This blog is co-authored with Jordan Fraade, an urban planner based in New York City who has also worked in Los Angeles and Mexico City.
As millions of Americans eventually return to a life of commuting, errands, and other travel, local governments will have a choice to make: Accept more cars on the road, more pollution, more traffic, and more dangerous streets as an inevitable part of the future; or proactively commit to providing residents with cleaner, more efficient, more equitable, and more sustainable options for getting around. Today NRDC and our partners in the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge are proud to release an important tool to help cities and transit agencies choose the higher road—a Bus Priority Toolkit created jointly with Nelson\Nygaard, NACTO, and the cities of Atlanta, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C. These five Climate Challenge cities and Nelson\Nygaard led the development of this new Toolkit to help planners and policy makers at cities and transit agencies solve two key two key bus priority implementation challenges: 1) Building the case for bus priority infrastructure by identifying effective ways to tell the story about why bus priority measures are key tools for climate, transportation access, and equity; and 2) Evaluating the benefits and performance of bus priority measures once they have been implemented.
The Bus Priority Toolkit was tailored to these five cities' specific challenges, but its components will be useful to cities and transit agencies everywhere. The Toolkit provides graphic elements to help tell the story of the benefits of bus priority projects as well as analytic methods for use by city and transit agency staff. These resources complement other key lessons we have already learned about implementation, which our Climate Challenge partners at Delivery Associates summarized in a recent blog post (and accompanying video) about how bus priority improvements can be accelerated through government innovation.
Bus priority investments are a critical climate solution
The bus is the workhorse of the American transportation system, and giving buses priority—whether via their own dedicated lane, “transit signal priority,” or a variety of possible street design changes—can enable cities to notch key wins for the climate, for the economy, and racial and social equity. Consider the following:
- Bus priority measures are good for the climate. The transportation sector is the single biggest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and passenger vehicles comprise a majority of that. If bus priority measures allow buses to move more quickly, arrive more frequently, and provide passengers with an alternative to sitting in traffic, then more riders will use them—and more people in fewer vehicles means less fuel being consumed and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
- Bus- and transit-only lanes make more efficient use of limited road space. In mixed-flow traffic lanes where buses move alongside cars and trucks, bus trips can be slow and frustrating as the dozens of bus riders sit in traffic caused by solo drivers. A bus in a dedicated lane can move 5-7 times more passengers than a lane used by single-occupancy vehicles.
- Improving public transit is a matter of racial and social equity. Black, Latino, foreign-born, young, and low-income people are all more likely to use public transit than the average American. They are also more likely to be the victims of traffic crashes, and to suffer the effects of air pollution caused by our car-dependent transportation system. More priority for bus riders means less pollution and safer streets in low-income areas and communities of color.
- Bus priority measures are affordable and strengthen the economy. Bus lanes are significantly cheaper than urban highway expansions (a bus lane typically cost less than $1 million per mile for a two-way dedicated lane). And, unlike road expansions, they can improve travel times for everyone, not just those with access to vehicles. Bus lanes are easy to adapt based on changing needs, increase foot traffic to local businesses, and improve air quality for all residents.
Climate Challenge cities are leading the way to prioritize bus riders
Bus priority projects are underway and improving residents’ and bus riders’ lives in a growing list of cities. For example:
- In Atlanta, the City Council authorized the city’s Department of Transportation to implement bus-only lanes on three key corridors using funding approved by City of Atlanta voters in a 2016 referendum. The three bus routes will span almost 12 miles and more strongly link several predominantly African-American neighborhoods to job opportunities in and around the Downtown area.
- The City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services planned, designed, and implemented their first major bus-only lane since the 1980s, on King Street—a corridor that supports 36 bus routes and serves thousands of Honolulu residents every day.
- Los Angeles used the success of a temporary bus lane to speed transit journeys along a pair of key streets. In 2019, LA Metro and LADOT created a peak-hour bus lane approaching downtown on Flower Street, improving travel speeds by 30 percent for as many as 10,000 daily riders. In 2020, Metro and LADOT built on this success by installing more than two miles of bus-only lanes on 5th and 6th Streets, a pair of one-way streets in Downtown L.A. that serve up to 80 buses per hour and carry almost 30,000 daily riders.
- Portland, Oregon began implementation of a citywide network of bus priority routes called Rose Lanes. To inform the Rose Lane program design, the Portland Bureau of Transportation conducted an online survey of over 2,000 residents, led three open houses, and gave presentations to 14 different community groups to collect feedback. The City then defined Rose Lane program goals—and built its bus priority infrastructure—in response to this feedback.
- In Washington, D.C., local officials piloted several bus lane projects on key corridors throughout 2019 and 2020, and have made several of those pilots permanent, with more dedicated bus lanes to come. In early 2019 lanes were built on H and I Streets NW, key downtown corridors serving about 40 percent of all D.C.-area bus riders. More recently, pilot projects have been completed on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, 14th Street NW, and M Street SE.
Dedicated bus lanes and other transit priority measures are becoming increasingly common in the U.S., but cities working to implement them in recent years have often faced similar challenges as they work to scale up impact from small, one-off projects to comprehensive investments. The most direct beneficiaries of bus priority investments—bus riders, who are disproportionately likely to be people of color and low-income residents—are often politically disenfranchised, so even the best bus priority projects can face an up-hill battle in the political arena. Repurposing a single lane of general-purpose vehicle traffic or parking can cause significant backlash from a small but vocal minority of residents who likely don’t depend on public transit and may not understand the critical role that transit plays in local and regional economies. As a result, implementation is easier when cities and transit advocates can communicate the benefits of bus priority measures as part of a clear and compelling story. This storytelling is best paired with a rigorous performance measurement strategy, which makes clear what benefits the city strives to bring to residents and allows the city to measure its success and identify any project shortcomings.
Local governments have key tools at their disposal to provide basic services that mitigate climate change, reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities, and move people more safely and efficiently with limited street space. The technology isn’t complicated, and what’s often missing is simply a compelling narrative, a strategy to measure and communicate the positive benefits, and political will. The Bus Priority Toolkit is one more resource to inspire city governments to build on these best practices and help provide residents with faster and more reliable transportation options.
Related Blog Posts
Under the leadership of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the City of Atlanta has put itself on a fast track to meeting its climate and equity goals with the creation of the City’s first Department of Transportation (ATLDOT).
Honolulu has rolled out the red carpet for public transit with its brand new bus-only lane, the city’s first in 30 years. Now, the most sustainable and safe form of transportation will move people faster and more reliably, too.