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Salt Lake City Opens First Separated-Lane BRT Corridor, Plans for More

» Mile-long segment of dedicated lanes is just the start of an 80-mile network.

Though it houses a total of only about one million inhabitants, ranking it almost fiftieth in size in the United States, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is expanding its transit system at full clip with a program rivaled by only the largest cities.

The TRAX light rail system that first opened in 1999 has received most of the interest because it’s been able to attract tens of thousands of more daily riders than initially anticipated. With the help of large federal grants, the UTA transit authority is engaging in a large expansion of that system with the goal of adding four line extensions as well as a new commuter rail line by 2015.

Less frequently mentioned, however, is the bus rapid transit system Salt Lake County is planning to develop over the course of the next twenty years with the goal of linking every city in the region directly to TRAX light rail stations. Though buses running with limited stops branded as MAX BRT began running in 2008, only yesterday did service actually begin in dedicated bus lanes, making more appropriate the appellation rapid.

The $8 million separated bus corridor covers about a mile between Constitution Boulevard and Bangerter Highway on West 3500 s, southwest of the center city. The MAX 35M bus that takes advantage of the route runs the full 12-mile distance between the suburban town of Magna and the light rail station at East 3300 S, via West Valley City. That service has 13 stops along the line; equivalent local buses have 70 and are up to twenty minutes slower. Most of the route remains unaltered and requires buses to share lanes with cars, but that’s because this is just the first section of what will eventually be a full system of rapid bus routes.

UTA plans to implement similar busway improvements along up to 80 miles of corridors. Starting with 3500 S was ideal because the state department of transportation was renovating the road anyway, and UTA managed to get bus lanes included in the project, as well as construct a new median bus stop. In the short term, BRT is planned for routes between Provo and Orem as well as along the Mountain View Corridor on 5600 W.

This slow, incremental approach — first cutting down on the number of stops and then adding dedicated lanes — has already proven its benefits: UTA claims that the MAX service, even without the new lanes, had attracted double the previous ridership on local-only buses. Operations every fifteen minutes carry 4,100 daily riders, pretty good for a medium-sized city on an out-of-the-way route. By speeding up services with independent lanes, three-door buses, and traffic-signal priority, the line seems certain to encourage even more people to get on board.

The construction of the 5.1-mile West Valley Trax line, expected to wrap up next year, will add to the route’s appeal: that rail project will terminate at the West Valley City Intermodal Center, where the 35M bus service will also stop.

By bundling bus corridor improvements into general street upgrades, UTA can get improved transit even on corridors with minor traffic. If it makes an attempt to extend similar lane construction schemes to all major road rehabilitation projects, it could expand its rapid bus portfolio relatively rapidly and at a minor cost. People in cities across the country should learn from this effort and push to incorporate bus lanes into as many street improvement projects as possible.

Salt Lake isn’t alone in its interest in bus rapid transit, of course: last month Las Vegas introduced the ACE bus services, providing limited stop operations along two routes. These offerings provide customers vastly improved service with distinctive articulated buses, good-looking generously-sized stations, and tickets to be purchased before boarding. Some of the route mileage includes dedicated lanes for buses, while other sections are shared with automobiles.

Las Vegas plans to expand its system along a number of other corridors in the coming years.

But the truth is that there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about what either Salt Lake or Las Vegas is doing: they’re simply introducing higher-quality services with the goal of making the average commuter far more likely to choose to jump onto the bus. We should see similar efforts in every city.

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • DBX

    It would be interesting to discuss the organizational and institutional angle of how this has been done as well. Unusually compared to other major metro areas you have several counties working together in the Utah Transit Authority, with a lot of state involvement. You had enabling legislation by the state that made it easy for local governments to join together to form a regional transit authority. Organizationally, it’s a shining example of how to do things right and I think that’s a very large ingredient.

    And the results are pretty dramatic. I can’t think of anywhere else in the US, with the possible exception of New York, that has half-hourly bi-directional commuter rail during off-peak hours, for example. Nor of anywhere else that different modes are this well integrated.

  • Part of it is the lack of a negative association of transit with poor people and minorities. Another part is that Utah has virtually no history of separate districts for government services; thus, the new authority is cohesive, and corresponds to present metropolitan boundaries. It’s nothing like what’s going on in California, where local transit authority boundaries correspond to the metro area boundaries of 1945, and where on top of it you have extra agencies overseeing commuter lines inherited from the legacy railroads.

    (It’s true in Canada, too – it seems Calgary and Vancouver have much stronger political consensuses for transit than Toronto, as well as more cohesive service districts.)

  • Good article. I keep lamenting all the lost opportunities around here in Madison, Wisconsin because there is a lot of road work — just completed, in process or being planned — that could, but does not, incorporate plans for an enhanced transit infrastructure.

    There is also a lot to say for an incremental approach, especially given the current state of the economy.

  • Salt Lake City’s massively wide street rights of way also make it a lot easier to dedicate space to transit without facing the same kind of trade-offs nearly every other city has to deal with.

  • 23skidoo

    Alon,
    The reason Calgary has a cohesive service district is that it’s all one city. The suburban towns (Okotoks, Airdrie, etc) are very small, and transit service is limited to private commuter buses that are not well-integrated with Calgary transit. Airdrie won’t see public transit service to Calgary until this fall: http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Airdrie+launch+transit+service+Calgary+fall/2737760/story.html
    SLC metro population: 1,130,293
    SLC population: 181,698
    Calgary metro population: 1,230,248
    Calgary population: 1,079,310

  • Gabriel Ratener

    Why not use exclusive right of way LRT instead of exclusive ROW BRT? LRT has higher passenger capacity, will provide a smoother and safer ride to passengers, is easier to board, is more energy effecient, and the power it does use is electricity supplied through overhead wires, meaning that power could potentially be supplied from anywhere including clean, local, and cheap sources.

    Yes, initially it’s a little pricier to build LRT than it is to build BRT, but long term, an investment in LRT will pay off more than an investment BRT. Salt Lake City like all growing Sun Belt cities needs to think not about where it is now, but about where it will be in the long term.

    • Brett

      Because they already are building a lot of light rail. They can’t afford to build everything as LRT and not everything justifies LRT. There is no way you can compare SLC to sun belt cities. UTA is far better and will have a lot of light rail by 2015.

  • MSA, CSA, what the hey

    (Ogden-)Salt Lake-Provo is 2.2 million people. Its a combined area with centers of SLC and Provo about the same distance apart as Dallas-Fort Worth or DC-Baltimore.

  • MSA, CSA, what the hey

    Why not use exclusive right of way LRT instead of exclusive ROW BRT?

    Because they live in the real world where they have to pay for it, not some Utopian fantasyland where any dreamer can demand anything.

  • Gabriel Ratener

    The fact that they already have good lightrail doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have more when it suits peoples’ needs. Also, I never said they wouldn’t have to pay for light rail, I am simply saying that in the long run LRT will be a better investment than BRT…, meaning in the long run it would actually cost less money to the rider or taxpayer. However in the shortrun I agree, LRT will cost more than BRT. Understand?

  • calwatch

    But not all corridors will need LRT, and when they do, the right of way is there so the upgrade can happen. It’s a very fiscally conservative way of implementing higher quality transit to the most people possible in the shortest amount of time.

  • Peter Smith

    buses and bus lanes and BRT have been the worst things to happen to transportation in third world countries, and they’re going to be just as devastating here, relatively speaking.

    that said, there _are_ meaningful questions we can ask about the implementation of any transit system — BRT or something else — like, ‘has it increased mobility?’ and ‘has it improved the quality of life of riders and the city’ and ‘is anyone now riding the bus that used to drive?’ and ‘are bikes allowed to use the roads on which these buses travel?’ and ‘were there landscaping improvements to the pedestrian realm?’ and ‘have the new lines been good for business, big or small?’ and ‘are there safe bike routes within a 5-mile radius of every station?’ and ‘are there bike stations and parking at each station?’ and ‘what are the opportunity costs associated with choosing to develop BRT as opposed to all the other options?’ — and many more.

    talking about ridership numbers on particular routes, on the other hand — as we know from experience — is nebulous. just ask Cleveland.

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