Friday, April 01, 2011

Scaling Up the Transitway

I was recently late for a train and had to rush across Ottawa from the west-end to the train station.Unfortunately, what is normally a quick dash across downtown on the Transitway turned into a grueling crawl. Most of the pain is entirely self-inflicted though. The Transitway buses ran on dedicated bus lanes through downtown, so the buses didn't have to weave through waves of cars. No, the problem was that there were just too many buses. The Transitway is used above its capacity, so during rush hour, the Transitway becomes a long line of bumper to bumper buses. The Transitway in downtown is just a single lane, so there's no passing of other buses, and every bus needs to stop at the bus stops, and then stop at the traffic lights, so you have to wait ages for every bus in front of yours to move forward a bit, load and unload passengers, wait at the light, and move on. If there are five buses in front of yours, you have to wait in turn for each bus to stop, board passengers, and then move on. It's brutal.

Given these capacity problems, it's clear to me that the current model for how to run buses along the Transitway through downtown just isn't very efficient any more. Ideally, more bus lanes would be provided downtown, but that isn't going to happen. The LRT through downtown will solve the capacity problems, but it'll be many years before that gets built, if ever. Until then, it would be nice if we could find some way to scale up the capacity of the Transitway a bit so that it can be used more efficiently.

I think it's time to remove the express buses from the Transitway in downtown. I know that one of the main advantages of a Bus Rapid Transit system like the Transitway is that people can take one bus from downtown and have it zip along a transit corridor, leave the corridor, and then deliver people directly to their houses. Transit users don't have to transfer, and they can time their arrivals at bus stops so that they don't have to wait around much. Unfortunately, insufficient capacity on the Transitway through downtown makes this model extremely inefficient. Traveling through downtown takes much too long, and all the traffic makes the arrival times of buses unpredictable. Previously, I've complained that Larry O'Brien's plan for having an underground downtown train line to be silly because it eliminates the advantage of express buses (i.e. no transfers) and makes it impossible for transit users to cross the city efficiently. But I'm now thinking that he might have been on to something. The capacity problems in downtown are so bad that the amount of time needed to get through downtown is beginning to outweigh the advantages of being able to take a single bus home from downtown. Having 20 different express buses all lined up with each one having to stop to let a few people on board, delaying all the buses behind it, just doesn't work. Instead, there should be single bus crossing downtown that moves people to a bus station/terminal where people can then transfer to their express buses. If there's only a single cross-downtown bus available, it would be more efficient because bus users would all simply board onto the first bus that arrives, and they'll fill the bus to capacity. There'll be no need to have a long line of somewhat full express buses inching across downtown. These cross-downtown buses could then deposit passengers off at large bus stations with bus loops where there's space for buses to stop and wait for large numbers of people to board buses. Hurdman and Bayview probably make the most sense as these bus transfer points. This proposal is similar to the initial phase of the current LRT plan in that there'll be a high capacity transit system just for downtown which focuses only on moving people to transfer points outside of downtown where people can transfer to buses for the rest of their journeys home.

It might also be possible to improve the efficiency of the downtown portions of the Transitway by having some sort of preboarding system. Other BRT systems do this, where they treat their bus systems like a subway. People have to pay before boarding a bus, and go through a turnstile into a loading/unloading zone. Then, when the bus comes, people can just jam themselves into the bus from whatever door is available since everyone in the loading/unloading zone has already paid. As a result, the loading and unloading of buses can be done faster.

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