Reimagining the street: How bus lanes speed up the morning commute and why it matters - U.S. Pirg

As major American cities look for ways to lower carbon emissions, they’re looking to low-tech, low-cost bus lanes to help them. Here’s the case for why more cities should get on board.


America has a bus problem: People aren't riding them.


Despite buses’ potential for cooling the climate, cleaning up our air, and making our cities more livable, in the last three decades, U.S. bus ridership dropped off 17 percent. Reasons cited for the decline have included slow service and poor reliability, low gas prices and inexpensive auto loans, negative cultural perceptions of the bus, and the rise of ride-sharing apps.


Falling ridership is a big problem. Bloomberg CityLab outlines the vicious cycle transit agencies risk entering when passengers leave: Low ridership leads to service cuts, service cuts cause ridership to drop even further, and riders switch to private vehicles, making traffic and air pollution worse.

While factors like the allure of low gas prices may be outside a transit agency’s control, one step cities can take to help bring more people back to the bus is to improve service. And one cost-effective way to do that isn’t to change anything about the bus — it’s to reorganize the street.


Dedicated bus lanes to the rescue The thing about dedicated bus lanes is that they’re the opposite of cool. They’re not “cutting edge.” They’re not eye-catching. They’re just lanes for buses painted on busy avenues.


But despite bus lanes’ decided lack of style, as major American cities look for ways to lower their carbon emissions, they’re looking to these low-tech, low-cost lanes to help them. Here’s the case for why more cities should get on board.


Buses are better for climate Transportation is the largest source of global warming emissions in the United States, making up 28 percent of the country’s total output, according to the most recent EPA data. More than half of those emissions come from light-duty vehicles (passenger cars and trucks). With the average passenger vehicle emitting five tons of carbon dioxide per year, the more cities can promote the switch from private, single-occupancy vehicles to more efficient options like public transportation, the better it will be for lightening their carbon footprints.

When it comes to lowering emissions, the bus has a lot to offer.

Even with buses carrying just 28 percent capacity on average, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimated in 2010 that bus transit released 33 percent lower carbon emissions per passenger mile than the average single-occupancy vehicle. The more people who ride, the sharper the difference becomes.


To improve service, set the bus free Nearly a year ago, an unusual group of racers joined CoPIRG Director Danny Katz to see which mode of transportation could get across roughly a mile of Denver’s business district the fastest during the 5:00 PM rush hour.


The cyclists cruised the route from Union Station to Civic Center Station in 16 minutes. Then came passengers on the city’s Mall Ride, a shuttle with dedicated lanes up and down 16th Street. Then the electric wheelchair rider. After 25 minutes came the walkers and drivers. And in last place, the riders of the beleaguered 15 bus clocked in at 48 minutes — more than triple the time it took the cyclists — having just missed an earlier bus before getting bogged down in traffic.


The racers had set out to prove a point: When buses have to compete with cars on crowded streets, they get jammed up with them, contributing to slower arrivals and less reliable service. Sectioning off a lane of the street solely for buses, even just during peak hours, can help them avoid slow-downs. New bus-only lanes installed on 15th and 17th Streets last year are now making trips faster and more reliable for Denver’s riders.


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