Free Idea: Implement Transit + Freight Lanes

Here’s an honest question: does our current system of roads and streets really get goods delivered to market quickly and efficiently?

If you ask any legislator pushing for more road spending or your random comment section warrior opposed to bike lanes, congestion is really hurting Twin Cities businesses. To the tune of $232 million a year (This number, used frequently during the (now disbanded) MoveMN campaign, comes from the 2012 TTI Urban Mobility Scorecard; the 2014 number has now been calculated at $327 million for 2014]

Debate the assumptions used to come up with that number all you want, but there are certainly times when congestion does indeed cause problems for getting goods delivered. I’m just not convinced the solution is to keep building more lanes on urban streets or to stop taking roadway space away from general traffic lanes or on-street parking for bikes, buses, and pedestrians.

Why do I say that? Well, for one, it should be intuitive that (mostly single occupancy) cars are the ones causing the congestion on commercial vehicles. Pay attention the next time you drive or sit for a while near any street. Cars will likely outnumber delivery trucks 10:1 or more. Don’t believe me? Here are a bunch of intersection counts by vehicle type within Minneapolis’ borders:

For these (fairly busy) intersections, less than 6% of the vehicles (or 1 in 16) passing through are trucks. I can’t tell for sure, but I believe “Trucks” as defined by the city includes transit buses, so adjust that number down a bit further to count only freight traffic. That’s a really small share of total. It’s not entirely inconsistent with commercial VMT share of total – where “heavy commercial” and “five-axle” as defined by MnDOT trucks make up 13% of miles traveled on trunk highways within the Metro District; it’s also not that different from national numbers discussed in this post.

A while back I compared peak-hour lane capacities on our busiest arterial streets to running an articulated bus about 70% full every 5-6 minutes in its own lane. The results didn’t favor cars – over 1,000 people per hour moved in the bus lane vs just over 600 per lane when full of cars. Of course, an empty bus lane seems like a waste of space to most people stuck in car traffic, which is why we don’t usually have the political will to implement it. To put it bluntly, that’s an ignorant position to take.

But! We know bus lanes do indeed sit empty 90-95% of the time. We know that allowing cars in mucks things up. But we also know trucks are a relatively small share of total vehicles. So here’s the proposal: let delivery and commercial freight trucks share the same dedicated lanes on streets with multiple thru-lanes in each direction. What might this look like?

Bus+Truck_Example

Of course, not every street will be a good candidate for this type of treatment. We would need to update the methodologies used here and here to include time savings for freight which has paid employees losing actual money sitting in congestion (for now, anyway) and valuable goods that have delivery deadlines, as opposed to people who simply prefer driving over taking the bus or biking but don’t actually lose money sitting in traffic. Yes, this might mean certain corridors become slower for cars. But transit becomes quicker (while we also build better bike infrastructure), and the many people currently choosing to drive might just shift modes.

Interstates and highways could do something similar by expanding H/OT lanes, which are much messier to implement on city streets, seems like a better route to allow individuals and businesses to decide how much their time is worth, with transit just hopping in them as it does already.

If you’re a pro-urban person concerned with the inherent subsidies big trucks receive, I’m with you. We should have policies that favor low-social cost long-haul freight (like rail) as much as possible, and let trucks handle the last-mile(ish) deliveries – the things they’re really good at. I doubt many want a return to many active rail yards in highly urban areas. At the same time, transit buses also put a hefty amount of wear and tear on our roads (about 850x that of a passenger car) and we don’t expect Metro Transit to pay a gas tax or other fees that support road maintenance, even if those fees are a small share of the local funding pie. Besides, the cost to make one lane in each direction more durable for buses and trucks isn’t that much more than what we currently spend on street construction & maintenance.

Or, we can just assume that everyone who drives a car but complains about congestion costs to businesses will magnanimously pull over to the side of the street every time they see a truck in their rear window.


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14 Responses to Free Idea: Implement Transit + Freight Lanes

  1. Julia October 14, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    I love this idea! I personally tend to be pretty pro-trucker, having had a number of relatives who’ve driven long-haul. I find truckers to be better, safer, and more considerate drivers generally, at least towards me when I’m on foot. The biggest issues I take with trucks are structural, both in terms of subsidies (as you lay out) and their massive footprint, which then requires overbuilt city streets for their turning needs, which makes crossing in front of them really dangerous, and which I assume is part of why they produce so much direct air/noise pollution. Mass transit sharing space with (ideally smaller, greener) trucks sounds like it addresses many issues at once.

    Given the benefits of that quicker lane for trucks, I could also see this being something with a nominal fee to companies, particularly to manage flow on it during peak times.

    I don’t know if traffic counts generally differentiate between SOV and HOV, but when I’m on some of Minneapolis’ most car-centric, pedestrian-mind-numbing streets (particularly one-ways), I sometimes do my own counts just to alleviate the boredom. I find that it’s generally at least 75% SOV.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini October 14, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

      On your last point, the vast majority of commute trips in cars are single occupant (average of 1.13 in 2009 in the National Housing Transportation Survey http://nhts.ornl.gov/2009/pub/stt.pdf)

      For other trips, vehicle occupancy is higher. See page 39 of the pdf. Miles-weighted, occupancy in vehicles averages 1.67. So I’d bet it’s likely that ~50% of vehicles are single occupant with the remainder being a mix of 2, 3, 4+ (which is why average is 1.67, a bit above 1.5).

      • Julia October 14, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

        Hmmm. Thanks for the link. I wonder how that clusters and how that self-reporting works. I know that every single time I’ve counted, the numbers have been far higher than 50% SOV (sometimes they’re around 90% SOV over in the bottleneck).

        In my counting, I generally do not include pre-teens and younger as occupants, because they lack choice/volition to be in the car. But I don’t see a ton of those (maaaaaaybe 5%).

        I didn’t see where they laid out how non SOV was defined. It seems to me that frequently individuals aren’t leaving from/going to the same place and most MOV trips have some portion spent as an SOV (thinking of commuting, picking up/dropping off kids, shared rides to events, etc.).

  2. Wayne October 14, 2015 at 11:54 am #

    I’d worry about the safety issue. As it is, semis already don’t interface well with pedestrians and cyclists in dense urban areas (how many of the cyclist deaths we hear about are from turning semis?). Forcing them into the same space as transit (which generally is in areas that attract a lot more pedestrians–including those getting on and off the bus) seems like a deadly mix.

    I’m actually personally of a mind to ban semis from all but a select few routes directly from industrial parks to highways and force all last-mile deliveries to use smaller box-trucks that are less likely to kill vulnerable road uses. If you wanted to mix those kinds of trucks with transit lanes I’d be a lot more open to it. But seriously, no more semis on city streets.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini October 14, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

      In general, I agree that street designs catering to large semi haulers pose a safety risk for peds/cyclists. However, as I pointed out here, buses, which require similar turning geometries and therefore intersection design, are more dangerous to non-occupants than cars, and on par with freight vehicles. That last point didn’t make it in the full post, but since freight truck per-trip mileage isn’t known the way other mode trips are (on average), the best I can do is give non-occupant fatalities per billion miles driven: Large Trucks: 1.18, Urban Transit Bus: 3.57. Both of those are higher than passenger cars (0.75).

      So we should be careful in calling out trucks when buses may be just as bad (and light rail certainly worse no matter how you slice the data). Yes, buses make fewer turns owing to their relatively straight and definitely more predictable routes, so we can limit the number of intersections that accommodate their geometries to far fewer spots. And I’d be okay proposing a compromise: a maximum truck length on city streets in exchange for free movement of any truck below that on a new network of bus lanes.

      • Julia October 14, 2015 at 3:35 pm #

        Is there any reason for the dominance of huge busses besides labor costs and tradition (i.e. that’s the size that’s standard and available)?

        It seems like switching to smaller busses more frequently could provide the same level of service and potentially solve quite a few problems, primarily around safety especially at intersections, if it were combined with a phasing out of over-sized vehicles (like semis) on city streets.

        Also, trucks are intuitively more dangerous to other vehicles than most vehicles–you didn’t happen to find the death rates for motorized-vehicle-non-occupants vs bike/foot traffic, did you? Or urban/rural as a partial proxy?

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller October 14, 2015 at 3:48 pm #

          Seems like smaller, more frequent, buses would cost a lot more. Isn’t labor far and away the biggest cost?

          • Julia October 14, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

            That’s why I said aside from labor. Right now labor might be, but that could potentially be mitigated with driverless busses, better transit funding, more appropriately collecting for the costs of roads (including the high maintenance/injuries of huge turn radii), job creation programs, etc.

            I was curious if there were non-labor-cost reasons for huge busses rather than smaller ones.

            • Adam Miller
              Adam Miller October 14, 2015 at 4:26 pm #

              So you did. Sorry.

          • Adam Froehlig
            Adam Froehlig October 15, 2015 at 5:52 am #

            Yep. In 2013 (most recent year available, “salaries, wages, and benefits” were just over 75% of Metro Transit’s operating costs.

            Regarding Julia’s question, it could also be argued that fewer, larger buses represent an economy of scale when it comes to purchase cost and material expense, though I don’t have the figures for articulated buses vs. standard 40ft non-articulated buses in front of me.

            • Alex Cecchini
              Alex Cecchini October 15, 2015 at 8:50 am #

              Yes. Additionally, there comes a point where you get diminishing returns from a user experience when headways drop below somewhere in the 5-10 minute range. Is it worth the extra driver, bus purchase/maintenance costs to have an average wait time of 2 minutes vs 3? Trust me, this coming from perhaps the biggest supporter of very high bus frequencies.

  3. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini October 15, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

    If anyone was curious, someone on the MinnPost cross-post of this piece asked about service and other smaller delivery vehicles. Think electricians/plumbers/lawn maintenance/couriers/etc etc. It’s a good question. Here’s my response:

    This one’s tricky. It’s a little harder to enforce, since not every vehicle these workers use is visually distinct from other ones on the road (ex, 2-axle light duty trucks, vans, even cars). So you’d need some sort of registration as a service/delivery vehicle for police to ID for enforcement.

    But I’ll bite. I took the data here: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_102.htm and marked any job title that transports people or goods for service. I included real estate agents (who drive their clients around), electricians, plumbers, landscape crews, couriers, home health care providers, tile layers, masonworkers, drywall installers, carpet layers, etc etc etc. Basically any job that might need to bring a toolbox or package with them. Note, there’s probably some overlap between this subset of workers and the heavy vehicles already counted in the datasets in my post. And, it should also be pointed out that many of these workers aren’t the primary vehicle operators and could get around by transit or bike to a job site. Even with that said, the grand total of these workers is 7.44 million, or 5.1% of the total number of jobs listed in the table.

    I do believe that businesses might opt to have smaller vehicles to cater to a more local market if they had to sit in worse traffic owing to a bus/freight lane taking something away from car drivers. It’s also possible the other 94.9% of workers in urban areas might shift modes, and the remaining lane(s) wouldn’t be any more congested as a result. Or we could just figure out a way to license service vehicles for bus lanes as well. Whatever the case, our current free-for-all lane system encourages mass car use and clogs up real economic activity.

    • Nathanael November 1, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

      I don’t know about Minnesota, but in many states they have specific “commercial vehicle” plates. If you are a plumber/electrician/delivery company/ etc., you *can* get those plates, even though many haven’t bothered to. That would be an easy way to make the distinction.

      (Here’s the NYC definition of “commercial vehicle”:
      http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/motorist/truckorcomm.shtml
      )

      And if the plates confer access to the bus lanes… the businesspeople will bother to get them.

      So that’s a pretty simple system: allow commercial vehicles in bus lanes, but not other vehicles.

  4. Nathanael November 1, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    This is a very smart idea. Local trucks are necessary and are not going away.

    Worth giving it a try….