Transit in the Fast Lane: The Access Challenge

When you’re trying to run quality transit in a mixed-traffic situation, and you have a street with two lanes of traffic in each direction, the best practice is for transit to run in the faster lane, the one further from the sidewalk.  We see this most commonly with streetcars, but it’s true of any mode of street-running transit.  That’s because the lane closer to the curb is often delayed by random car movements, including cars turning, or trying to parallel-park, or doing pickup and dropoff.  So long as the fast lane is separate from any turning lanes, it’s the lane where you’ll get the best travel time in mixed traffic.

But of course this is a speed vs access tradeoff, because it means people have to cross the slower lane of traffic to get to the transit vehicle.

So how do riders get to it safely, as pedestrians, when there’s a lane of traffic in the way?

I’ve seen three solutions:

1.  Create a boarding island for stops in the fast lane, with controlled crossings of the outer lane.  Melbourne, for example:

or San Francisco’s Market Street:


The problem with these standard New World models is that the transit stop is clearly a separate place from the sidewalk, so that when you get off the transit vehicle, you’re not really “there” yet.  The separation also discourages people from just boarding a vehicle spontaneously when they see it coming.

2.  Create a “mixed” space where drivers get a clear message to slow down.  In a Vienna example that I observed but wasn’t able to photograph, the streetcar in the fast lane is at the same height as the sidewalk, while the curb lane between them rises up to that height just in the stop area; traffic engineers call this a “table,” and it has many other applications as a traffic calming device.

Even the dullest motorist will sense this bump upward as indicating they’re entering a space that’s not just a through-way for themselves.  The disadvantage of this is that motorists have to go over this bump whether there’s a transit vehicle there or not.

3.  Create a special signal, behind the transit stop, that simply stops
the curb lane of traffic when a vehicle is loading or unloading.  This
method is common in Berlin.  In this image, the car in the curb lane is stopped by a signal that you can see (facing away from us) just above it.  The signal turned red in response to the streetcar’s presence.

Cyclists clearly aren’t deterred by the signal, which is fine as long as they slow down as they cross the boarding and alighting paths of passengers.

(0.  Number 0, because it’s not a solution, is to make no provision for
the pedestrian crossing at all.  San Francisco’s California Street
cable car, for example, has several intersections where the cable car stops
in the fast lane and the signal gives motorists a green light
to run over the people getting off.  At least it still did when I was last
on that street earlier this decade; can anyone send me a photo of how
it works at, say, California & Hyde today?)

Now that I’ve watched the Vienna and Berlin examples in action, and both work really well, I suspect that the prevalent North American and Australian solution — Option 1, the boarding island — may reflect some old traffic engineering values and may not be the way of the future.  I’m sure a manual will tell you that it’s theoretically safest, because pedestrian traffic is officially channeled into signalized crossings.  It’s also the least sensitive to spontaneity and sends a counterproductive message that the transit service is something separate from the pedestrian life of the street.  I tend toward Option 3, the transit-activated signal that simply stops the curb lane of traffic.

What do you think?  Are there other options?

27 Responses to Transit in the Fast Lane: The Access Challenge

  1. Michael D. Setty September 11, 2009 at 4:06 pm #

    The problem with the “in the street” option is lack of level boarding possibilities for the disabled. I’d rather see center island platforms for streetcars, LRT and BRT with buses having doors on both sides, a la Eugene’s EmX.

  2. anonymouse September 11, 2009 at 5:29 pm #

    I like the “table”. It combines the spontaneity of just plain street boarding with the level boarding of a safety island, assuming you have low floor trams. It also takes up less space than a safety island, since you don’t need to give any width for the dedicated waiting area. I imagine that this would work best on a narrow four lane street that has exclusive streetcar lanes in the center, and car lanes on the outside. The problem is that there platform edge becomes something of a hazard, but I’m sure that can be dealt with too (shorter platforms perhaps, with only one designated door having level boarding?)

  3. Cap'n Transit September 11, 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    A solution that’s slightly different from the ones you mention is the “offset bus lane” that is currently proposed for New York’s Select Bus Service; you can see it on page 29 of this PDF (the picture is actually Amsterdam Avenue, not First or Second).
    In that scenario, there would be parking between the transit vehicle (a bus in this case) and the sidewalk, except at stops, where a “bus bulb” extends across the curb lane. It’s similar to the “Wiener table” except that cars aren’t allowed to drive past the stop in the curb lane.

  4. EngineerScotty September 11, 2009 at 9:22 pm #

    We’ve already solved the problem for school busses. (And church busses in the US, and a few other special applications).
    Flashing red (and yellow) lights, which stop traffic. No need for extra street infrastructure–when the bus or train comes to a stop to unload, the flashers go on, and vehicles are required to stop behind the vehicle. On roads without a median, traffic in both directions must stop.
    Granted, there may be some blowback from motorists, especially in places like the US where auto drivers think they own the world. When Tri-Met here in Portland added electronic “yield” signs to the back of the busses, to give busses pulling out from a stop priority over traffic in the street, some folks complained. But motorists already know what flashing lights on a bus means.
    Why transit doesn’t do this, I don’t know.

  5. Jarrett at September 12, 2009 at 12:20 am #

    Yes, bulbs should be standard in cases where the bus is in the lane adjacent
    to the parked cars. My focus on this post is a larger road with two traffic
    lanes in each direction, where transit for speed and reliability reasons
    needs to be one lane out from the curb. So a bus bulb doesn’t help us

  6. numbat September 12, 2009 at 3:58 am #

    That example you provided for Melbourne is the exception, rather than the rule.
    On most tram routes, traffic has to stop behind the tram to allow passengers to alight and board. Islands are used on high volume tram routes where this road rule would severely hamper any traffic on the road. (The pic you posted is in the CBD, not a suburban single route tram stop…..)
    That being said, I think more island stops are gradually being provided in the suburbs for disabled access.

  7. Jarrett at September 12, 2009 at 11:30 am #

    Remember this post is about situations with two lanes of traffic each way
    with the tram in the fast lane. My recollection in Melbourne is that there
    are always boarding islands in this case. Please point me to some

  8. Alon Levy September 12, 2009 at 11:50 am #

    No offboard fare collection? Oh well.

  9. jim September 12, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    Tables in the US would be vetoed by emergency services who don’t want to slow down their vehicles for them. We’ve seen speed control tables on streets that emergency service vehicles customarily use have to be split so there’s two gaps — the distance between them being the distance between a firetruck’s wheels.

  10. Max Headway September 12, 2009 at 10:55 pm #

    Melbourne’s island stops are usually placed between 2 lanes of general traffic in either direction, and track in reservation. It may take substantial political will to require cars in both lanes to stop whenever a tram pulls in, esp. along St Kilda Rd. That being said, a lot of stops could simply be cone away with, leaving a stop spacing of 600-800 metres.

  11. Alon Levy September 13, 2009 at 12:03 am #

    Why do emergency vehicles have to use the slow lane? Can’t they use the same lane as the streetcars?

  12. Louis Haywood September 13, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    The Boston Green Line “E” Branch uses “STOP” signs on its doors while street-running down Huntington Street. All Green Line LRVs have these STOP signs, but they are only applicable on the E line. Cars must, and usually do, stop behind the trolley when its doors are open. The LRVs do run down the fast lane of the 4-lane street.

  13. [email protected] September 13, 2009 at 7:16 pm #

    Huntington Avenue, rather.
    Also interesting is that the STOP sign is only on the front right door (the boarding door) even though passengers may alight from the rear 2 doors as well, which are closer to the cars in the right-hand lane. Oh well.

  14. 21st Century Urban Solutions September 14, 2009 at 11:09 am #

    I think it depends on the speed of the street. A table would work on a slower street with lots of stops anyway, but a separate island would probably be better for a faster street. Maybe the center lane isn’t really even worth it? As you’ve written about before, the principal goal of streetcars isn’t necessarily to speed up service, and I wonder if a properly-managed outer lane would work just as well anyway? Portland mainly uses the outer lanes since they’re cheaper to build and much easier to blend into the existing street layout, and doesn’t seem to have too many problems with service speed.
    San Francisco’s Muni Metro also often lacks street treatments for LRT stops. These stops would be poor by bus standards–no benches, no clear signs marking a stop, most of the time just a yellow strip around a lightpole. But, they’re not a complete catastrophe because the streets that they’re on often have frequent stop signs and are slow enough that people don’t get pancaked when they’re exiting the vehicle. Here’s an example from the L-Taraval line:,-122.483246&spn=0,359.98071&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=37.742722,-122.483434&panoid=plOpxvsusv7S8-VfPd_tIA&cbp=12,92.17,,0,7.2

  15. J September 14, 2009 at 3:04 pm #

    The E line ONLY opens the front door when running in the street.

  16. Daniel September 14, 2009 at 8:25 pm #

    While most of Melbourne’s inner-city tram stops have platform stops in the middle of the road, or old-style safety-zones (a narrower spot in the middle of the road, without a platform, but with protective fencing eg ), at many suburban locations (on roads with two lanes each way) motorists are expected to stop to allow passengers to board and alight, eg
    What you describe as a table is being tested in some areas of Melbourne, under the name Easy Access stop, eg (Note this pic has a mocked-up bike lane added; I can’t find a decent picture of one of these stops elsewhere)
    For a network the size of Melbourne’s, obviously providing level access is a big challenge.

  17. Jeffrey Bridgman September 14, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

    Alon has a point…
    In Nagasaki, Japan emergency vehicles often use the streetcar’s dedicated ROW to bypass traffic. Works pretty well in my opinion.
    Assuming level access, the Vienna table model would have only the traffic lanes raised and the transit ROW would be level, so I assume it wouldn’t slow emergency vehicles… unless of course a transit vehicle is making a stop. In which case…oops :p

  18. Jarrett at September 15, 2009 at 12:16 am #

    I disagree that the Portland Streetcar doesn’t have problems with service speed. It’s slow by design and will become slower and less reliable as traffic increases on the streets it uses. Its slowness downtown will also become a limitation if it’s ever used as the initial segment of a Portland-Lake Oswego rail line.
    Portland’s new draft Streetcar System Concept Plan advises us to expect an average speed of 7-12 mi/hour for local-stop service (p 12) running in the outside or “slow” lane (like the current Portland Streetcar). Report is at:
    The study emphasises the need for a new “fast streetcar” product that will run in the faster lane, hence the issue raised in this post.
    You are right that on low-traffic streets like San Francisco’s Taraval this isn’t much of a problem. But I’m focused on getting high quality transit to where densities are high, and those tend to be busier streets where the problem discussed in this post is very much an issue.

  19. Nathanael September 15, 2009 at 3:38 pm #

    Another option, when possible, is to put the streetcar on one street — with high foot traffic and low motor traffic — and the cars on an adjacent street, with high motor traffic and low foot traffic.
    This is only possible in street grids with tight spacing where the businesses aren’t completely centered around a single street.
    In other grids, with pairs of one-way streets which have parking only on the right side, there’s another, probably ideal option. Put the streetcar in the left lane of *both* streets in a one-way pair, and have it open the *left-side* doors at level platforms on the sidewalks. The entire block in between becomes one big station 🙂
    Unfortunately I think that only applies to rather specific street layouts, but they’re more common layouts than you might think. Portland, with an alternating one-way grid, could have done this in many places.

  20. EngineerScotty September 15, 2009 at 10:56 pm #

    Portland DID do exactly that, with the Yamhill/Morrison couplet on MAX. Of course, MAX runs in a reserved (no autos) lane and you may be talking about mixed traffic streetcar, but that’s how the did the east/west downtown segment.

  21. Jarrett at September 16, 2009 at 12:08 am #

    Specialization of parallel streets is an important tool, but note that if we
    want transit to be much faster than walking, it can’t be continuously mixed
    with pedestrians over the whole length of the street. This kind of mixture
    works well for a short distance going through a public square for example,
    but not for the whole length of a long street.

  22. jason murphy September 22, 2009 at 10:35 am #

    Melbourne has heaps of tram stops where the tram just stops in the middle of a 4-lane road (Smith St and Toorak Rd are two examples that come to mind). The tram doors have little stop signs on them that swing out when the doors open. Motorists are generally very aware, and do not go past in the kerbside lane.
    There is a need for passengers to be vigilant, however.
    Outisde the CBD, major atrterials and light rail, I’d say it is the most prevalent kind of stop.
    These stops have downsides – people with special needs do not get any elevation to help them board, and there is often no seating on the roadside. A few times, trams have just barelled past as i tried to signal them. Passengers are much more visible at island stops.
    I find I like the island stops a lot more.

  23. Jason September 22, 2009 at 10:42 am #
    here’s a good example of people waiting in the rain at a deficient kerbside stop, for one of Melbourne’s classic W-class trams.

  24. Helen November 6, 2009 at 4:00 pm #

    Daejeon, South Korea did something really interesting. They painted a signs in the far left lane of one of the busiest streets saying that lane was bus only during rush hour. I am not aware of any enforcement efforts backing this up, but since the signs were painted, single occupant cars avoid that lane. Not just during rush hour, but all day.
    This cost almost nothing, politically or financially, and buses actually run faster.

  25. Eugen Schilter December 19, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    Personally I favour kerbside routing for trams. However I am currently promoting centre line for lines planned on streets that have substantial road surface used as direction dividers. A normal gauge tram corridor is slightly wider than a motor traffic lane and direction dividers are no more needed when the semi segregated trams corridor is in the road centre, thus providing that extra width. Better use of the street surface is achieved by this and should make it (?) politically more palatable.

  26. Tom West April 16, 2010 at 6:25 am #

    Toronto streetcars have a de facto #3 in operation, because vehicles (including cyclists) are forbidden to pass between the streetcar andteh sidewalk when its at a stop. To drive the point home, the doors open outwards and have a “stop” sign painted on them, similar to that used by a school bus. Lower tech (and hence chepaer) that a signal, and also works at stops no-where near an intersection.

  27. Brisben June 20, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    If you have a 4 lane road,
    why not just put both trams on one side of the road, a small strip in between, and cars on the other 2 lanes?