To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Friday, July 17, 2015

LA Street Hazard: The City Bus is a Moving Traffic Jam


By Bob Gelfand, July 17, 2015


GELFAND’S WORLD-I was tempted to start this piece with the demand that we get rid of the damned busses. But I'm not looking for click bait so much as I'm interested in making a point that hasn't been discussed very much. Here it is: The standard city bus and the standard city are just not design-compatible. The city has streets that are narrow and congested. The bus is too wide for those streets. As a result, the city bus is a moving traffic jam. 

Every time a bus stops to load and unload passengers, it sticks out into traffic. If you are the unlucky driver sitting behind that bus, you just have to wait. That's because the bus does not leave enough room for you to go around. 

The standard bus, like the ones that GM used to build, covers about 40 feet in length and 8.5 feet in width. Compared to the modern compact car, that bus is about half again wider, as a compact car can be as little as 5.5 feet in width, and more often is about 6 feet. The 3 feet doesn't seem like much of a difference, but street width is limited, and lanes are designed to move traffic and to allow for the average sized car to park along the curb. If you were to add another 2.5 feet to the width of a parked car, you would have an impediment that sticks out into the lane and blocks traffic. 

And that's exactly what the bus does when it pulls up at its bus stop. It creates a temporary halt to all the traffic behind it. 

And yes, there are exceptions. If the road is wide enough, the traffic engineers can make that right hand lane really wide, wide enough to accommodate not only a parked bus, but automotive traffic too. But this is not usually the case when it comes to our congested streets. In a crowded city, the traffic engineers will try to squeeze in as many lanes as they can on each busy street. They don't have the room to leave that extra 6 pr 8 feet along the curb that would allow for you to pass a stopped bus. 
The result is that when it comes to life in the big city, we either have efficient automotive flow or we have busses. 

The problem is that we can't just wave our magic wand and get rid of the d--- busses. They are currently a necessary part of our civilization. They move a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't be able to get around. They are also uncomfortable to ride in, polluting, and noisy. These are all consequences of design requirements. If you want lots of busses that can carry 30 or 40 people all day long over city streets, which necessitates thousands of starts and stops, you have to build the busses to be strong and stable. That means that they are big and bulky and potentially noisy. 

I won't go into the problems that diesel exhaust creates (at least in this piece), but they are significant. Try looking up the expression ultrafine particles if you want to get an idea. The standard diesel powered bus or truck leaves a plume of unhealthy particulate matter trailing behind it. 

So is there a solution, or is this just another Los Angeles resident complaining about the traffic? 

I think that the answer is somewhere in between these two extremes. If we are to redesign our transportation system here in Los Angeles so as to make life better for the next generation, then we have to think about a comprehensive redesign of the whole system. That means we should think about the way that we build and use our new light rail lines so that more people will be able to get to them easily. And it means a redesign of city streets to reduce the current system of stop and go driving. 

Rethinking the modern city is obviously going to require that we rethink the concept of the 8.5 foot wide bus straddling the 12 foot lane. We might, for example, try rethinking the system of intermingling wide busses and smaller cars on narrow city streets. Dedicated bus lanes already exist, but their use has been fairly limited in the big cities where most of us travel. 

Another possibility is a radical redesign of the current bus. It wouldn't be an easy task, but it ought to be possible. Most designs for smaller busses concentrate on making them shorter as opposed to narrower. City planners ought to be talking to vehicle manufacturers about building a narrower, shorter bus that can move in and out of automobile lanes without acting as a mobile traffic jam. 

An even more radical redesign of the modern city would involve replacing many of the bus lines with a system of personal rapid transit. I've made no secret of the fact that I am interested in this concept, because it solves the problem that other approaches do not. It goes up in the air, where there is room to build extra transportation capacity, and thereby avoids adding more vehicles to our already jammed streets and highways. Whether we will have the political will to make this kind of change is the most significant sticking point. 

Just to illustrate how complicated this whole subject can be, let's consider briefly an essay that argues for more busses and less light rail.  James V. DeLong, writing for the Reason Foundation, cites cost figures and ridership of bus, rail, and autos in Los Angeles as well as other cities. His conclusion is that light rail typically makes commuting even more difficult than older bus routes, because the introduction of light rail causes cities to abolish some of their bus routes. The poorer commuters who lack cars are forced to travel by bus to get to the train, and then at the end of their train journeys, to take another bus to get to their destinations. 

The economic arguments made in DeLong's essay may be legitimate, in the sense that building and operating fleets of busses involves economic savings over the costs of gaining railway rights of way, building the rail lines, and paying off the bonded debt that usually goes into such projects. 

But DeLong's essay involves a different perspective than the one I am trying to develop here. I'm not arguing the existence of busses, but the way that the current bus design is a misfit for the way our streets are arranged. 

Some designers are beginning to argue that the new generation of driverless cars will be the solution to our transportation problems. The idea seems to be that the average family will buy and own fewer cars. We won't need to be 2 and 3 car families because we will have access to a fleet of robot vehicles. You might think of it as having access to a taxi cab whenever you need it, without the labor costs that go into paying a cab driver for his time and investment. Whether this could work efficiently and safely is a question yet to be answered. 

In any case, the current system whereby Angelenos sit in traffic behind diesel particulate belching trucks and busses is something that ought to be considered from the design perspective. It needs to be considered from the bottom up, rather than in terms of patchwork semi-solutions. Since the design of the current day city bus would be one of the easier redesigns, we ought to start thinking about that redesign in a serious way.