Friday, June 20, 2014

Bus Rapid Transit, and the most cost effective way to stimulate ridership

We will never build another mile of heavy rail in Cambridge. It's over. Besides the quarter mile of new tunnel required to bring the Red Line to Arlington, which is possible on a multi-decade timescale, there is no reasonable place where heavy rail could even be built, let alone be done in a manner that's fiscally prudent. Does that mean new, high speed transit in Cambridge cannot be built? Hell no; it means we need methods with less surface disruption, lower costs and smaller minimum ridership numbers. There are two applicable answers, in the form of Light Rail and Bus Rapid Transit. I happen to be a huge supporter of both, but Cambridge is nearly a textbook example of where buses, previously the lowest method of transportation, can thrive. All you need to do is give them the space to fly (or drive, as the case may be).
What it is: Bus Rapid Transit
Bus Rapid Transit, henceforth referred to as BRT, is the concept of turning street running, mixed traffic buses into something closely resembling Boston's Green line. The central concept in BRT, which is NOT obeyed in Boston's Silver Line, is the concept of dedicated lanes. Why should a bus with 80 riders be forced to stay behind a car with one? By taking the "high speed" lanes in the middle of roads like Atlantic Avenue or Mass Ave, you can *add capacity*, by replacing space inefficient cars with massively space efficient buses. In addition, you create a transit line for the cost of a few buckets of paint. It won't be as fast as the Red Line, but with priority at traffic signals (something the Green Line lacks, for reasons that baffle me), it can get pretty close.
The biggest benefit: cost
For various reasons, all transit in America is expensive. Instead of wishing for a land of $50m/mile subways (It's current an order of magnitude above that), lets work with what we have now and create 5m/mile busways. 
5 million per mile?
Yes, you read that correctly. For 5 million dollars a mile, we can create rapid transit with similar speeds and frequencies to Boston's Green Line. With costs like that, the equation changes from "Why?" to "Why not?". Why shouldn't we turn all of the 66, 1 and 77 to BRT? Why shouldn't we have dedicated bus lanes all over Harvard and Kendall? Why do we dedicate 80sf of street space to one car when we could give it to 20, 30, 40 people on a bus? And who cares about Red Line reliability when you have five transit routes running Boston -> Cambridge, all with 5 minute headways?
The catch:
The answer is, unfortunately, a political one. It order to get lanes for thousands of people on buses, you need to take it away from  hundreds of people in cars, and those users are highly resistant to giving up lane space. It's worth noting that there is a common fallacy involved here: I won't stop driving my car, so traffic will just get worse with fewer lanes. A correct response, though not exactly an obvious one, is that even if you will never switch away from your car to the new, faster bus, someone else will. This solves the problem of congestion on roadways, even with fewer car lanes. In Boston, these challenges have defeated all useful BRT proposals, but in Cambridge, with the master plan on a large number of brains, I'm hopeful we can see the math behind BRT and go on an all-out war for better transit, cheaply.


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    1. Ted (Corrected Version)

      Your suggestions for bus improvement arestimulating, but I urge you not to give up on capacity and other operational improvements to the Red Line. Is there wa way to start a new thread on Red Line improvements, so that this thread stays as it is -- for buses only?

      Stephen Kaiser


    2. Sure, and you shouldn't take anything in this post as indicative of lack of support for Red Line capacity improvements, only that there is no way Cambridge will front the $600 million required, and that in the interim, the most cost effective improvement will be BRT.

  2. Yes, BRT would be a huge improvement. But even without going to all that trouble, I feel like a lot of small targeted improvements can be made to make the existing bus network more efficient. As just one example, the amount of time that the inbound 70 bus spends between Green Street and the actual Central Square stop is pretty ridiculous during rush hour, and those four minutes could be enough to miss the 83 or 91 that you're trying to connect to (and that you get to watch leaving right in front of you as you can't get to it). Moving the stops around would reduce these delays and improve the rider experience at the cost of tens or hundreds of dollars. Likewise, I'm sure there are a few places that could benefit from queue-jump lanes or other traffic control measures that gets cars out of the way of buses. All of which could be done very, very cheaply, especially if all it takes is paint or re-timing some traffic signals and installing signs.