Bus rapid transit can deliver much higher-quality service if operated on exclusive busways where there is no congestion. Only a handful of such busways exist in America today, but this country’s growing system of carpool lanes began as “transitways,” intended for buses and vanpools. Only when it was found that most such transitways had lots of unused capacity were they gradually opened up to four-person, then three-person, and eventually two-person carpools, becoming high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.
This strong public policy favoring carpools has led to unintended consequences. It has encouraged these expensive new lanes to fill up with “fampools”-two or more family members who would be riding together anyway. Fampools constitute between one-third and two-thirds of HOV lane users, depending on the facility. Also, by allowing even two-person carpools into specialized lanes, public policy has devastated the vanpool sector, which is the most cost-effective and energy-efficient form of transit. And filling up the most important HOV lanes with two-person carpools destroys their effectiveness as transit guideways, which is especially crucial for bus rapid transit (BRT).
It’s time to rethink America’s over-emphasis on carpooling and revisit the advantages of busways. Instead of filling up the empty space on a busway with fampools, we could fill it up with paying customers. And because those customers would pay value-priced tolls, their numbers could be limited to amounts consistent with maintaining uncongested conditions even at the busiest rush hours, as proven on the HOT lanes in San Diego and Orange County, California.
Thus, a value-priced busway would be the virtual equivalent of an exclusive busway. From the transit agency’s standpoint, it would have the same performance (high speed, reliability, absence of congestion) as an exclusive busway. But the large majority of its capital costs would be paid for, willingly, by drivers who chose to pay for its use to bypass congestion.
The nation’s first Virtual Exclusive Busway (VEB) is under construction in Houston. It is being developed via a three-way partnership of the local transit agency (METRO), the local toll agency (HCTRA), and the Texas DOT. Four value-priced managed lanes are being added to the Katy Freeway (I-10) as part of a largescale reconstruction of that corridor. METRO is guaranteed up to 25 percent of the new lanes’ capacity for buses and three-person carpools, and has committed to increasing the HOV occupancy level as needed in future years to preserve capacity for its express buses. HCTRA has committed to increasing the value-priced toll levels as needed to maintain uncongested traffic flow.
Networks of such managed lanes, if governed by such partnership agreements, would become VEB networks. They would make possible high-quality (reliable, high-speed) regional express bus service, facilitating new forms of bus rapid transit. The year 2030 long-range transportation plan for the San Francisco Bay Area, adopted in February 2005, includes a proposed $3 billion network of this type, the first to be included in such a long-range plan. Studies are under way for such value-priced networks in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Maryland, Miami, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Washington, D.C.
Federal transit policy should be changed to facilitate the development of VEBs and VEB networks. First, value-priced lanes that guarantee a portion of their capacity for transit services should be defined in federal law as “fixed guideways” for all federal transit purposes. Second, VEBs and VEB networks should be one of the alternatives studied in the alternatives analysis carried out in applying for Federal Transit Administration New Starts capital funding. And such funding should be available for the transit-specific components of a VEB or VEB network, including park-and-ride lots, direct-access ramps, stations, and buses.
Rubber-tire transit (including express bus and vanpools) can be highly cost-effective, especially when operating on exclusive rights of way. Our experience over the past decade with value pricing shows that such pricing can be used to create the virtual equivalent of an exclusive busway, paid for largely by drivers. This is too good an opportunity for transportation planners to pass up.