Author’s Note: I proposed this as a joint submission to RI Future and Ocean State Current-Anchor. Justin Katz responded to say that he’ll be writing something in response. I look forward to his reply.
I’ve had two interactions with Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity CEO Mike Stenhouse, and in each I’ve found common ground with him on the issue of the 6/10 Connector. One sticking point that remains for Mike and some of his followers is the idea of bus lanes. Bus lanes have a poor reputation in conservative circles because they really haven’t been explained well.
Bus Lanes as Competition
People on the left like me often do a poor job of explaining bus lanes to conservatives. We sometimes say things like “give the bus an advantage over cars, and it can do better.” There’s some truth to that phrasing, but in a lot of ways describing bus lanes that way doesn’t really tell people what’s going on. Bus lanes are actually about allowing competition.
The sport most aligned with transportation is running. In a race, runners don’t run in queue. They have separate tracks. Jesse Owens or Jackie Joyner Kersee might not have won the races they’d won if they’d had to wait their turn in a line of other runners. The same thing is happening with a bus lane. Bus lanes can outperform cars in carrying large numbers of people. A bus is capable of carrying as many as 80 people in the space of two cars. That’s a 40-to-1 space advantage. Making a bus sit behind a car in traffic is like making all the runners wait their turn in a race. It equalizes everyone in such a way as to undermine individual strengths. That’s not conservative.
Bus Lanes as Labor-Saver
Bus lanes are labor saving. A bus driver is paid well for good reason, but we pay him or her per hour, not per mile. If a bus driver sits in traffic, we pay him or her for time wasted, instead of time used productively. This is another reason conservatives should support bus lanes.
Buses Don’t Belong Everywhere
Conservatives would be right to question whether it makes sense to put bus lanes everywhere. Bus lanes don’t belong everywhere. They need to be targeted to areas where the investment is equal or lesser to the return. A big problem with RIPTA is that it is overstretched geographically. For example, the 54 bus goes between Woonsocket and Providence—two areas very appropriate for transit—but takes twice as long to get between them as a car. That’s because suburban lawmakers have whittled out a stop here and a stop there, a bit at a time, to make sure that the bus stops where they feel it should stop. One of those stops, the Lincoln Mall, requires the bus to get off the route, go a mile out of its way in traffic, and then serve the door directly through the parking lot. The meandering trip adds several minutes in each direction, and is only one of several detours the bus is required to take. So it’s quite clear that buses are often not used to their full advantage.
The Woonsocket bus is already well-used, but could be even more well-used without these unnecessary stops. A quicker route is not only better for end-to-end times, but also allows the bus to be turned around more quickly, which increases a really important dimension of service—frequency. If the bus between Woonsocket and Providence took about the same amount of time as a car trip, but required no gas, parking, or insurance; and if it came every 15-20 minutes instead of every 30, you can start to imagine a ballooning ridership for the 54.
The most obvious problem with cutting stops is how it might affect people who are dependent on those stops. But providing better pedestrian or bike connections off of the main bus lines can do a better job for less money at standing up for the needs of these riders, while also guarding against misuse of transit funds.
Making Buses Work Without More Money
Investment in transit makes sense sometimes, but a lot of things can be improved about transit just by reordering the system. Houston, Texas has a great example, which reinforces some of the points I made about the 54 bus.
Bus Lanes Can Be Done the Expensive Way, or the Cheap Way
One mistaken assumption I’ve heard people make is to believe that bus lanes inherently cost $400 million. On the contrary, $400 million is potentially available to Rhode Island from the federal government for bus lanes. Whatever funding is available, we should still look to do bus lanes in the most efficient way, not the way government sometimes does things, which is to try to swallow up the most free money possible.
The RIDOT plan to maintain a highway in Olneyville repeats a mistake made by city planners sixty years ago, but it also makes BRT more expensive than it has to be. In order to get to the BRT, riders would have to cross along pedestrian skyway bridges. More bridges means more expense. Those bridges would need to be ADA compliant, which means elevators or ramps. More expense. Adding insult to injury is the fact that these expenses would make the service less comfortable for riders, not more. No one wants to hang out on a skyway bridge above a highway at night. What people want is to be in a populated, safe, attractive area.
So a few things go into bus lanes. We do have a corridor that has demand: Downcity, Smith Hill, Federal Hill, Valley, Olneyville, Manton, the West End, the South Side, and Providence-adjacent neighborhoods of Cranston are highly transit-ready and direct (unlike the 54 route). The best way to provide bus service is to enshrine ideals of competition, and allow the bus to show its strengths. But we should also keep to the thriftiest design, and that means a boulevard.
I hope this explains why bus lanes should remain a part of a 6/10 vision.
James Kennedy is a member of the group Moving Together Providence, and advocates for the least expensive 6/10 Connector rebuild, a boulevard. You can follow him on Twitter at @transportpvd.