Freeways to busways: Bus pads

The lowly bus pad. Click for Google Earth.

The lowly bus pad. Click for Google Earth.

Though rail transit gets much of the press, buses make up the bulk of global public transportation fleets. Unfortunately, buses running on city streets are prone to get stuck in traffic, move slow as molasses, and bunch up. While separating them from traffic makes sense, there is often little political will to invest so heavily in what is often seen as second-class transportation.

Thankfully, cities are blessed (and cursed) with a plethora of grade-separated infrastructure already in our freeway system. We already run express buses on them, but we can also run regular stop service on freeways, too. Cities should redeem those high-volume symbols of urban blight for the buses, and use them as high-speed corridors for regular bus service.

There are three ways to approach the freeway bus system. One is the bus pad, which places the stops along slip lanes at each interchange. Golden Gate Transit (GGT) uses this system extensively north of San Francisco. Another is the bus expressway, which mixes buses with other high-occupancy traffic and places stops either at overpasses or in the median. King County Transit uses this system. A third way is the center-running bus rapid transit system, which dedicates lanes exclusively to buses.

Each has its benefits and drawbacks. Today we’re looking at the lowly bus pad. Even though they force buses to take the slow lane, the result is a system that flies compared to buses on city streets.

GGT’s system is something of a historical accident. As Highway 101 was under construction, someone realized this would lock out those who used to take buses along Redwood Highway, which was getting replaced. So engineers added bus-only slip lanes at each exit and a bus stop and gave Marin the closest thing to bus rapid transit in the region.

Golden Gate Transit's Freeway Bus System. Map by the author. Click to enlarge.

Golden Gate Transit’s Freeway Bus System. Map by the author. Click to enlarge.

Despite running on a freeway, the average speed of the local buses – excluding time spent on surface streets – rarely peaks above 30 miles per hour. Local buses average 19 miles per hour between Novato and the Spencer Avenue bus pad. Skip-stop express buses do the same run at 30 miles per hour, though they top out at 48 miles per hour when traffic is particularly clear. Both locals and express buses spend 7 minutes laying over at transit centers along the route, which cuts a few miles per hour from their average.

This may not seem too rapid at first, but in the world of public transit this is actually quite speedy. BART averages 33 miles per hour, and New York’s subway only averages 18.6. Compared to the often-miserable speeds of buses on city streets, which rarely top 10 miles per hour, this is rapid transit.

Unlike rapid transit, most of the infrastructure is already built. All one needs is a safe way for a bus to service a bus pad at a preexisting interchange or exit, and a safe way for riders to get to the pad. Diamond interchanges are easiest to service, as a just needs to exit the freeway, pick up passengers at the exit, then continue forward to reenter. Others, like cloverleaf interchanges, require a bit more but typically there is enough space to accommodate the bus pad’s slip lane and stop.

Though cheap and fast, the bus pad has a number of fairly horrible downsides. Foremost, the passenger has to wait at the edge of a freeway. It’s hot, polluted, loud, windy, dry, and terrifically unpleasant. The walk to the bus pad might not be so attractive, either, as freeways are notorious for turning their neighborhoods into moonscapes.

Transfers can be a pain, too. One bus pad in Marin requires a quarter-mile walk through that moonscape and across an overpass to transfer from the freeway to surface streets.

Freeways are not conducive to transit-oriented development, either, which would otherwise be a natural outgrowth of a high-speed rapid bus line running through the city. Though this is a problem bus pads share with other busway designs, the unpleasant and difficult transfers further limit the scope and attractiveness of transit-oriented design.

And, finally, buses serving bus pads don’t make use of those expensive HOV lanes, as they need to stay in the far-right lanes. That means they can get stuck in traffic, get off schedule, and get delayed. At commute time, this can be especially frustrating for riders. To make use of the HOV lanes and improve reliability, we need something else: the bus expressway, which we’ll discuss next.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

5 comments to Freeways to busways: Bus pads

  • […] Vibrant Bay Area Looks At Ways to Accommodate Bus Transit on Freeways […]

  • DJ

    Express bus service on freeways is a major opportunity if done right. GGT is pretty poor in general, but LA’s Silver Line is a little closer to what success looks like (it’s more than twice as fast as the Gold Line). The key is attractive stations, good access and connections, and jazzing up the buses as much as possible (comfy seats, wifi, etc.). A frequent, fast express bus system could really work on I-80 and I-580 in the East Bay in particular. TCRP 145 discusses these possibilities further:

    • Oh definitely. I’m going to follow-up on this with a look at HOV-focused busways, like the Silver Line and a proposed system in Eureka (of all places), and with a third post on full-fat freeway BRT. GGT is pretty poor, agreed, but for Marin’s suburban system to have average speeds that meet or beat rapid transit is noteworthy. And, given how cheap and easy bus pads are, I’d love to see how a better-funded system uses them.

  • The Golden Gate Transit buses are generally outfitted for long distance with padded, high back coach seats. GGT had wifi and should be reinstating wifi soon.

    The key is I think to make the existing pads better by offering more amenities to make them more pleasant, as well as to enhance access (by improving signage, pavement, lighting, and make them ADA accessible.) The other is to cut the dwell time with more prepayment options. Golden Gate buses generally have longer dwell time because of higher fares.

    LA has some good examples of on freeway bus stops (both with or without busway).

  • […] nor its partner Marin Transit have posted a comprehensive map of the Highway 101 trunk line and its extensive bus pad system. About seven months ago, I decided it was time to make one of […]