Everybody has sat wedged in a freeway traffic jam, casting longing glances at the empty shoulder. Yeah, it's illegal, but ... man. If you could just ... go.
You could if you were on a bus. So my heroes today? The people who figured out that if you drive buses down the shoulders of crowded highways, you have suddenly solved a seemingly unsolvable problem with almost no expenditure of money, and you have scored wins on more fronts than you can count.
I just stumbled onto this elegant idea because here in central North Carolina where I live, the city of Durham has decided to use it as a solution to I-40, the all but permanently choked superhighway that links Raleigh, Durham, and the Research Triangle Park between them.
The idea? When the highway traffic chokes, buses get to drive on the shoulder.
Take a second to just grok that.
This is North Carolina, where until very recently public transportation was considered borderline socialist by everybody, not just crazy people. But the problem is, what with the moving goal posts of federal programs, the pendulum of opinion about heavy and light rail swinging like a metronome set at prestissimo, and the enormous cost of building anything new, the Triangle has missed out on almost every transit opportunity for two decades. The reality is that if public transportation throughout our multi-centric region will improve any time soon, that improvement will involve buses. And we don’t mean Bus Rapid Transit, with dedicated lanes that themselves cost $13 million a mile, according to a GAO study – an old study, mind you.
So for the foreseeable future, improved public transportation means buses on the roads we got. And the thing about buses, of course, is they sit in the same traffic as everybody else, so they don't save much time. And people sitting in cars cursing at traffic may look at a train whizzing by and say, "Hey – I’m jealous. Next time, maybe that's for me." But looking at people in a stuck bus cursing right back at you? That doesn't look so pleasant.
So someone -- in Minneapolis, it turns out, and twenty years ago -- got the idea of saying, "Hey -- what if when traffic slows to below 35 mph we let the buses ride on the shoulder?"
There's no story about the power of that light bulb, when it went on over someone's head, illuminating the Twin Cities for a month, but my gosh, how brilliant is that? No infrastructure to build, and yet there's a free lane of traffic just for buses. The cars get just as stuck -- but the buses look a million times more attractive when they're trundling along on the shoulder, up to 15 mph faster than the clogged traffic, passing the glum car passengers by.
It works great in Minneapolis, where they have somehow been doing it for two decades without my noticing it. Shoulders are only 10 feet wide (on one highway only 9.5) whereas traffic lanes are 12, but the drivers are professionals and apparently don't have any more accidents than usual. That hasn't stopped the locals from improving the system, though -- they call it Bus 2.0 and have developed Driver Assist Systems (DAS) that for extra safety use GPS to help keep drivers on their shoulder lanes.
They've developed procedures for preparing freeways for bus-only shoulders, and the costs are marvelously low: from $1500 per mile if all you have to do is add signs and lane markings to $80,000 to $100,000 per mile if you need to realign, harden, and repave the shoulder and the rest of the roadway isn't being repaved. Compare that, of course, with even that old GAO estimate of bus rapid transit averaging more than $13 million per mile, with any variety of rail costing much more than that.
It's worked so well it's becoming a model. According to this recent Atlantic piece, cities like Miami, Seattle, and Columbus are on the bus, and Chicago is beginning to do it – and now the Triangle too. It appears to increase bus ridership – how many times would it take you watching a bus get a free pass by you before you tried it? It’s cheap. And it works. Bus-only shoulders take their place alongside slugging, called "the people's transit." They fill a need without building a new anything, solve a problem by using freeway shoulders – something we’ve already got on every mile of freeway. Technology we already have, used in a new way by smart people thinking outside the box -- or anyhow outside the lane.
So the hopefulness in driving buses on the shoulder is that simplest of wins: it works. It's a kludge, but it gets the job done. Who can doubt that if here in the Triangle the buses skip the Durham traffic jams it won't be long before Raleigh authorizes the same behavior. Then the buses connecting Raleigh and Durham can approach the reliability of trains, and then using them approaches that level of comfort. And that causes more people to use them, which causes people planning the next generation of transportation -- roads, roadways, corridors -- to include space for transit, and then whether you're talking rails, dedicated roadways, or heck, double-wide shoulders for that matter, you've changed your paradigm and improved your planet.