Earlier this month, New York City did something remarkable. The city transformed one of its busiest crosstown routes into a bus-only street and, by all accounts, the world did not end.
It’s being called a miracle, but really, it required no divine intervention: Faced with crushing congestion on 14th Street, the city simply separated its buses from other vehicular traffic. The M14 bus now runs at twice the speed of the M42 bus, which travels a similar distance along Midtown Manhattan’s 42nd Street; it’s so fast that riders are missing their stops. The street is quieter, calmer, and safer, with no adverse affects on other nearby streets.
Improved service that exceeds all expectations? This is everything that public transit in this county must aspire to if we want to reduce emissions, congestion, and traffic deaths. What can deliver all this and more? Dedicated bus lanes.
New York is getting the attention this week—and 14th Street is just an 18-month pilot project—but all over the U.S., cities are giving more buses their own lanes. Just in the past year, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle have all added high-profile bus-only routes. The impact has been nothing less than transformational: bus lanes have boosted frequency, ridership, and reliability—and they cost next to nothing.
So here’s my idea: What if we do this everywhere in the U.S., starting next week? What if we woke up next Monday morning and every bus being slowed down by cars was freed from traffic?
“If we could snap our fingers and give every bus bogged down in traffic a dedicated lane instead, the impact would be stupendous,” says Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter. “It wouldn’t solve every problem American bus systems are facing, but one of the biggest problems for transit in major cities is slow, unreliable bus service, and this would do a lot to address those problems.”
Buses are trapped, physically and symbolically, in a vicious circle. Virtually every large U.S. city has watched transit ridership plummet over the last decade. More cars driving more miles create more congestion, which, in turn, slows down buses, which hurts ridership, which drives people back into cars.
But allocating specific space for buses will speed them up, says Fried, making buses a more attractive option.
“If buses can bypass car congestion, bus travel will be more competitive with car travel, and ridership will climb,” says Fried. “A surface transit network with dedicated lanes everywhere they’re needed will carry a lot more people than the network we have today.” A single bus lane, he says, can speed up trips for tens of thousands of riders each day.
The numbers don’t lie. In Los Angeles, a dedicated bus lane is moving 70 buses per hour. Seventy! Buses! Per hour!
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