Guest Post: Richard Lenthall on the Busways of Almere, Netherlands

Richard Lenthall is the founder of Sight of the Navigator, a European travel and transit advisory website based in Amsterdam. It aims to improve tomorrow’s journey experience by bringing together transit providers and their passengers.

Transit and urban planners will no doubt be familiar with the “Bus Lane”, the concept of designating a lane or segment of road exclusively for the use of buses and other permitted vehicles.  When properly executed bus lanes can save time over the same section of a journey made with a car, and provide operators the means to keep to timetables during the rush hours, both of which can promote the use of public transit.

Due to constraints in most established and developed urban areas, the bus lane is something of a compromise.  The weakness of a bus lane, and where the efficiency gain is most often compromised, is at intersections with other major road arteries where the priority for the bus cannot be continued.  At these points the bus often has to compete to rejoin the normal flow of traffic and then queue normally on an equal footing.  Compounding this weakness are features of more poorly planned bus lanes such as temporary operating hours and scenarios where the bus has to either turn against the flow of oncoming traffic, or manoeuvre across the road in preparation for a junction.   (An example of the latter can be seen at Piccadilly, London roughly once every 2 minutes during the day.)  All of these weaknesses counteract the idea of giving the bus priority.  Journey time starts to suffer, where properly separated transit would be able to continue unhindered.

In an ideal world the bus lane would cover the whole of the route, maintain constant separation from other traffic and a priority at intersections, as this would guarantee the value to the user.  Such an ideology is beyond the scope and budget of many developed urban councils as it would imply a complete redesign of an existing road system. 

But what if you were able to work from a completely blank canvas? How would it work in reality?  To illustrate this theory I’d like to show you the town of Almere in The Netherlands.

The Blank Canvas

Almere is one of The Netherlands’ famous reclaimed land projects lying on artificial islands, 25km northeast of Amsterdam.  This new land provided urban designers with the opportunity to build both a normal road system and a separated bus-way network that are deeply interwoven throughout the town.  Stepping off the train at Almere Centrum you immediately see signs of how this has been done.


Directly underneath the railway station are bus stops which combine to serve as Almere’s transit hub.  Here buses serve all parts of the town with the trains above going directly to Amsterdam, Utrecht and Schiphol Airport.  While this is a good idea and the result of well thought out planning there is nothing special right here, so let’s turn around.


On the busway, car traffic is absent and no bikes are allowed.  Crucially, for the success of the scheme and the efficiency aims, the bus way doesn’t end when it reaches a junction,  Instead the buses are afforded the benefit of pro-active signalling at traffic intersections even if those junctions are very central to the town.


A little further out we can see how the planning of regularly spaced stops at roughly 700m on the bus-way have been incorporated into the social fabric.  The next picture is taken at the Almere Haven stop where housing, shopping, a bar and the bus stop (which also gets services direct to Amsterdam’s business districts) have all been incorporated into the area’s design.


How does it work in practice?

Elsewhere on Human Transit, Jarrett has argued that if you provide a Bus service with grade separation and proactive signalling, which are the usual provisions for Light Rail or Tram networks, buses can operate to the same high degree of efficiency as rail based systems, and in Almere that is exactly what’s been done. 

In this video you can watch the bus-way in action.  Taken at a junction, the video shows how the system works when the bus-way crosses an arterial road.  See how the first bus triggers the advanced warning system and the traffic lights controlling the conflicting road traffic turn red before the bus has to slow down.  Once the bus passes the system checks to see if another bus is in the control zone, and then reverts to green.  Shortly after, two red buses arrive and the cycle repeats, this time keeping the road traffic on hold until the second bus has passed through.  None of the buses that passed through had to stop.  Delay to traffic was kept to a minimum and efficiency was optimal for everyone regardless of your choice of transport.

Here you can see how the integrity of the bus way has been preserved despite it running through a busier urban intersection and close to a shopping precinct.

Finally in this video you can see how the bus way performs from the driver’s point of view.  Using magnetic induction loops buried into the bus-way the passing of the bus triggers the advanced warning system.  This checks and changes the traffic signal ahead so that the bus can pass through without having to slow down or stop. (The advanced signal is the white vertical stripe, when it’s lit the bus driver knows the standard traffic light will automatically change in his favour).

In all three videos the buses have exclusive use of the right of way ensuring safety and optimising performance for the service.  The videos demonstrate how capable any bus-way can be if you create a network where buses and other road users don’t compete for access and install a proactive signalling system that ensures priority for the bus.

A Matter of Philosophy

To exploit the opportunity presented by the blank canvas of new land, it must have been important to the urban planners to establish a philosophy for the bus-way and bus services.  This philosophy would have been that they were going to treat the bus not as merely another road vehicle but instead as a means of transport that was going to be afforded clear rights of way, prioritisation and separation as far as absolutely possible.  The consequence of fully pursuing that philosophy is a bus-way network that at first glance operates in a way that’s akin to a tram, metro or even railway network.  The planners of Almere chose not compromise.

The next post on Almere’s busways is here!

24 Responses to Guest Post: Richard Lenthall on the Busways of Almere, Netherlands

  1. Stephen Smith October 27, 2010 at 11:52 pm #

    This is very interesting, but something I’ve always wondered is, if you’re going to go to the trouble of grade separation and signal prioritizing, why not just lay some tracks and use a streetcar? The upfront capital investment is a big higher, but the efficiency gains (not to mention ridership gains – I know well-designed busways are almost as good as rail, but rail must offer some boost to even the most well-designed bus systems) seem like they should make up for it. Or is it really that much more expensive?

  2. JJJ October 28, 2010 at 1:02 am #

    Stephen, buses can turn off the bus lane and service other areas, trolleys cannot. And yes, rail is very expensive, as is electrification.

  3. Mike H October 28, 2010 at 1:18 am #

    “And yes, rail is very expensive, as is electrification.”
    Compared to completely separately built bus lanes in a new development? I’d like to see some numbers to back this up.

  4. Brisbane October 28, 2010 at 4:06 am #

    There are lots of good applications for Light Rail and lots of good applications for busways/BRT. You just need to pick the right one for the right situation.
    Where demand is likely to grow, for example on trunk routes or corridors, or where there might be a need for urban renewal, I would use light rail. Everywhere else, you would roll out the BRT option. Perhaps you could get BRT to feed LRT?
    Now there’s a controversial concept!
    I have come around to the view that busways and bus lanes are a good feeder support for, or introduction to Light Rail or other rail modes, but not an ultimate substitute for LRT/Metro/Rail ,at least for larger cities.
    Even in Brisbane people are starting to talk about LRT, busway conversion and LRT routes. It looks like busways will merely delay, but not prevent, the introduction of LRT, even in my city.
    That intersection cited is great- for now. If the city grows, there will come a time where it will need to be grade-separated, simply because there will be so many buses that the traffic light will be stuck on green for the bus, and red for everyone else, effectively closing the intersection.

  5. Amanda October 28, 2010 at 5:26 am #

    If we assume that light rail will attract more riders than buses at the same frequency of service, but that adding “light rail” features to busses will attract more riders than standard bus service, at what point of bus service optimization have we maxed out our ability to draw riders, without upgrading to light rail? And what is the cost and ridership difference between a fully-optimized bus service and a light rail system?

  6. Brisbane October 28, 2010 at 6:49 am #

    @ Amanda,
    I’ve looked at this town on Google Maps- and the buses seem to be organized as a distribution network feeding passengers into the heavy rail system that then takes passengers into Amsterdam… so there is already rail – heavy rail- out there, and the buses appear to support that.
    Busways/BRT feeding passengers into heavy rail (maybe there are other places where BRT feeds LRT?), sounds like a good model, each mode to their best roles.

  7. Alan Robinson October 28, 2010 at 7:25 am #

    What do the people of Almere think of their bus system?

  8. Danny October 28, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    I’m not sure why anybody would still go with buses once you have completely ridden the busway of obstructions. The ability to go around obstructions and the ability to mix with automobile traffic are really the only reasons to use buses in the first place.
    The idea that a fully separated busway is cheaper than rail can only be true by acknowledging two major caveats: 1) They are initially cheaper to construct because the road surface happens to already be there. 2) They are cheaper to maintain because you can pawn off the maintenance costs to the roads department.
    In terms of total cost, rail is definitely cheaper. If there is no mixing of traffic, paving isn’t necessary, which cuts down cost dramatically. And the lifetime maintenance costs are maginitudes cheaper for rail. Any city that has had a BRT system for 10-15 years is probably realizing this right about now.

  9. Corey Burger October 28, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    And none of the objections have mentioned what for me is the deal killer with BRT: it is way too easy to kill it. All you need is one stupid set of politicians and/or planners and overnight busways become regular roads.
    Think I am kidding? Let’s imagine if Toronto was famous for its busways rather than it streetscars. Would the newly elected, transit-unfriendly Mayor Ford have backed away from ripping out the busways? After all, it would have taken the work of an afternoon, not months like removing a streetcar line would take and you don’t need to sink huge capital into a replacement vehicle fleet.

  10. Corey Burger October 28, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    That should be “haven’t”, not have in my first sentence.

  11. 23skidoo October 28, 2010 at 2:20 pm #

    The Zuidtangent that links Haarlem with Schiphol and the southern Amsterdam area is like this as well. Zuidtangent is even more rail-like because there’s an elevated section with long platforms.
    I’ve ridden it from Schiphol to Haarlem and it’s just as fast as taking light rail.

  12. Nicholas Barnard October 28, 2010 at 5:00 pm #

    Do these buses stay exclusively on the bus lanes or do they use the local roads in the outskirts?
    I’m usually a bus fan, but if they don’t go off the busways why not use rail?

  13. Steve Lax October 28, 2010 at 5:21 pm #

    To me, the major advantages of a busway over light rail are two –
    1. Cost to build and most likely to maintain
    2. The ability to have various routes split off of the busway onto local streets, either at the end of the busway or at key points along it. While one could transfer from rail to bus at these points, there is always a transfer penalty to the user, no matter how closely timed the connections are. Also, most users prefer a single seat ride.
    If demand is great enough (or becomes great enough) a busway can be converted to light rail; however, there is that intermediate demand level when a busway is more appropriate than street running buses on the one hand and more appropriate than light rail on the other hand.
    Note to those who argue busways are easy to kill at a politician’s whim: Rail can be killed, too. Indeed, if rail were so powerful a passenger draw and economic engine, the extensive streetcar, interurban, commuter rail, and long distance rail that existed in the U.S.A. in the first half of the twentieth century would still be around.

  14. Eric October 28, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    Strange… I’ve always heard about this “new town” dormitory community, but never about the plan’s attention to the integration with BRT planning. Maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention, but I suspect this is an aspect that is under-appreciated this side of the Atlantic.
    It doesn’t surprise me though. That surely typifies Dutch urbanism and especially OMA’s no-holds-barred aesthetic of integrated planning.

  15. Brisbane October 28, 2010 at 5:53 pm #

    Light rail allows you to have busway capacity on streets and larger roads without incurring the higher cost of building a grade separated Brisbane-style busway.
    The ability to split off into streets is useful in many places, but it also means that you have a lot of buses duplicating the trunk route, which means more labour, more buses required and more bus-km are racked up. Again whether this will ever be a problem or not for your city will depend.
    Tram/streetcar systems can also split off the main lines and travel in suburban streets- how do people think trams operate in Melbourne?
    With a bus feeder to trunk and transfer model, you could terminate that bus at the trunk line station and turn it back for another run- increasing the frequency, and therefore compensate for the transfer penalty that way.
    And if there is one thing that most agree on- it is frequency that pulls the passengers.
    Context is very important. Which is why studies are always done before building any such systems.
    Perhaps in this context, busway to rail is all Aimere will ever need.

  16. alexjonlin October 28, 2010 at 6:02 pm #

    To me, it really comes down to capacity. If the buses are coming every two minutes and are still packed, light rail is necessary. If there’s still plenty of capacity, rail isn’t as necessary, unless it’s being used as a development tool. Although in a lot of cases rail gets much higher ridership, at least in the US.

  17. Sightofthenav October 29, 2010 at 5:13 am #

    @Amanda @Brisbane
    The bus network is indeed centred on Almere Centrum heavy rail station although away from the centre the suburbs also get regular (every 15 mins) buses direct to Amsterdam’s Business District. The driver for this is most probably that there are no direct rail services to that part of Amsterdam from Almere.
    It is interesting to note that for these direct services the Highway/Motorway between Almere and Amsterdam has also been adapted to ensure the bus has priority and access at certain rush hour choke points.
    Almere is set to grow as you point out, with new bus lines and a new rail station under construction. However the areas that have been settled already (Almere Haven) won’t be expanded and therefore we can assume traffic will not grow substantially at the junctions.
    @Nicolas Barnard
    While in Almere the buses use only the dedicated bus way routes and as yet don’t turn off onto the side streets.
    I agree, but perhaps stop spacing/top speed is a factor?
    By contrast when Amsterdam city council decided to build IJburg (a series of reclaimed land islands just outside the city, where I live!) they decided to install a tram line despite there being only one route. This is set to be extended when other new islands are built as part of the same project. Future population and tram capacity I think is viewed as the reason for the choice. However they had to dig a special 2km tunnel between Amsterdam and the island for the tram PLUS one for the road traffic, as opposed to choosing a bus network and have the bus use the road tunnel which would have been cheaper one imagines.
    Thanks for all the comments!

  18. Brisbane October 29, 2010 at 6:42 am #

    No, thank you for an enjoyable post!
    I note that they have nice high density, but it is low-rise and not huge skyscraping towers.
    It looks nice on the eye, and there are trees!!!

  19. Cullen October 29, 2010 at 7:48 am #

    In many parts of Amsterdam buses and tram lines share their exclusive right of way. Just put tram tracks in the busway and voila you can do both, buses that fan out and trams that provide trunk capacity.

  20. Pete (UK) October 29, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    Interseting system, the Dutch are masters at public transport provision.
    We also have a town in the UK that was built around a bus rapid transit system. Runcorn is located in north west England on the banks of the river Mersey upstream of Liverpool. The new town was built in the late 1960s/early 70s. The busway is totally sgregated from other roads, has traffic light priority at road crossings, and also features grade separation in the town centre like Brisbane. The busway is what Jarrett would call an ‘open’ system. There is a circular service that stays on the busway, plus other services to/from out of town use parts of the busway. The two main operators serving the busway are Arriva North West, and Municipal Halton Transport.
    Here is a link to a short paper describing the system:
    Here is a video:

  21. Mike H October 30, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    Steve Lax

    Note to those who argue busways are easy to kill at a politician’s whim: Rail can be killed, too. Indeed, if rail were so powerful a passenger draw and economic engine, the extensive streetcar, interurban, commuter rail, and long distance rail that existed in the U.S.A. in the first half of the twentieth century would still be around.

    There were and are plenty of struggling or outright dead inner city districts where the lack of that economic engine is plain to see. The US is a vast and rich country that controls the reserve currency of the world. It can absorb an amazing amount of hits, as we have seen, and still remain the largest economy.
    The death of the US streetcar and passenger rail systems didn’t happen ‘on a whim’ by any means. It took a concerted nation-wide effort of some very big corporations of the day. There were other factors at play, too. The large-scale congestion problems caused by personal automobiles hadn’t been seen yet. Cars and highways were widely believed to be the solution to all problems, to the extent that huge sections of many cities were destroyed in order to build highways. Take a look at Detroit to see what kind of an economic engine that was. Another factor was the relatively old rolling stock and old-fashioned operations of some of the rail systems (not to say that some highly modern ones weren’t destroyed, too). They would have needed technological development, which ended up happening mostly in Germany instead.

  22. Steve Lax October 30, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

    @Brisbane of 10/29 -11:53
    Of course, trams can branch off. The issue is: What frequency is needed?
    Example 1 – Trunk needs a five minute peak frequency. At end of trunk, three branches require each require a fifteen minute peak frequency. I would argue that the trunk could support a busway, especially if r-o-w is available; but that the buses operate on the street (especially if there is no serious congestion problem) beyond the trunk.
    Example 2 – Trunk needs a two minute frequency with a bus; beyond end of trunk, a fifteen minute frequency is required. This most likely calls for converting trunk to tram or light rail with larger vehicles and a four or five minute frequency while operating the branches with buses.
    Example 3 – Again, with buses, trunk requires a two minute frequency and each of the three branches requires a six minute frequency. Now both the trunk and branches should be considered for tram or light rail.
    Busways/BRT can almost always be converted to trams/light rail if demand grows; but demand will not always grow. Also, as noted by another commenter, both bus and rail vehicles can share a right-of-way if properly designed and the need calls for mixed use.

  23. Steve Lax October 30, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    @ Mike H – There were many reasons why the urban transit network (tram, bus, commuter rail) declined in the U.S. after WWII. That “very big corporations” conspiracy thing (“Who Killed Roger Rabbit” if I remember the name of the movie correctly) was only part of the issue. More simply, people and jobs moved to the suburbs, often beyond the range of the streetcar tracks.
    Many years ago, the New York Times reported on corporate relocations to suburbia. The location chosen for the relocated company was almost always its proximity to the home of the CEO and the CEO wanting to be close to work was one of the frequently cited reasons for the move.

  24. Appave November 8, 2010 at 6:34 am #

    Надо по больше таких статей писать как эта.