Want to make our transportation network more efficient? Create bus/truck-only lanes

Here’s an honest question: does our current system of roads and streets really get goods delivered to market quickly and efficiently?

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If you ask any legislator pushing for more road spending or your random comment section warrior opposed to bike lanes, congestion is really hurting Twin Cities businesses. To the tune of $232 million a year (This number, used frequently during the (now disbanded) MoveMN campaign, comes from the 2012 TTI Urban Mobility Scorecard; the 2014 number has now been calculated at $327 million for 2014]

Debate the assumptions used to come up with that number all you want, but there are certainly times when congestion does indeed cause problems for getting goods delivered. I’m just not convinced the solution is to keep building more lanes on urban streets or to stop taking roadway space away from general traffic lanes or on-street parking for bikes, buses, and pedestrians.

Why do I say that? Well, for one, it should be intuitive that (mostly single occupancy) cars are the ones causing the congestion on commercial vehicles. Pay attention the next time you drive or sit for a while near any street. Cars will likely outnumber delivery trucks 10:1 or more. Don’t believe me? Here are a bunch of intersection counts by vehicle type within Minneapolis’ borders:

Data source: Minneapolis Transportation Management System

For these (fairly busy) intersections, less than 6% of the vehicles (or 1 in 16) passing through are trucks. I can’t tell for sure, but I believe “Trucks” as defined by the city includes transit buses, so adjust that number down a bit further to count only freight traffic. That’s a really small share of total. It’s not entirely inconsistent with commercial VMT share of total – where “heavy commercial” and “five-axle” as defined by MnDOT trucks make up 13% of miles traveled on trunk highways within the Metro District; it’s also not that different from national numbers discussed in this post.

A while back I compared peak-hour lane capacities on our busiest arterial streets to running an articulated bus about 70% full every 5-6 minutes in its own lane. The results didn’t favor cars – over 1,000 people per hour moved in the bus lane vs just over 600 per lane when full of cars. Of course, an empty bus lane seems like a waste of space to most people stuck in car traffic, which is why we don’t usually have the political will to implement it. To put it bluntly, that’s an ignorant position to take.

But! We know bus lanes do indeed sit empty 90-95% of the time. We know that allowing cars in mucks things up. But we also know trucks are a relatively small share of total vehicles. So here’s the proposal: let delivery and commercial freight trucks share the same dedicated lanes on streets with multiple thru-lanes in each direction. What might this look like?

Of course, not every street will be a good candidate for this type of treatment. We would need to update the methodologies used here and here to include time savings for freight which has paid employees losing actual money sitting in congestion (for now, anyway) and valuable goods that have delivery deadlines, as opposed to people who simply prefer driving over taking the bus or biking but don’t actually lose money sitting in traffic. Yes, this might mean certain corridors become slower for cars. But transit becomes quicker (while we also build better bike infrastructure), and the many people currently choosing to drive might just shift modes.

Interstates and highways could do something similar by expanding H/OT lanes, which are much messier to implement on city streets, seems like a better route to allow individuals and businesses to decide how much their time is worth, with transit just hopping in them as it does already.

If you’re a pro-urban person concerned with the inherent subsidies big trucks receive, I’m with you. We should have policies that favor low-social cost long-haul freight (like rail) as much as possible, and let trucks handle the last-mile(ish) deliveries – the things they’re really good at. I doubt many want a return to many active rail yards in highly urban areas. At the same time, transit buses also put a hefty amount of wear and tear on our roads (about 850x that of a passenger car) and we don’t expect Metro Transit to pay a gas tax or other fees that support road maintenance, even if those fees are a small share of the local funding pie. Besides, the cost to make one lane in each direction more durable for buses and trucksisn’t that much more than what we currently spend on street construction & maintenance.

Or, we can just assume that everyone who drives a car but complains about congestion costs to businesses will magnanimously pull over to the side of the street every time they see a truck in their rear window.

This post was written by Alex Cecchini and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/15/2015 - 12:31 pm.

    Efficient traffic

    Wouldn’t that be nice. What’ll you think of next? Efficient transit?

    Interestingly, an articulated bus that is at about 70% capacity has about 10x the wear and tear on the roads per person as a passenger car (assuming a low-end estimate of 120 person capacity of the bus and the 850x wear and tear claim in this article), so if we’re strictly looking at wear and tear, buses lose by about 10x more wear and tear per person. However, if we assume an average fuel usage of 5.5 mpg (gas) for an articulated bus at 70% capacity and an average fuel usage of 23.6 mpg for a car with a single person, fuel efficiency is increased by about 19.5x per person on a bus vs a single person car. So, even with wear and tear at 10x, use of fuel and associated problems are significantly lower. That is, average fuel economy for American cars would have to increase to over 200 mpg to get anywhere near the fuel efficiency of a high capacity bus. Add to that the 40% increase in travel efficiency (assuming the 1000 passenger by bus vs 600 passenger by car numbers above are accurate), even at the low rate of only 1 bus per every 5 to 6 minutes, that’s an extremely significant increase in efficiency. Imagine if there was a bus every 2-3 minutes… Rail is even more efficient.

    Of course, all of that is moot if people can’t get to where they’re going in a reasonable amount of time. But…if we can’t even do the smart thing and increase transportation efficiency in general, how do we hope to get anywhere near to convenience for use of public transportation?

  2. Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/15/2015 - 12:45 pm.

    I could buy in

    If you open it to service vehicles as well. The plumbers, electricians, landscapers of the world. Goods are not the only thing delivered by vehicular transport. I wonder how that traffic study might change if the single occupancy category was split between commuter and casual traffic vs. service industry traffic.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 10/15/2015 - 01:58 pm.

      I mean,

      ..this one’s tricky. It’s a little harder to enforce, since not every vehicle these workers use is visually distinct from other ones on the road (ex, 2-axle light duty trucks, vans, even cars). So you’d need some sort of registration as a service/delivery vehicle for police to ID for enforcement.

      But I’ll bite. I took the data here: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_table_102.htm and marked any job title that transports people or goods for service. I included real estate agents (who drive their clients around), electricians, plumbers, landscape crews, couriers, home health care providers, tile layers, masonworkers, drywall installers, carpet layers, etc etc etc. Basically any job that might need to bring a toolbox or package with them. Note, there’s probably some overlap between this subset of workers and the heavy vehicles already counted in the datasets in my post. And, it should also be pointed out that many of these workers aren’t the primary vehicle operators and could get around by transit or bike to a job site. Even with that said, the grand total of these workers is 7.44 million, or 5.1% of the total number of jobs listed in the table.

      I do believe that businesses might opt to have smaller vehicles to cater to a more local market if they had to sit in worse traffic owing to a bus/freight lane taking something away from car drivers. It’s also possible the other 94.9% of workers in urban areas might shift modes, and the remaining lane(s) wouldn’t be any more congested as a result. Or we could just figure out a way to license service vehicles for bus lanes as well. Whatever the case, our current free-for-all lane system encourages mass car use and clogs up real economic activity.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/15/2015 - 02:47 pm.


        While it’s true some workers on larger jobs sites might be able to use transit, it presumes they reside in an area that allows it. Most of the folks I refer to aren’t driving box trucks and 18 wheelers, they are in pick ups, vans, and even economy cars. Registration would be fine, but you’re looking at an increase in front end cost for the infrastructure to monitor it. I would love to see a decrease in congestion, it would make my day far more efficient, I don’t know that what you’ve proposed will do anything but the opposite, sans any modifications to accommodate folks like me. I would hate to see the businesses affected raise prices even more (most aren’t cheap) and see service quality deteriorate simply in an effort to get the small percentage of transit commuters a few minutes of decreased travel time.

        • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 10/15/2015 - 03:27 pm.

          I guess, if we’re talking percentages, the workers you describe is 5% nationally. I suspect that the total share of VMT on city streets from those workers is similar. And remember, I was being very generous when picking the job sectors, including even real estate agents and couriers, among many other jobs that could easily be done with a smaller vehicle. In Minneapolis proper, transit makes up 7.8% of all trips taken and even more during peak hours. So we’re talking similar orders of magnitude. But, as I said, maybe the proposal would work out for delivery/contractor vehicles to share the lane, I’d be very open to it. As I said in my post, current transportation planning treats a paid worker in a vehicle with goods for delivery/installation the same as some random Joe in a Camry on the way to Subway the same as 50+ random Joes on a bus going to various destinations. The delays are not equivalent in economic terms, and we shouldn’t treat them that way.

          Transit, biking, and walking are space efficient modes of transportation. They move more people per hour per width of street, and (perhaps more importantly) average trip length for biking and transit is far less than driving. In cities, even many suburbs, this should be rewarded. There are almost no spots in our metro where transit is given priority over single occupancy vehicles (except the few HOT lanes and highway shoulder-running bus routes, mostly peak-hour suburban commuter buses). It would be nice to see us have a heirarchy of modes to try to come to a better way of allocating scarce roadway space, one that includes economic value, cost to serve, pollution, etc.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/15/2015 - 03:37 pm.

        Let me attempt to be clearer

        Presumably the recommendations you put forth aim to reduce congestion. I fail to how, as a stand alone measure, this would do that unless 1. The amount of congestion caused by interaction with trucks and buses is somehow greater than the amount that would be created by shrinking the amount of real estate lane wise for general traffic flow. Given the small percentages you cite, I don’t see how that can be the case. 2. Creation of these lanes spurs a large changeover of persons from car based transport to transit. Why would this occur? It seems that frustration over increased congestion prior to this occurrence would be your only motivating action, and in my opinion would simply entrench animosity toward transit goals as a whole.
        Point of all this being it seems that your plan has a series of unspoken underlying assumptions that must be correct in order for this to be effective, none of which are particularly short term ideas. There would need to be much higher transit usage (and availability) than currently exists, a population far more centralized in the areas that transit would be servicing than currently exists (to facilitate that higher usage), and the buy in of a car obsessed culture to make any of it possible.
        Were all these guaranteed, and already in place prior to construction, it’s very likely such a system could be beneficial. Put into place on its own, it’s strikes me as a disaster for the vast majority of road users, the group I mentioned especially. I don’t think it would be a wise use of capital (political and literal), when so many other pressing needs exist in the transit system.

        • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 10/15/2015 - 04:48 pm.

          My aim

          is to make better use of existing infrastructure. In many cases in Minneapolis and St Paul proper, along with many first-ring suburbs, most arterial or collector roads that carry transit lines have a total right of way (lot line to lot line) of 90′, some 80′, very few 100′ or above. Both of these cities will face intense development pressure over the coming decades, adding upwards of a hundred thousand residents between the two core cities, and likely more jobs to boot. In order to accommodate these people – moving about the city for work or pleasure, we’re going to have to make better use of our constricted rights of way. Beyond that, there are other societal goals to utilizing space efficient modes in higher shares – less localized pollution, lower carbon emissions, better safety on our streets for folks already on foot or bike, etc.

          I already detailed in a previous post that there is a high potential for transit, biking, and walking, it was picked up by Minnpost here http://www.minnpost.com/minnesota-blog-cabin/2014/07/why-don-t-more-minneapolitans-bike-walk-or-take-transit People in the city already live fairly close to where they work and shop. The same goes for an even higher share of inner-ring suburban drivers, very few of whom take advantage of transit or biking because driving is perceived to be quick, easy, and cheap (and it often is). Places like Edina, Robbinsdale, Richfield, and Rosedale may very well be the best places for transit-supportive housing for lower income families in many cases given easy access to some further suburban jobs but also proximity to the core. Point being, transit and biking, even outside the central cities, needs to and can easily play a bigger role in personal mobility.

          But right now, riding the bus stinks, mostly. I do it nearly every day. I ride my bike to the 94 to get to downtown St Paul from my south Minneapolis neighborhood because catching a local bus that gets stuck in traffic and may make me miss a transfer is terrible. In the evening I often sit on a 94 bus that takes 10-15 minutes to get from one side of downtown to the other, sometimes longer. And it really isn’t because of our network coverage, frequencies, span of service, or price per ride/month – all of which are very good compared to metros with higher populations and even densities in the core cities. But the problems that do exist are real barriers to everyday people using transit. It isn’t equitable that people, often of lower means, sharing space with each other, emitting fewer tons of carbon per person, etc use the same lanes as any other driver on the road.

          Implementing transit only (or transit+ freight & delivery) may be among the cheapest ($) ways to improve transit speeds. It’s unpopular, sure. There are other ways to do so, yes, and I wholly support them all – from reducing the number of stops a bus makes to pre-payment to all-door boarding and any other method. But the point is that there is a level of transit use on a given street (number of routes per hour, riders per bus) where the total people moved per hour within the right of way is better when you dedicate space to transit. The point of this article was to address the political pushback that goods movement would grind to a halt. Unless we get serious about a more pervasive network of grade-separated transit in this city, we need to re-evaluate how our road space is allocated.

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/15/2015 - 05:16 pm.

            All good points

            But what happens if your decades long population projection proves innacurate. I have a hard time basing short term projects on long term trends that are subject to change. I know its popular to think our core cities are going to grow on and on forever, but unless one envisions Manhattan or Hong Kong as ideal living scenarios you aren’t gonna transmute the entire population of the Twin Cities metro into Minneapolis and St. Paul, not without destroying the traits that many find so desirable about them. I’m glad you at least mention inner ring suburbs as something to be developed transit wise, but I wish you’d expand your thinking a bit more to infill in even what you might term the sprawling suburbs. No matter what population the core cities attract, even the hundreds of thousands you project, it will still be a minority compared to the metro as a whole. I would use transit, I have in my younger days, many moons ago, but until it is designed to move folks around the entire metro, suburb to suburb included, it’s useless to me and many others who have no occasion to visit either Minneapolis or St. Paul. That your proposal would make the one reason I do, for work related business, more difficult, seems even more foolish.

  3. Submitted by Mike martin on 10/15/2015 - 10:49 pm.

    suburban bus service

    Have you looked into the number of buses on hwy 100? As best I can tell its zero

    All the cars on highway 100, 169 494 & 694 have no transit options

    Transit mostly only works for moving people into & out of downtown. Where there is high job density.

    Over 50% maybe even 70% of the jobs in the metro area are in the suburbs where transit mostly doesn’t work

    I belive that over 40% of the workers coming into downtown Mpls. already use transit. NY & SF are only in the mid 50s% for transit so theTC is doing well in usage of transit already for geting people to downtown Mpls.

    Look at the congestion at night on I-394. Its worse coming towards downtown than going out. Although most of the congestion is headed to I 94 east bound & not downtown.

  4. Submitted by Jeffrey McIntyre on 10/24/2015 - 01:08 pm.

    Convert freight to rail

    “We should have policies that favor low-social cost long-haul freight (like rail)”…the US railroads have been doing this for decades…currently there are 275,000 trailer/container units moving by rail for the long haul on a weekly basis. What this means is there are 275,000 less tractor trailer units wearing out the tax payer subsidized roads & bridges and/or adding congestion to our interstate highway system. BNSF, the railroad that many in Mn love to hate, is the largest intermodal (trailer / container) service provider in the country. They take a trailer / container off the road and onto a flat car every 15 seconds. With that said, I agree with the author…dedicated lanes for heavy trucks…with a toll gate at each end, so they can start paying their fair share.

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