Barcelona: “Treat Buses Like Ambulances”

Barcelona BRT_route map_low-res_650pix
The new “rapid bus” network proposed for Barcelona looks a lot like the Los Angeles Metro Rapid:  No exclusive lanes, but strong signal priority, emphasis on fast implementation, and judging from the map, very wide stops.  I would resist calling this Bus Rapid Transit, though, unless you want the term to mean “any and all corridor-wide attempts to make buses a little faster.” 

If the short green lines on this map run with just the few stops indicated, they’ll be very unusual in the transit world.  Usually lines need to be fairly long — like the great Los Angeles boulevards — to build up enough patronage to justify wide stop spacing.  So I suspect the map is in error on this point.

Speed ambitions are very mild: An increase only from 11.7 km/h to 15.1 km/h — still really slow.  Beyond that, you’d have to have an exclusive lane, which is hard to do on narrow streets, though Paris has certainly done it on some its wide boulevards.  The quantum jump in frequency will make a huge ridreship difference all by itself.  They’re going from 15 minutes to 3-6 minutes, a substantial increase in operating cost that’s certainly not paid for by the modest speed increase.

The new system is apparently the brainchild of UC Berkeley professor Carlos Daganzo (Full disclosure: I taught in his department in 2002, but we haven’t stayed in touch.)  From the Berkeley Transportation Letter:

The implementation would only require new operating protocols; minimal changes to the infrastructure and to the fleet of existing buses would be needed. Once glitches on these initial test lines are worked out, the rest of the system can be rolled out quickly. If work is begun within a few months, organizers believe they can have the entire system rolled out by the end of 2012.

They are looking at a concept developed by Volvo called a “moving cocoon,” in which lanes can be cleared for buses only when a bus is approaching, but used by cars at other times.

“Basically, this method treats buses as if they were ambulances,” Daganzo says, adding that this element of the plan gives buses the right of way, while keeping the bus company and the city from being at odds over limiting the use of a traffic lane—a conflict that has slowed BRT progress in other cities.

However, if the thing really does run with 3 minute headways, as advertised, there’ll be bus on every signal cycle or at least every second one, so I’m not sure how this will be different from an exclusive bus lane.  And you can be sure that a bus every 3 minutes, in such a dense city, will carry far more people than a lane of cars.

24 Responses to Barcelona: “Treat Buses Like Ambulances”

  1. EngineerScotty June 8, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    If “treating busses like ambulances” means that the bus gets a flashing light and siren, can run through red lights (or has signal overrides), and traffic is required to yield–that might work. Would busses be able to do things like pull into the oncoming traffic lane if necessary to get around obstructions?

  2. Jarrett at June 8, 2010 at 4:51 pm #

    Yes, I have questions about that too.  If buses had sirens, of course, the noise pollution would make today's cities sound serene by comparison.

  3. June 8, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    Ah, yes. I remember one of the staff at the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds (can’t remember who now) bringing this up. Intermittent bus lanes. And my comment at the time was this: “What about the general benefit of reducing road capacity?”.
    This will make the eyes of highway planners light up, as it laboriously ensures the efficient circulation of cars over the entirety of the road space. Being an urbanist as much as a transport planner, I agree with Jane Jacobs on this. The circulation of cars shouldn’t be as efficient as possible; it should be as slow, inconvenient and annoying as possible, in order to put off all but the traffic that is actually necessary to the functioning of the city from bothering. Like the Q-turns to go left in Portland.
    All that said, I’m not sure I’m opposed to intermittent bus lanes for frequent rapid services, if that’s all you can do politically. Highway standards in the UK continue extending the width planners should allow for merging two lanes into one, because merging like that isn’t that easy. With an inevitable bus at every signal, I can see cars keeping well out of the lane down which the buses go. And at that point, it won’t be such a big step to paint a solid line, and periodically write “bus lane”.

  4. June 8, 2010 at 5:14 pm #

    (Or is that to turn right? Damn Americans driving on the other side and confusing matters).

  5. anonymouse June 8, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    @EngineerScotty: rules of the road are slightly different in Europe and the UK, in particular relating to “oncoming traffic”. Double-solid lines are much more rare, and because roads are generally narrower, traffic, buses included, goes into the opposing lane all the time to avoid obstructions. In fact, there are many two-way streets that have only one travel lane, which is why backing around a corner is on the UK driving test (though buses generally avoid such narrow streets).

  6. June 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    The technology, by the way, as said member of ITS staff explained it to me, works like this:
    – Lights built into the road surface on the edge of the bus lane indicate when it is in force.
    – Periodic variable information signs alongside or above the roadway instruct motorists to merge into the next lane when a bus is coming behind them. (Alternatively, the lights do that job exclusively, and motorists must merge into the next lane when the bus lane lights come on).
    It therefore relies on traffic being able to safely merge into (in Spain and most of the world) the left as soon as they need to. It is difficult to know how the police enforcing them, if the police enforce them at all, will distinguish between motorists who refuse to move out of the way and motorists who didn’t get a gap to merge safely/needed to turn right at the next block/etc.

  7. Anon256 June 8, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    Ngrw: If we want to put people off driving, we should do it with congestion pricing. That way the disincentive can be collected and put to some productive use, rather than just being lost as inconvenience.

  8. Joseph E June 8, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    If they can really do this with only 227 buses, despite the low 10 mph average speed, just imagine how cheap real BRT would be. If average speeds were up to just 15 mph, you could get down to 150 buses, or conversely you could increase frequency to every 2 to 4 minutes, increasing capacity by 50%.
    One could argue that there should be more bus routes to fill in those large 1 mile gaps between lines (which will lead to walk distances up 3/4 of a mile, or over 1 km, to the nearest bus stop in some cases), but a glance at the map of Barcelona shows few alternate streets parallel to the coast, due to gaps in the street grid. Perhaps they will continue running local buses on these twistier routes?

  9. Joseph E June 8, 2010 at 9:18 pm #

    According to the chart in the left-lower corner of the map, bus stops will be every 430 to 600 meters, (l/4 to l/3 mile, for Americans). For comparison, Metro Rapid (Los Angeles) has stops every 1/2 to 1.5 miles.
    Barcelona is fairly compact; in the map above the “Ronda de Dalt” inland ring road is only 5.5 km (3.5 miles) from the shoreline, and the map is about 15 km wide (9 miles).
    But you are right about the stops shown; those must be the transfer stations only. The “lineas mar-montana” are about 1.0 to 1.5 km apart, and the lines parallel to the shore are 0.5 to 1.5 km apart, so there should be 1 or 2 intermediate stops between transfer stations on most lines.

  10. Jaquesra June 9, 2010 at 4:55 am #

    Also keep in mind that “Parada de bus” means bus stops – as in where the buses will always stops. This does not include “Parada discrecional de bus,” or requested stops. I would imagine this would be like stops where the bus only stops when people are at the stop or request from on board.

  11. Nick June 9, 2010 at 6:00 am #

    The gap between lines shouldn’t be a problem in most cases in Barcelona, due to the fairly well spaced metro stops in between. Having lived there some time ago, I seem to remember there being bus only lanes already in some of the main avenues (ie Paseig de Gracia) which also have subway lines under them.
    Getting from any point to another in Barcelona is fairly simple with the metro, which is quite extensive. The only time I used the bus was after the metro shutdown, the Nitbus route. I guess this new network would be primarily aimed at taking making trips more direct than possible with the current v-shape design of most metro lines.

  12. Tom West June 9, 2010 at 6:17 am #

    anonymouse said: “[In the UK] there are many two-way streets that have only one travel lane”.
    Two-lanes (i.e. one each way) is definately the default. It is very unusual to have anything more within a town or city, even on busy roads. (You may get an extra lane near a junction for turns across traffic, but that’s it).
    I agree that 15.1km/hr is rather paltry, but it is a 30% increase on the original 11.7km/hr. The increase in speed alone will probably yield a 25-30% increase in passengers. The better frequency will boost passenger numbers significantly.

  13. John June 9, 2010 at 6:34 am #

    +1 to Tom West’s comments. The 30% faster speeds also translates to huge cost savings. This is how American transit agencies should be fixing their almost universal budget problems. Instead of cutting routes, just cut some stops on every route. It will speed up service and reduce the labor needed to provide the same frequency. Ridership will probably jump too. Seems like a win-win-win to me. The losers are the people who don’t like to or can’t walk very far.

  14. dejv June 9, 2010 at 7:22 am #

    anon256 –
    lane removal has infinitely lower operating costs to any congetion pricing scheme and if done right (e.g. focused on cutting capacity of approaches to the dense city and of through streets, to prevent gridlocks), it will reduce number of cars much more efficiently.
    (yeah, i love KISS approach for anything used by general public)

  15. M1EK June 9, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    It’s just amazing how many heroic measures people will try to avoid just knuckling down and building a new subway line, isn’t it?
    This kind of coordinated activity from a bus driver and many many motorists might work in Singapore, but I can’t imagine it working anywhere else.

  16. June 9, 2010 at 8:56 am #

    I would be wary of a universal “one-size-fits-all” approach; the layout of cities, route lengths and prevalent travel habits vary widely, and will require different approaches. Also, it’s very difficult to sack large numbers of bus drivers, who are normally unionised. So running buses efficiently is a good way of running buses more frequently, not running fewer buses.
    It’s a approach to consider, but not to apply everywhere without considering local conditions. One factor in support is that those that can’t walk a little way to a bus stop anyway (after all, most patrons won’t live quite on the bus route) tend be targeted with flexible van services, which US agencies tend to be good at providing.

  17. June 9, 2010 at 9:08 am #

    “If we want to put people off driving, we should do it with congestion pricing. That way the disincentive can be collected and put to some productive use, rather than just being lost as inconvenience.”
    I disagree. As Ken Livingstone famously said, “don’t do it for the money”. The majority of congestion charging receipts go into detection, collection, and enforcement. This, by the same logic, is also lost.
    “inconvenience” is not necessarily lost. As well as good facilities for buses, inconvenience can be translated to pavements wide enough to be good public spaces, safer crossings for pedestrians, safer facilities for cyclists, means of breaking up monotonous grid patterns with intrusions into the road, and all sorts of other things that add up considerable benefits for the city’s environment.
    Among those that benefit from congestion charges without changing the physical road infrastructure are those who can afford to pay the charge to drive into the city. The roads being less congested, they can move more freely and quickly around pedestrians, cyclists, buses and anyone else in their way.

  18. Alon Levy June 9, 2010 at 10:13 am #

    M1EK: it works in Singapore because of how the infrastructure and enforcement are set up. Singapore isn’t Switzerland or Canada; its drivers are not naturally courteous and do not yield unless someone forces them to. Any rule that isn’t enforced there will get broken: taxi drivers frequently open the driver door at an intersection, spit on the asphalt, and close the door.

  19. Physicist Bob June 10, 2010 at 3:15 am #

    Jared, friend, could you please refrain from using “quantum” to mean large? It means small: for example, a quantum leap is the smallest possible change in energy that an electron can experience within an atom.
    Your friendly neighborhood physicist and transit nerd.
    P.S. I love the prodigious output!

  20. Jarrett at June 10, 2010 at 3:17 am #

    "Prodigious" … there's that word again … It seems to mean "freaky" in most contexts … : )

  21. EngineerScotty June 10, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    Hence the title of the recent James Bond movie: “Quantum of solace” means “infinitesimal amount of pity”. Of course, the word “infinitesimal” tends to get confused with “infinite”, so maybe that isn’t the best example…

  22. Scott June 23, 2010 at 9:45 pm #

    Hmm, I’m a little confused looking at this map. Many of these routes parallel current service in the city so I’m a little confused as to why they would do that. Doesn’t “carril” mean rail meaning carril bus means rail bus? Sorry my Spanish is poor. Also, it would seem that their proposed has shorter lengths and fewer buses than their “red actual” meaning current network.
    The stops shown look like they are about a mile apart which seems good and some of the roads are fairly wide which leads me to believe that they could have dedicated lanes which is also great!
    I lived in Barcelona several years ago and found the bus system to be even more enjoyable than the subways (which were pretty good). Quicker bus service sounds great though.

  23. Daniel Sparing July 6, 2010 at 8:16 am #

    @M1EK: Barcelona is building two subway lines at the moment (besides having an already extensive service) while buses feed subway lines, so you are not necessarily right. Which proposed subway line would these buses compete with then?

  24. Daniel Sparing July 6, 2010 at 8:20 am #

    Bus stop spacing is very wide here, I agree, that is exactly the surprising and new idea here (besides that the lines are grid-like in the centre and radial outside).
    This might not be a mistake, though, if these bus stops and routes complement the current subways.
    Note that this might mean both bus stops _at_ the subway stations (offering connections) and bus stops _far away_ from metro stations (offering new coverage).