An article in the Mercury News earlier this week framed the decision over whether to convert a lane on El Camino Real into a bus-only lane as a choice of who is more important: car drivers or transit users.
Now, this article was flawed on a factual level. The author stated that VTA wants to install bus lanes on El Camino Real in Palo Alto and that the project was being pushed on the cities by VTA. Neither is correct as the commenters astutely pointed out. VTA has proposed that the BRT bus operate in the right lane with cars in Palo Alto like the current 522 Rapid Bus. Also, VTA has been working with the cities since May of 2010 on project design and is asking the cities to vote on whether VTA’s proposal is compatible with how they envision El Camino Real in the future before any changes to the street are pursued. We also object to her characterization of the project as merely a perk to current transit riders without acknowledging the improvements in transit ridership, vehicle miles traveled, greenhouse gas reduction, operating cost savings or the years of collaborative planning that has been put into El Camino Real by the cities of Santa Clara County that supports improving transit.
Besides those points, we’d like to address the underlying assumption of the article, that this project is a zero sum game between car drivers and transit users and that giving a lane to transit would be something that car drivers should take offense over.
With the focus on El Camino Real, what is often lost is that El Camino Real is one roadway within the entire transportation network—a network that overwhelmingly favors cars. Car drivers can travel anywhere they want, whenever they want, utilizing any route that they choose to minimize their travel time. Currently, there is not one lane on a public street in Santa Clara County where cars are not allowed to drive. Transit users must deal with restrictions. They may only travel on streets that have transit routes, at certain times, at slow speeds and will likely need to find a way to travel between the transit stops and their destinations.
If El Camino Real is converted from six auto lanes to two bus lanes and four auto lanes, drivers will behave just like they do now—they’ll consider their travel options and choose the best route to get to their destination rather than blindly taking El Camino Real because that’s what they’ve done before. And there are many options for drivers to choose from: freeways, expressways and several parallel arterials. They could even choose to take the BRT service or ride their bicycles on the new bike lanes that the project would install on El Camino Real.
VTA expects that about one-third of the cars that would take El Camino Real if there were no bus-only lanes would choose other routes if the bus-only lanes are installed and our computer transportation model projects that those diverted trips would be dispersed throughout many routes (check out our traffic diversion posts for Santa Clara here, Sunnyvale here and here, and Mountain View here).
So what would a bus-only lane on El Camino Real mean for car drivers? In areas with bus lanes, the traffic congestion is projected to be about the same as if there were no bus lanes because one-third of cars will take other routes or convert to transit. About 15-25 percent of diverted trips (varying by city and travel direction) are project to convert to transit. In the Mercury News article author’s hometown of Palo Alto, the traffic could even be lighter as a result of the project as some of the folks that would have driven cars on El Camino Real are projected to take transit instead. Looking ahead, as some of today’s car drivers hang up their keys and look for other ways to get around, wouldn’t it be nice to have a fast, frequent transit option?
To answer the article author’s parting question: “The VTA likes its buses. Most of us like our cars. Who’s more important?” The answer is that both are important and finding ways to accommodate both travel modes on the transportation network carries benefits that are good for everyone. Hopefully, the author will try the future Bus Rapid Transit service and find that she likes it too.