Making BRT faster

No, I’m not talking about travel speeds.  As Portland currently has no BRT, there’s nothing to make faster (other than existing local bus service, over which any decent BRT would be an improvement).

Instead, I’m talking about rolling out BRT faster.

Right now, Portland has two BRT (or potential BRT) projects that have advanced passed the line-on-a-map-in-a-planning-document phase:  The Southwest Corridor, and the Powell/Division project.  (There’s also the Fourth Plain BRT in Vancouver, being planned and built by C-TRAN).

A few other ideas have been discussed in significant detail; probably the most prominent of these a proposed BRT line along TV Highway between Beaverton and Forest Grove (or at least Hillsboro).  TV Highway has been the subject of a corridor study  which included BRT as a recommendation (and it’s been on numerous planning maps since), but there is no project to actually build out BRT in the 57 corridor.

Powell/Division’s project timeline calls for it to begin service in 2020.  A firm timeline for the SWC doesn’t exist yet–the start of the DEIS phase has been delayed–but given the scope of the project, we’re looking probably at a decade or more before service opens.  Major capital projects, particularly those that seek Federal funding, simply have long lead times.

But Portland transit riders can benefit from improved bus service today.  (Improved rail service as well, but this article is focused on the bus system).

There’s probably not much to be done about big capital projects–the politics and red tape involved is not likely to go away.  But are there ways to bring BRT on board without large capital outlays?

Some thoughts, after the jump.

  • Don’t focus on “BRT” as a separate product, just focus on bus service improvements.  In much of Europe, there is no “BRT”–the standard for basic bus service (at least on corridors) often involves things like greater stop-spacing, offboard fare payment, larger vehicles with all-door boarding, signal priority, and exclusive lanes (though not necessarily for the entire length of the route).
  • Use Small Starts or Very Small Starts for small-ticket projects that have a rather limited scope, but can fix a bottleneck here and there.  We do this with roads all the time–improving intersections, changing signal timings, and other such projects, rather than rebuilding or widening an entire road.  In some cases, an improvement for buses can aid cars and trucks as well.
  • Change fare enforcement policy on some routes–particularly the F/S routes–to proof of payment, and allow all-door boarding on these lines.
  • Start planning now (if not done already) for how to accommodate articulated buses on the Transit Mall, out on the streets, and in the garages.   Buy some and deploy them on the busiest routes.  Any line that routinely leaves passengers behind because the bus is full, is a candidate for a bigger bus.  And in some cases, it might be possible to actually reduce frequency if bigger vehicles are provided, allowing the drivers to be redeployed elsewhere.
  • BRT has one big advantage over rail (ignoring cost)–its vehicles are not limited to the right-of-way, and can venture out onto the surface streets.  This allows far more opportunity for piecemeal project development and/or phasing; without having to build the whole shebang in one swoop or forcing transfers on large numbers of passengers.
  • BAT (business-access/transit–a curbside bus lane which is open to right-turning cars, but not to through auto traffic) lanes do have a bit of a bad reputation–but they’re cheap to install, politically easier to pull off–and if successful, can be converted to median-running BRT later.
  • Once you have all-door boarding, particularly with large vehicles–close bus stops.  Riders hate this at first–nobody likes to see their stop close, even if they are the only one who uses it.  But if part of a trade-off (nicer amenities at the remaining stops, and fewer stops in exchange for more frequent service, with “locals” still running periodically for the mobility-impaired for whom a 400m walk to a bus stop is a difficulty), this can often be done.  During off-peak hours, there’s generally less reason to run limited-stop service like this.  (One conondrum about stop consolidation:  It has the most effect on busy lines, where the highest number of people will be affected; on non-busy lines, closing stops generally has little effect as many of the stops are skipped on a given run anyway.  Also, for stop consolidation to be effective, rapid boarding must be possible; if everyone still has to file past the driver and show their pass, the gains from stop consolidation are mostly erased).
  • In many cases, do these quietly, without much fanfare, and without a big splashy project.  Big splashy big-ticket projects are more likely to attract political opposition and political opportunism.  As Harry S Truman said, “it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
  • And keep in mind:  There are quite a few Portland streets with bus lanes, or signal priority installed.  (And a few more with signal priority plumbed in, but not necessarily working).  Seattle has installed many more bus lanes through its downtown and along certain corridors, without much fuss.

Other thoughts?  Suggestions for specific improvements?

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