Monday, December 11, 2006

Busways - The Better Way

While busways don't enjoy the popularity of their sister transportation mode, light rail transit, they are perhaps the best value for the money. Busways offer much more flexibility than an LRT line and can run millions of dollars less to build. Busways can also be converted over to an LRT line once ridership and other conditions warrant the additional expense.

The flexibility factor is perhaps the best reason for a transit system to build a busway. With an LRT line, one mishap on the line can literally disrupt the entire rail operation and leave people stranded for hours. This doesn't happen on a busway as buses can go around a disabled bus or even get off the busway and continue service on a detour routing. Service is also much easier to adjust due to not needing to have signal spacing on the busway which gives the ability to add a bus almost instantly without disrupting other buses.

Busways also have the permanence that many use for the pro-LRT argument. An exclusive bus only roadway is no different from an LRT line in terms of being able to be developed around the stations.

When the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAT) in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania opened North America's first exclusive bus only roadway in 1977, it created what can be called a "standard busway". It was designed for use with the standard type buses that were already in the fleet and no specialized buses were needed. The South Busway, as it is called in Pittsburgh, became an instant success by speeding the ride for tens of thousands of commuters yearly by taking the buses off of a heavily congested roadway. The South Busway didn't have stations per say but stops at widened pull off portions of the bus only roadway so the bus could move out of the traffic lane and allow other buses to easily pass.

Currently, PAT has 3 standard busways as part of it's transportation network. All are able to easily allow use by emergency vehicles as other outlaying public transit operations. While the South Busway utilizes utilitarian type stops, the East and West busway are a bit more advanced with more elaborate stations and dedicated routes although they maintain the same standard busway spirit as the South Busway with multiple bus routes using the busways to speed the ride through congested areas.

The other type of busway is what many think of when the term Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is mentioned. The original concept for BRT involved specialized buses running on an exclusive roadway which was signalized and run more like a LRT line. It was also designed to be changed over to an LRT line easily since stations were to be designed for LRT standards and all operating practices were similar to rail.

The original concept of BRT has morphed to something in between a standard busway and the full blown version of BRT.

Lane Transit in Eugene Oregon has the closest thing to a full blown BRT system with specialized buses, complete stations rather than just stops, the ability to be converted over to LRT easily and various other design features not usually found in a standard busway. Known as the EmX, standard buses are unable to utilize the EmX line due to several off-side stations. Service on Lane Transit's EmX Franklin Corridor line is scheduled to start on 01/14/07.

Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has recently opened a new busway which is also a hybrid of a standard busway and a full blown BRT system. Called the Orange Line, the MTA uses stations, specialized vehicles and other specialized features but is more in tune with a standard busway than the Lane Transit offering. If needed, the Orange Line can effectively run standard style buses and various routes although it is missing the pull offs at stops and stations that Pittsburgh has so as not to slow other buses down.

The main difference between a standard busway and a BRT style busway is this. A standard busway can utilize existing equipment and is designed to move multiple routes quickly through congested areas. A BRT style busway is designed as a stand alone transit route that mimics an LRT line.

Both types of busways have their uses and benefits depending on what is needed. Lines like the Orange Line and EmX are cheap but effective alternatives to the much more costly LRT. Busways like Pittsburgh's are perfect for systems to move bus service over many routes more quickly.

My personal preference is for the standard busway as it is the most versatile of the busway types. You can run a dedicated route but it allows for getting more buses off congested streets and speeding the ride for transit riders. Standard busways are also aimed more at suburban routes that enter the central business district but as PAT's East Busway proves, it can also serve local routes and riders just as well as it can serve the suburban routes and riders.

Bottom line to all of this is that busways are an important part of public transit. At a fraction of the price of a single LRT line, cities can dramatically improve public transit for it's residents with an inexpensive busway, be it a standard or BRT style.

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