Earlier this month, New York City did something remarkable. The city transformed one of its busiest crosstown routes into a bus-only street and, by all accounts, the world did not end.
It’s being called a miracle, but really, it required no divine intervention: Faced with crushing congestion on 14th Street, the city simply separated its buses from other vehicular traffic. The M14 bus now runs at twice the speed of the M42 bus, which travels a similar distance along Midtown Manhattan’s 42nd Street; it’s so fast that riders are missing their stops. The street is quieter, calmer, and safer, with no adverse affects on other nearby streets.
Improved service that exceeds all expectations? This is everything that public transit in this county must aspire to if we want to reduce emissions, congestion, and traffic deaths. What can deliver all this and more? Dedicated bus lanes.
New York is getting the attention this week—and 14th Street is just an 18-month pilot project—but all over the U.S., cities are giving more buses their own lanes. Just in the past year, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle have all added high-profile bus-only routes. The impact has been nothing less than transformational: bus lanes have boosted frequency, ridership, and reliability—and they cost next to nothing.
So here’s my idea: What if we do this everywhere in the U.S., starting next week? What if we woke up next Monday morning and every bus being slowed down by cars was freed from traffic?
Went out of my way to see the new 14th St first hand. It’s remarkable how relaxing it feels without the car noise and the fumes.— Alec Perkins (@alecperkins) October 4, 2019
Buses rolling along with regular service: pic.twitter.com/Q1uX3qUIpm
“If we could snap our fingers and give every bus bogged down in traffic a dedicated lane instead, the impact would be stupendous,” says Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter. “It wouldn’t solve every problem American bus systems are facing, but one of the biggest problems for transit in major cities is slow, unreliable bus service, and this would do a lot to address those problems.”
Buses are trapped, physically and symbolically, in a vicious circle. Virtually every large U.S. city has watched transit ridership plummet over the last decade. More cars driving more miles create more congestion, which, in turn, slows down buses, which hurts ridership, which drives people back into cars.
But allocating specific space for buses will speed them up, says Fried, making buses a more attractive option.
“If buses can bypass car congestion, bus travel will be more competitive with car travel, and ridership will climb,” says Fried. “A surface transit network with dedicated lanes everywhere they’re needed will carry a lot more people than the network we have today.” A single bus lane, he says, can speed up trips for tens of thousands of riders each day.
The numbers don’t lie. In Los Angeles, a dedicated bus lane is moving 70 buses per hour. Seventy! Buses! Per hour!
A bird's eye view of a dedicated bus lane in action. We're moving nearly 70 buses an hour through the Flower Street bus lane each evening! pic.twitter.com/funsVVdX81— LA Metro (@metrolosangeles) July 23, 2019
Meanwhile, vehicular emissions are up in virtually every U.S. city. Cities need to find a way to get people to switch to low-carbon modes of travel. Carving out street space for particular modes means cities can prioritize how people will use different forms of transportation. Bus lanes make the most sense because they move the most people—up to 25,000 people per hour.
“Streets are some of the most flexible spaces in cities,” says Alex Engel, program manager of NACTO, which is working with five cities on transformative, quick-build projects like dedicated bus lanes designed to reduce emissions within two years. “By changing what we prioritize on our streets, we change how we use them—for walking, for biking, for efficient transit, or as public space.”
Minneapolis, one of the cities that NACTO is working with, has made increased ridership through dedicated lanes part of its climate strategy. City leaders estimate that doubling its regional transit ridership will reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. Imagine, one-third of your city’s emissions vanishing just by giving a few buses their own lanes!
Street space in cities is limited. Here's what we can do with it. pic.twitter.com/etj39oMstI— NACTO (@NACTO) September 25, 2019
Bus lanes are also one of the cheaper options for improving public transit. The beauty of a bus lane is that it doesn’t require much additional infrastructure or planning. Some red paint creates a nice “red carpet” effect, but as cities are proving, you really only need a few cones and some enforcement to make the whole thing work. Tactical transit lanes are being used by more cities to test a route before a more formal change is made. (And yes, cities might have to get rid of a few parking spaces. But bus lanes mean faster transit and fewer cars—that parking won’t be necessary.)
Plus, as the federal government withholds major funding for rail projects, and state transportation departments remain stuck on expanding highways, bus lanes are something cities can do without additional funding. And cities of any size that operate bus systems can do this. Look at Indianapolis, which debuted a brand new bus-rapid transit system, 60 percent of which runs in dedicated lanes. Or Denver, where a bus recently took 48 minutes to go 1.1 miles. Soon, buses on that same route will be able to flow freely, thanks to a double bus lane. A double bus lane!
The implications for bus lanes go far beyond ridership and emissions. If the needs of bus passengers are prioritized, it makes the entire transit experience more equitable for those who don’t or can’t use cars, says Jarrett Walker, who works as a consultant for city bus systems.
“It means that you have more equal access to opportunity,” he says. “Everyone can go more places, more reliably, which means they can get to more jobs, educational opportunities, social opportunities. Everyone wins.”
The Red Line approaching 42nd. Wait for the crowd shot at the end. pic.twitter.com/0d2kjabMFr— Scott Russell (@GoIndyGo) September 1, 2019
It’s clear that cities have to take matters into their own hands to get transit back on track. Last week, mayors from 100 cities, including many of the U.S.’s “climate mayors,” met in Copenhagen to declare a global climate emergency, pledging to accelerate efforts to reduce emissions and air pollution. Bus lanes are the type of radical change that’s needed—and the only solution that could be rolled out quickly enough to make the dramatic transformations needed.
Giving every bus in the U.S. its own lane next week could lead to even more systemic changes, says Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, and co-author of a report on tactical transit lanes.
“In three weeks, we wouldn’t have enough buses to serve all of the demand,” he says. “In five weeks, people would be fed up with transit agencies’ non-responsiveness to the new demand and advocate for carpool vehicles to use the lanes. If the bus lanes were in fact permanent, in ten weeks you’d see GM coming to a labor agreement and retooling factories to make buses.”
Let’s free the buses—and see where they take us.