The transportation idea that has been making the internet rounds this past weeks is the “straddling bus“.  The idea is to combine the best (worst?) of buses and trains to simultaneously preserve auto traffic.  The bus would run on tracks or guided lanes above moving cars on a typical road and connect to above ground stops to let passengers on and off.

Consider me unimpressed.  I admit that it is thinking outside the box.  However, if we’re going to go through the cost of building tracks, why not just build a train?  It has to be cheaper to build and operate than this behemoth.  Again, if we’re going to build dedicated stops, why not just run bus rapid transit or a train?  Isn’t that easier?

What I hate about this idea is that it prioritizes the movement of cars.  Haven’t we already learned that it is a mistake to build cities that depend on cars first and foremost?  Let’s build transit systems that encourage citizens to utilize public transportation first, rather than as an alternative.

The last part I do not trust about this concept, is the skill of the drivers passing through and around this giant machine.  I work for the Chicago Transit Authority’s law department currently and I can tell you that the CTA’s buses and trains get into an awful lot of collisions with bad drivers, or just because there is a lot of traffic.  I would not trust drivers to successfully navigate around and through this hulk.  It is sure to be dinged, bumped, or straight-up collided with on a frequent basis, drawing all positive attributes to a screaming halt.

I appreciate transportation ingenuity, I welcome it.  I just hope no city dedicates its resources to these unwieldy wheels of innovation.

If you come to this post expecting a breakdown of some trend in cleantech transit, you will have to kindly wait until next week.  Tonight’s post is fully dedicated to a New York City transit center’s incompetence that this blogger witnessed first hand just a few short hours ago.

For thousands of travelers each day, for both commuters and tourists alike, the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal serves as a portal to the “city that never sleeps.”  By all accounts, this is one of the most bustling public transit hubs in the United States, as it serves over 58 million passengers annually.  Simply stepping into the main terminal’s entrance on 8th Ave between 41st and 42nd streets, one wonders how this labyrinth even functions to serve it’s purpose of transporting passengers on buses throughout the Northeast.  The answer is barely.  For instance, just today, I had to wait 25 minutes from the time our bus returned to Port Authority until the time we alighted from the bus due to a last second gate logistic switch.  In talking to other friends, apparently this type of experience is the norm, not the exception unfortunately.

It is no secret that buses are treated as second class citizens in New York City.  Simply look to the lack of bus rapid transit lanes, a strategy that has shown time and again to work in South America and Europe.  City planners and policy makers have always favored subways or commuter rail lines over bus transit.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the comparison between Grand Central Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  One is a beacon of architectural reclamation and commercial triumph, the other is a seventh rate architectural structure whose only commercial highlight is that it contains a Heartland Brewery (brewery should be used loosely……) by one of the main entrances.  Such an important transportation hub should be seen as an architectural landmark.  Other nations seem to understand this, even China.  Apparently, we in the US, especially in New York, missed the memo.

If the exterior architecture weren’t bad enough, perhaps one should take a closer look at the circuitous paths leading up to the actual bus gates.  It is time for a Grand Central-esque overhaul.  And while they are at it, why not let the revised structure rise to the sky with gleaming commercial office space like some of these 2008 proposals. I understand this is a massive capital investment that will probably bankrupt the city and state even further.  The city and state probably don’t have a cool $10 billion just lying around these days.  We must continue to put relevant infrastructure in place that will finally elevate the bus to its proper place alongside trains in the perception of the city public transit user.

I recently switched from taking the train to taking the bus for my commute home from work.   I will always be a fan of the rails.  I love everything about them, from the feel of a train ride, to the dedicated space for travel, to generally firm scheduling and the fact that they are independent from other forms of transportation (unless there are grade crossings involved).  However, the bus became cheaper (due to to extenuating circumstances, not merely system prices) and here I am taking it!

However, I will never get used to being stuck in traffic during the commute.  I find it incredibly frustrating to watch traffic go the same speed as the bus or faster.  My transit elitism leads me to believe that I am entitled to go faster than people traveling alone in individual cars.  In fact, if more planners thought this way, I am positive more people would be riding public transit, it’s all about marginal costs and returns.

We all know that the bus has a sad history of being disfavored, sometimes used as an instrument of racial and/or class oppression, and generally is perceived as vastly inferior to the personal automobile.  However, for all those drivers stuck in endless traffic on metropolitan America’s overcrowded highways, think about how much better life could be if most people took the bus (let alone rode a bike).  While I recognize the importance of biking and that more streets, workplaces, and transit stations should accommodate bicycles, it is also relevant that many people due to age, distance, weather, etc. cannot bike to work.

The above image from Transportation Alternatives (a New York advocacy group)–and similar to a more photographically deceptive German image–illustrates the incredible power of public transit.  Moving many people from many moving motorized vehicles into one is a huge coup for traffic flow (not to mention safety) and commuter sanity.  Even though some companies are trying to solve the problem by building smaller cars–and admittedly bikers are very efficient on smaller vehicles–organizing people into larger systems is not efficient and clean, but creates more usable streets.  It is one of the many reasons I applaud New York’s engagement with bus rapid transit.

The next time someone gives you a hard time about the bus, whether it is its speed, its comfort, or its perceived social status, remind that person that if more people rode the bus system, and public transit systems in general, not only would our society feel and be more equal, but those buses would move faster and be better for all people in transit, regardless of their mode.

Curitiba Bus

Recently I was reading an old Scientific American article about urban planning in Curitiba, Brazil.  The 1.8 million resident city in southern Brazil is a mecca of urban solutions, especially as related to transportation.  Much of the city’s visionary accomplishment is due to the leadership of former mayor Jaime Lerner, who is an architect and urban planner.

According to that Scientific American article:

Most cities grow in concentric fashion, annexing new districts around the outside while progressively increasing the density of the commercial and business districts at their core.  Congestion is inevitable, especially if most commuters travel from the periphery to the center in private automobiles.  During the 1970’s, Curitiba authorities instead emphasized growth along prescribed structural axes, allowing the city to spread out while developing mass transit that kept shops, workplaces and homes readily accessible to one another.  …

The details of the system are designed for speed and simplicity just as much as the overall architecture.  Special raised-tube bus-stops, where passengers pay their fares in advance (as in a subway station), speed boarding, as do the two extra-wide doors on each bus.  The combination has cut total travel time by a third.  Curitiba also runs double- and triple-length articulated buses that increase the capacity of the express bus lanes. …

To build a subway system would have cost roughly $60 million to $70 million [in 1996] per kilometer; the express bus highways came in at $200,000 per kilometer, including boarding tubes.

This bus rapid transit system carries 75% of the commuters to work every day.  To get a better picture of how this system operates I recommend the short documentary below.

Curitiba was fortunate to still be developing while they built much of their transit system, something cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas can still to some extent take advantage of.  However, I am enamored with the philosophy of both the bus rapid transit system and the tubes servicing them.

I firmly believe that what frequently makes subways more attractive than buses is their permanence and hence perceived reliability.  Having buses that more closely resemble subways and having permanent stops not only creates permanence, but creates efficiency.  We have all been on the bus and sat there waiting for all the passengers to feed their money into the fare box.  By allowing people to pay before boarding there is a huge efficiency advantage over most bus systems in the US.

Curitiba Bus TubeOf course most buses tend to pick up curbside where there is no room for something as large as a Curitiba tube.  However, the potential for a dedicated lane is not dependent on new systems.  Every city has thoroughfares that are essential to traveling through the city and many of them are multiple lanes.  Dedicating one of those lanes, even walling it off such that regular traffic cannot access it would make buses much more desirable.

Currently most buses not only are crowded but go slower than the speed of traffic due to stops.  If buses had dedicated lanes they travel much faster than the rest of the traffic as they will not have to compete with cars.  Imagine as opposed to building a 2nd ave subway in Manhattan one or two lanes of 2nd avenue was just dedicated to rapid transit buses.  Now this isn’t as advantageous in New York, which already primarily travels underground, but you get the idea.

Bus_stop

Whether you have lived in a city for years or are visiting one for the first time you probably prefer to take some sort of train when using public transportation.  I believe this is due to the perceived superior reliability, safety and ease of use for trains.  After all, trains are on tracks that only go in two directions and there are defined stops.  Buses are just enormous cars that could go anywhere, even if they supposedly are supposed to go certain places.  However, I think a lot of it has to do with maps.  We are all tube_mapused to the transit maps like that used in London.  It’s a relatively abstract system of lines and colors showing where the various subway trains travel to and where they intersect with each other.

Have you ever seen a bus map like that?  I have not, but that does not mean they do not exist.  Certainly such maps are easier when there is a guaranteed bus line such as bus rapid transit systems, like those in Las Vegas or Hartford.  Systems that have dedicated lanes or demarcated lanes where buses go are much more analagous to light rail.  This is even more true where bus stops have fare gates, such as certain places on Boston’s Silver Line.

The Transportationist (see blogroll) has discussed improving bus signage to make buses more desirable.  I believe this is critical.  Buses are intimidating to the unitiated, becasue unless you’ve ridden one before or are intensely familiar with a neighborhood, where a bus goes and where it stops seem intensely mysterious.  When you enter a subway station on the other hand you usually are shown at least a system map and many times shown a system map overlaid upon a geographic map.  I cannot remember the last time I saw this at a bus stop.

brt_bogotaI recognize the difficulties of producing bus maps; the malleability of bus routes, fluctuation in stops, the lack of permanence of many stops, the challenge of portraying dozens of bus maps on one map.  I agree that to portray every bus route on one map would be beyond chaotic.  However, I believe urban transit systems could begin with their most heavily travelled lines.  Maps should show where buses go, how frequently they travel, how frequently they stop (because if the bus stops every block or two blocks it is not necessary to portary every stop) and where the bus route intersects with other routes and other transit options.  If buses travel on city routes it would also be potentially helpful if lines were painted on the street to show where buses travel.  There is no doubt where trains go, just follow the tracks or the subway stops.  However, it’s not always so clear for buses, especially, if there is no shed or covering at the stop.  Therefore, better signage is required at stops to alert people where they in fact are.  They should be visible from a distance, not small like no parking signs.

Buses have a long history in this country of being portrayed as an undesirable means of transportation.  In the first third of the 20th century General Motors bought out trolley systems across the country and replaced them with bus systems for the twofold reason that they could produce the buses and fewere people want to ride buses than trolleys and would therefore be more likely to drive.  However insidious it was also insightful.  Trains are more desirable than bus lines, but much can be done to improve bus lines such that they are more rider friendly.  Visitors and residents to cities alike should see the bus system as a matter of access, not a burden less worthy of their patronage than rail.

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