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Googling a Suburban Transit Plan

September 18, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
The high-tech giants of the Silicon Valley have already shown us the way to the Information Age. Now they're reinventing transit for suburban commuters in ways that the Twin Cities could learn a lot from.

Using advanced route-planning software and real-time wireless schedule updates, infotech leaders Yahoo, eBay and especially Google have pioneered "smart bus" services to ferry their far-flung employees to and from work across the sprawling suburbs of northern California.

Some of the 1,200 Google employees who regularly ride the free biodiesel-powered buses to the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., consider it the best of the company's fringe benefits - beating out free meals and doctor checkups, and even the on-campus haircuts, car washes and oil changes.

From this vantage point, it looks like a private-sector solution that public transit agencies nationwide could well copy.

One of the shortcomings of most transit systems is their hub-and-spoke layouts, often based on century-old streetcar routes, that well serve downtown commuters but do little for the growing numbers of folks who live in one suburb and work in another. It's a problem that has confounded transportation planners for decades and led, unsurprisingly, to weak political support for public transit in the suburbs.

But what if Metro Transit in the Twin Cities, for example, did more to monitor regional travel patterns, sign up potential suburban bus-riders and tailor routes to meet their needs when enough of them clustered along individual corridors? And couldn't large
A few possible suburban transit plans. Click the image to enlarge
suburban employers and office parks get involved, especially now that Metro Transit is discontinuing the discounts it has offered firms for employee transit passes?

These are questions being asked by Salman Mitha, Ph.D., a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur now living in Eagan. Continuing a 20-year career focused on commercializing emerging technology, Mitha has joined Minnesota 2020 as a research fellow in economic development and green technology. And he's promoting his Google Bus-modeled plan for "Rapidly Deployed Rapid Transit."

According to Mitha, the benefits would include stress-free commuting for workers and increased productivity for their employers. A pilot program could start on a small scale at a modest cost, he said. Google won't discuss the costs of its 32-bus, 4,400-miles-a-day system, but Mitha estimated per-rider outlays at $10,000 to $15,000 for upfront capital and $2,000 to $3,000 a year for operations.

Fuel savings alone, a projected 250 gallons of gasoline per year for every commuter who switches from a private car to a smart, energy-efficient bus, could make the investment a winner for individuals and the overheating globe as well.

In this era of increasing transit ridership and declining car travel, it makes sense to explore technology-enabled ways to extend convenient bus service to suburbanites who for too long have been ignored as potential patrons of public transit.

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