Will Toor and Mike Salisbury at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project have put together a good paper called Managed Lanes in Colorado (it’s a PDF) that looks at the policy rationale behind (and a few issues with) creating additional highway capacity in the form of managed lanes with tolling, that also allow high occupancy vehicles and transit to take advantage of the investment, addressing some of the “Lexus Lane” criticism of using tolls in the public right of way (on projects that are still mostly publicly funded). It’s not quite as fun to read as my magnum opus from this winter on the same topic (US 36: For Whom the Road Tolls) but might be more appropriate for forwarding to policymakers.
If you live in Boulder, you’ve almost certainly noticed the construction along US-36 — aka the Boulder-Denver Turnpike. The main thing that’s being built here is one new lane in each direction. However, it’s not your average road-widening project. Usually when additional capacity is added, it’s rapidly consumed by induced demand. Instead, the two new lanes are going to be special managed lanes. What does that mean?
These new lanes are going to be optimized for mass transit, in this case buses. It won’t quite be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), in which the lanes are used exclusively by buses, passengers pay on the platform, and board like you would on a subway or light-rail line. The US 36 system will be somewhere between that and the express service that we’ve got now. Even at peak hours, when buses are departing every 3-5 minutes, there will still be a significant amount of spare capacity in the managed lanes. This capacity will be made available to high occupancy vehicles, and those that are willing to pay a toll. There may also be a number of permits issued for electric vehicles, though how that would work remains to be determined. The toll value, the number of passengers required to be considered “high occupancy” and the number of EV permits that might be issued will all be managed to ensure that the buses go at least 50 miles per hour. The two general purpose travel lanes in each direction will remain free to everyone.
There’s still political wrangling to be done and funding to be found, but with a little luck we’ll see something resembling Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) coming to the US 36 corridor Real Soon Now. I think this is great, and will make very efficient use of the infrastructure, and limited tax dollars that we’ve got to spend from the FasTracks fund, but it does pose an issue for those of us who like to combine the regional express buses with bicycle-based last-mile connections. In the current RTD system, the regional buses have a huge amount of bicycle carrying capacity. There are two racks on the front, as with nearly all RTD buses, but the cargo bays underneath can easily accommodate another dozen bikes. Lots of the features that make BRT significantly better than normal buses also make them difficult to integrate with our current practice of taking our bikes along with us on the bus. See the Transmilenio system in Bogotá as an example:
The Atlantic Cities has a piece on the growing popularity of bus rapid transit (BRT), both in the developing world and more recently cash-strapped transit authorities in the US. When it’s done right, it’s been called a “surface subway” or “rail on rubber”. Done half-assed, it’s just another bus line. Let’s hope we get it right with FasTracks on US 36.