It's Time for Some Real Talk on JTA's Skyway Plans

March 6, 2018

Local transit advocates were thrilled when the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) embarked on a mission to finally upgrade Downtown's long-suffering Skyway. But anticipation for what is being called the Ultimate Urban Circulator, or "U2C", is quickly melting as questions arise about its ability to adequately serve Urban Core neighborhoods. Is Jacksonville setting itself up for another big transit disappointment?

4. Dedicated Right-of-Way

Recent renderings show a hybrid system combining the current elevated Skyway tracks, running down to regular streets in mixed traffic.

As much as we want a one-size-fits-all solution to mass transit in the urban core, this system can't be all things to every transit user. Desiring the flexibility to operate on an elevated structure or at-grade to extend the Skyway's reach into adjacent neighborhoods is a noble goal. But any plan that defines "flexibility" with running vehicles on city streets mixing with regular traffic should be taken out back and quickly shot.

Regardless of whether it's a regular bus, Bus Rapid Transit, a streetcar, light rail, or autonomous vehicles, a transit circulator system will not perform adequately without dedicated right of way.  Dozens of examples across the country prove this fact - good transit needs its own lanes, full stop. It's no different for autonomous vehicles; manufacturer 2getthere is clear that mixing transit vehicles in with regular traffic drops the maximum capacity of a line to 500 to 2,500 pphpd. That's well below the Skyway's current standards. In addition, in the case of a major downtown sports event or festival, the last thing anyone wants to see is hundreds of little shuttles traveling at 25 miles per hour or lower, clogging local streets with regular event traffic. This defeats the major benefit this system would need to attract choice users - convenience and reliability. The smart thing here is to provide the extended Skyway system its own dedicated right-of-way across the board, both elevated and at-grade. This should involve at least a raised traffic separator, as opposed to a solid line of white paint to keep it free and clear of regular vehicular traffic.

Assuming a system is well used and mixed in with traffic, this image by the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) illustrates what a congested urban street could look like.

3. Economic Development

Transit is being used as a method to encourage economic development in cities across the country. The expansion of the Skyway should bring the same benefits to Jacksonville's urban core, which has witnessed a population loss of 50% since 1950.

A major reason for American cities to invest millions in circulator, rapid transit, and fixed transit systems is to leverage the public investment as a way to stimulate economic development and encourage infill in areas that are designed to accommodate twice as much density as they do today. Streetcars in particular have proven excellent at spurring development, to the point that one of the chief complaints about them is that cities sometimes build them just for the development boom, rather than as a transit solution.

While media has talked a lot about emerging autonomous technologies, there's been little discussion on how the system will achieve one of its primary purposes and stimulate economic development. What little has been stated focuses on tying together a few pre-determined Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) mega sites and trendy neighborhoods. If we're going to extend to connect with various destinations in Riverside, Springfield and San Marco, it's time to take a long and hard look at how routing and coordinated land use policies can be used to help generate economic activity in nearby areas that may not appeal to "select" demographics today.  For this to happen, multiple local public agencies need to invest in the value of coordination and implementation.

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