Can Metro unlock the value hidden in our streets? The case for transit-only lanes

While Metro absolutely needs new and increased funding to maintain and improve service, there is one way to improve service that wouldn’t increase their operating costs. 

Metro was formed in 1973 to operate Cincinnati’s bus system by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA, an agency of the state of Ohio) and the City of Cincinnati.  It is funded by a 0.3% City of Cincinnati income tax, paid by those who live and/or work in the city.   A Hamilton County-wide source of funding for Metro has never materialized in the many decades since its founding, even though Metro continues to provide transit service beyond the city limits.  This is a uniquely one-sided arrangement that is not found in peer cities across the country, and is not providing Metro with the funds required to maintain its existing fleet and level of service, let alone to improve it.  In 2018, Metro will again put a sales tax proposal in front of county voters.

Beyond the funding they receive from the city, however, Metro seems to be disconnected from City Hall. Public transit, and how it can serve, spur, and soften the impact of development, is an afterthought at best in city’s planning decisions. The bus system has hardly any built infrastructure besides the hub at Government Square.  We are failing at providing bus shelters.  But the largest disconnect is paved into the roads and streets themselves. It’s taken as a given that our roads and streets should maximize throughput of private vehicles, and no special accommodation is given to public transit, especially where it may compromise this goal.  This is a value judgement, a statement of priorities, that needs to be revisited. Ultimately we need to reverse course and install transit-only lanes to keep our transit system moving along strategic corridors city-wide.

No special accommodations are made on Walnut Street for transit vehicles approaching Government Square, the region’s main transit hub. (Thankfully these buses were not stuck in traffic at the time of this picture.)

What transit-only lanes can provide

By giving transit vehicles exclusive lanes, intuitively, their speed and reliability are increased.  They are more able to meet a regular schedule no matter what congestion chaos is unfolding around them.  This has far reaching implications.  By increasing a transit vehicle’s average speed, the vehicle can now make more trips along a given route in a given period of time.  Frequency of service is thus increased, and headways, the amount of time the transit rider must wait at a stop in between vehicle arrival, go down.  This increases the overall quality of service without incurring the extra expense and costs of adding vehicles into service.

Transit-only lanes are not radical

In her book Streetfight, former NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan describes installing bus lanes on 34th Street in Midtown Manhattan.  34th Street is one of Manhattan’s busiest streets, linking the Queens-Midtown Tunnel to the Lincoln Tunnel, and passing by the Empire State Building as well as very close to Penn Station.  In Seattle, Third Avenue becomes a transit-only corridor during rush hour.  Small and mid-sized cities have installed transit-only lanes as well.  Grand Rapids has installed the Silver Line bus rapid transit (BRT) that features dedicated lanes on a long corridor leading into downtown.  Pittsburgh has a counter-traffic flow bus lane on Fifth Avenue, a main corridor in the neighborhood of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.  They are also testing out bus lanes downtown.

Bus lane near the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Transit-only lanes are fair

In Cincinnati, two obvious candidates for receiving transit-only lanes are Walnut and Main through the Central Business District (CBD,) especially in the vicinity of the main bus hub, Government Square.  My analysis of ridership data obtained from the recent SORTA Service Evaluation, Development, and Management Study shows that about 74% of Metro’s total bus ridership uses routes that are routed along Walnut or Main streets in this area.  This is about 10.4 million riders annually, or a daily average of about 28,560, not considering variation in the weekday vs. weekend ridership. (The daily average breakdown is about 22.2k for routes that utilize Walnut, about 24.9k for routes that utilize Main, and about 28.6k for routes that utilize either Walnut OR Main.) The streetcar, also traveling these corridors, had 700,000+ riders, with a daily average of about 2,000, in its first year.  It’s important to note that not every rider on these routes physically travels down Walnut or up Main; they may board and disembark elsewhere on the route, outside of the downtown area altogether.  To obtain the specific number of riders present on Walnut or Main in this corridor would require another level of analysis.  However, it is fair to say that every rider on the route is negatively affected if their transit vehicle is held up in traffic there.

top ten table
This table examines the top ten Metro bus routes by ridership. Seven out of the ten routes are routed on Main or Walnut streets in the area of Government Square.

Meanwhile, the number of data points on OKI’s website giving traffic counts for Walnut and Main Streets in the neighborhood of Government Square is surprisingly few, and the data is dated.  At the closest data point, the AADT (average annual daily traffic) for Main Street at Fourth Street is 6,250, last recorded in 2006.  According to USDOT, average vehicle occupancy is about 1.6 persons per vehicle, and multiplying that by the Main Street vehicle count yields a very rough estimate of 10,000 people traveling by private vehicle.  In contrast, an aforementioned daily average of about 24,870 people use bus routes that are routed on Main in the vicinity of Government Square, that have the potential to be affected by a traffic jam there.

Public transit vehicles are high-occupancy vehicles compared to cars, and a transit-only lane can end up moving more people through the city than a traffic lane can, even if it seems like there’s not always a bus going by.  To quote transit expert Jarrett Walker from his book Human Transit:

Once you decide that your streets are designed for people movement rather than vehicle movement, turning car lanes into transit lanes not only is fair but is also the most effective way to maximize the total number of people who can move along the street.  And if you want to grow your economy without growing congestion, that’s the output you need to focus on.

We need transit-only lanes

Two weeks ago, something magical happened- the vision for a four day light and art festival, BLINK, became reality and drew a million people to the streets and sidewalks of downtown and Over the Rhine.  The event was partially inspired by the streetcar, with installations located up and down its route. Streetcars were packed like sardine cans.  The streetcar did indeed have better than average ridership numbers for the weekend- but they were nowhere close to what they could have been.  That is because the streetcar was stuck in gridlocked traffic, taking a ridiculous amount of time to complete its loop. The gridlock also caused incredible disruption to the Metro bus system, greatly inconveniencing regular Metro bus riders, and hindering the ability to bring visitors in and out of downtown by bus.  If Cincinnati wants to have its circulatory system up and functioning during world class events like BLINK or a national political convention, it needs dedicated lanes for transit: permanent wherever possible, and temporary where they can not be permanent.

A full streetcar struggles through traffic to a full station platform during Cincinnati’s BLINK festival.
Finally, transit-only lanes could be potent tools to help us build a more equitable city.  Many transit riders are hourly wage workers that cannot afford to be late due to unexpected delays in their commute.  A more reliable transit system is a must for them.  There is the human factor to consider- the value of a parent’s time to be able to prepare a meal or help their children with homework in the evening.  This also can be facilitated by a faster and more reliable transit system.

Expanded investment in Metro is critical, and Metro also needs to work with the city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering to make sure vehicles are efficiently moving along their routes. A key part of that is transit-only lanes.

Thanks to Cam Hardy and the Better Bus Coalition for sharing the bus ridership data used in this post.

This post has been edited for clarity from its original version.


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