Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fresno's new night bus service comes with some big asterisks

Fresno's bus system (FAX) recently launched "night" service on May 1st. When I wrote about this news, details were quite sparse. Indeed, the FAX website didn't update with the new schedules until the first day of the extended service. Unfortunately, some of those details have been disappointing.

Here are the issues which really only became clear AFTER service launched.

  • Only Monday to Friday
  • 1 hour wait between buses after 6pm 
  • Only 5 routes offering "night" service 
  • ....and only on select portions of those 5 routes

What is night service? 

The reason I am putting quotation marks around "night" is because in most cities, the announcement of night service tends to mean buses running at 2am, 3am or 4am. In Fresno, "night" means new service between 9pm and midnight. Critically important, yes, but a reflection of how poor service used to be. 

Only Monday to Friday 

I had guessed the first point, based off the newsletter announcement, so it wasn't as much of a surprise. However, it is still ridiculous that bus service on Saturdays, across all of Fresno, ends at around 7pm. To be fair, service was not reduced on weekends, so there has not been a decline in service. That being said, the new "night" service highlights how poor weekend service is. That is something that should be addressed.

Long headways 

Another concern is that nothing pre-launch talked about frequencies at all. Earlier this year, FAX launched "FAX-15," or buses running every 15 minutes (vs every 20 or 30) on select lines. However, that service level ends early, before 7pm.

On route 38 for example, one of the busiest lines in the system, buses arrive every 15 minutes from start of service (6:15am) until 7pm. Then there is a 35 minute wait, followed by a 57 minute wait, and the last 4 runs are an hour apart.

Line 30, the busiest route, and the future fake BRT line, is actually less impressive.
6am - 5:30pm - every 15 minutes
Then 20 minutes, then 35 for 3 runs, then 45 minutes, and finally once an hour from 9pm to midnight.

It's also important to note that FAX STILL lacks a bus tracker. So an uneven schedule is even worse for riders, since you can't memorize the times.

Limited routes 

The biggest asterisk came with the reveal of the new map. Mind you, it's a nice looking map. 

FAX night map

That's missing huge chunks of Fresno West Fresno isn't even invited to the map. Riverpark, apparently, is the northern border of the city. East-west travel is not advised.

On the other hand, the routes they chose are decent. With the exception of route 32 (which I would guess was political), the highest ridership lines received new service. However, does a downtown transfer hub make sense at 11pm? That's not where the jobs are. That's not where the residents are. And frankly, that's not where people want to be standing around waiting for their connections. Downtown obviously needs service, but running both 30 and 28 so close together south of Shields seems unnecessary. A Shields crosstown bus would probably impact more people. 

Limited sections

Aside from only covering 5 routes, the chosen routes will not run their entire length during the "night" service. The reason seems to be to keep the entire night operation running with a grand total of 9 buses. 

Route 32, for example, usually runs all the way up to Riverpark, as does 38, which actually terminates downtown via south Fresno. Route 28 usually ends at Fresno State.

I'm not saying the 5 chosen routes shouldn't be shortened - making modifications absolutely makes sense. I'm just saying it's a surprise. 

Well, except in the case of Route 32.

Here is the normal run.

FaxRoute32-1_Page_1

The problem, is that the (extremely) shortened route is scheduled as follows:

32 sched

That's 24 minutes of run time, and 36 minutes of sitting around and doing nothing at all.

I looked at the other lines and this does not appear to be the case where the bus continues on another line. It appears that the bus will just sit and idle for a longer period of time than it would take to run the route again.

That's a ridiculous waste.

An easy solution would be to extend the line along Tulare to make the connection at Cedar. During the day, this is done by Route 22. Doing so provides extra east-west service, and is practically free, since you're already paying for a bus and driver to be working. 

32ext

According to Google maps, this takes 5-8 minutes. That's a round trip of 15 minutes. 

Doing this would allow the bus to run for 40 minutes and sit for 20 minutes (allowing an operator break). 

Which bring me to my last point

Run times are not really adjusted for night


According to the schedule, Route 30 takes 40 minutes to go from Blackstone and Nees at Riverpark to Cesar Chavez downtown during the first run, at 6am.

At 8am, during morning rush, it is scheduled for the same amount of time.

At 5pm? You guessed it, 40 minutes

Starting at 7:45pm and until the end of service, that is lowered to 36 minutes. 

That doesn't reflect the reality of Blackstone. During rush hour, it is a slog, and you're guaranteed to hit light after light. Google Maps places an estimate of 22-50 minutes by car. So a 40 minute scheduled bus run time is probably too short. 

But after 9pm, Blackstone south of Shaw is dead. You could have the new USL team play in the southbound lanes. There are tumbleweeds. Google maps says the trip will take 22 minutes.

Adjusting the travel time by 4 minutes from rush hour to midnight doesn't make sense. The result will be a bus sitting around waiting at every single time point. 

On the other hand Route 9 does seem to have travel times better aligned by the time of day. 

Overall, it is still fantastic that Fresno finally has bus service past 7pm. Even limited routes is ok, because people can link modes, such as using the bus to shorten a bicycle trip, or save money when using a taxi. One can ride the bus as far as it goes and continue from there.

However, that doesn't stop these limitations from being disappointing.Even worse is the way this service was announced and advertised.

Not releasing the new maps and schedules until; after the start of service? Inexcusable.

I can only hope this new service helps people get to where they need to be, and that is reflected on the ridership. I believe the federal funding allows for 3 years, so we will certainly be able to look at the data. 



BTW: While FAX did completely screw up the website side of things, they did commission a very nice video about the new service improvements, which they uploaded on Facebook. Not the best way to get the news out, but the video is really nice. Check it out.

https://www.facebook.com/780055882148724/videos/853085751512403/ 


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Aerial Shots of California High Speed Rail Construction Released!

The California High Speed Rail Authority have recently posted aerial shots of the various construction sites that are well underway in the California Central Valley, primarily around Fresno. They tend to post updates on their official Flickr account once or twice a month, but most are taken at ground level. Since the Google Earth satellite images are unfortunately over 2-year old at this point, these new photos, taken last week, provide a unique vantage point. Seeing the action from above, you can really understand the scale of the various bridges, and make sense of how they fit in.

The Cedar Viaduct is probably the most important construction area right now because of the impact it will have. The bridge will take trains over CA-99, which sees around 95,000 vehicles passing by every day. Many people are still unaware that HSR is actually happening, so seeing the bridge take shape will have a large impact.

DSC_0310
All photos courtesy of the CA HSR Authority


In downtown Fresno, they're finally finishing the new Toulumne Street bridge. This bridge will carry cars, bicycles and pedestrians over the right of way. The Stanislaus Street bridge, seen above it, will be demolished because it is not tall enough.

DSC_0301

A bit north, they're tunneling under CA-180 to let the trains go through. The trains will go under the highway, under the freight line, and under the canal.

DSC_0244

They've also rebuilt CA-99 to create a new right-of-way for the rail line.

DSC_0200

Another hugely impact project, in terms of visibility, will be where the rail line crosses over the Union Pacific tracks and then over the San Joaquin River - all right next to busy CA-99. This will be extremely visible to passing motorists.

DSC_0190

The wet winter means the bridge over the river has been stalled since December.

DSC_0157

Rural drivers will go over the rail line in a new overpass, in Madera.

DSC_0145

A bridge almost done over a creek.

DSC_0075

And the very first active construction site, a bridge over the Fresno River, is wrapping up.

DSC_0072

DSC_0042

Wrapping up? Yes, the first construction package was for the heavy stuff in the Fresno area - bridges, tunnels, and viaducts. The train stuff - tracks and wires - are part of another construction package that hasn't been handed out. The idea is to have the full right of way cleared, prepped, and ready to go, and then the last crew comes in and places the rail quickly and uniformly. 

Once again, check out the photos in the official Flickr account and keep them bookmarked because new photos get uploaded at least every month, and usually more frequently.


Monday, May 1, 2017

United brings mainline service back to Fresno

fat1
Passengers boarding a flight in Fresno
About a year ago, I took a look at air service available from Fresno Air Terminal (FAT). In that post, the news wasn't good. Fresno had lost service to Las Vegas by US Airways and United, leaving only Allegiant. Allegiant dropped Honolulu, but added Mesa (Pheonix), which they apparently are no longer selling tickets for (as of last week!). Frontier left, again. Bakersfield lost Houston, and Visalia lost all service. The switch away from propeller airplanes meant Fresno got larger planes - but less frequency.

But finally, some good news, as reported in the comments of my last post:
Just an FYI update. United posted a new schedule this weekend that is a large increase in capacity/frequency on FAT-SFO flights including bringing back a 737 to Fresno.

United currently operates 3 roundtrip flights per day, 2 on 50 seat CRJs and 1 on a 66 seat CRJ-700. That is a total of 166 seats each way.

Starting August 15, United will operate 5 roundtrip flights each day on FAT-SFO.

But the big increase is the new flights add many additional seats due to the size of the aircraft. 1 flight will be on a 166 seat 737-800, 2 on 76 seat EMB-175s, and 2 on 50 seat CRJs. That will be a total of 412 seats each way after August 15.
That is an increase of 246 additional seats over the current FAT-SFO schedule.

The anonymous comment is correct. United will be returning to Fresno with a 737, creating a huge increase in seats between Fresno and San Francisco.

Wait, returning...don't they already serve SFO?

Nope, that's Fresno's largest carrier, Skywest! You might not know them, but if you've flown out of Fresno, you've been on their planes. They serve:
  • San Francisco (branded as United)
  • Denver (as United) 
  • Los Angeles (branded as American Eagle or United)
  • Salt Lake City (as Delta)
  • Seattle (as Alaska)
  • San Diego (as Alaska)
  • Portland (as Alaska)
The only "real" domestic service (mainline) from the big carriers is to Dallas, on American, and sometimes Seattle, on Alaska. You can check out how big Skywest is here.

So what's the difference?

More seats is the most important bit. Higher supply means lower prices, which is great, because FAT is an incredibly expensive airport to fly to or from. It's also a little better for the customer experience. Larger planes means less need to gate-check your carry-ons, and a lower chance your checked bags get left behind due to weight issue. The flight can also be done slightly faster.

As I said last year:

Already an expensive airport, less options has meant higher prices, and more trouble when delays cause a connection to be missed. Everyone who flies into Fresno frequently has experience with either being forced to spend a night elsewhere or renting a car from LAX or SFO to actually arrive. While fog can be to blame in the winter (or when going to SFO), most of the time it's because the plane scheduled for Fresno is diverted to serve another scheduled flight, leaving Fresno travelers high and dry.
By adding two new roundtrips, and doing so on larger aircraft, Fresno passengers will see some serious relief. Five daily departures, rather than 3, also means you can catch another flight if you miss your connection. You can also plan trips that require shorter stays in SFO, because it's more likely that the times will match up.

The con, sadly, is that the flight is provided by United.

The other thing to think about is what this means for the other carriers.

Here is what I said a year ago:

Only Alaska has grown in Fresno, such as by offering service to San Diego. They've also recently purchased Virgin America, and taken big steps to increase their West Coast presence. If any airline is to add service to Fresno in the next few years, it would almost certainly be them.
Had you asked me last week which airline would next add service to Fresno, I still would have said Alaska. Indeed, Alaska has been going on a bender, adding flights left and right. Just in the past month they have made major moves.

In March, they announced:

San Francisco – Albuquerque eff 18SEP17 1 daily AS E175
San Francisco – Baltimore/Washington eff 16OCT17 1 daily VX 319
San Francisco – Indianapolis eff 26SEP17 1 daily VX 319
San Francisco – Kansas City eff 18SEP17 1 daily AS E175
San Francisco – Kona eff 14DEC17 1 daily VX 320
San Francisco – Nashville eff 05SEP17 1 daily VX 319
San Francisco – New Orleans eff 21SEP17 1 daily VX 320
San Francisco – Philadelphia eff 31AUG17 1 daily VX 319
San Francisco – Raleigh/Durham eff 19OCT17 1 daily VX 319
San Jose CA – Austin eff 28AUG17 1 daily AS E175
San Jose CA – Los Angeles eff 20SEP17 4 daily AS E175
San Jose CA – Tucson eff 28AUG17 1 daily AS E175

And then:

San Diego – Albuquerque eff 18OCT17 1 daily
San Diego – Austin eff 27AUG17 1 daily
San Diego – Kansas City eff 15DEC17 1 daily
San Diego – Minneapolis/St. Paul eff 18NOV17 1 daily
San Diego – Omaha eff 28AUG17 1 daily
San Diego – St. Louis eff 15DEC17 1 daily

And:

Los Angeles – Philadelphia eff 01SEP17 1 daily Virgin America service(Previously served by
Portland OR – Detroit eff 30AUG17 1 daily Alaska Airlines service
Portland OR – New York JFK eff 06NOV17 1 daily Alaska Airlines service

I probably missed a few. Or a few dozen.

The other airlines have noticed, especially Delta.

And I think this is United's attempt to head off more Alaska expansion in California. 

Alaska service to San Jose could provide an important commuting connection to Silicon Valley, and also link in to their strengthening cross-country network. Alaska could also look to bring back service to many cities Fresno has lost:

Blast from 1997:
It should be noted that SkyWest's United Express service at Fresno will be
 limited to Ontario and Las Vegas and that those flights have been designated
 with 5000-series flight numbers.  Passengers traveling on other United Express
 services from Fresno to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Burbank, Orange County and
 Sacramento will actually be flying on partner United Express carrier, WestAir,
 under 7000-series flight numbers 
Fresno currently has no service to Ontario, Burbank, Orange County, or Sacramento. Also, WestAir no longer exists.

Alaska could also try for something random - maybe Fresno to Austin, Boise, or Albuquerque?

Regardless,what Alaska has planned for the future is all speculation, but new United service looks to be a sure thing, and that's worth celebrating.