Monday, December 5, 2011

Level of Service Analysis and Bus Rapid Transit

Here's a good story: from the excellent StreetsBlog San Francisco, What's the Hold Up for Van Ness BRT?.

San Francisco has no meaningful intra-city subway, and most of the street car lines were ripped out early in the 20th century. Street cars were mostly privately owned, and they couldn't compete with the massive public support provided to car infrastructure under political pressure from the car companies. So en masse, street lines were paved over, except for a skeletal few: there's a few key MUNI lines, and a few cable car lines which cater to tourists. BART runs through downtown, but just makes a few stops in the city, designed primarily to connect San Francisco to the East Bay. It's original goal of surrounding the Bay was gutted by first Santa Clara County opting out in 1957, then San Mateo County in 1961, each preferring to focus on expressways; Marin dropped out soon after [Wikipedia] (what an unbelievable tragedy).

So San Francisco is stuck with buses for the vast majority of its area as public transit. Yet despite being carless, I take the bus only a few times a year. Why? Because it's increadibly slow and unreliable. If I decide now I want to get somewhere, more often than not I can actually run to a destination before I'd arrive by bus. It wouldn't be uncommon that I could arrive at my destination before I'd even stepped on the bus, since delays of up to 40 minutes for the next bus are not at all uncommon with buses running on a nominal 20 minute interval. Even with an even start I can often outpace the bus by foot. And by bike it's simply no contest.

So San Francisco proposes to give buses priority lanes. This is called "Bus Rapid Transit", the idea being to package bus lines like more expensive "light rail". You step on the bus, it zips down its own lane triggering traffic lights as it goes, and presto-magicko, you're at your destination in no time. Awesome! Public transit problem solved!

Streetsblog image: BRT Geary
BRT Geary (Streetsblog San Francisco)

Solved, except that infrastructure projects must go through environmental impact analysis (CEQA) and a big part of environmental impact analysis is the effect on automobile traffic. This makes sense since automobiles are responsible for an enormous environmental impact: noise, pollution, resource depletion, and public safety. No brainer in this case, right? After all, an efficient bus line will take drivers off the roads by providing a timely, more efficient alternative, reducing the environmental impact of cars! No-brainer, let's go!

But wait! CEQA uses an analysis based on a fixed "level of service" (LOS). The assumption is a certain number of cars will use the road each day, and if you slow these cars down, they'll generate more congestion, their engines idling all the while. With this logic, the more car lanes, the better, as the fixed number of cars on the road will then zip to their destinations with a minimum of "impact".

This is obviously absurd. Build more lanes, more people drive, those who drive drive more often, and when they drive they drive further. This is seen time and time again in the data, in study after study. Cara was in Amsterdam recently, reporting on the enormous number of cyclists using the bike paths, cycling providing clearly superior local transport the cars, which are relegated to narrow roadways. There's a nice video here.

The LOS logic? Pave over the bike lanes: extend the roads by adding lanes. This will have the cars generate less exhaust during their trips. Sure, bike riders will be slowed as they struggle to find space on the public roads, but there's not much environmental impact from a slow-moving bike, while slow-moving cars are spitting out exhaust fumes and making noise every extra second of their trip.

I'm sure the Dutch would laugh with well-deserved contempt at this stupid demonstration of the pathetic state of U.S. public education were we to suggest this to them. And they'd have a point.

The problem with the LOS standard has been well known in San Francisco since the 2006 injunction against all new bike infrastructure in San Francisco, an injunction which was lifted only last year. The bike program, it was decided, needed to provide an environmental impact analysis, and analysis which was not able to claim that if you make a city better for cyclists maybe, just maybe people would replace car trips with bike trips, reducing the need for car lanes. The bike program was eventually able to survive even that silly standard, and is progressing well today due to the unrelenting political pressure of the San Francisco Bike Coalition. We can only hope BRT is able to get past the LOS hurdle as well, and even better that the LOS standard be quickly and definitively revised to recognize that driving a car a certain number of times each day is not an inevitable fate.

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