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Bus Rapid Transit Should Be Built More Rapidly

Minneapolis-St. Paul is building six new bus rapid transit routes but they may not be finished until 2026 at the earliest.

The Transportation Research Board’s 99th Annual Meeting will be held in Washington, D.C. from Jan. 12-16, 2020. Click here for more information.

Cities are taking the slow and challenging path to build rapid bus transit networks when they could be painting lanes, banning cars, and letting traffic sort itself out later.

Take Minneapolis-St. Paul. The Twin Cities started building eight rapid bus routes that will crisscross southeastern Minnesota in 2016 — and they won't be done until 2026.

That's 10 years to create eight routes — far too long for Gopher State residents to wait to get to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul more quickly. It doesn't have to be so hard, experts say.

Putting up "No parking" signs and painting red bus lanes can take a week. But political will takes longer, making bus rapid transit anything but rapid.

"The slowness is the general rule, that’s the standard practice and cities," TransitCenter spokesman Ben Fried said. "You have to be willing to take on fights of street space and repurposing travel lanes and parking spaces into bus lanes. You need to build the political will to make these changes happen on a faster timetable."

Cities often chase federal and state funding that can be dependent on political whims. The Trump administration allocated $423 million for new buses and facilities mostly located in rural areas and in smaller cities in red states. And state legislatures can be reluctant to spend money from a general fund on bus transit when other needs like health care costs may take priority.

Billions of dollars of available cash can tempt planners to create more ambitious and expensive projects that can take longer to roll out. A complete street reconstruction and high-tech amenities may not be necessary when the goal of bus transit is to provide fast and frequent service.

"The key issue for the delay is funding with other people's money such as state or federal discretionary apportionment and grant funds," UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies professor Juan Matute told Streetsblog. "But chasing funding also leads planners to create more ambitious, more costly projects with a more extensive planning process."

New York took a year and a half of planning to implement its 14th Street busway, which gave nearby landowners plenty of time to organize and sue the city for removing cars from the street. And the city's Select Bus Service program has taken 20 years to roll out and is still unfurling line by line after extensive community input that often boils down to car owners opposing anything that reduces the amount of space allocated to their less-efficient personal transportation mode.

But now that the Gotham busway is done (and successful), the city says it will roll them out faster.

Atlanta has built rail lines for its MARTA system adjacent to roads and highways, but that hasn't spurred motorists to leave their cars at home and take mass transit. And the region has allowed too much free parking along transit routes and high speeds along thoroughfares while having too few sidewalks and safe crossing areas for pedestrians, which has depressed transit ridership advocates say.

Minneapolis is facing significant funding hurdles to construct several lines in the next phase of the bus network. A north-south route through Hennepin County could stall if the Metropolitan Council, which manages Metro Transit, can't secure $20 million for its $75 million D line this year.

Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla insisted that the Twin Cities needs to ensure its bus network had bus shelters, amenities, and other infrastructure in place even if it took years to accomplish.

"If you're making the bus service efficient you want to do it right and obviously want to do it as quickly as you can," he told Streetsblog. "The importance of a bus rapid transit system is to ensure it is more than just lanes. We want to increase amenities to the shelters and to the buses themselves."

But the perfect should not be the enemy of good, fast transit now.

"These are more capital intensive projects work than is really necessary to improve bus service,"  Fried said. "Having a comfortable waiting area is important, but you can have standard bus stops, you don’t have to have a whole architectural competition to build these things."

Few places have followed the rubric of tactical urbanism, or making low-cost temporary changes that give residents a taste of what a radical street redesign could look like and planners the ability to scrap something if it isn't working. That involves painting asphalt red, pilot programs, or other methods that don't stretch across a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tactical transit lane rollouts are purposefully quick and cheap. If it isn't quick and cheap, it's deferred or eliminated," said Matute, co-author of the March 2019 report "Best Practices in Implementing Tactical Transit Lanes. "They're most effective in areas where mixed vehicle traffic congestion causes delay for transit buses."

Cincinnati for instance introduced a six-month pilot last year for a dedicated bus lane on Main Street, a project that was so successful the city made it permanent and advocates are suggestion locations for another one. Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., and Boston have also tested temporary lanes with red paint and orange cones in the past two years. Boston has since made its experiment permanent and is expanding its bus-only lanes throughout the city.

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