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State Press Play: How effective is Tempe's Orbit system?

ASU students and Tempe city officials discuss issues with the Orbit Neighborhood Circulators


Illustration published on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

The City of Tempe is buzzing with activity: construction lines roads, pedestrians cascade crosswalks, and you may have to dodge an e-scooter or two on local streets. Getting around is not always easy, but Tempe offers free public transit through the Orbit System, a series of smaller busses that connect neighborhoods to ASU, downtown, and other important parts of Tempe. However, these busses are prone to overcrowding and unpredictable timing. In this episode of State Press Play, podcaster Balin Overstolz-McNair talks to ASU students as well as Eric Iwersen, Tempe transit manager, and Sam Stevenson, senior transit planner, to uncover challenges related to the Orbits.

Balin Overstolz-McNair:  Last year the ASU student count was over 100,000, with almost 75,000 of those students being on campus. That is a lot of students who need to get around town. And let's face it, most students don't have their own cars. But there are other options. From FLASH to light rail, the City of Tempe reported over 600,000 uses of public transportation in May of this year. Among the options are the Orbit Neighborhood Circulators: those medium sized blue buses that weave through neighborhoods and connect various parts of Tempe. For students, these are appealing because they are completely free. But how effective are they at getting students to and from campus? I spent a few days talking to students who ride the Orbits to see what they had to say. Common complaints were of timeliness, safety, and overcrowding. 

ASU student Nicholas McCurdy uses the Orbit because he lives off campus and doesn't have a car. While he was waiting for the next bus to arrive, I asked him what he would change about the Orbits. 

Nicholas McCurdy: I would like the drivers to be held more accountable. Maybe more road checks, driving checks. And I want them to implement all the new buses on because a lot of them don't have air conditioning and also they don't accommodate disability according to the Disabilities Act. The new buses have readers that read off where the next stops are and what bus is there. And the bus drivers don't announce it when people get on and so they need to have either announce it or have the readers read it off. And the new buses have that. So I want those. 

Balin Overstolz-McNair: Considering Tempe's Orbit system is one of the most used in the city, he raises a good point. At times, people are packed shoulder-to-shoulder on these buses. Combined with the lack of an announcer on older models, it questions how well the Orbits accommodate people with disabilities.  

This leads us to a major issue with the Orbits: overcrowding. 

During hours of high volume it is normal to see the Orbits, both old and new, absolutely filled with people to the point it has to pass by stops of large groups of people waiting. Other times, the Orbits take longer than the 15 minute expected wait time, leading to a larger crowd of people waiting to board. ASU student Lynae Carlin shared her experience on this with me.

Lynae Carlin: The main criticism I have is that they're supposed to come every 10 to 15 minutes and in the afternoons they get backed up so it's just four in a row. So like all four will come and then it'll be 45 minutes until another bus comes and you're just stuck here waiting.  

Balin Overstolz-McNair: Has it ever made you late for anything or messed up your schedule?

Lynae Carlin: Yeah. It doesn't usually happen in the mornings, the mornings are consistent. But in the afternoons, there will be 30 people waiting here because it's been so long since they came.  

Balin Overstolz-McNair: Every student I talked to is grateful that the Orbits are an option and that they are free, but not without their criticisms. 

I wanted to understand more about why the Orbits were implemented in Tempe and some of the challenges the designers of the Orbits went through. So I met with Sam Stevenson and Eric Iwersen, who work for the City of Tempe's transportation office and oversee the Orbit system.

Sam Stevenson: My name is Sam Stevenson, I'm the senior transit planner, so I oversee the transit program. All different modes: Orbit, local bus, light rail, the day-to-day operation, and also future planning efforts. 

Eric Iwersen: I'm Eric Iwersen, the transit manager for the City of Tempe. 

Balin Overstolz-McNair: So, how did the Orbit system begin? And why here in Tempe?

Eric Iwersen: Tempe has always been supportive of public transportation and infrastructure that gives people options for how they move around the city. We had the first bike plan in the state in the 70s. Tempe has always been wanting to provide those options to just driving alone. And of course having a college or major university, where you typically have some of these more innovative ideas percolating out of... [Tempe] lent itself well to creating that climate for those investments to happen here. 

Sam Stevenson: It really stems back to our local dedicated transit tax, which was passed in 1996. One of the components of that tax was local neighborhood circulator service that goes in the neighborhoods and connects major activity centers within Tempe. And so we were really the first city I believe to have that kind of a tax passed and so therefore that's why you saw the system roll out like you did here in Tempe. 

Eric Iwersen: We passed that in the fall of 1996 and it gives us a half cent. Did you say half cent?  

Sam Stevenson: I didn't say that, but that's true.  

Eric Iwersen: A half cent sales tax, every dollar that's spent in Tempe, funding this program, the Orbit program, as well as all the other transportation. Not all, but most of our other transportation investments. And the language for the Orbit system was actually identified as a neighborhood circulators in that ballot language in 1996.

In the years since it's passed, we've put in all the Orbit routes that were promised to the community. There's one more route in the southern part of our city that is in our long term transportation plan that hasn't been implemented. So that's the only one that hasn't been. So we look forward to, you know, as we grow to eventually having another route. Maybe even more in the long term future. 

Balin Overstolz-McNair: After talking to ASU students, they shared some of their issues with the Orbits. Things like overcrowding and safety concerns. Has the city found these challenges with the Orbits?  

Sam Stevenson: It's an ever changing operation where we're serving the public every day. Small minor issues, the larger issues that we try to resolve, long term. I'd say for the most part one of the most frequent issues that we heard was capacity. 

You know the Orbit is a free service. It's available, it connects many high density neighborhoods to ASU. You have a lot of students living in those neighborhoods and when school is in session there's times a day when sometimes the buses are so full other passengers may not be able to board. 

That was identified several years ago, and then back in 2017 we started a process to start increasing the size of some of the older vehicles and that's when you began to see the larger Orbit buses that are out there on some of the routes today. And we think that with that change we're able to really address the capacity issue, definitely you can fit a lot more people on the new Orbit buses than on the previous smaller ones. 

I'd say, that's probably one of our most commonly heard issues. Only recently did we receive the last of those that we're planning to get. And so like, for example, Orbit Mars didn't previously have those buses. So when ASU resumed this year we did have several complaints of people getting passed by a full bus. But just this past week we're able to put more of the buses in service. So we feel like we resolved the issue for the Mars route now.  

Eric Iwersen: And that being said, I mean, I would say that's kind of a good problem to have. When you have so many people wanting to ride the system that you have to make sure that you have buses that are large enough to handle that capacity. 

We work really carefully at threading the needle with the size and the character of these buses because, as we said, the service is really going from our neighborhoods. It's connecting from our neighborhoods into other major destinations and other major streets. And we're traveling in neighborhoods two-thirds...  

Sam Stevenson: At least.  

Eric Iwersen: ...Three-quarters or more, 80 percent of the routes are in our neighborhoods. So those are skinnier streets, slower speed streets...where people are living their lives and we want to make sure that this system fits in with that well, and that it's not intrusive. That's a compliment to those areas. We're trying to get buses that are more intimate and compact as possible, but still handle that peak capacity of passengers, still have good air conditioning, still be able to be clean-burning and go all day. We have to kind of thread the needle on the purchase and selection of those buses to make sure that they work well in our neighborhoods. 

Balin Overstolz-McNair: How do you maintain safety when on the Orbits, especially with the high amounts of people who ride these buses? 

Sam Stevenson: Sure. I'll just jump in and say that really safety is number one to us. You know, it's huge, right? You've got to be safe when you run the transit system because you're dealing with the public. You don't know what's going to happen. I mean, you have to have policies in place to be able to respond to issues and just try to mitigate the risk. 

We're constantly meeting with our service provider who employs the operators for the Orbit to deal with day-to-day issues that may be brought up to us, to try and make sure that anything that we perceive as a safety issue is incorporated into that operator training and retraining. Because it's an ongoing effort to make sure that our operators have the latest and greatest information. 

To your question specifically the fact that these new buses really have such a greater capacity. The older buses, you know, they really had a passenger restriction. Because once you had so many people on there, you really start to push the weight capacity of that vehicle. These new vehicles, they're called heavy duty transit buses, which means you can really pack them full of people

It's really very difficult to push that bus over its weight limit. I don't think that we're going to really have any overcrowding...but we won't be over capacity with the new vehicles that we just procured.  

Balin Overstolz-McNair: Earlier this year, new "medium duty" buses were tested by the city. Can we expect to see any newly designed buses added to the fleet? 

Sam Stevenson: It hasn't been determined yet. We just received our 25th heavy duty Orbit bus, and that was to address the three routes that we know have major overcrowding issues: the Jupiter, the Mercury, and the Mars. 

We now have enough buses to run entirely large buses on those routes. The other routes we operate—the Venus, the Earth route, and the Saturn—they don't typically have as many overcrowding issues as we see on the other routes. 

We feel like we may not need to go out and invest in such a large heavy duty vehicle for those routes. What you're referring to, the medium duty transit bus, was one that we tested because it's a potential option that we may end up with in the future. What we're really trying to do right now is we have to go through a competitive procurement process because we use federal dollars to purchase new buses, but we've written a scope of work which is very specific to our needs here in Tempe for the Orbit. 

And we think that we're gonna get a variety of different options proposed as potential solutions. Could be a medium duty, could be a heavy duty. I'm not sure yet. But those were just some different trials we ran to see, so we had an idea of what may work and what doesn't.  

Balin Overstolz-McNair: Tempe is growing. As well as ASU's student body. The city is only going to get busier. The future of the Orbit system's effectiveness depends on how well they serve a growing number of people. Be on the lookout for new buses being tested in Tempe neighborhoods, but with a wave of buses added just two weeks ago, you may already notice a difference on your Orbit route. 

And as always, for The State Press, I am Balin Overstolz-McNair. 

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