Bus Rapid Transit: the solution to the region's gridlock
"We wish we had never started the whole thing. Fixed rail is not the answer to the transportation needs of our city. We should stop all...
Special to The Times
"We wish we had never started the whole thing. Fixed rail is not the answer to the transportation needs of our city. We should stop all this insanity that has gone on these past years."
— Richard Riordan, mayor of Los Angeles, on the public radio program, "Which Way LA?," June 1998.
The mayor was right, both for his city and ours. We should stop railing at gridlock and put in place a Bus Rapid Transit system that would:
• Cover the entire metro Puget Sound region at 60 mph, 24/7;
• Have far more capacity than competing systems such as light rail or monorail;
• Support "walkable," mixed-use neighborhoods, and;
• Set the stage for a total regional mobility solution.
The spine of this system would be comprised of 150-plus miles of freeway high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes. Another 100-plus miles would be made up of arterial bus-only lanes.
Additionally, there would be short sections of busways, bus tunnels and, possibly, elevated bus-on-rail (guided-bus) structures, similar in mass to the existing Seattle Center monorail.
Finally, Sound Transit's downtown-Seattle-to-Sea-Tac Airport initial segment of light rail, currently under construction, would be converted to guided-bus technology.
HOT lanes are high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes that have been converted to transit-priority status and emergency-vehicle use, with other vehicles admitted — but only to the extent that there is room — via a variable toll. This toll is collected electronically and varies every few minutes. Transit vehicles include buses, vanpools and qualifying carpools.
The objective is to keep the HOT lanes in free-flow (50 to 60 mph) at all times, even during the height of rush hours. Several such systems are in place around the nation, and one is being implemented here on Highway 167 south of Renton.
Bus-only lanes would be built primarily in the parking strips of major arterials. Gates, such as one finds at parking lots, would keep out non-transit vehicles. These lanes could be rush-hours-only or full-time. Particularly if they are full-time, it would be necessary to more than replace parking lost to merchants with public parking lots or garages.
Busways are simply bus streets, such as the "E3 Busway" south of downtown Seattle. There are times when the stream of buses, their "through-put," is such that it requires a street rather than a lane. Bus tunnels, of course, are busways that are under ground.
Guided-bus systems are a hybrid of bus and rail systems, having some of the characteristics of each. Buses ride on concrete rails, like some trains in the Paris Metro, producing a smoother ride than is normally found on surface streets. On the other hand, they are able to drive off the rails at each end of the track to pick up and drop off passengers. Such guided-bus operations can be on the surface, in tunnels, or atop an elevated structure, which can be relatively slim — similar to the existing Seattle Center monorail in size and massing.
Finally, while Sound Transit's initial segment of light rail represents a foolish squandering of literally billions of scarce transportation dollars, it is becoming a "sunk cost" which cannot be just abandoned. Therefore, the right thing to do is to convert it to a more appropriate technology, such as bus-on-rail (guided-bus), which would dovetail with Bus Rapid Transit in other corridors.
BRT issues to consider include:
BRT capacity vs. light rail. The plain fact is that Bus Rapid Transit in HOT lanes (BRT/HOT) has more capacity than heavy rail (such as San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit), let alone light rail (such as Portland's MAX), systems.
The reason for this is that the capacity of any transit system is determined at the stations. With rail, a train cannot, of course, enter the station unless the one before it has left. The time between trains is called the "headway." It invariably is two or three minutes at a minimum, more on "non-grade-separated" systems (those running on surface streets and therefore prone to auto and truck interference, such as Sound Transit's initial segment of light rail).
With BRT/HOT, however, the transit unit (bus) pulls off the right of way (HOT lane) to discharge and take on passengers. Under these circumstances, you can run buses in the right of way every few seconds, rather than every few minutes.
Stuck in traffic? As demonstrated around the nation, HOT lanes flow at highway speeds at all times. And because buses and vanpools always have absolute priority, their travel time is guaranteed.
Off the freeway, buses in bus-only lanes with traffic-signal preemption move without being subject to undue traffic interference. And, of course, buses on busways or guided-bus structures move at the speeds they are designed for.
Support for "walkable" neighborhoods. Some proponents of light rail believe that Bus Rapid Transit cannot support "walkable" neighborhoods.
However, this view is becoming a minority one now that many examples of just such support are showing up around the nation and world.
At a recent "Railvolution" conference in Salt Lake City, a description of one of the sessions stated: "Is it really true that you have to have steel wheels to make a good [transit oriented development, i.e. 'walkable' neighborhood, anchored by transit]? Many would suggest that this is a myth — one that can be dispelled by examples from South America, Australia, Canada and the United States ... Learn how BRT actually shapes communities and achieves the same developmental objectives of its steel-wheeled cousins."
Quality of service. A persistent theme among certain local politicians is that you can't have a "world class" city/region without rail. Possibly this is true if your buses are stuck in traffic, if they "belch" diesel fuel, if their stops are exposed to the weather, and if the buses lurch down the road.
But none of these apply to high-quality BRT systems. Being stuck in traffic was dealt with above. As for diesel belching, our buses are increasingly first-generation hybrids, and the next generation will be even cleaner and quieter. Stops can and should be the equivalent of rail stations: clean, dry and comfortable, with tickets bought off the bus and boarding level with the platforms.
As for lurching, this is a matter of the controls and the roadbed. With modern controls, buses can start and stop as gradually as a train. And the roadbed can be as good as we are prepared to pay for.
BRT expense vs. light rail. This is a big subject, but because most of the roadbed is already in place, BRT systems would be about a tenth of the cost of light rail in this region. Where light rail has been built economically, such as in San Diego or Salt Lake City, either the rails have already been in place or the topography is such that it's easy to lay them without condemnations or tunneling.
Guided-bus technology. Guided buses are not necessary for BRT. On the other hand, given the money spent to date by Sound Transit, it makes sense to convert their initial segment of light rail to a bus-on-rail system. The same technology, because it so accurately guides them, would allow four lanes of buses to pass each other in the downtown Seattle transit tunnel, and thus permit "skip stops" with the consequent doubling of transit through-put.
Through-put of HOT vs. general-purpose lanes. This is not strictly a Bus Rapid Transit issue. However, it is germane because it indicates where the technology underlying BRT/HOT could lead.
We all know that if you put too many cars on a freeway, traffic bogs down into gridlock, this due to demand exceeding supply. When this condition prevails for any period of time, the "traffic pipes" in effect contract, causing the highway equivalent of a coronary thrombosis. The fact that this "thrombosis" happens just when supply is needed the most, at rush hours, is doubly ironic.
One approach that has had success with this problem is ramp metering, which has markedly increased the through-put of our local freeways. "Congestion pricing," the traffic-control mechanism behind HOT lanes, could be considered "ramp metering on steroids." If it were applied to all freeway lanes (which, of course, is not necessary for BRT/HOT), it could increase the capacity of our freeway network up to twice the current rush hours' through-put.
Bus Rapid Transit is, or should be, the mode of choice for high-capacity transit in the metropolitan Puget Sound region. It has far more capacity than competing systems, supports "walkable" neighborhoods, and provides 60 mph transit mobility to the entire metro region 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Furthermore, if implemented, it would set the stage for an increase of freeway capacity, up to double current rush hours' through-put — with congestion-free auto mobility guaranteed literally forever, should we decide to pursue that sometime in the future.Donald F. Padelford, of Seattle, writes frequently on transportation issues. A longer, foot-noted version of this commentary can be found at www.bettertransport.info/-padelford/brtpugetsound.htm
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.