Should Transit Have Dedicated Lanes?
Dedicated lanes for transit would improve speed and efficiency, but reduce auto lanes or parking.
A friend who lives in Toronto recently told me about her daily commute to work via streetcar. “It is way too expensive to park downtown near my job, and the streetcar is my best option. But it’s frustrating how long it takes to get to and from work every day.” The streetcar line she uses, like most of the 11 lines operated by the Toronto Transit Commission, operates in mixed traffic, which results in frequent delays for the system’s roughly 250,000 daily riders.
As a recent New York Times article points out, cities looking to build their first streetcar lines, including New York City, are seeking guidance from Toronto, which has the most extensive streetcar network in North America. The advice they are receiving may be relevant for Milwaukee’s planned streetcar and bus rapid transit (BRT) services as well.
Chief among Toronto’s recommendations is to provide dedicated lanes for transit whenever possible to improve speed and efficiency for riders. That is more easily said than done, however, as dedicating lanes for transit requires reducing the number of lanes available for general traffic and/or parking. The desire to improve speed and convenience for transit riders must be balanced with desires for uncongested travel lanes for drivers, maximum access to businesses along the route, and other competing priorities.
Based on the experiences of Toronto, Albuquerque (where an advanced BRT project is being developed), and countless other cities, if Milwaukee’s plans for dedicated transit lanes move forward we can expect a healthy local debate over the use of public street space – covering issues such as mobility, cost, and safety. Significant pushback from some area businesses and motorists is to be expected. On the other hand, if the services are developed without dedicated lanes, then we are likely to see complaints from transit riders and questions regarding whether the benefits provided by the services are great enough to justify the investments.
These are not easy decisions. What seems clear, however, is that speed and efficiency are important to transit users and will be a major determinant of the popularity of our new transit services. If fast and efficient services and healthy ridership are the expected results of the major transit investments we are making and planning, then dedicated transit lanes should be strongly considered.
Joe Peterangelo, a senior researcher with the Public Policy Forum.