» 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.