Building a Better Bus System

2011-07-07 00:00:00 +0000 — Bolton Hill, Baltimore, MD

The last couple of weeks have had me thinking about improving transportation in Baltimore (and really, in America in general). This has partially to do with riding the train back and forth between New York and Baltimore several times over the span of just a few weeks. It also has something to do with a competition that is currently going on in Baltimore around the new proposed Red Line East-West Light Rail line. The main thought I’ve had is: why build trains when we already have roads?

I read a piece by John Thackara a few months ago that discusses how building high speed trains is not really all that energy efficient in a sustainability sense. His point was that building new trains now, since so little of the work is manual these days, requires vastly more upfront energy costs than it repays in future savings. Now, Thackara is talking specifically about a high speed rail being built through the mountains of Norway, but I think this applies just as well to building in the city. For example, in Baltimore, to build this proposed Red-Line the city streets that it will be going through will have to be torn up, sections of town will be shut down, and potential business will be lost to street-facing store fronts.

The fact that the street is already paved, and that we would be ripping that up to put down some rail line — which we probably ripped up in the first place to put down the asphalt — seems foolish. It seems like a more cost effective plan would be to make busses behave more like trains, lightrail and subways do. Then we would only need to change the bus stations at sidewalk level, not the whole street and neighborhood infrastructure.

_I believe this idea is called “Bus Rapid Transit,” and it relies on a few things which seem far more doable and cost effective than building a light rail:

  1. You must make the experience of getting on and off the bus much easier. To do this, new bus boarding platforms must be built that work more or less like a subway platform. You pay to get onto the platform and then can simply enter and exit the busses as they come, not having to line up to pay and wait for everyone to board AND pay before the bus can move again. These can be easily added at the street level more or less where current bus stops are.

  2. To make the system more efficient on the roads busses must be given the right of way at lights, and also should be given dedicated lanes on streets where applicable. Newer street lights are already setup to change for cops, ambulances, and fire trucks, whatever those things have could be used on busses. Making the thorough-fares bus friendly can also make them bike friendly, as often bikes can share the bus lanes.

  3. GPS tracking could give up to date information on the platforms and bus stops as to how long it will be until the next bus comes by.

  4. Bus stops must be spaced out slightly farther apart. Currently stopping every block or two wastes a huge amount of time. People seem to accept that rail lines stop less frequently but take you places more efficiently. If bus efficiency can be increased, hopefully people would accept slightly less stopping points and be okay walking an extra 2 or 3 blocks.

These ideas are implementable in stages and do not require a huge amount of upfront costs to make successful. At least I don’t think they do.

America is already all about cars and roads. Why change? We can just take advantage of our current successes — amazingly efficient freeway systems — and come up with some way to not only make busses operate like trains in the city, but also act like trains out on the freeway. It seems logical to me that a properly formulated plan around truck and rest stops turned bus stops, with connecting busses into and out of large and small cities surrounding them, could basically work just as well as (and perhaps even better than) a lightrail, subway, or train system.