I ended my last post by imploring that one of the most important ways of improving public transport is through building “A WHOLE HEAP MORE BUS LANES!” This assertion was questioned, so perhaps it’s useful to explain in more detail why I’m such a fan of bus lanes and what I mean by bus lanes.
In most situations across Auckland buses currently run in what’s called “mixed traffic”. This means they’re treated just the same as any other vehicle on the road – meaning they wait for the same lights, drive in the same lanes, get stuck in the same traffic jams and so forth. Because buses have to stop off to pick up and drop off passengers and because they’re generally slower and more lumbering beasts to manoeuvre than a car, we find ourselves with an initial “golden rule of buses”: (although to be properly mode neutral, this same thing applies to trams. Many tram routes in Melbourne run in mixed traffic – as does sections of the Wynyard Quarter tramway)
A bus (or tram) in mixed traffic will always be slower than a car doing the same trip.
If we’re trying to attract people onto public transport in situations where our buses (or trams) are running in mixed traffic we’re pretty much playing catch up right from the start. The trip will be slower than driving (unless you need to circle for ages to find a parking space when you drive), the question is only how much slower?
For public transport to start competing (or at least getting close) with the car in terms of speed, in its broad sense, we need some sort of infrastructure beyond just travelling along the road. There’s an enormous variety of different interventions which can be undertaken – generally providing ever more separation from other traffic at ever greater costs. These might include:
- Bus advance signals at intersections
- Painted bus lanes during peak times only
- 24 hour painted bus lanes
- Dedicated on street busway (median or along one side of the road) or light rail line
- Busway/BRT/LRT system with grade separation at intersections
- Heavy rail with some level crossings sharing tracks with freight trains
- Fully dedicated passenger metro rail
In a comprehensive public transport system there are likely to be different levels of infrastructure provided to suit the demands and characteristics of the particular transport corridor they’re located in. Along very high demand corridors you’re obviously going to need a higher standard of infrastructure to provide the speed/capacity/reliability of service at high levels of demand. But clearly that will come at a cost.
For a city like Auckland, where we still have relatively low public transport usage and where we don’t have tens of billions of dollars to splash out on major infrastructure improvements everywhere, we need to be smart about targeting our infrastructural responses to the demands and characteristics of the corridors we have. And for most corridors, at least in the short to medium term, bus lanes along arterial roads are going to work really well. By bus lanes I really just mean what we have along many streets at the moment (Dominion Road, Sandringham Road, Fanshawe Street, Symonds Street etc.) – the side lanes painted green with signs up indicating they’re for buses only. In some situations bus lanes are needed/appropriate during peak times only while in other situations they’re needed/appropriate all the time – once again the demands and characteristics of the corridor will determine that.
So what’s really great about these lanes – which seem to annoy Herald editors and writers more than anything else in the world? Well let’s explore that a little:
- Bus lanes are pretty damn cheap to install. Just a lick of green pain and some signs is probably a slight over-simplification but generally we’re working within the existing road width and simply reallocating a lane which is either currently used by vehicles or used by parked cars.
- Bus lanes are very quick to install. Linked to the above, compared to building large (but obviously essential) rail projects which can take around a decade from initial investigation to completion, bus lanes can go from an idea to a finished product in a matter of weeks or months if there’s the support and desire to see them happen.
- Bus lanes make bus trips much faster and more reliable, meaning that the “golden rule” referred to above can be broken and actually it might be faster to catch the bus than to drive along certain routes – like into town along Dominion Road in the morning peak or up Symonds Street in the afternoon peak. Furthermore as the buses are now separated from general traffic they are less likely to get stuck in congestion and therefore the trip times are much more reliable.
The speed and reliability benefits outlined in the final point above are critical – but perhaps for more reasons than you might think. Let’s start with speed, which obviously makes catching the bus more attractive if you’re able to travel faster than cars – therefore generating additional patronage and revenue. The other fantastic thing about increasing speed is that it reduces operating costs because fewer buses are required to maintain a certain frequency of service. Let’s say a route takes an hour from end to end before a bus lane goes in and we want to run buses every 10 minutes along this route – we’re likely to need at least 12 buses to operate the service, paying 12 drivers, owning 12 buses (or paying the bus company for the privilege) and so forth. If a bus lane reduces the trip time to 40 minutes each way then all of a sudden you only need 8-9 buses to run that same frequency – simply because the buses can turn around and do another run much quicker than before.
In essence we have the following outcome:
- No bus lane: slow and unattractive/unreliable service puts people off using the bus and drives up operating costs by having very lengthy routes (in terms of time) to run. This equals the requirement for big public subsidies.
- Bus lane: faster and more reliable/attractive service generates patronage and revenue and reduces operating costs by shortening the time it takes for buses to complete a full return journey. By both increasing revenue and reducing costs the requirement for a public subsidy potentially decreases dramatically.
Hopefully in this post I have outlined why bus lanes have a critical role to play in improving Auckland’s public transport system. Although rail patronage has grown much faster than bus patronage in the past few years, the vast bulk of public transport trips in Auckland are still taken on the bus – something that will continue even after electrification and even after the City Rail Link is constructed. The sad part of this story is that more than two years after coming into existence, and despite having a massive financial incentive to introduce bus lanes (to reduce the amount of subsidy they need to pay the bus operators and to grow patronage) Auckland Transport hasn’t added any new bus lanes anywhere in Auckland. Goodness knows why they’ve been so hopeless on this issue.