Transit and Roads Aren’t Always at Odds

Canada, Commentary, Steve Lafleur, Transportation

Public transit is often assumed to come at the expense of good roads, and vice versa. There are certainly cases where roadway spending and public transit are at odds. For instance, when light rail or streetcar projects remove lanes of traffic, or when road design doesn’t accommodate buses. But in many other cases, roadway improvements and transit projects are symbiotic. After all, both cars and buses use the streets. Better road maintenance and design can give both transit riders and drivers faster and more pleasant commutes.

Often in debates over public transportation there is an assumption that transit benefits downtown residents while roads benefit suburban residents. While that is where the political fault lines are drawn, day to day reality isn’t that simple. Many downtown dwellers rarely use transit, opting to walk or cycle instead. By contrast, many suburban residents rely on transit to get around. Indeed, mass transit in many cities in mainly oriented towards moving people between the core and the suburbs.

Roads and public transit are important to urban and suburban residents. It is also possible to improve both simultaneously in many instances. As a simple example, potholes are just as unpleasant for bus riders as they are for drivers. Filling in potholes is beneficial to both transit riders and drivers.

Given that buses share the road with drivers, designing roads to minimize the conflict between the two can be mutually beneficial. Local buses that make frequent stops inherently slow traffic down. Measures such as dedicated bus lanes can mitigate this as it would reduce the number of cars merging to avoid buses and would eliminate the need for buses to swerve in and out of the curb lane to avoid parked cars. Queue jumpers are another example. These bus only lanes give a priority signal to buses, allowing them to merge in front of other drivers when their lane ends. This eliminates the slowdown caused by buses attempting to merge back into the middle of traffic. The Transportation Research Board lists such bus preferential treatments as cost effective methods of maximizing roadway capacity. Jurisdictions such as Halifax, York Region, Winnipeg, and Vancouver have used this approach.

Sometimes it makes sense to allow transit to bypass traffic entirely. Ottawa’s Transitway is the prime example. The Transitway was built as an exclusive bus route primarily aimed at moving bus riders from the suburbs to the core, bypassing traffic by travelling above or below grade. Getting buses off of the road and into a dedicated busway can not only increase overall road capacity, but having less buses starting and stopping in traffic can improve traffic flow. This isn’t always necessary, but grade separation can help speed up traffic in congested areas or to eliminate bottlenecks. The first leg of Winnipeg’s rapid transit system includes a busway that allows buses to pass over Osborne Street onto a dedicated busway that runs along Donald then Stradbrook, allowing it bypass traffic en route to Main Street. This grade separation is mutually beneficial to transit riders and drivers since these buses don’t have to wait for motorists and vice versa.

Focusing on mutually beneficial infrastructure projects should be a priority. Winnipeg’s planned rapid transit network will provide other Canadian cities with a good example of how to balance drivers and transit users. Funding  transit expansions can be expensive, but they shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as parasitic to roadway funding. When done right, transit expansions can improve roadways for drivers and take some number of drivers off the street altogether, mitigating congestion. Granted, projects across North America suggest that we should temper our expectations. Mid-sized cities will never have the transit ridership levels seen in Toronto or New York. They just aren’t built that way. But judging from the success of bus rapid transit projects in cities like Cleveland and Kansas City, there is good reason to believe that bus rapid transit systems can help mid-sized cities abate traffic congestion.

Public transit doesn’t have to come at the expense of roadway improvements. Creating that false dichotomy is a barrier to improvements on both fronts. Mid-sized cities don’t need to pick one or the other. They can have both, with sensible planning.