Transit is important to the economic performance of America’s metropolitan regions because it affects the number of jobs a person can access within a certain period of time. The greater the number of accessible jobs, the better labor markets can match people to opportunities, and the more productive a region’s economy will be.
Yet despite transit’s importance, most metropolitan transit systems are inadequate. In no major metropolitan area, for example, are more than 12.6% of jobs accessible within a 45-minute, one-way commute via transit. This is particularly problematic for poorer metropolitan-area residents, who are most likely to be transit-dependent.
Why is transit so inadequate? One reason is that while many metropolitan areas maintain “radial” transit networks designed to transport workers to and from a traditional central business district, patterns of economic activity have actually become increasingly decentralized. Research shows that nearly half the jobs in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are located more than 10 miles from the edge of the central business district, while only 20% of jobs are located within three miles of downtown. In this context, “grid” transit networks—which do a much better job of connecting suburbs with one another—are more effective than radial ones.
To make transit more effective, policymakers must do more than simply switch from radial to grid networks, however. First, they must abandon the false dichotomy that dominates most contemporary debates about surface transportation, and says you can have either better transit or highway improvements, but not both. This is misguided: there is a coherent policy approach available to legislators and officials that would improve both the highway network and the transit network—and cost less than traditional improvements to only one of them. That approach is the focus of this study.
Managed lanes are the first of two transportation guideways that are central to this approach. Managed lanes are grade-separated, limited-access highway lanes, which are dynamically priced to manage demand. In busy periods the toll price for using these lanes rises, discouraging congestion and allowing faster, more consistent travel times. Transit vehicles (as well as some carpoolers) can use these lanes free of charge, making service speedier and more reliable—a huge boon for transit users. Moreover, research and experience suggest that the tolls collected on managed lanes can provide a large portion of the funds needed to build and maintain them. This makes managed lanes a notably cost-effective way to improve urban transportation for paying motorists and transit users alike.
Managed arterials are the second type of transportation guideway outlined in this study. Arterials are high-capacity roads that primarily connect freeway and collector roads at the highest level of service. Because they feature multiple intersections with side roads, shopping centers and businesses, reliable travel times can be hard to achieve; intersection capacity is the single biggest congestion factor on arterial roads. Managed arterials deal with this problem by using priced underpasses and overpasses at major intersections. Transit vehicles—and drivers paying a small toll, which can be adjusted based on demand—can use these passes to avoid stopping at intersections, leading to uninterrupted traffic flow and correspondingly faster and more reliable journey times. Selected arterials may also give transit vehicles traffic signal priority and allow them to use queue jumps, thereby ensuring the speediest possible progress through signalized intersections. Like managed lanes, managed arterials can be largely funded though toll revenue.
The three transit components of the approach outlined in this study are express bus, bus rapid transit (BRT), and local bus. Express bus is a less costly, more flexible alternative to commuter rail, and is already used in many major U.S. metropolitan areas. It provides point-to-point service from one of many park-and-ride lots in the suburbs to business districts throughout the city. This study suggests expanding express bus service, running it five days a week with short headways. Express buses should run on networks of managed lanes, allowing for fast journeys and dependable departure and arrival times.
BRT is an enhanced bus service serving multiple origin and destination pairs, which operates mainly on arterial roads with frequent stops along the route (every quarter- to half-mile). It differs from traditional local bus service because it operates with the characteristics of a dedicated guideway system: traffic signal prioritization, dedicated lanes at intersections and expedited fare collection. This study goes further and envisions BRT running on managed arterials, using underpasses and overpasses to move straight through busy intersections.
These service enhancements make BRT an attractive alternative to heavy and light rail, which are 16 times more expensive, according to the Government Accountability Office. BRT is also quicker to implement and much more flexible than establishing new rail lines. These three factors make it much easier to create a comprehensive grid network—with high levels of connectivity—with BRT than with rail. Moreover, recent research has shown that per dollar of transit investment, BRT leverages more transit-oriented development investment than light rail.
So, following this study’s approach, express buses would run on networks of managed lanes and BRT would run on networks of managed arterials. Taken together, these offer the quick, reliable performance of commuter, heavy and light rail, along with much lower costs (which allow a more comprehensive, connected transit network to be established) and benefits for motorists (which obviates much of the political controversy surrounding transit investment). The glue that holds this transit system together is local bus service, running on local roads and minor arterials with stops typically placed less than every quarter-mile, and connecting residential areas, transit hubs and employment centers. All major metropolitan areas have existing local bus service. (Some areas would supplement local bus service with limited-stop bus service.)
Finally, this study advocates a series of operational best practices to further improve transit service, and make the most of an enhanced, cost-effective network. First, transit operators should consider introducing distance-based and time-of-day pricing, both of which could encourage ridership and increase revenue if implemented effectively. Second, transit agencies should use competitive bidding to guarantee value-for-money in service operation. Third, in the absence of a genuine free market in metropolitan transit, a regional co-coordinating agency should operate a mobility management center—similar to the one in Denver—to ensure a comprehensive network of service for transit users.
The recommendations contained in this study employ existing transportation innovations that already operate successfully in many jurisdictions, are cost-effective and politically realistic, and can be introduced quickly in response to transit user and motorist demand. As such, the approach outlined here offers a pro-growth, pro-mobility way forward that policymakers would be well-advised to pursue.