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How to Revolutionize a City's Transit System: An Orlando...

How to Revolutionize a City's Transit System: An Orlando, Florida Case Study

How does a city go from a bus-only transit system to a multi-modal network in a decade? Despite early setbacks, metropolitan Orlando is well on its way to getting connected. In the next few years, public and private projects — mostly on existing rails — will shape the way Central Floridians get around. Florida has

How does a city go from a bus-only transit system to a multi-modal network in a decade? Despite early setbacks, metropolitan Orlando is well on its way to getting connected. In the next few years, public and private projects -- mostly on existing rails -- will shape the way Central Floridians get around.

SunRail breathes new life into the historic Church Street station in Downtown Orlando.Florida has a bit of a history when it comes to transportation funding, to say the least. In the 1990s, Florida politicians rejected federal funds that would have helped build the state’s first light rail project in Orlando. Then, just last year, Florida infamously turned down another opportunity: to become the poster child for high-speed rail in the U.S. by linking Orlando to Tampa. Nonetheless, it seems that amid concerns over rising gas prices and environmental sustainability, transit projects are sprouting up all over Central Florida.

Two public projects are set to reshape the city’s transportation landscape. Often called the “spine” of Central Florida’s future rail system, the 61-mile SunRail commuter train is currently under construction with Phase 1 beginning service in 2014. To complement SunRail, cities to the northwest of Orlando have been looking into a train of their own. Feasibility studies for a 32-mile Orange Blossom Express (OBX) route using existing tracks are currently being undertaken.

What Orlando's transit system could look like in the next few years Similarly, the private sector has expressed interest in Orlando’s transportation scene. Engineers from American Maglev Technology are proposing to construct and run the nation’s first magnetic levitation train in the city’s tourist corridor, connecting places like Walt Disney World and the convention center with Orlando International Airport.  From the airport, a fourth line could soon take visitors and residents down to Miami on a train called All Aboard Florida.

Like any true multi-modal community, Orlando isn’t stopping with just trains. Locally, bus routes and the free downtown circulator Lymmo are expanding; regionally, new bike lanes are in the works. Overall, Orlando’s diverse transit future is looking bright -- as long as people ride it.

What makes you use public transportation?

Credits: Images copyright of Alex Lenhoff.  Data linked to sources.

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Alex Lenhoff is a graduate of the Masters of Planning in Civic Urbanism program at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. His other degrees include anthropology and foreign languages, which provide him with a diverse, human-centered perspective on...

  • Andi

    Great post! I’m so glad that someone is focusing on Orlando and the many changes it is going through. LOVE the graphic!

    Hopefully Sunrail will get the ridership necessary to move it away from a strict commuter-model and towards running more frequently at non-peak hours.

  • Inspiring. Let’s hope it runs well and people use it!

  • Norah P.

    Great blog post! I especially appreciate the map you included as it makes the proposed timeline for the different phases very clear.

    What makes me use public transportation?
    Clean, safe options with convenient routes that link me to downtown and work. The most important thing I think is to nurture a culture that embraces public transportation. Link people to the places that they want to go, and make it easy. The first step is to get the trains up and running. If you build it, they will come!

  • Ashley

    Nice post and map! It’s great to see all the proposed projects put together in one place.

  • Crystal Fox

    So awesome! What makes me ride the train is the ease of not having to worry about parking or the possibility of drunk driving. I will feasibly be able to get from Altamonte to Disney according to the above map in the future. I love it! When I was in Madrid recently they didn’t just have a subway system they had rail lines and both systems connected. The ease for tourists getting around will be great as well. I know we cannot have subways because of the limestone in Florida but the rail system is putting our best foot forward. I am still upset to see the high speed rail be shut down but maybe this will help spark interest again, and maybe Tampa will want to try to improve our rails as well. Thanks, I enjoyed it.

  • Mary Moskowitz

    Thanks for the great post. One of the biggest criticisms I hear about SunRail is that it only provides a north-south connection. I really like how your transportation diagram clearly indicates how SunRail is the spine for a larger Central Florida regional transportation network.

  • Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Andi: That’ll be the hardest part, turning SunRail into more-than-just-commuters system. Hopefully they’ll start by running it on Magic and OCSC game days.

    Norah: I agree, we need to change people’s attitudes towards public transit. But I’m pretty sure gas prices will take of that in the coming years…

    Crystal: With a more flexible schedule, SunRail could definitely move workers during the day and safely transport tourists and party-goers at night. According to their website, if All Aboard Florida is successful with its first leg, they want to expand to Tampa and Jacksonville.

    Mary: Definitely. An expansion to the east (Colonial, UCF, Waterford, even Cocoa Beach) would draw in a lot of passengers.

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  • Nikko_P

    Apologies in advance for the wall of text.

    As someone from Orlando, I have to say this is hardly revolutionary. The Sunrail, the only rail project here that I support, is itself deeply flawed. I’ve hounded against suburb-to-CBD park-and-ride lines before and that’s very much what Sunrail is. I support it only because it actually happens to pass through a few suburban downtowns that could desperately use revitalization to counter the area’s sprawl, because it will hopefully instigate a wave of mass transit projects, and because the area’s bus system is so desperately slow because of the geometry of the road network. In fact, the rail line that Sunrail uses has no highway equivalent for buses to use — I-4 and 17-92 follow roughly the same end-to-end points but they don’t pass near the same critical downtowns. Normally I would support increased bus service but it’s just not possible to create an efficient frequent bus line that hits the same points Sunrail does. At least they’re planning a rail service that’s somewhat frequent for startup commuter rail (about every hour) and plan to run it outside of rush hour. Of course even the route itself isn’t perfect. It won’t serve downtown Deland, Sanford, or Maitland.

    Orange Blossom Express
    The maglev and the Orange Blossom Express are absolute jokes. The Orange Blossom Express follows a decaying industrial corridor from downtown and ends at a series of retirement communities. Right now the plan is to clean up the corridor, revitalize it into a ‘new urbanism area’, and establish a transit corridor downtown with I think is absolutely laudable and I wholeheartedly approve of. However, the transit element is supposed to be another commuter rail corridor. Think slow heavy trains and infrequent, inconvenient service unless you happen to be a park-and-ride commuter. However, unlike Sunrail, there’s actually a perfectly good road that parallels the rail line the entire way — Orange Blossom Trail — which could be used to establish frequent, convenient buses to downtown and be used as actual mass transit. On top of that, it seems absolutely asinine to send a commuter train down to retirement communities. Just think about that. People in retirement communities tend not to travel, let alone go to work downtown. If they do build the line, the scope of the project needs to be narrowed so the line only goes as far as Apopka (and I would say the same about any bus corridor). Do I think the rail line could be used for light rail eventually? Absolutely, but that’s pretty far down the road.

    The Maglev, I don’t even know where to start. Let’s ignore the fact for now that maglev is an expensive, pipe dream technology. The most important part is it does not serve any urban areas. The maglev goes to the airport, and serves a touristy automobile wasteland. Nevermind that everything is even more spread out than your typical suburb that’s horribly hard to serve with a fixed route high-capacity transit line. Plus, private companies have already developed a massive (if not very efficient) network of private shuttles and buses that bring you almost anywhere (ie, the internal Disney transit system, I-drive trolley, etc). It does not go where people live, it does not benefit the people who live in Orlando, it does not benefit those who pay for it, it fails at cost effective mobility, and it does not benefit the cause of urbanization in any way.

    If it were up to me to build a rail project in Orlando, I would build it from south Orlando, through the medical center, through downtown, through uptown and onward to Winter Park, maybe going through the Hannibal area. This southern part of this corridor has an existing huge employment base and great potential for urban revitalization while the northern part is quickly becoming a dense, new urban corridor with apartments and dense commerce and a college. Of course, even here it would make more sense to put in a frequent bus line before light rail.

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  • shane

    2015 will bring about the return of an annual major global tour and travel tradeshow to the Orlando Convention Center. Having a Maglev transit from the airport to the convention center available at that time would be a major boost to the tour and travel business for central Florida as the highest respected travel professionals would be able to take back information to their client markets of a renowned transportation infrastructure in the area; travelers would see it as an easy means to travel to/from the airport and (mixed with Sunrail) the surrounding central Florida community highlights (arena, downtown MCO, Winter Park shopping, etc).

    Here’s the opportunity for Orlando to explode on the world stage, once again.

  • Thomas Benton

    What is the name of the other purposed light rail system for central Fla. beside SunRail? The one I am trying to think of fell by the wayside.

  • Did the talks and projects finally come into fruition?

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