Bus Lanes Are the New Parking Lanes

American cities are getting smarter about using curb space to prioritize transit, biking, and walking.

Motor vehicle parking usually isn't the best use of scarce curb space in crowded cities. Graphic: NACTO
Motor vehicle parking usually isn't the best use of scarce curb space in crowded cities. Graphic: NACTO

For a long time, American cities didn’t put much thought into what to do with the space along the curb. On streets in commercial areas, curb access was for metered parking. In residential areas, it was for free parking.

But the curb serves purposes that extend far beyond car access. It’s where bus riders board and disembark, for instance, or where protected bike lanes typically make the most sense. American cities are getting smarter about how to use the curb, and in a new white paper, the National Association of City Transportation Officials lays out strategies to get the most out of this precious space [PDF].

NACTO recommends creating a hierarchy of uses for different street contexts, which can inform decisions about how to allocate the curb. For commercial areas where customer access and foot traffic are paramount, modes of travel that move more people in less space should be prioritized.

Two metered parking spaces might top out at 30 cars turning over per day, for instance, while a bike-share station that replaces them could be used by 40 people per day. A dedicated bus lane might speed service and improve access to a commercial corridor for thousands of people.

Even if the bus lane isn’t by the curb, cities need to rethink curb space to ensure the bus lanes work well. A turn pocket, for instance, can prevent drivers from blocking a bus lane at the approach to an intersection, like this example in San Francisco:

Carving out just a little curb space for a right turn lane can speed up bus service on crowded commercial corridors. This example is from San Francisco. Photo: NACTO
Photo: NACTO

Prioritizing spatially efficient transit can help commercial areas thrive. But business owners often prize access for customers who come by car. NACTO recommends conducting “arrival mode surveys” to demonstrate the importance of access by other means.

In Los Angeles, for instance, business owners on Cesar Chavez Street guessed that 36 percent of their patrons arrived by car and none arrived by transit, NACTO reports. However, a city survey of shoppers on the street found that nearly half arrived by transit and only 7 percent drove.

To free up the curb, it can’t be reserved for people to drive up and park right next to their destinations. Metered parking can be shifted to side streets, and so can deliveries. Loading zones don’t have to be directly in front of storefronts. In New York City, the DOT surveyed merchants along one bus corridor and found many would prefer loading zones farther away from the store in exchange for longer time limits.

For commercial streets that retain metered parking, dynamic pricing is the key to maximizing the public benefit. Setting parking meter prices to respond to demand can cut congestion and improve transit service on the corridor by reducing the time drivers spend cruising for open spots.

There is no magic formula, but thoughtfully managing curb space to prioritize local needs and conditions, not private car access, will help more people get around crowded cities while improving access to commercial areas.

  • Nancy

    Hilarious. I wonder what percentage of customers to fueling (gas) stations arrive to THAT business by bus.

    The leaders of NACTO are the head transit honchos for New York and San Francisco. Ed Reiskin is SF’s head of SFMTA and I assume the lead dude on this NACTO white paper. Ed Reiskin is a criminal. These transit leaders remove bus stops and then tout faster bus times due to red transit lanes. They don’t tell the public that the removed bus stops are the reason for faster bus times. They also don’t mention that the buses SPEED over the posted speed limit to achieve those faster times.

    Criminal activity plain and simple.

  • WQ4

    Off-topic much?

  • keenplanner

    “Head Honchos” is a term writers use when they don’t know what they’re ranting about.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    I wonder what percentage of businesses in central cities are gas stations.

  • Nancy

    Many. The transit agencies are putting red TOLs in front of gas stations causing illegal turn movements by automobiles, i.e, they turn right, into the gas station , from the left hand lane. In case you can’t understand, this is dangerous and that is why it’s illegal.

  • Nancy

    Which part of the conversation are you unable to keep up with?

  • Nancy

    Join the conversation when you can actually try and debate.

  • S.P. Miller

    Nancy,
    What folks who replied are trying to get at is that your argument is not very compelling, uses unsubstantiated claims, and then ends with an outlandish statement. I’ll try to break down how people have tried to critique you:

    “I would what percentage of customers to fueling (gas) stations arrive to THAT business by bus.”

    As Pietro suggests, the vast majority of businesses in cities are, in fact, not gas stations. And you are right – gas stations may lose out some business if it make it more difficult for vehicles to access it (although often times they are compensated by the state/local government). But how many businesses will benefit from these changes? Basically anything that isn’t geared towards the personal automobile, which is most businesses within cities.

    Also, purely anecdotally, I see many people walk to gas stations because it also is their local convenience store. Should we continue to ignore those users as well? Should we seriously be designing our roads and places to be great for gas stations? Or should we strive for something more?

    “The leaders of NACTO are the head transit honchos for New York and San Francisco. Ed Reiskin is SF’s head of SFMTA and I assume the lead dude on this NACTO white paper. Ed Reiskin is a criminal.”

    This is just for purely shock value. It really diminishes your entire post when you make an outlandish statement that accuse professionals of “criminal activity”, when all they are doing is their job. As far as Google can tell me, Ed Reiskin has not committed a crime.

    If you disagree with what they are saying, that is another thing. However I could probably make a stronger argument that Mike Dew (head of Florida DOT) is a criminal as he continues to do nothing about their pedestrian death epidemic. But I do not.

    “These transit leaders remove bus stops and then tout faster bus times due to red transit lanes. They don’t tell the public that the removed bus stops are the reason for faster bus times. They also don’t mention that the buses SPEED over the posted speed limit to achieve those faster times.”

    This actually is probably the highlight of your post, as you accurately depict what transit agencies do. Often times when a city decides to do a “Bus Only” lane, they will also tack on other transit service improvements, such as consolidating bus stops to further improve travel times (notice how I said further). Transit agencies have so little funding and ability to make changes that they often have to make big changes all at once. It could possibly be a decade or more before they can make any other changes.

    The problem with your statement is that you fully attribute better travel times to this consolidation and buses intentionally going over the speed limit. I can tell you right now, there is no evidence of this. It is crazy to think that you cannot correlate all the additional capacity for buses as causing better run times. If you were able to drive your car in an open lane, with no cars, could you go faster? You are willfully ignoring logic.

    “Criminal activity plain and simple.”

    See, now it is at this point in which my blood boils. Because the fact of the matter is that NACTO is doing some fabulous things to improve cities both in terms of making them safer places for ALL modes of transportation AND in livability for those in them. If transportation engineers had to continue following the (using your words) criminal guidance put out by AASHTO, many, many more people would die and our cities would continue to build infrastructure that favors the personal automobile going as fast as possible. NACTO is, legitimately, a shining light on the hill ensuring that engineers no longer have to jump through a million hoops just to get approval for life saving street designs.

    In short, I think what everyone was trying to say was that “You’re wrong. And consider using softer language that invites dialogue”.

  • Ray

    Put a price on all road space, and you will have the economics find the best use. It most likely will end up being micro-transit that will be the preferred choice of price-to-value.

  • rwy

    With poor enforcement the bus lanes literally will become the new parking lanes.

  • Skylar Thompson

    At least for Seattle, it’s none. The nearest gas stations to downtown Seattle are a mile away in lower Queen Anne, First Hill, or the Int’l District. Even in car-centric Bellevue, the nearest gas stations are either on the very SW edge of downtown, or across I-405.

    And these BAT lanes don’t “cause” drivers to do illegal actions; they’re welcome to wait legally behind the bus to make a right turn.

  • Sam Morrissey

    I agree with many aspects of this article, and am doing some very focused work on commercial deliveries in Los Angeles right now. You can read more about it here: https://medium.com/iteris/curb-our-enthusiasm-43295c68dc88

  • Ben Schumacher

    I assumed from the headline that this article was about that.

  • Ben Schumacher

    Many isn’t a percentage…

  • Ben Schumacher

    “Criminal activity plain and simple.”

    Which activity that you mentioned is criminal? You mentioned people leading NACTO, which is an activity. You mentioned transit leaders removing bus stops and touting faster bus times due to transit lanes, which is an activity. In the end, you mentioned speeding to achieve those times, which is an activity.

    Also, do you have evidence that the faster bus times are only due to removing bus stops, or are we just supposed to take you at your word? You also seem to contradict yourself when you then mention that the buses are speeding to achieve those faster times. Is it the removed stops, the speeding, or both? Is there no possibility that having transit-dedicated lanes allows transit to provide faster service? Also, if you want to be such an expert, you’ll need to provide evidence.

  • Ben Schumacher

    The part where the article was about divvying up curb usage to multiple forms of transportation to increase access, then you started a rant about how people can’t get to gas stations (which have parking for their customers) because of transit-only lanes.

  • Earl D.

    Over all a good article. But, but I would disagree with a major point: the implication that store owners can be reasoned with. In SF considerable time and expense are payed engaging business owners along major transit corridor improvements and without exception they fight tooth and nail over every last parking space removal. Both Geary BRT and Mission street bus streamlining had extensive surveys and community engagement and in both cases the result was total adamant resistance to losing any parking whatsoever even when shown that most of their customers didn’t arrive using their own cars.

    A more useful question is: how do we get traffic projects done over the extremely selfish and often economically irrational objections of local business owners, rather than focusing on ways to convince them of something they can never be convinced of.

  • Jacob Wilson

    The “small business owner” has got to be the most fawned upon and utterly entitled character in the drama of our economy.

    I get the impression half of them opened their own business because they’re too crotchety to work with others and just want to yell at employees.

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    I agree (I think). Correct me if I’m wrong, but by micro-transit, you don’t mean van share, do you? I agree with you if you’re suggesting single-width, one meter wide bikes, motorcycles, and cars.

  • RGD

    Aw, be fair. Often times, they aren’t in the field and cannot be expected to understand what the latest thinking is. Society so indoctrinated itself in the 1950s, and 1960s, that relatively few members have shifted the way they think, including small business owners.

  • RGD

    That’s quite an oversimplification. Nacto has 40+ member cities…
    And often, one can redesign the road so that buses need not speed to perform better. Trains usually have slightly inferior acceleration and often similar top speeds, yet they are faster. The reason buses are so slow is the design of the corridor. PS: Top speed for both is around 50 mph, unless we’re talking about equipment designed to run outside of the urban areas.
    I can assure you the gas station is a very unusual business, and probably is horribly unproductive insofar as the municipal balance sheet is concerned. For more information on unproductive businesses in towns and cities, go to http://www.strongtowns.org.

  • RGD

    Well, then, follow your own rules. Debating does not involve personal insults. It involves factual statements and opinions.

  • Ray

    Yes, I am thinking of vans that operate on-demand and point-to-point much like Ubers. Smaller vehicles are perfect for a completely automated system. I think it would be a good repurpose of the carpools lanes. Small automated vehicles on a grade separated track. It’s going to be difficult to change the standard road lane width which has existed for centuries. (brought over from horse-drawn carriages)

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    Excellent, Ray. In my support for right-sizing vehicles, at this point I suggest the term “thin” vehicle over the sometimes considered pejorative “small” because thin vehicles can more than double road width availability. Once thin vehicles are part of the norm, then the term “small” might mean something else. Four-wheeled, standard doors/windshield, tandem-seated 100% electric vehicles currently exist which allow lane and parking space sharing, so lane segregation might not be necessary. Since they’re far safer than motorcycles, perhaps people will prefer to drive and park them given their ability to cut commute times in half.

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