A Bid for Bus Lanes

Take a look at the two images below. If the squiggly red lines didn’t refer to a specific mode, but instead to some pure form of transportation like a wire for an electron, and you had to choose one to rely on to transport your electric self around the city, which would you choose?

Image A

Image B

Those of us who live and work Downtown might be comfortable with B, but the majority of Twin Citizens would likely prefer the much more extensive system represented by image A. The reality, created by many decades of exclusive official attention to the highway network and neglect of the transit network, is that the region is now largely a dispersed patchwork of destinations rather than a bullseye or cone of growing intensity.

Now, the creators and proponents of the network in image B mostly don’t equate it with image A. They sell it as a step up from our existing transit system but don’t promise it will be as useful or convenient as our freeway system, implying it is the best bone to throw to transit riders that we can afford or justify or some combination of the two. As much as one could quibble with that (cough, richest country in the world, cough, climate change), it is probably a realistic assessment of current political possibilities.

So where can the transit advocate turn for a ride that isn’t on rails, but still extends deep into the suburbs and doesn’t take forever to get there? How about using a network of already grade-separated rights-of-way slithering hither and thither all across this great Minnesotan metroplex? Highway BRT could be our region’s best bet for a speedy, convenient, and ubiquitous rapid transit network. So, in addition to the two highway BRT lines that are under construction or in half-assed operation, the Met Council is planning eight – count em – eight highway BRT lines. While it’s debatable whether or not the quality of these lines will be as good existing and future LRT lines, the sheer distance they will cover make it a decent bet that at full build-out, they will carry at least as many riders as LRT, if not more.

However, while I mentioned earlier the patchwork nature of Minneapolis’ urbanity, not all patches are created equal. Downtown Minneapolis is a patch that stands out both for its intensity of use and for its congestion. These characteristics have combined to create the perverse situation in which the region’s largest transit destination is also its biggest source of delays. Note, for example, that route 4’s scheduled time to traverse the mile between Washington and MCTC is twice as long that scheduled for the mile between Franklin and Lake.

A center-running busway would work on several suburban Twin Cities arterials, a la Le Mobilien in Paris. Photo by Aaron Naparstek

A center-running busway would fit on several suburban Twin Cities arterials, a la Le Mobilien in Paris. Photo by Aaron Naparstek via Streetsblog

It’s these same delay-prone patches of intensity that highway BRT is likely to leave its runningway to serve (kinda like Blue Line LRT is highly separated from Hiawatha Ave, but just a mountable curb separates it from 5th St). The zillions of jurisdictions responsible for transportation planning in the Twin Cities need to keep this in mind when reconstructing roads in major transit destinations, and consider bus lanes to get buses through the chokepoints that litter these areas. We’re talking France Ave in Edina, Excelsior Blvd in Hopkins & St Louis Park, Flying Cloud Dr in Eden Prairie, White Bear Ave in Maplewood, Shingle Creek Pkwy in Brooklyn Center… the list goes on. Basically any arterial being reconstructed in a major employment cluster should be considered for bus lanes.

These lanes may not only be of use for future highway BRT lines. Local routes could make use of a cleverly designed open BRT facility to speed up service and increase reliability. In addition, the Twin Cities has a well-regarded and heavily-used commuter bus system. Why not expand it to suburban employment clusters, such as Edina, the density of which is roughly equivalent to Downtown St Paul?

It’s amazing that local transportation planners don’t even consider dedicated bus lanes when reconstructing lynchpins of the bus system like Washington Ave. It’s possible this is because they are nervous about taking more roadway space away from their precious cars, but bus lanes can actually fit in well with the ecosystem of a neighborhood surface street. Take for example this NYCDOT plan to use a parking lane for buses during the peak period:

Bus lanes work well shared with bikes and right turns, too, as long as you stripe them similar to 5th & 6th Sts in St Paul rather than Hennepin Ave in Minneapolis (it also probably doesn’t help to discontinue enforcement, as Minneapolis did). Of course, the suburban arterials I suggested above pretty much all have enough right-of-way to dedicate bus lanes in addition to cycletracks, right turn lanes, landing strips, etc.

It’s more likely, though, that local transportation planners don’t consider bus lanes because they just don’t have to. The seven layer burrito of transportation planning responsibilities in the Twin Cities metro allows for a lot of buck-passing opportunities, as one of Hennepin County’s engineers recently told me. According to him, Hennepin County didn’t consider bus lanes on Washington Ave because they don’t consider bus lanes unless prompted by Metro Transit. Can you guess how many miles of surface bus lanes Metro Transit has ever requested of any jurisdiction? Zero.

So voters need to talk to these transportation planners’ bosses and tell them that they need to start planning transportation holistically. Hopefully everyone recognizes by now that it’s not the number of vehicles a road carries, it’s the number of people (and stationary or seated people should count too). Similarly, those who advocate for a shift in transportation behavior should recognize that it’s not what mode people are shifting to (e.g. bikes, trains), it’s how many people are shifting. In a sprawling city with an existing successful bus system to build on, buses are going to be the quickest way to get a convenient alternative to the car in the reach of the most people. Let’s speed this process up by speeding buses up. Let’s build bus lanes.

Alex Bauman

About Alex Bauman

Alex enjoys blogging on his iPhoneDroid while stuck in traffic on his 90 minute daily commute to Roseville from bucolic Staggerford.

10 thoughts on “A Bid for Bus Lanes

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    1) “Why not expand it to suburban employment clusters, such as Edina, the density of which is roughly equivalent to Downtown St Paul?”

    I object sir. Nothing about downtown saint paul resembles Edina.

    2) How can signal timing help this problem? What do you think of the Marquette and 2nd changes? They seem like a big step in the right direction, no?

    3) I vastly prefer arterial BRT to highway BRT because freeways are so horrible for walking. Would it be possible to ditch the highway BRT structure in favor of arterial roadways like the ones you mention?

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      Agreed, we need to focus on (fast) suburban arterials for BRT rather than freeways. Robert Street in St. Paul or American Blvd could be good examples.

      Freeway BRT is hostile to walkers and a dense environment/station nodes. There’s definitely a place for it in the future, but I think that the function will be more to help provide more efficient off-peak service to strings of park and rides to compliment peak hour express buses.

      Many of these corridors, including Washington Ave downtown, would make for excellent Multiway Boulevards with buses running in the outer lanes of the primary streetway.

    2. Alex BaumanAlex Bauman Post author

      1) The employment density of Edina resembles Downtown St Paul, but that may be the only thing. However, the recent legalization of Happy Hours in Edina is a step towards St Paul.

      2)Marquette & 2nd are exactly the sort of thing I had in mind, although there probably aren’t too many more places with bus volumes that justify split stops. Signal timing would help with congestion in destination areas, but of course would also make it more convenient to drive, so that doesn’t really help with mode shift goals.

      3)I’m in favor of using all the tools in the toolbox, and certainly arterial BRT makes sense in some places. However, many suburban arterials are just as horrible for walking as freeway overpasses and will cost just as much to de-horriblize. In addition, I see less potential for the speeds needed to cover the vast distances of this sprawling metropolis on arterials than on freeways, which are already built for maximal speed. Finally, many job centers straddle freeways, so they’re more effectively covered by one higher-capacity transit line than two parallel. The Bloomington strip is an example of this – we could spend more money to build and operate two arterial BRT lines on 77th-78th and on American Freedomland Road, or we could build one right in the center and save money and be more legible to riders.

    3. Xan

      I was just in Edina this weekend walking and exploring and noting the unwalkabilty of the place. Yet it is suprisingly dense for a suburb. There is a lot of potential for more development to tie the whole place together. Certainly a bus lane on the wide expance of France Ave would help. But without a freeway connection to Mpls, it is a bus to nowhere. Connecting France w/ DT through 62 and 35W might make a France Ave BRT-like span work. But Edina needs to come up with a plan to fill in the parking spaces and add some sidewalk. The strip of land in between France and York could be a wonderful urban area, though of course it would be very different from St. Paul.

  2. Kasia McMahonKasia

    I really appreciate this post for bringing much needed attention to BRT. It seems to be the less glamorous cousin of light rail, but most of us transit users will continue to depend on buses to get where we need to go. What transit users need is a fast, reliable way to get from point A to point B.

    Not owning a car, I am fully dependent on public transit. My 12 mile commute from north Minneapolis to the Midway in St. Paul takes almost 1.5 hours during rush hour. People often ask me if I am excited for the Central Corridor light rail to open, but are surprised when I say, “not really.” Because the train is at grade, it would actually increase my travel time–so I will continue to take the express bus on highway 94. Service for this bus will decrease once the line is open, which will present another hurdle. My commuting experience has made me pretty weary of any projects proposed by the Met Council, because they don’t seem to have the average, working class, bus rider in mind.

    I don’t know why the debate is framed as either arterial BRT or highway BRT, because both would be helpful. There is a BRT line that has been proposed for Lake Street, which would utilize signal timing and other methods to increase travel time. One problem with BRT in dense areas is that it pits speed against convenience. It can’t stop at every block if it is going to be fast, so are people going to have to walk half a mile walk further to catch a bus? This is not really a pleasant option for most of the year in Minnesota. Will some people continue to take the 21 bus to their closest BRT stop on Lake Street? Keep in mind that walking and transfers add a lot of travel time. And while I am in favor of BRT options within the city, I would really love to see BRT on highways. Currently the 94 Express bus, which travels on highway 94, does not have a dedicated lane. I can’t imagine how fast it would be if it did. It might actually be an attractive option to drivers! Public transit on highways makes sense for the same reasons that it makes sense for cars, its fast! I don’t mind walking across an unwelcoming overpass as long as there are sidewalks and traffic lights with enough time to cross the on-ramps.

    BRT is cheap (comparatively) and could actually make a difference in my commute time, but route selection is the key, and I really hope it is made using actual information about where people are coming from and where they are going (like this: http://www.orange.com/en/D4D/Folder/first-prize) and not base it on some kind of fantasy of what transit users are or should be (or what TOD will look like, because most transit riders cannot afford to shop at local artisan shops, even though that paints a pretty urban picture). In order to get more of the middle class riding public transit, it needs to be fast. My current commute clocks in at 8-12 mph depending, and that just doesn’t cut it.

    1. Matt Steele

      Regarding stop spacing, we can fix that systemwide even for local routes…. change stop spacing to every two blocks (1/4 mi) rather than every block or less. We’ve discussed this over in the Transit News & Happenings thread on UrbanMSP and it’s fascinating how people have pointed out there are stops less than 300 feet apart in some places.

      1. Kasia McMahonKasia

        There might be stops as close as 300 feet apart, like on Nicollet Mall, which can be annoying because its almost faster to walk at that point (almost). But I also remember when they took out a few stops on Nicollet, and that came with its own annoyances–like having to walk one more block with an armful of groceries. Or trying to board a bus at a red light and the driver saying, “sorry, this isn’t a stop.” I don’t know what the process is for determining where and how frequently a bus stops. The 53 for example (which is the express bus on Lake Street) has stops that range from .1 miles apart to .8 miles apart, with an average of .37 miles between stops (for its route on Lake St). It is not always easy to space stops exactly two blocks apart on every street because stops are usually placed at important intersections or frequently visited areas. It still takes the 53 more than half an hour to go 4 miles. I don’t know how quickly BRT would go if it were added to Lake St.

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