Performance enhancement – Part 3: Transit buses to the rescue?

Biodiesel-powered bus
Biodiesel-powered bus

Texas A & M Transportation Institute’s (TTI) Associate Research Scientist David Schrank, and Senior Research Engineers Bill Eisele and Tim Lomax in TTI’s 2012 Urban Mobility Report state: “Improving transportation systems is about more than just adding road lanes, transit routes, sidewalks and bike lanes. It is also about operating those systems efficiently.” Yes indeedy.

But how to do this, that’s the trick.

In this three-part mode efficiency/performance series, spotlighted in Part 1 was passenger trains and covered in Part 2 was automobiles. This third and final installment deals with transit buses.

Transit ways

In 2011 in America, 56.01 billion passenger-miles were made on public transit, according to the TTI in its report. To clarify, a mile traveled by one passenger constitutes a passenger-mile. The American Public Transportation Association, meanwhile, reports in 2011, 10.4 billion public transportation trips were taken. So, if I have this straight, in dividing the number of passenger-miles by the number of passenger rides this shows what the average distance traveled per passenger is. Therefore, 56.01 billion passenger-miles made divided by 10.4 billion passengers riding, works out to each public transit passenger traveling an average of approximately 5.39 miles.

Obviously some trips are longer and some are shorter but imagine if everyone drove a car to go just 5.39 miles.

To provide perspective, in a recent blogpost I made mention of – and lamented – the fact that when I lived in the city of Mountain View on the San Francisco peninsula commuting by car six miles one way via Central Expressway to Sunnyvale to go to work, the trip time each morning was 30 minutes going to and 45 minutes each afternoon returning from. Basically, what this amounted to was an hour’s time wasted in traveling to and from work. Not very efficient.

If I were to have made the same trip by bus, I doubt there would have been any time savings. As for the commuter train service offered in the same corridor, I would not be able to speak authoritatively on this without first checking the peninsula commute timetable for 1977 to see what, if any, additional time savings might have been had, that is, had I ridden those trains. But there still would have been the matter of how to get to and from the nearest train station relative to my place of employment then.

Bus fare

Thirty-six years later, the same “expressway” and railway are still active, although the rail service has a different name – Caltrain.

So, how to make that freeway corridor more efficient is the question.

If a major freeway corridor, that is, without intersecting cross streets with traffic signalization thus making it a “true” expressway, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes can speed things up.

Central Expressway, on the other hand, intersected by cross streets, if reworked to permit, say, an express busway in the median allowing for express bus movement might have helped. This type of arrangement today goes by the name Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Interestingly, BRT is not a new concept – it has been around for years. Traffic signal synchronization, meanwhile, BRT or no BRT, is yet another tool in the bag of transportation performance-enhancing tricks having the potential, in this case, to move more expeditiously east-west Central Expressway traffic along.

The following is a real-world example: The Ottawa, Canada bus rapid transit system, a BRT so successful that light rail transit is being installed in its place. Yonah Freemark, at The Transport Politic blog in “Ottawa, Closer than Ever to Replacing Bus Rapid Transit with Light Rail,” provides comment.

Freemark contemplates: “With expenses like that — practically equivalent to building a new rail line from scratch — one wonders whether there was ever any fiscal advantage to using buses first along the rapidway. Did the city lose out by not choosing rail when the transitway first opened in 1983?”

Freemark raises this concern because, as he explains, “The transitway has so many riders that it puts 2,600 daily buses onto two downtown streets, and by 2018, the system will have literally no more capacity. By 2030, Ottawa would have to get a bus downtown every eighteen seconds to accommodate all of its riders — an impossible feat.”

To me, this sounds like a good problem to have, what with the buses in Canada’s capital city enjoying a transit share of 23 percent with its 240,000 daily riders and all.

The success of BRT in Ottawa is unprecedented.

Mixing – not messing – it up

“The 13-station [replacement light rail] system will be designed for very high capacity, up to 25,000 riders per direction during the peak hour (up from 10,000 today), thanks to platforms long enough to handle six-car trains and even platform screen doors in the underground stations,” Freemark remarks.

What all this seems to be suggesting is that with the correct mix of transportation options, a city can efficiently and effectively meet the mobility needs of its citizenry all while slashing delay and improving air quality, not to mention there being the potential for increased productivity and, with that, enhanced economic activity.

For other cities considering BRT, the experience of Ottawa might prove an invaluable lesson.

“Though it was a second-choice solution, Houston — like many other American cities — may have looked to Ottawa as a model for BRT implementation. …Houston eventually got its act together on the federal level and has turned back to light rail, forgetting the bus plans entirely.”

Adds Freemark: “As automobiles become more and more efficient, buses and trains must be able to keep up — and the best way to do that is to go electric.”

That said, the ridership must be there to make public transit work. That public transit also must be appealing to attract riders and must go where people need and want to go, goes without saying.

As for the electric propulsion bit, this would help improve conditions in the environmental sense.

– Alan Kandel