Improving Public Transport Efficiency

Increasing efficiency is one of those "low hanging fruit" solutions for improving all types of processes, and public transport is no exception. At a time when we need to drastically improve public transport to provide increased mobility and reduce environmental consequences, increasing efficiency is particularly important.

Programs for increasing public transport efficiency run on a continuum ranging from making incremental small-scale improvements to public transit routes over time to bus rapid transit projects that build coordinated systems of improvements at once. Curitiba Brazil was a pioneer in the use of BRT and Zurich is a great example of the incremental approach.

A big problem with public transport priority is that it's not a very sexy subject, unlike new rail lines, and therefore it's hard to get people excited about implementation. One idea I am working with is creating a Web 2.0 application called Bus Meister that combines a game, an informational wiki and a social network. The goal is to educate bus passengers about the importance of public transport priority (using the game) and then to encourage them to apply political pressure on their city to implement public transport priority improvements they identify using the game. Please contact me if you are interested in learning more about Bus Meister or helping to develop the concept.

Zurich's Public Transport Priority Program

Zurich: Public Transport Priority

Zurich - Traffic signal allows tram to proceed in front of private vehicles.

Zurich's long running program to comprehensively improve public transport efficiency is a wonderful model. Over the last thirty years Zurich has progressively implemented a transit priority program that has improved the efficiency of its public transport system and created an extremely attractive public transport network at a fraction of what it would have cost to build a capital intensive metro system.

Implementation of Zurich's Transit Priority Program describes the comprehensive application of many different techniques (see list below) designed to speed-up public transit vehicles and improve the transit system's efficiency. These improvements include a wide variety of physical improvements, operating changes and regulatory changes. The keys to Zurich's success are comprehensive implementation and political support for the program (generated in part by the program's success).

Zurich's public transport priority program is very cost effective and is quite appropriate for medium-sized cities. (Here's a link to my TRB paper that summarizes the main points: TRR-1835: Implementing Zurich's Transit Priority Program.) In larger cities more capital intensive programs such as bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail transit (LRT) can play a key role providing trunk line services. BRT is particularly interesting since it combines systematic application of transit priority with exclusive right-of-way to create high quality point-to-point service. In a BRT system buses can serve neighborhoods like a regular bus and then switch to high speed exclusive lanes for the trip downtown (for example). Bus rapid transit projects have become extremely popular following the great success of programs in Curitiba Brazil and Ottawa Canada.

Light rail transit can be used in a similar way combining surface street neighborhood service with exclusive right of way along major corridors in larger cities. Cities including Boston, San Francisco and Brussels have built LRT subways for their old streetcar systems. These existing systems can generally be significantly improved by implementing transit priority programs similar to Zurich's.

Why is Transit Priority Important?

Transit priority is important because it is an extremely cost effective way to improve transit service. Transit priority improves customer service by providing faster and more reliable service, and improves transit's bottom line by both enabling it to operate more service with the same resources and by attracting more passengers (since the service is better). By reducing conflicts with private traffic, transit priority improvements also can reduce accidents and driver stress.

Transit priority and bus rapid transit are excellent techniques for improving public transit. They are much less expensive than rail systems and they can be implemented quickly. Unfortunately, transit priority improvements are often neglected in favor of larger and 'sexier' projects such as new rail transit systems. While new rail systems provide a very attractive and environmentally friendly service, they are generally very expensive and take a long time to complete.

Types of Transit Priority Improvements

The most effective transit priority programs combine all these techniques in a comprehensive program.