Month: April 2009


The counterflow bus lanes of San Juan

Proponents of “bus rapid transit” (BRT) like to portray it as a package, but the whole isn’t necessarily greater than the sum of the parts. You can improve performance with just one or two of the “BRT” components, as I learned in San Juan.

Dedicated busways are one such component, and one way to create them is with counterflow lanes. I had used facilities like this in Paris, and they definitely sped up the trip from de Gaulle airport. Now they have them in San Juan.

Photo via

Unlike in Paris, the lanes in San Juan are not physically separated from the other lanes. However, any motorist who tries to use a lane will come face to face with a bus, and that discourages the kind of lane-squatting that’s common here in New York.

In fact, we only saw one instance of lane-squatting during our four days there. When passing the Department of Agriculture the bus stopped. A woman and a man were examining a fence around the building grounds, and the woman apparently felt that she was too important to park anywhere other than a few feet away. She wasn’t going anywhere in particular, so she had the upper hand. The bus eventually had to go around, and it was the bus driver who had to brave a head-on collision.

We never took a bus during rush hour traffic, so I can’t really say how well the counterflow lanes performed relative to that. All of our experiences with the bus getting slowed down by congestion – including one eternal construction delay – were along Ashford Avenue, which is too narrow for a bus lane. It doesn’t even have curbside parking on both sides the whole way.

Counterflow lanes clearly are not enough to make a well-functioning bus system, but with a bit more help (say, increased frequency), they can make a big difference. I wonder how well it would work if the Fifth and Madison Avenue bus lanes were switched in Manhattan.


San Juan: the Best and the Worst

My family and I just got back from a trip to San Juan Batista, the capital of the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. I’ve got lots of things to say about the transportation situation there, particularly in contrast with that in Santo Domingo, on the next island over. I’ll start with our best and worst experiences.

The best experience was undoubtedly the Tren Urbano, the metrorail line that opened in 2005. It’s quiet, clean, uncrowded and comfortable. There are a few underground sections, but most of the line is elevated on concrete pillars. Payment is almost identical to the New York City pay-per-ride Metrocard, down to the (English) wording on the receipts; the main difference is that we had to “swipe out” at the end.

The main criticism of the project – and I’m guessing the reason it wasn’t very crowded when we took it – is that it doesn’t go to any of the major tourist destinations. Historic Old San Juan, the beaches and hotels of the Condado and Isla Verde, the government buildings in Santurce and Puerta de Tierra, and the two airports are all on peninsulas and islands along the coast, and the Tren terminus at Sagrado Coraz?n is separated from all those attractions by a mile (at the least) and two expressways.

There is, however, a bus terminal at Sagrado Coraz?n, and in fact there are bus connections at all the Tren Urbano stations. And that brings me to our worst experience. On Monday we decided to visit the neighborhood of R?o Piedras, which is home to the University of Puerto Rico and its botanical garden. It’s also served by two Tren Urbano stops, so we thought it would be simple getting there. It was – once we got to the Tren.

At around 12:10, after a leisurely brunch, we walked to the nearest eastbound bus station to our hotel at the corner of Ashford and Andino, and waited … and waited. I had checked the bus map before leaving and seen that both the C-10 and B-21 buses went from that stop to the Tren at Sagrado Coraz?n. The C-10 is supposed to come every 30 minutes on weekdays and the B-21 every 20-25 minutes; there was no more schedule information than that available.

There were already several people waiting at the stop when we got there. Many of them eventually wandered off to find other ways to get where they were going, or maybe just other things to do. A C-53 bus, which did not go to the Tren, stopped at one point, and several westbound buses as well. I had the idea of taking a westbound C-10 to the Parada 18 transfer point and catching an eastbound bus on another line, but none of the buses in San Juan show their routes on the left side or the rear, so once they got to us I had no idea which bus we were looking at.

A B-21 bus finally showed up around 1:30. We boarded and from then on had no problem: a relatively quick trip to Sagrado Coraz?n, then a short train ride to the University. But we had waited over an hour and a quarter for a bus that was supposed to come every 20-25 minutes. Even if a bus broke down or a driver missed his or her shift, what happened to the bus that was supposed to be behind it? There was no sign of the C-10 at all.

So that’s the best and the worst. There’s more from Puerto Rico coming up: counterflow bus lanes! Privatized routes! Transvestite trolleys! Stay tuned.


Better Buses: Signal Priority

I recently got back from a trip to Albuquerque, and had a chance to ride the Rapid Ride buses which have been speeding bus passengers along the Central Avenue route since 2004. They use 60-foot articulated buses like here in New York, but theirs are low-floor and have three sets of doors instead of two. Getting off at the Frontier restaurant (announced by name, presumably sponsored, awesome green chile cheeseburgers), a woman tried to exit the front door to retrieve her bike, but the driver told her she had to exit through the middle doors. That would definitely speed boarding, as I discussed the other day.

Another feature that can speed the buses is signal priority: traffic lights will stay yellow a little longer for the bus, or change to green a bit sooner. I’d heard about it but never seen it in action. However, I had sure spent my share of time waiting at stoplights during my two years in Albuquerque! This week, I noticed several points when the buses went through lights that seemed to stay yellow for an awfully long time. I remember hardly any red lights, but those few seemed to be over pretty quick. Mainly, I just had the impression that the bus got from downtown to campus or Old Town a lot quicker than I remembered from 1999.

The third feature is that the Rapid Ride routes are limited-stop, like our limited routes in New York. Both of the current routes have corresponding local routes for people who want the intermediate stops.

Building on the success of the Central Avenue “Red Line,” in 2007 the city inaugurated the “Blue Line” along Coors, I-40 and Lomas. I had dinner with a friend who lives in the West Mesa sprawl and was the last person I would have expected to see on the bus. But she told me that she now takes the Blue Line to campus and has been saving lots of money.

I’d love to see signal priority implemented here in New York. PlaNYC recommended it for the Q18 bus to Astoria, which is a good pilot route. All I know is that I’d get around town a lot faster if buses didn’t spend so much time at red lights.

Again, this is a feature that is often touted as “BRT,” but it doesn’t have to be implemented as part of a BRT package. Rapid Ride has several of the fingerprints of BRT consultants (name, logo, limited stops, low-floor articulated buses) but not exclusive right-of-way or prepayment.

I honestly think my friend would have taken it even without the name or logo. The speed was obviously a big factor, but convenience was too: when I lived there, getting to the West Mesa from campus involved taking two local buses and transferring; the express buses ran only a few times a day. Now the Rapid Ride Blue runs every 15-20 minutes until 6PM, and every half hour after that until 9PM. She also mentioned that the free bus passes for UNM faculty, staff and students were a big factor in getting her to try the service. I honestly don’t know why more colleges don’t offer free bus passes; it’s cheaper than building parking lots!

Photo: wastemanagementdude / Flickr