Study ranks Fresno's transit system No. 5 in U.S.

May 13, 2011 

Anybody who has ridden a bus in the Fresno area lately likely would be startled to hear the city's transit system ranks No. 5 in the nation.

Better than New York, San Francisco or Boston? Really?

Absolutely, The Brookings Institution said in a study released this week: Fresno Area Express is a national leader -- when it comes to the ability to bus a large percentage of commuters to work in 90 minutes or less.

In Fresno, "the job access is phenomenal, it's one of the best in the country," said Adie Tomer, a co-author of the Brookings study "Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America."

The study found that 93% of Fresno city residents live within three-quarters of a mile of a bus stop and that the median wait for a bus at rush hour is only 10.7 minutes.

Census and other data show that a majority of jobs are within 10 miles of downtown.

"That's probably true," said Mike Dozier, director of the Office of Community and Economic Development at California State University, Fresno, which oversees the Regional Jobs Initiative.

But Fresno is behind other areas in mass transit because it lacks a light rail system that can move people quickly, he said.

The Brookings study ignores actual ridership, Dozier said.

"We're wedded to the car and most people don't take the bus, including me," Dozier said. "It's mainly how we get around in society in this area."

But it's nice that Fresno ranked high in a survey that wasn't about America's "drunkest" cities, he said.

Some regular bus riders say FAX would have ranked much lower if the study had factored in service.

"They're late, and they pass without picking you up," said Amanda Ramirez, 43.

And if you need to work late or on weekends? Don't count on FAX.

"If I'm working Saturday or Sunday, the last bus leaves at 6:06 p.m. and I work until 6," said Iantha Hutchinson, 60, who commutes to her job at Macy's in River Park. "It's absolute panic."

Fresno Area Express doesn't operate 24/7, acknowledged John Downs, planning division manager for the city's Department of Transportation. But it does focus on adjusting routes and schedules so people can get to where they work, he said.

For instance, FAX extended the route of the No. 30 bus on Blackstone to River Park in part for people who work there, he said.

And the No. 32 Fresno Street bus brings employees to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center and the medical community in northeast Fresno.

"If you plotted employment centers and maps of the routes, we're touching the employment centers in this city," Downs said.

"The West is best" when it comes to transit systems that bring people from neighborhoods to work sites, according to the study.

The Top 10 cities included Honolulu, San Jose, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Ariz., Albuquerque, N.M., and Las Vegas.

Western cities did well in the study because their public transportation systems were built as the cities grew, said co-author Alan Berube.

By contrast, transit systems in the East were built before sprawl and suburbanization took jobs and homes to new locations.

The Brookings study crunched census numbers, maps and bus schedules to determine the rankings. For Fresno, it included county islands and the outskirts, but not Clovis.

The study urged urban planners and decision-makers -- who are struggling to balance revenue-deprived budgets -- to maintain funding for public transportation so workers can get to jobs.

The need for good public transportation has grown because of the recession and high gasoline prices, the study said.

Some FAX riders agree with at least that part of the study.

"It's a lot cheaper than taking my car," said Tonya Akes, an account clerk at the Fresno County Auditor-Controller's Office.

She has been taking the bus five days a week since January and figures she is saving around $100 a month in gas and parking.

But it's a pain if you're in a rush, some riders said.

"I'm saving money, but I'm losing time," said Anthony Garcia, a county employee who had to travel by bus because his truck needs work.

"It takes me 18 minutes by car, an hour by bus."

The reporter can be reached at lgriswold@fresnobee.com or (559) 622-2416.

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