Are your transit authority and city government working together to make buses as functional and useful as possible? A new TRB report summarizes the industry’s own consensus on where the easy wins are for improving bus service. Peyton Chung has the rundown: Continue Reading →
Bus Rapid Transit
Vehicle automation is increasingly showing up on the radar of urban planning and transportation planning professionals. Technologies are developing rapidly, and some news stories report that fully self-driving cars are just a few years away. It’s tempting to envision automation ushering in a bold new era in urban transportation, where driverless cars whisk passengers between destinations safely and conveniently, use roads with great efficiency, and make public transit as we know it obsolete.
However, a closer look at vehicle automation reveals a more nuanced picture of the future. Automation capable of replacing human drivers in any situation may be many years away from the market. The traffic flow improvements enabled by automation will be limited in several ways. Buses and other forms of public transit will still be needed to efficiently move large numbers of travelers around cities. And various forms of automation in buses could enable major improvements in service.
The last two points have come up on this blog before (here, here and here), but since there are a variety of opinions on the implications of automation for transit, it’s useful to dig a bit deeper into these issues and take a critical look at when various forms of automation will arrive, how automation will affect traffic flow, and how it will affect travel behaviour. This post will delve into those questions to shed a bit more light on what automation means for the future of public transit.
According to some, vehicles that can drive themselves anywhere, anytime, without any human intervention – described as “Level 4” vehicles by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – are just around the corner. In 2012, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said of their famous self-driving car: “you can count on one hand the number of years until ordinary people can experience this.” Many others have made bullish predictions. For example, the market research firm ABI Research foresees Level 4 cars on the roads by around 2020, and panelists at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) 2013 World Congress predicted arrival between 2020 and 2025.
On the other hand, some point to a number of challenges that suggest Level 4 will emerge further down the road, perhaps not for several decades. Steven Shladover of the California Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology, a leading expert on vehicle automation, argues that Level 4 will be much more technically difficult to achieve than many optimists acknowledge (see Vol. 7, No. 3 here). According to Shladover, huge advances in technology would be needed to progress to systems capable of driving safely in the vast range of complex and unpredictable situations that arise on roads. In addition, such systems would have to be far more reliable than products like laptops or mobile phones, and extensive – and expensive – testing will be needed to prove reliability. While Google’s vehicles have driven long distances in testing – over 500,000 miles as of late 2013 – and have not caused any crashes while in automated mode, Shladover points out that this proves very little because their vehicles are monitored by drivers who take over when risky or challenging situations arise.
Legal and liability issues could also delay the emergence of Level 4 vehicles. A few American jurisdictions now explicitly allow automated vehicles on public roads for testing, and Bryant Walker Smith, a leading authority on the legal dimensions of vehicle automation, has found that automated vehicles are “probably” legal in the US; however, he also cautions that their adoption may be slowed by current laws. Laws will have to be clarified before Level 4 vehicles hit the mass market in the US and in other countries. Liability for crashes could also be a thorny question. If a human isn’t driving, presumably blame would shift to the manufacturer, or perhaps a supplier of system components, or a computer programmer. Resolving these issues could stall the emergence of automation.
While there is dispute as to when Level 4 vehicles will be on the road, most in the field agree that more limited forms of automation are coming soon. Some are already here. For example, Mercedes S-Class vehicles can simultaneously control speed and steering when road and traffic conditions allow, though the driver must continuously monitor the road. This is just shy of “Level 2” automation, since Mercedes’ system also requires the driver to keep their hands on the wheel. Numerous other vehicle manufacturers are developing advanced technologies that promise to take over driving duties, at least some of the time, on some roads. As technologies advance, “Level 3” vehicles could be on the market by 2020 to 2025, according to most experts. These vehicles would allow drivers to forget about monitoring the road and instead read or watch a movie, with the caveat that when the automated system is out of its depth, it would ask the driver to take over. (The takeover time is a matter of debate – anywhere from several seconds to several minutes has been suggested.)
Automation could be a boon for safety – or it could create new problems. On the plus side, it appears that crash avoidance systems already on the market may be effective. Of course, as machines take over more of the responsibility of driving, safety will only improve if the machines are in fact less fallible than humans. This might seem an easy task, considering the foibles of humans, but it’s worth remembering that some automation experts believe otherwise. And where driving is shared between human and machine, the safety impacts are especially open to question. A driver in a Level 2 vehicle might fail to continuously monitor the road, or a driver in a Level 3 vehicle could be engrossed in their movie and fail to take over control quickly enough when requested. In either case, automation could actually decrease safety.
After safety, one of the biggest selling points of vehicle automation is its potential for improving traffic flow, especially through increased road capacity. With their slow reaction times, human drivers can’t safely follow other vehicles closely, so even at maximum capacity, around 90 percent of the length of a freeway lane is empty. If machines could react quickly enough, road capacity would increase enormously. Some studies appear to suggest huge increases are in fact possible – for example, one study estimates that capacity would almost quadruple, and another finds quintupled capacity. However, their calculations consider endless streams of densely-packed vehicles. More realistic estimates assume that several vehicles, say four to twenty, would follow each other in tightly packed groups or “platoons”, with each group separated from the next by a large gap. These interplatoon gaps would provide safety and allow vehicles to change lanes and enter and exit the freeway. Studies that account for these gaps estimate that automation would increase capacity in the range of 50 to 100 percent (for examples, see here and here).
While the more realistic estimates of capacity increases are still very impressive, there are a number of caveats. First, short headways are possible only when automated vehicles are equipped with V2V, or vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Vehicles that rely completely on on-board sensors – such as the Google self-driving car, in its current form – cannot react quickly enough to the movements of other vehicles, so they would enable relatively small capacity increases. A second caveat: large capacity increases would come only when automated cars dominate the road. Studies have found that when fewer than 30 to 40 percent of vehicles on the road are capable of platooning, there would be little effect on capacity, and large increases would come only after the proportion of equipped vehicles exceeds 60 to 85 percent (e.g., see here). This is important, since new vehicle technologies will take some time to become commonplace. Imagine that as soon as automated vehicles hit the market, every new vehicle purchased is automated: it would then take two decades for automated vehicles to account for around 90 percent of vehicles on the road. If the rate of adoption is more realistic, but still rapid, it would take three decades or more before automated vehicles make possible large road capacity increases. A third major caveat: platooning is only feasible on freeways. Changing lanes, stopping at red lights, making left turns, parallel parking, stopping for pedestrians – such manoeuvres would make platooning impractical on city streets.
For city streets, however, there is the prospect of using automation to improve flows at intersections by coordinating vehicle movements. A good example is the “reservation-based” intersection, where there are no stop lights or stop signs – instead, cars equipped with V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure communications) technology “call ahead” to a roadside computer that orchestrates the movements of vehicles and assigns time and space slots for vehicles to cross the intersection. Simulations show such an intersection could move almost as much vehicle traffic as an overpass – but so far, simulations haven’t included pedestrians and cyclists. Accommodating these road users in a reservation-based intersection would require signals with sufficiently long cycles, so capacity increases would be limited.
Vehicle automation would also bring a very direct impact: reduced or eliminated labour in driving. Time spent traveling in Level 2 vehicles could be less stressful, and could become more productive and enjoyable in Level 3 and especially in Level 4 vehicles. Profound changes in travel behaviour would result. As people increasingly let their robot chauffeurs deal with road congestion and other hassles of driving, travel by motor vehicle would become more attractive. Trips would tend to be longer and more frequent and travel at peak times would increase. Trip routes would also tend to make greater use of freeways with Level 2 and 3 vehicles, since it is primarily on these roads that the vehicles will be able to operate in automated mode.
These induced demand effects would tend to increase road congestion. Freeways would be the exception – if platooning-capable technology becomes widespread, freeway capacity would increase and congestion would drop. That is, until the surplus capacity is taken up by the “triple convergence” of mode shifts, route changes, and change of time of day of travel. However, the increase in freeway traffic would be constrained by capacity limitations on the rest of the road network – as freeway travel increases, new bottlenecks would form on streets near freeway entrances and exits, where automation does not boost capacity, thus restricting the volume of traffic that can access the freeway.
The upshot of the above observations on the capacity effects of automation is that even when the potential freeway capacity increases enabled by platooning are fully realized, automated cars would nevertheless be able to carry far fewer people than bus or rail on a given right-of-way. And, as mentioned, capacities on streets will be largely unaffected. Because the capacity improvements made possible by automation would be limited, we will still need buses and trains when space is in short supply and we need to transport large numbers of people. Larger vehicles will still fit a lot more people into a given length and width of right-of-way than platoons of small vehicles will be able to carry. As Jarrett would say, it’s a simple fact of geometry.
So, vehicle automation will not render large transit vehicles obsolete. On the contrary, it could enable significant improvements in bus service and increases in ridership. Automated steering enables bus operation at speed in narrow busways, which reduces infrastructure and land costs. It also enables precise docking at passenger platforms, which improves passenger accessibility and reduces dwell times. Automated control of speed enables bus platooning, allowing buses to effectively act like trains. Automation can be taken further yet: a driver in a lead bus can lead a platoon of driverless buses, thus providing high capacity with low labour costs. Similarly, individual buses or platoons can operate driverlessly, thus enabling increased frequency with low labour costs. “Dual mode” operation is also possible: imagine a busway where chains of buses leave the city running like a train until they separate at a suburban station, where drivers board and take them onward onto various local routings.
Some of these forms of automation have already been implemented in BRT systems. For example, a system in Las Vegas employed optical sensors to enable precise docking at passenger platforms, BRT buses in Eugene, Oregon used magnetic guidance to facilitate precision docking and lane-keeping in a pilot project, and systems in Paris and Rouen, France, and in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, use various types of guidance systems. While bus platooning and driverless operation have not been deployed so far, these applications could be achieved given sufficient technological advances – or by using a low-tech shortcut. The simple solution is to keep other vehicles or humans out of the way of the automated bus. If buses operate on busways with adequate protection, platooning and driverless operation is possible with existing technology. (Similarly, current driverless train systems are able to operate driverlessly, even with decades-old technology, by virtue of the well-protected guideways they run on.) Developing a vehicle capable of driving itself in the simplified environment of a protected busway is a considerably easier task than developing a vehicle that can drive itself on any road, anytime.
With the arrival of Level 4 automation, driverless buses could operate on the general road network. This would make it possible to operate smaller buses at higher frequencies, since labour costs would no longer constrain frequency. If you shrink driverless buses small enough – and provide demand-responsive service for individual travelers – you end up with driverless taxis. This points to the possibility that public transit service may be more efficiently provided by driverless taxis (or driverless share taxis) in low-density areas, thereby replacing the most unproductive bus services and improving transit productivity overall. (Of course, while automation could boost productivity, even driverless demand-responsive service would still have low productivity where densities are low.)
While it’s a seductive story that driverless cars will transport us to a realm of much improved safety, convenience, and efficient road use – and where public transit has dwindled away – the future is likely to be more complicated. Advanced automation is indeed coming soon, though we might not see Level 4 technologies for a while. Automation could improve safety, though it could also generate new problems. It could also improve road capacity, but the improvements would be limited in several ways. All this suggests that we needn’t worry about (or celebrate) how vehicle automation will make public transit obsolete. Instead, let’s focus on how to use automation to the advantage of public transit.
Are you sure that rail "stimulates development" and that buses don't? In a major report released today, the Institution for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) attacks this assumption head-on.
Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit
leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail Transit
What really matters to transit-oriented development [TOD] outcomes? According to the report, the #1 predictor is strong government support for redevelopment, while the #2 predictor is real estate market conditions. The #3 predictor is the usefulness of the transit services — frequency, speed, and reliability as ensured by an exclusive right of way. Using rail vs bus technologies does not appear to matter much at all.
While BRT is is having overwhelming success across the developing world, ITDP's argument is aimed at North America, so it rests on North American examples. Cleveland's HealthLine, a practical urban BRT linking two of the city's strongest destinations, emerges as a great urban redevelopment success story as well as the overall highest-quality BRT service in the US. Las Vegas, Ottawa, Eugene, and Pittsburgh's eastern line all play key roles in the argument. Las Vegas, whose busway is incomplete but is in exactly the right place to serve heavy demand, is one of the most interesting stories, where BRT is playing a key role in the remarkable pedestrianization of what used to be one of the most famous car-only landscapes in the world.
There will be plenty of quarrel over the details. But this report does represent a "coming out" for the very concept of bus-based transit oriented development. For too long, the identification of "transit oriented development" (TOD) with rail has bordered on tautological: if there wasn't rail, it was less likely to be called a TOD, no matter how useful the bus service was. In fact, almost everything that's been built in every North American inner city has been TOD in the sense that bus service — usually of high quantity if not high quality — has been intrinsic to the neighborhood's appeal and functioning.
This is not to say that I agree with ITDP's anti-rail view. I support many exclusive-right-of-way light rail projects, and I am not anti-rail except to the extent that rail partisans insist on being anti-bus. In most North American cities, if you're ideologically anti-bus, then you are hostile to most of your city's transit system, and to most of what transit can practically achieve in the near future at the scale of the whole city. Great transit networks are those where all the modes work together to maximize everyone's liberty. All claims for the hegemony of one mode over another are distractions from creating the most effective transit for a city as a whole.
But technology wars meet so many human needs that they will always be with us, and so given that it's best they be as balanced as possible. Bravo to ITDP for having the courage to speak up about the redevelopment value of highly useful and liberating transit services, regardless of what's going on under the floor.
Chicago is moving forward with an ambitious and large-scale Bus Rapid Transit project on Ashland Avenue, a north-south corridor running from Cortland to 31st parallel to the Red Line L to the east. Back in 2011, I did a post on a report from a Chicago nonprofit called the Metropolitan Planning Council on a plan for a network of BRT lines in the city. At the time, it looked like Western was the natural choice for rapid transit as the longest arterial in Chicago; following a study and outreach process on both streets last year, Ashland was chosen instead. Here is the proposed alignment, with the BRT corridor in yellow and potential future extension in black. (It's a beautifully straight line, designed to function not just with Chicago's radial rail network but also with its grid-shaped network of frequent bus lines.)
Today, the street is composed of four travel lanes, parking lanes, and a median alternating with a turn lane. It's interesting to read the press materials for this project, because they heavily emphasize the importance of the repurposed right-of-way and related improvements, rather than focusing on the character the vehicles. They also frequently highlight the suitability of the "70' curb-to-curb right-of-way". From the Ashland BRT Project Factsheet:
- Dedicated center bus lane in each direction to keep buses out of general traffic during boardings
- Limited stops: every 1/2 mile and at CTA 'L' stations
- Transit Signal Priority intersections and longer green lights to keep traffic moving
The redesigned street will sport a dedicated busway with median stations, one travel lane in each direction. As the urbanists will like, it removes a general purpose travel lane but retails the majority of on-street parking spaces. The initial Western-Ashland study considered alternatives that places the BRT right-of-way against the curb, as well as removing travel lanes or parking lanes. Ashland Avenue will also continue to be served by local bus service.
This is clearly open BRT, meaning the buses could enter and exit the busway at many points. Ashland Avenue BRT buses, for example, are likely to want to run further along Ashland than the facility currently goes, reducing the need for multiple transfers. An open design allows for other bus lines whose routes take them onto the busway to realize the benefits of the reserved right-of-way where it exists. In this case, open BRT means that buses will need doors on both sides, so that they can open on the left at busway stations and on the right at ordinary curb stops beyond the busway's end.
This looks like a great project. It's position in a high-frequency grid means that it will be useful for trips extending far beyond the busway itself. It makes the street itself a nicer place. And it seems precision engineered to improve travel time, and thus access, for a wide swath of Chicago, making transit an even more logical choice for an even larger spectrum of riders.
You can also view an interview with the project's lead planners, here.
In my recent post on incomplete Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) I made a one-sentence reference to New York City's BRT services, called Select Bus Service: " New York's supposed BRT is so compromised that many refused to call it BRT anymore." The comment was based not just on the linked article but also on what I hear endlessly from transit advocates and professionals there, plus one experience riding the First/Second Avenue line, which has a lane on the Avenues but is in mixed traffic all the way across Lower Manhattan.
A transit professional fired back:
Look at the numbers before you criticize NYCT! I'd call a 15% increase in speeds on Fordham Road and First/Second Avenue pretty significant. As I recall from talking to their schedulers, it was somewhat greater than expected on Fordham Road and somewhat less in Manhattan. But how can you ignore these numbers in an article talking about a one-minute difference? And to pull off the first implementation of off-board fare collection in the Bronx (I grew up about a mile away from Fordham Road) is not something to be taken for granted! NYCT and NYCDOT did the footwork to address concerns of businesses in the Bronx. Yes, there are enforcement problems – this is New York City, after all. And of course it's not ideal BRT in terms of separated lanes and high-level platforms (how well do these blend into an urban environment? Don't join the cheap-shot artists!!
Fifteen percent is a good start, no question. Advocates often hate percentage increases because they are used to validate progress from dreadful to just very bad, but for the professionals who fought this fight in the context of massive forces demanding the status quo, the percentage increase is the only way to give any validity to what they've achieved, and they deserve praise for that achievement.
Still, there is another equally valid frame, which is to ask "How fast does BRT need to be to be achieving something sufficiently transformative — something on the scale of the actual mode share and sustainability targets of a city like New York?" And there's often a huge disconnect between the two.
This is why, in my own work, I routinely cite those targets and encourage people to think about what it would mean to actually aim that high. I do this not to criticize those who fought the fight with inadequate support and ended up with something that's much less though still a real improvement. All praise on those people! Rather, the targets are important because they can form the basis for a more widely-endorsed argument for why the status quo has to be defeated — an argument that should be made at higher levels, in a form that transit planners can cite, so that transit planners don't feel like they're fighting alone in the cold.
For example, in the original Seattle Transit Plan that I worked on in 2005, we asked not "what interventions can we make to speed up those buses a bit?" but rather "how fast (and frequent) do the buses have to be to deliver the scale of mode shift that is essential to what Seattle wants to be as a city?" San Francisco's Transit Effectiveness Project is a similar model. Get influential policy people thinking about the second question, and the battlefield changes, because now each struggle to remove a parking space is part of a citywide or regionwide sustainability mission.
So when planners fight the good fight with insufficient support, and end up with only 15% improvement over a possibly-dreadful pre-existing travel time, they have to be (a) thanked, and (b) reinforced by even more talk about the urgency of the citywide goals that they are fighting for, block by block, foot by foot, parking space by parking space.
One of Bus Rapid Transit's great virtues is that unlike rail, you don't have to build a complete, continuous piece of infrastructure if you really only need segments of one.
Here in Portland, for example, the Barbur corridor — now being studied for BRT or rail — features a series of congested chokepoints with generally free-running traffic in between them. Here, a BRT facility that got transit through the chokepoints reliably probably wouldn't need an exclusive lane in the free-flowing segments, because traffic in those segments would continue to be metered by the chokepoints and thus remain uncongested. (Congested chokepoints meter traffic just as ramp meters do: they limit the rate at which cars can enter a road segment and thus reduce its chance of becoming congested.)
Unfortunately, Bus Rapid Transit can also be implemented in exactly the opposite way. Severely congested chokepoints are generally expensive places to design transit priority for, especially if you're unwilling to simply take a lane for transit. So we often see BRT projects that are missing where they are most needed. The Boston Silver Line 4-5, like the Los Angeles Silver Line, can get stuck in traffic downtown. New York's supposed BRT is so compromised that many refused to call it BRT anymore. Even the world-class Auckland North Shore Busway disappears as it approaches the Harbour Bridge.
Now we have the example of Seattle's RapidRide D, highlighted today by Mike Lindblom in the Seattle Times:
While the new RapidRide bus mostly lives up to its name in West Seattle, passengers on its sister route to Ballard are routinely stuck in traffic.
The service to Ballard, called the D Line, is d
elayed 10 to 15 minutes by late-afternoon car congestion leaving Belltown and winding through the crowded Uptown neighborhood, near Seattle Center.
That bottleneck is aggravated by traffic signals that haven't yet been re-timed by King County Metro Transit and the city of Seattle, to give the buses a longer or quicker green light. Metro acknowledges the D Line is just one minute faster than the local bus it replaced Sept. 29; the advantage is supposed to be six to eight minutes.
Transit managers hope to make gains by early 2013 after signal and road-lane changes are finished.
"We have a ways to go based on our early experience, but it is still too early to know whether the projection will be achieved," said Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer.
Just one minute faster than the bus it replaced? Then the question arises: Why was it called Rapid Ride prior to the improvements that would make it Rapid? There are some plausible if grim answers to this question. Getting multiple big bureaucracies to move on the same timetable to the same deadline is hard. The transit agency has to commit to a date months in advance, without being entirely sure whether its partners (typically in the City and the state Dept of Transportation) will be done with the improvements that are their responsibility. So sometimes, the brand appears before the product does, causing this understandable blowback and also, more critically, tarnishing the brand.
RapidRide D raises a larger problem though. Even when planned priority is completed further south there is still the problem of the congested Ballard Bridge. Like Barbur's chokepoints in Portland, the Ballard Bridge is a familiar chokepoint that affects speed and reliability for all transit services forced to use it. You can imagine the difficulty of demanding that RapidRide have an exclusive lane over the bridge, when that would leave only one for other cars. (But what about a lane for buses + carpools + carshare cars + electric cars + etc. until you get a reasonable but uncongested lane volume?)
Sometimes, too, bridges can be metered, much the way the San Francisco Bay Bridge toll plaza meters traffic on that bridge. At the approach point pictured above, a signal could have been placed at the bus merge point which meters traffic so that northbound congestion piles up south of the bridge rather than on it, and enters the bridge only at an uncongested rate. That would have allowed buses uncongested operation without really slowing down cars much. I'm not an engineer; there may be valid reasons why this wasn't possible, but it's the sort of solution that comes up when congested traffic is the reality anyway and the goal is to protect transit from it.
Transit agencies sometimes compromise BRT for their own reasons of budget. Issues of boarding time associated with the lack of on-street ticket machines are coming up on RapidRide, as are concerns about reliability arising from the fact that two RapidRide lines are through-routed, transmitting delay from one to the other. These are familiar struggles within transit agencies who are under pressure to spread a product over many corridors and can't afford to deliver every aspect of the product in all those places. The result runs the risk of becoming symbolic transit; a bright red line appears on the map, but without the investment needed to make good on the promise that the red line implies.
I've received emails from Seattle friends on several sides of this issue, and sympathize with all of them. I don't mean to criticize either the City or the State DOT or the transit agency, because what was done here is fairly typical historic American practice and the pressures involved are so routine.
But if there is a desire to aim higher than historic American practice, the question remains. How much can we compromise BRT — tolerating its absence precisely in the congested chokepoint where it's most needed — and still call it BRT? Might be better for transit agencies to refuse to implement BRT until the relevant traffic authorities have delivered the facilities it requires?
If you ever wondered how fast you could really create a Bus Rapid Transit line, well, New York City has done it just in the last couple of days:
Could use embellishment, but everything you need for speed and reliability looks like it's there.
This happens to be a replacement service for an out-of-service subway line. For more, see here.
"Car owners are the creators of wealth. Do you realise that they get exhausted sitting in their cars due to traffic jams and they reach office completely tired? It affects their efficiency. Do you want them to perform less?"
— B B Sharan, the chief petitioner opposing Delhi's
new on-street Bus Rapid Transit system, on
the grounds that it leaves less space for car traffic.
"The problem of car users, who are in a minority, is being portrayed in the press as the people's problem. The fact is that less than 10% people in Delhi use private cars. More than 33% travel by buses and 30% walk to work."
— Geetam Tiwari, a road safety expert and professor
at Delhi's Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)
After months of drama, Mr. Sharan's complaint is being considered by Delhi's High Court.
Note that even the professor is reluctant to note the obvious: that buses that are allowed to run quickly and reliably will be more useful, and thus likely to attract even more than 33% of travelers. Unless, of course, you assume that class boundaries are absolutely rigid, with eternally fixed numbers of "bus-people", and that nobody changes their behavior based on utility. With that assumption, you're stuck with a purely entitlement-based argument, still a very strong argument in Delhi but not the only one.
Side note: Summing up the professor's percentages, it appears that some significant share of Delhi commuters are much-besieged cyclists, riding in immensely dangerous conditions. The daily reality of the Delhi curbface is that vendors fill up pedestrian spaces, including any sidewalks/footpaths, forcing pedestrians as well as cyclists into traffic lanes. Traffic in Delhi is often slow but always turbulent, with vehicles accelerating unpredictably to jump into perceived gaps in traffic.
First photo: BBC
The image below, of Sydney's M2 freeway at Barclay Road, shows the two directions of a median busway crossing over each other so that buses can stop on a center platform — without the buses needing to have doors on both sides.
Another I'm familiar with is on the Los Angeles Harbor Transitway at I-105. The station is buried under a freeway interchange but the crossovers on the north-south busway are clearly visible.
Can anyone identify other examples of this design in busways anywhere in the world? Please reply in comments if so. Thanks!
Taras Grescoe. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. Macmillan, 2012.
When the publisher of Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger asked me to review the book, I felt the usual apprehension. Shelves are full of books that discuss transit from a journalist’s perspective. They often get crucial things wrong, as do many journalists’ articles on the topic. I wondered I was going to endure another four hours of watching readers being innocently misled on issues that matter.
Grescoe does a little of that, but he also shows why spectacular writing compensates for many problems of detail. Straphanger is a tour de force of compelling journalism and “travel writing” – friendly, entertaining, funny, pointed, and (almost always) compelling. Like any good explainer, he announces his prejudice at once:
I admit it: I ride the bus. What’s more, I frequently find myself on subways, streetcars, light rail, metros and high-speed trains. Though I have a driver’s license, I’ve never owned an automobile, and apart from the occasional car rental, I’ve reached my mid forties by relying on bicycles, my feet, and public transportation for my day-to-day travel … I am a straphanger, and I intend to remain one as long as my legs will carry me to the corner bus stop.
Grescoe and I have almost all of this in common, but I felt a pang of regret at this posture. To the mainstream, car-dependent people who most need this book’s message, Grescoe has just announced that he’s a space alien with three arms and a penchant for eating rocks. But there’s a positive side: once you decide you’re not in danger, eccentric tourguides can be fun. Perhaps I have a poor dataset from living in “officially weird” Portland, and before that in San Francisco, but in a culture that seems increasingly welcoming of eccentricity and difference, there may be an audience for Grescoe among the motoring set.
Because this is what Grescoe is at heart: A great tourguide, in this case a travel writer, showing you around some fascinating cities, exploring intriguing transit systems, and introducing us to vivid and engaging characters, all while having fun and sometimes dangerous adventures. These last are important; Grescoe has had enough traumatic and confronting experiences that he can describe straphanging as a form of endorphin-rich adventure analogous to mountain climbing or skydiving. I look forward to the movie.
Statistics are cited lightly but to great (and usually accurate) effect. Effective and quotable jabs are everywhere:
“The personal automobile has, dramatically and enduringly, broadened our horizons. In the process, however, it has completely paved them over.
Grescoe has a great eye for characters, too. Who can fail to be charmed, for example, by this portrait of a character I hadn’t known: Bogotà mayor Antanas Mockus, alter-ego of his successor, the aggressive and practical Enrique Peñalosa:
Working with a tiny budget and no support from district councillors, Mockus focused on … undermining cycles of violence through jester-like interventions in daily life. He dismissed the notoriously corrupt traffic police and hired four hundred mimes to shame drivers into stopping at crosswalks. … Taxis drivers were encouraged to become “Gentlemen of the Crosswalks,” and every new traffic fatality was marked with a black star prominently painted on the pavement. To discourage road rage and honking, he distributed World Cup-style penalty cards to pedestrians and motorists, a red thumb’s down to signify disapproval, a green thumbs up to express thanks for a kind act … Seeing tangible evidence of municipal progress, citizens once again began to pay their property taxes … and the once-bankrupt city’s finances began to recover.
What’s wrong with this book? Well, if it’s travel writing, nothing; travel writing is about the adventure, and while you learn things from it, you expect to learn subjective, unquantifiable things that may be inseparable from the character of your guide. Journalism, on the other hand, has to get its facts right, or at least state its biases. Grescoe gets a pass on his largest biases, mostly because he’s entirely aware of them and happy to point them out.
But there are a few mistakes. Like many commentators, Grescoe throws around meaningless or misleading data about urban densities. Here’s a typical slip:
Thanks largely to the RER, the metropolitan area of Paris, with over 10.2 million residents, takes up no more space on the Earth’s surface than Jacksonville, Florida, a freeway-formed city with fewer than 800,000 residents.
This doesn’t seem to check out, unless some subtle and uncited definition of metro area is being used. (Wikipedia tells me that the City of Jacksonville is 882 sq mi in area while the Paris with 10.3 million residents is 1098 sq mi.) But even if it did, this is the classic “city limits problem.” Jacksonville is a consolidated city-county whose “city limits” encompass vast rural area outside the city, whereas “metro Paris” is by definition a contiguous area that is entirely urbanized. An accurate comparison with metro Paris would look only at the built-up area of Jacksonville, which is tiny compared to Paris. The point is that any talk about metro areas or cities is prone to so many different definitions, including some really unhelpful ones, that it’s wrong to cite any urban density without footnoting to clarify exactly what you mean, and how it’s measured. Grescoe is far from alone in sliding into these quicksands.
As with many journalists, Grescoe’s sense of what would be a good transit network is strongly governed by his emotional response to transit vehicles and technologies. Grescoe is very enamored with rapid transit or “metro” service to the point that he sometimes misses how technologies work together for an optimal and liberating network.
He claims, for example, that there should be circular metro lines around Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto. In fact, circular or “orbital” services (regardless of technology) rely not just on network effects but also on being radial services into major secondary centers. This is why the Chicago Circle Line made no sense: Chicago is so massively single-centered that there are few major secondary centres sufficient to anchor a metro line until you get way out into the suburbs, at which point concentrations of jobs are laid out in such transit-unfriendly ways that no one line could serve them anyway. Chicago is going the right direction by improving the speed and usefulness of its urban grid pattern of service – a mathematically ideal network form that fits well with the shape of the city. Toronto has similar geography and issues. As for Los Angeles, this is a place with so many “centers” that the concepts of radial vs orbital service are meaningless. Especially here, where travel is going so many directions and downtown’s role is so small, the strong grid, not the circle, is the key to great transit.
Grescoe is clear enough about his strongest bias:
“I don’t like buses. … Actually, I hate them.”
Despite his opening statement that “I ride the bus,” Grescoe repeatedly associates buses with losers, and with unpleasant experiences. In correspondence with me, he wrote: “The anti-bus bias you perceive was a concession to North American readers whose experience of buses tends to be negative.” Again, this is understandable as travel writing, but it’s tricky as journalism and very tricky if the purpose is advocacy. When you presume a bias on the part of your reader, with the intent of later countering it, you can’t really control whether you’ve dislodged the bias or reinforced it. I felt the bias being reinforced; other readers may have different responses.
Again, the problem with anti-bus bias is not that I don’t share it. The problem is that if you set transit technologies in competition with one another, the effect is to undermine the notion that technologies should work together as part of a complete network. If you want a network that will give you access to all the riches of your city, buses are almost certain to be part of it – even if, as in inner Paris, you have the densest subway system in the world. Hating buses – if that becomes your primary focus — means hating complete networks.
When it comes to Bus Rapid Transit, Grescoe accepts the common North American assumption that the place to see BRT is Bogotà or Curitíba. So he comes back from Bogotà with the near-universal reaction of North American junketers there: The massive structuring BRT is really impressive in the numbers it carries, but hey, this is the developing world. Not only is car ownership low but it’s more authoritarian in its politics, giving mayors the power to effect massive transformation fast without much consultation. What’s more, these massive busways are effective but really unpleasant as urban design – not something I’d want in my city. Respecting the effectiveness and utility of the Bogotà busways, Grescoe does endorse Bus Rapid Transit in secondary corridors, but he has not seen busways done completely for a developed-world audience.
North Americans who want to experience successful Bus Rapid Transit in a developed-world context should skip South America and visit Brisbane, Australia, where a wealthy modern city moves, in part, on a complete network of beautifully designed, landscaped, and highly functional busways that flow into an underground segment right through the heart of downtown, and that are designed to provide an extremely frequent rapid-transit experience. There are some European pieces of good busway, such as Amsterdam’s Zuidtangent. But you have to go to Brisbane to see an uncompromised developed-world busway network, one that provides reliable operations end to end.
While Straphanger’s flirtation with anti-bus stereotypes was troubling to me, there’s a limit to how much Grescoe can be criticized for this. This is journalism of its time, and the bus=loser stereotype is still of our time in some cities. It’s up to each of us to decide whether to seek experiences that confirm our stereotypes or those that might contradict them, but nobody can challenge all of their stereotypes at once. Grescoe does eagerly challenge many other destructive attitudes throughout the book, and the brilliance of a book lies in the way it brings delight and confidence to the experience of both using and advocating transit and great urbanism. I heartily recommend this fun, enlightening, and inspiring read.