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Letting Buses Compete

How can cities and transit systems enhance the efficiency of their bus services? Jeffrey Kenworthy, co-author of  The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities are Moving Beyond Car-Based Planning and Matthew Bradley, lead author of "Congestion Offsets: Transforming Cities by Letting Buses Compete" share some ideas on bus-only lanes and congestion controls below.

Bus-only lanes are an ostensibly easy way to improve bus services throughout a region. It is not technically difficult to simply declare whole lanes along chosen roads as bus lanes to ensure buses are not stuck in congestion (and even to lay down concrete barriers to ensure the lanes are respected). The difficult part in dedicating bus lanes is political, but the reality is cars already take much more than their fair share of road space and buses and bus patrons are the ones who suffer most from this inequitable situation through significantly increased journey times, despite taking up a fraction of the road space per-person that is used by single-occupancy or even multiple occupancy cars. Dedicated bus lanes can help relieve some of this inequality. 

City-wide congestion controls such as congestion offsets, which penalize private cars for overusing public roads and are explained in more detail below, can also enhance the competitiveness of bus services. For years now cities worldwide have been talking about policies such as road pricing (electronic and otherwise), carbon taxes, and so on to reduce car use, especially in peak periods. These policies have proven about as popular with politicians and the general population as a cold shower in winter or a frontal lobotomy. What we have instead is a handful of cities that charge a fee for driving a car into the central city during peak times—London being the most well-known—which does not address the broader congestion problem that afflicts most cities. As far as controlling congestion goes, there seems to be a lot of scope for rethinking the whole way we conceive the congestion problem and how to address it.

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Example of a dedicated bus lane in Church St, Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia. Photo Credit: Adam. J.W.C. via Wikimedia Commons

In "Congestion Offsets: Transforming Cities by Letting Buses Compete," we suggest one possibility for such rethinking. The paper needs to be read to understand the full rationale because the technical justification of the approach and how to implement it is too much to explain in a short blog. There is also a longer summary of the thinking in The End of Automobile Dependence (pp 196-199).

Here is the simple version. Everyone accepts parking regulations. Although we don’t like it, we cop the fine for illegal parking (e.g. parking our car in a designated clearway during the peak because it obstructs traffic flow). We don’t go after politicians for that. And of course we are not guaranteed to get a fine every time we contravene a parking regulation. Sometimes we get away with it. But when we don’t, we grudgingly accept it as something we did wrong and at least sub-consciously acknowledge that there are rules about living in cities that we have to obey, like it or not, in order to keep a system functioning in an orderly manner. And when we view the hole in our wallet from the fine, we really think twice about ever trying to get away with it again.

What we suggest in congestion offsets is thinking more about congestion as a regulatory problem for which we construct a system of fines, the same way we do with parking and other roadway transgressions. This approach is in contrast to the road pricing approach, which tackles congestion by treating road space as a commodity to be sold at a price. The problem with road pricing is that roadways are a commons, owned by the public, and people don't like to pay for something they already own. Who would like to pay rent on a home they already own? So instead of asking people to pay rent, in the form of a road price, we are suggesting that roads should be considered a part of “the commons,” the usage of which is regulated in just about every other sphere of life.

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Congested traffic in Atlanta during rush hour. Photo Credit: Atlantacitizen via Wikimedia Commons

We protect the commons, because in all its varied forms, it is something that has to function properly for everyone. We call the random penalties charged to motorists who contravene regulations about controlling congestion in peak periods "congestion offsets." Money raised from these fines would be used to provide bus passengers, who are only using a tiny share of available road space compared to car occupants, with sharply reduced bus fares and better bus services. The under-use of roadways by bus passengers would offset overuse by car occupants, with bus passengers being rewarded for their roadway under-use and car occupants being penalised for their roadway over-use. In this way, congestion could be cleared.

We could also go as far as suggesting that the present system of road usage and its attendant congestion in cities is a kind of universal socialism. We queue to obtain access to a scarce commodity, peak period road space, instead of recognising that we are never going to be able to provide enough to meet demand, so we have to control, in some way, the usage of the road space we do have. That is, unless we want the world full of Atlantas and Houstons, which are even now still congested, so the alternative of expanding road space to meet demand is an exercise in futility. The bullet that most cities seem highly reluctant to bite is the issue of how to effectively control congestion, and yet it is the most obvious elephant in the bedroom in the transportation planning profession.    

Some form of city-wide congestion control is needed in just about every city in the world. So far, virtually no city has had the courage to introduce genuine city-wide controls on car use in peak periods (Singapore is the only city to have comprehensively tried to keep its roads as free as possible from excessive car use through a variety of mechanisms). By discouraging overuse of cars in peak periods, congestion offsets would relieve traffic in our cities and allow buses to operate more efficiently and effectively. 

Bradley, M. and Kenworthy, J. (2012)
Congestion offsets: Transforming cities by letting buses compete
World Transport Policy and Practice 18 (4) 46-69

Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J. (2015)
The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities are Moving Away from Car-Based Planning
Island Press, Washington DC., 273 pp