Life in the bus lane
CNN has a story today about Jaime Lerner – they called it “Transit guru: My life in the bus lane” which, as usual, sounds like a young sub-editor trying to get noticed, not an accurate summary of the story. I suggest you look at the accompanying video as well as reading the text, so that you can see why the Curitiba bus lanes are not like anything you will see here – or elsewhere in Canada, come to that.
What I want to emphasize is that the busways (or what the US calls “BRT” Bus Rapid Transit) are really only a small part of the story.
He and his young fellow architects conceived Curitiba’s Master Plan in the mid 1960s, which soon resulted in the bus system as well as pedestrian-only streets, more parks, and later, a unique trash-for-cash recycling program that encouraged people to turn in garbage and reusable materials in exchange for food and other goods.
Curitiba also boasts plentiful parks — there are 51 square meters of green space per person in the city — one of the highest per capita rates on the planet.
“Most of the programs that Jaime Lerner and his team started 30 years ago….have been left alone or neglected.”
The busways are exclusive transit rights of way that were taken away from general purpose traffic on existing wide boulevards. The traffic in the rest of the system has become very congested – so there is both a stick and a carrot to switch modes. We do not do this. When we put in rapid transit – or even HOV, we do the utmost to ensure that traffic capacity on the road system is unaffected. We do this by adding lanes, not converting them, and for our rail based systems, grade separation at huge expense. Lerner’s system was designed to be easy to install and cheap to build. Ottawa is probably the nearest comparable system of busways, but there again it was grade separated, hugely expensive and did not penetrate the core of the city. The buses are left to fight it out with the cars. On the other hand Ottawa also did not force transfers, by pretending that the busway was like a train system, so commuters get a one seat ride from their suburban origins to work in downtown. They have also decided that they need LRT now.
Lerner was trying to change a lot about his society – but when North Americans go to Curitiba they tend to focus on the buses. That’s a shame – and there is much to learn from the experience there about community involvement, empowerment of marginalized people and so on. Not that I claim to be expert in those areas, nor am I going to spend much time on them here. But I do think we need to see this in perspective and note that he is not the Mayor now.
The Provincial government now makes all sorts of promises – as does Translink – about BRT. They are going to be used in Surrey. We can also see that some things have changed here in recent years. For instance, under the present administration actual bus lanes are being built on Highway #99. That is to try and soften the blow of the forced interchange to the Canada Line for people from Delta and South Surrey. Of course, bus lanes had existed for years on this Highway on either side of the Deas Tunnel. They were steadily degraded until they got to 2+ HOV as a sop demanded by then Mayor of Delta Beth Johnson as a condition for signing on to the GVTA. There were no bus lanes on either side of the Oak Street Bridge, where they were sorely needed, and now are only being built on the south side to help buses get in and out of the Bridgeport Road interchange quicker. Not sure the southbound lanes now being completed will actually help much. To work as a queue jumper, there has to be a queue to jump, and south of Oak Street bridge in the afternoons traffic usually moves well until it approaches the ghastly Steveston Highway interchange which should have been rebuilt many years ago. Even the closure of the weigh station has done little to change the daily congestion here. So far as I know, there are no plans to make that any better, any time soon.
Lerner’s system has novel bus stations to ensure prepayment of fares and speed loading. If you use low floor buses, elevated station buildings (he used simple plastic tubes) are not needed – and as Broadway Station demonstrates, you just need somewhere for waiting passengers to be marshalled. What is notable is the service frequency. A bus a minute! Now that is something that very few systems even try to emulate. On a rail based system, with signalling, 30 trains per hour (tph) is usually the accepted limit for service frequency, and that is dictated by the ability of people to get on and off the trains. London has shown that if you build platforms on both sides of the train and use one for unloading first then open the doors on the other side for loading, you can get more than 30tph – but they only do that now on the Docklands Light Railway which has other much more significant capacity constraints. For a deep level bored tube, I worked out that it was nearly always going to be a better rate of return on capital to build a new line and stations that try to retrofit existing stations with additional platforms for the same number of tracks.
In Vancouver, Translink tries to sell us the idea that a 15 minute service is “frequent”. Hah!
When bus lanes got discussed here with the City of Vancouver engineers, prior to the #98 B-Line, I got very little from them. Their view ten years ago was that if the bus could keep up with the traffic, that was enough. They were appalled by the idea that a bus might be made more attractive by giving it an advantage. Now that attitude seems to have changed – at least as far as bikes are concerned. Bike lanes have been made by taking gp lanes on Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir. Somehow buses hung on in Granville Mall too, and will return in September. But when you look at what other cities have been doing for many years in terms of bus priority – and not just for express buses on special routes – we have a long way to go. But do not expect much movement in that direction until Translink can deliver a lot more bus service. Right now they are too heavily indebted and hobbled by payments to P3 projects to contemplate any service expansion anywhere, and will be “re-allocating” bus service (i.e. cutting the service where it is currently least provided).
If, when we do see BRT here, and there is a reduction in car capacity at the same time, as well as a lot of improvement in feeder services to the BRT (which other cities seem to understand too) then we might see a shift in mode. After all, Surrey at 4% transit mode share has a long way to go, so it shouldn’t be hard. But one reason that I doubt it will happen that way is that there is no thought here that we need to change our way of life very much at all. At least not at any government level – and I include the City of Vancouver in that judgement. They may talk a good line and do more than most, but that does not have to be a lot to be seen as different around here! No politician that I know of is actually willing to get up and say we have to reduce car capacity on out road network. And no one is seriously suggesting that we could increase transit service service to levels that would make that a workable solution – even though that was what happened during the Olympics. If it did happen that would be a legacy I could celebrate: and it is not going to happen.