Bus Lanes for Downtown Calgary

Transit lanes are not just good for transit, they are good for cars too. This may seem counter-intuitive, so let me explain.

Some time ago I was driving eastward through the downtown a few hours after the usual afternoon rush hour along 5th Avenue. Surprisingly, there was still a considerable amount of traffic and cars were backed up for blocks. It took nearly 20 minutes to drive from 8th street SW to 1st street SW. But once clear of Centre Street, the traffic seemed to disappear. What was odd, was that there didn’t seem to be a lot of traffic that turned onto Centre Street. Most cars continued eastward past Centre Street towards Memorial Drive. Why then was there so much traffic before Centre Street?

Those 7 blocks of traffic had one primary cause: buses changing lanes. Many buses using 5th avenue have to use the far right lane in order to stop at the stations (bus doors being on the right hand of the bus). However, several of these buses have to move to the left lanes in order to turn left onto Centre Street. One of these routes is the 301, which uses articulated buses (I call them bendy buses). The problem is that these buses have to move from the far right lane to the far left lane in a short distance, sometimes less than a block. What happens when several buses, some of them extra long, are all trying to change multiple lanes in a short distance? Gridlock.

Buses tie up traffic, stopping in the middle of the road as they try and change lanes. Multiple buses doing this on multiple lanes effectively reduces a 5-lane road to a 2-lane, or worse, a 1-lane road. So what would have been smoothly flowing traffic is instead a 7 block traffic jam; all because buses and cars are sharing the same space. This is why transit-only lanes can improve traffic for cars as well as transit.

Many motorists will, very understandably, worry that removing vehicle lanes will create more congestion, as road space is given over to transit. However, in many cases, creating transit lanes improves the flow of regular traffic both because it removes buses from vehicle lanes, but also because it makes transit faster and more reliable, encouraging more people to use it, thus getting them out of their cars.

Jarrett Walker, a transit expert that TransitCamp brought to Calgary in April for a series of talks and events, explains in his book Human Transit that providing dedicated lanes for buses isn’t necessarily about giving transit a priority than it is about treating transit equally. Walker’s argues that providing an amount of road space equal to the percentage of people using transit in an area for dedicated transit lanes is perfectly equitable. For example, is 30% of the north/south travel in an area is served by transit- transit should have 30% of the road space dedicated for its use. This is not only a matter of fairness, it is a matter of efficiency. Providing a dedicated bus lane improves speed and reliability, encouraging more people to take transit, which reinforces the rationale for dedicating the lane. So how should road space be divided in Calgary?

In 2011, for the first time ever, the percentage of people using transit to get downtown during the morning commute has exceeded 50%. Vehicles, only are around 40% with pedestrians and bicycles making up the remaining 10%. Using Walker’s logic, this means that 50% of downtown road space should be used for transit.

Let’s look at just east/west traffic. There are effectively 6 avenues that run from one end of downtown to the other: 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th (3rd, 2nd and Riverfront avenues do not connect across the entire downtown). 8th Avenue, or Stephen Avenue as most of us know it as, is partially dedicated to pedestrians (from Macleod Trail to 3rd Street). 7th Avenue is already dedicated for the C-Train (and a few select bus routes). So that leaves 9th, 6th, 5th and 4th avenues as the roads used for vehicles and buses. Including 7th avenue, 50% of the road space would equal three entire avenues dedicated to transit. This amount would be the fair amount to provide to transit, given the numbers of people using the service. However, not that much is required.

This is how is should work. First, the two rightmost lanes (according to the direction of travel) on both 5th and 6th avenues should be dedicated for transit. This allows for multiple buses to use the lanes, while not delaying each other when boarding passengers at stops (i.e. buses can pass each other). Second, buses turning left from 5th avenue onto Centre Street shouldn’t do so from the leftmost vehicle lane, they should do it from the right lanes. To do this, a special bus-only turning signal will be needed at the intersection, so buses queued up on 5th avenue can all turn at once into the far right lane on Centre Street. This also prevents the problem of buses changing lanes and causing backups (another option would to not allow buses to make left turns and instead make three right turns onto 1st SE, 6th Avenue and then Centre Street) Third, in order to accommodate right hand turns from 5th and 6th, the bus lanes can be reduced to one lane near intersections (or limited intersections such as 5th street, 8th street, 1st street) to allow for a right hand turn bay. Cars would then turn right either when no buses are approaching, or only during red lights. Finally, and probably most importantly, all buses going through the downtown will use these lanes, and these lanes only. It is only fair that if we are to create dedicated bus lanes, that buses not continue to use regular traffic lanes.

The proposal above benefits both transit and cars. Both 9th and 4th avenues are completely cleared of buses, freeing up space for other vehicles. Just as importantly, buses on 5th and 6th are removed from regular traffic, thus preventing the gridlock created by buses making lane changes. By creating transit-only lanes we can significantly improve the travel of the 50% of people using transit to get downtown, but also the 40% who drive. It is a win-win. All it takes is political will. As the Route Ahead process moves forward, we hope that downtown bus lanes are given serious consideration

What do you think: Are dedicated bus lanes through the downtown a good idea?


2 thoughts on “Bus Lanes for Downtown Calgary

  1. Great thoughts, Peter.

    Have you considered having the buses run counterflow on 5th & 6th, that is turn 5th & 6th into “two-way” streets but with the buses running in the opposite direction to traffic right now? Given that 6th is currently westbound and 5th eastbound, you’d end up with eastbound buses on 6th and westbound buses on 5th which means they would be properly oriented relative to each other. Besides that happy coincidence though, doing this would deal with both the problem of buses turning left and cars turning right. Your solution addresses this through special turn signals but mine deals with it in the course of a regular traffic signal.

    A cursory examination reveals that integrating with the rest of the road network at the east and west ends of downtown is not too difficult. Buses heading downtown from the northeast could cross the Bow on the Langevin Bridge, turn left at 3rd SE and then turn right onto 5th Ave. Buses leaving downtown to the northeast would turn left at 3rd and then right onto 5th Ave to cross the Bow. In the west end, buses arriving from the south, west and northwest (from 14th or Crowchild) would make their way to 11th, head north on it and turn right onto 6th. Those arriving from the north across the Louise Bridge would head first west on 4th Ave, then south on 10th Street and then turn onto 6th Ave. Buses leaving downtown in the west would have a pretty straightforward choice between joining 4th/Bow Trail at the west end of 5th or continuing around the corner and turning onto 6th. If they’re heading across the Louise Bridge, the obvious choice is to turn right on 8th Street into the rightmost lane (which would almost always be empty due to the fact that the rightmost lane south of 5th is a forced right onto 5th) and then left onto 4th Av, which is doable since all three lanes of 8th St are northbound and allow for left turns onto 4th.

    An additional benefit is to cyclists who would continue using the two streets in the directions that traffic currently flows (i.e. with the cars), but they would now be able to operate without interfering with or being interfered by buses stopping and starting at bus stops.

    • Great thoughts David! I have not fully considered counter-flow lanes, but they are definitely something to look into. There are always pros and cons to every operation. Counter flow lanes do create issues with left turns from a one-way onto a one-way, but that doesn’t seem to be too difficult to overcome.

      I may try and create a couple of graphics illustrating the concepts and post that at a later date.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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