Sunday, August 2, 2015

Changes to Tucson’s Ronstadt Transit Center
Should Mostly Benefit Bus Riders

I have spent many hours in transit centers -- waiting for trains or buses, whiling away some time during a layover, or waiting for the arrival of a friend -- and whether I was in Union Station in Chicago or the main train station (hlavní nádraží) in Prague, I’ve watched people striding purposefully along, taken advantage of the shops and cafes on offer, and I've enjoyed the barely controlled chaos around me. Obviously, transit centers are necessary so that travelers can use the washroom, buy something to eat or drink, and find a bench to sit on because sometimes a layover or wait can last for hours, but it seems that the kind of transit center a city needs depends on the range of transit services offered and how long people are likely to have to wait there.

This brings me to the two proposals recently unveiled by developers showing how they would convert Tucson’s Ronstadt Transit Center into a “multimodal transit center,” including apartments, a café and retail outlets, and even a hotel. Why, I ask, would our city want to do that? Ronstadt is a place where the routes of Sun Tran buses converge, and you can go there to catch any bus that travels through the city’s downtown. But at Ronstadt an hours-long wait should never be necessary because, even though Sun Tran schedules are sometimes woefully inadequate, if you are unlucky enough to have just missed your bus on a hot Sunday afternoon, you should never have to wait there more than an hour.

So though it’s nice that the proposals keep Ronstadt situated in downtown Tucson, their notions of the need for multiple uses communicates the idea that the needs of bus riders are simply not important enough to merit a space for themselves. Why does Ronstadt have to be made “multimodal,” and in what way is it an “underutilized piece of land” as city planners have stated? As Greg Evans wrote in the Occupied Tucson Citizen in March of 2013, regarding Bus Riders Union misgivings about proposed changes at Ronstadt:

How it is that a place through which 27,000 people pass daily in our otherwise quiet downtown could be considered “underutilized” explains the union’s concerns: it is underutilized commercially. And this leads us to the issue of it becoming “multi-use.” One could argue that the Ronstadt Center is already multi-use, in that it was designed to be convertible into an open plaza for special public events such as Second Saturdays downtown—which it, of course, is currently being used for.
But, in this case, multi-use means mixing public use with private use, most likely in the form of allowing the Congress Street section of Ronstadt to be developed into retail space.

Evans' article was prescient because, in fact, two and a half years later, the two developers do propose mixing public use with private use.

I have taken a long look at both proposals, and I find something to like about each of them. The Alexander proposal does offer more to bus riders, and except for moving all stops indoors, it would be quite possible to accomplish these goals in the current Ronstadt Center: “Improve conditions for Bus Drivers …[and]… enhance the riders’ experience and provide amenities,” which would include “increased security and safety, indoor waiting area, free Wi-Fi; public restrooms; ticket sales/ customer service; small retail space/ vending machines; change machines; customer service representatives; lost and found storage; transit guides; benches; improved ADA access; and bike lockers.” In fact some of those services are already available, though most of the bus riders I know would appreciate upgraded restrooms and staffing of the Information Booth.

As for the Peach proposal for public spaces, I think the existing Ronstadt Center could easily accommodate Open Space Goals that include "Location for public art; Park-like feel with large trees and grass area; Varied public seating for social interaction; Smaller, flexible space for a variety of passive uses; and Interactive art." But in regard to the private development with retail uses, the residential spaces and the hotel, these developments would only get in the way of people enjoying public spaces and bus riders using public transit. As Greg Evans points out in his recent July 29 article in the Occupied Tucson Citizen, both proposals would push the transit functions of Ronstadt into a very small space that would make the center far less appealing for bus riders than it is at present. And I believe that any changes at Ronstadt should be for the benefit of transit riders first and foremost.

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