two types of trips that a new transit service could accommodate: work trips and non-work trips. Next, the group identified potential riders, which is a key component of determining the appropriate transit service type that would meet the needs of riders. Each trip type was then analyzed based on the characteristics of riders who might make them. Non-work trips, for example, are made by local residents to complete activities like running errands or keeping appointments. Work trips were divided into those made by “choice riders”--people who have vehicles, but choose to take public transportation, and “non-choice” riders—people who rely heavily on public transit as their mode of transportation.
The report noted that tourists tend to travel at different times than local residents and commuters, which can present a scheduling challenge for public transportation. Also, those commuters who rely most heavily on transit as their only option tend to live farther away from their destination than those who have access to a vehicle. Additionally, far more work trips are made from Chester County to New Castle County than from New Castle County to Chester County. The fact that there are more work trips from Chester County to New Castle County makes it more difficult to create a cost-effective service model for public transit since there is an imbalance in the traffic flow that would need to be factored in.
Public transportation could be utilized by visitors to the area as well. Longwood Gardens and Winterthur are the largest tourist destinations in the study area. It's difficult to identify where people were visiting Longwood Gardens from since most of the people are out-of-towners and might be staying in a nearby hotel or with family or friends. However, the project team did have access to data about when people visit Longwood Gardens. There is a strong weekend peak in visitation, with the highest number of visitors on Sundays. There is also a large seasonal peak, with the Christmas season drawing the most visitors. In fact, December visitors are nearly double the number of visitors in May, the second highest month. Accommodating tourists traveling in the area could be one goal if public transportation services were increased.
While there is increased traffic flow between Chester County and New Castle County, implementing a plan will have challenges. Two such challenges will be how to develop a transit service that is cost-effective to operate, and how to develop transit service that is competitive when it comes to how long it takes for passengers to reach their destinations. People who live in the suburbs use their personal vehicles to make the majority of their trips, and public transportation options would have to offer them amenities that are comparable to what they would have while driving their own vehicles.
The idea of creating a public transit connection between southern Chester County and New Castle County is not new. The report noted that previous attempts to provide public transit in the area have produced inconsistent results. There have been several traditional, fixed-route service lines established along the Route 202 corridor, but continually changing service patterns and schedules failed to attract enough riders. Ultimately, the services were discontinued.
A company called Reeder had the route rights in the early 1970s, and operated in southern Chester County and New Castle County until 1982. Later, SEPTA offered services along three routes along Route 202 between 1995 and 2013. Eventually, funding issues prompted the routes to be changed. Riders were forced to take a second bus to get from West Chester to Wilmington, which lengthened the time it took to make the trip. That was not attractive to commuters. Other routes in the area were poorly used for a variety of reasons. Funding streams constantly changed for the routes, and there was a lack of local and municipal support.
The project team conducted interviews of transit operators and studied different operations strategies for various public transportation services.
One of the recommendations coming out of the report is for local officials to consider bus service and vanpools with a limited number of stops. The limited stops shortens the travel time for passengers making regional trips. Vanpools are often used to fill gaps in transit services by coordinating travel between groups of people with similar origins, destinations, and schedules. A public or private transit provider coordinates a group of potential passengers who have similar trip ends. The costs of commuting—gas, insurance, car maintenance, cost of a vehicle, and parking—are shared among the participants of the vanpool. Vanpools tend to be cost-effective if the travel distance is between 15 to 40 miles.
According to Bernknopf, “Reliability of service is critical to building and maintaining a ridership base.” She added that the route and stops must be located where passengers can reach them safely.
“Our recommended next step is for employers and residents to be surveyed to identify if there is enough interest and passengers to support this type of transportation service,” Bernknopf said.
Chester County's comprehensive plan, Landscapes2, already has a stated goal to “enhance access to and the use of transportation systems to reduce traffic congestion.” Specifically, the county wants to boost to 15 percent the percentage of residents who use modes of transportation other than single-occupancy vehicles by 2019.
The county's plan also includes benchmarks for the future of transit service. The plan envisions three commuter service connections between southern Chester County and New Castle County—one between Kennett Square and Wilmington, another between West Chester and Wilmington, and a third between Avondale and Wilmington—as the population in the area continues to grow in the decades ahead. There could be more and more discussions in Chester County about public transportation.
“There is always a need to consider mobility options for those who do not have access to a car or who prefer not to use one all the time,” Bernknopf said. “What those options look like might be different thirty years from now than they do today.”
The Delaware Valley regional Planning Commission report emphasized that partnerships can be very important in creating new forms of public transit service. According to the team that worked on the report, one of the next steps is to undertake a comprehensive planning process that includes an existing service evaluation and a step-by-step plan for implementation.
One prime area for future public transportation would be the Route 202 corridor between West Chester and Wilmington, which could be selected for a limited-stop bus service. This could increase local accessibility without requiring too many stops. The bus could be coordinated to run during the peak hours of the major employers in the area. By focusing on meeting the needs of potential riders, this public transportation option could succeed long-term where other bus routes in the area have faltered over time.
The report states, “If a limited stop service is selected for implementation, it could be branded and marketed as a regional service to ensure potential riders are aware of how it differs from traditional local bus service. The service should be piloted to test routing and stop locations.”
The report by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission offered some suggestions on what the next steps should be. They include the following:
~ Assemble a group of interested participants to act as the leaders to bring the project to fruition. Reach out to other public agencies and private employers to identify additional shareholders. The leaders could come from county planning commission boards, commerce departments, transit agencies, health departments, and the state departments of transportation.
~ Choose which rider type or types to provide service for. These rider types could be local, non-choice riders, choice riders, tourists, or a combination of rider types.
~ Decide on the service type that would fit for land use and rider types. The services could be limited-stop bus service, vanpools, a combination of fixed and flexible services, etc.
~ Determine if there should be a pilot program. Before a pilot program is started, several questions should be considered: Is there enough evidence of demand to support a service? Is there funding in place to support operations and maintenance for three to five years? Would a pilot program help to justify answers to these questions?
~ Research potential funding sources.
Next, the group leading the effort should do the following:
~ Determine which communities the new transit route will serve
~ Identify and design specific route alignments
~ Establish specific bus stop locations
~ Find grant opportunities and/or matching funds or partnerships for operations, maintenance, and capital costs to implement and continue the new route for five years or more.
~ Design stops, facilities, and street improvements
~ Develop an operating plan and implementation schedule
~ Develop a marketing plan and brand management strategy