Bus lanes are paving the way to a green and equitable future.

See how Washington, D.C., Portland, and Honolulu are making them happen.

For cities on the front lines of climate, equity, and infrastructure, government innovation is more than just flashy technology. It’s also a function of how cities approach budgets, staffing plans, and community engagement when they take on big climate projects — some of which, like bus lanes, aren’t necessarily high tech, but nevertheless have high potential for impact.

The 25 cities in the American Cities Climate Challenge are focused on two main levers to reduce carbon emissions: energy initiatives, including renewable energy and improved energy efficiency in buildings, and greener transportation. In this article, we’ll look at the role of dedicated bus lanes in sustainable transportation, and see examples of government innovation in three municipal governments — Washington, D.C.; Honolulu, HI; and Portland, OR. For more about how these cities have prioritized bus lanes, see this blog from our partners at NRDC.

Buses live at the intersection of climate and equity. They replace gas-powered car trips and reduce congestion, leading to lower tailpipe emissions. Buses also connect residents to schools, jobs, and services; data shows that Black, Hispanic, immigrant, and low-income communities use public transit more than white residents. But buses only live up to their potential for positive environmental and economic impact when they are a viable choice for riders — a reliable, accessible, and relatively quick way to move about the city.

Dedicated bus lanes are a versatile and powerful piece in the transportation planning puzzle. Bus lanes are a low-cost, high return investment in infrastructure; even relatively short but well-placed lanes can make a big difference. At typically less than $1M/mile for a two-way dedicated bus lane, they are significantly cheaper than urban highways (~$5M+/mile for 2 lanes) or subway lines (~$804M+/mile for underground lines, with city-to-city variance) with the potential to:

  • Significantly reduce travel times and improve reliability for tens of thousands of residents every day. Bus lanes increase transit access for people who live nearby and speed up commute times for riders. They can also improve commutes for everyone — even vehicle commuters in other neighborhoods — by getting the bus “unstuck” in the most congested parts of town.
  • Adapt to evolving community needs. Bus lanes are relatively easy to move (compared to other transit infrastructure); cities can implement and monitor bus lanes, adjusting as needed based on performance.
  • Increase foot traffic for local businesses — especially those located near busy stops.
  • Improve air quality for all residents, even those who don’t ride the bus or live near the bus lane.
Comparing the people-moving power of bus lanes, car lanes, bike lanes, and sidewalks.
Courtesy of NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials)

For all their potential benefit, bus lanes present distinct challenges and tradeoffs. They require space that has historically been prioritized for parking spots and general-purpose vehicle traffic. Because some business owners underestimate the number of patrons who travel by bus, and some residents may not use the bus themselves, city leaders face a challenge with bus lanes that is not uncommon in other municipal projects: a small but vocal minority can delay progress, even when projects benefit a majority of residents.

Extensive public outreach, conducted early and often, can help. Diverse outreach styles and targeted engagement with community-based organizations and other groups who work closely with riders can also help ensure that outreach is inclusive. And finally, because the benefits of bus lanes extend well beyond the streets or neighborhoods they serve directly, it’s important to collect rider stories from across the city, showing the connections between bus lanes, essential workers, air quality, local businesses, and a host of other diffuse benefits.

Precision staffing: How Washington, D.C., pinpointed a key hire for bus lane expansion.

Mayor Bowser has remained steadfast in her commitment to bus lanes, recognizing their role in both racial and climate justice. Her most recent budget proposes a significant investment of staff and funding to invest in bus priority projects over the next 5 years.

As they move forward with bus priority projects, D.C. will adapt its approach based on lessons learned from 5.7 lane-miles of bus lane construction over the last 2 years, including the use of delivery chains to identify key staffing opportunities, and targeted resident outreach.

In 2020, D.C. used a delivery chain to reveal a gap in internal capacity at the transit planning stage. With that as a starting point, they did a benchmarking exercise with peer cities, learning they had proportionately few transit planners and bus priority engineers for the population size served and the total mileage of bus lanes they were hoping to build.

With this information, District staff were able to advocate to leadership for the creation of a bus priority engineer position in time for the upcoming building season, thus adding the right person power at the right point in the delivery chain for ongoing success.

Community engagement and equity metrics: How Portland is using results-based accountability to ensure transit investments improve residents’ everyday lives.

In their ambitious, city-wide Rose Lane project, Portland shows how cities can translate equity from a stated value into an explicit and tangible goal that reflects real-life experience for residents.

When developing the vision for the Rose Lane project, Portland conducted an online survey of over 2,000 residents, led three, two-hour open houses, and gave presentations to 14 different community groups. This direct engagement provided valuable input for the design, implementation, and evaluation of bus lanes, while also creating a model for piloting big, tough policy initiatives — one that builds coalitions between early and late adopters.

Working closely with residents, Portland established the following goals:

  1. People of color will experience average commute times comparable to white people.
  2. People will consider public transit to be a rapid and reliable choice for daily transportation.
  3. People who use public transit will have more choices for where they want to live and work.
  4. People who use public transit will have lower transportation costs (time and money).
  5. People will be healthier from improved air quality.

To date, 16 Rose Lane projects have been constructed. Learn more here.

Building a better process: Honolulu’s first bus lane in decades lays the foundation for future innovation.

Honolulu set out to build its first dedicated bus lane since 1988, and in doing so, “rediscover the lost art of public transit.”

In Honolulu, the key route for the bus lane was fairly easy to identify: 73% of the island’s population is served by one busy corridor, which carries 17K+ people per day via 37 bus routes, and affords access to 85% of jobs. Lack of a dedicated bus lane on this route was slowing commutes for everyone, and discouraging bus ridership in particular, since both Uber and biking were faster options on most days. To encourage ridership and make transit faster and more reliable, Honolulu needed to build a dedicated bus lane on this key corridor.

Honolulu began by mapping a delivery chain — a detailed relational map of all the people who plan, fund, build, maintain, operate, and use bus lanes in a city. The Department of Transportation Services led this work, collaborating with the Department of Facility Maintenance (DFM) and the Department of Budget and Fiscal Services (DBFS).

Through the delivery chain process, DTS identified a key role to fill: that of construction manager. After a quick analysis of their options, the DTS project lead realized they could fill this gap with the creative use of existing staff. (Worthy of note is that delivery chains are often applied to this exact challenge: proactively finding gaps and bottlenecks for a given effort, and figuring out how to make the most of limited resources to address them.)

Since the completion of the new 1.3-mile bus lane in the busiest downtown corridor, bus riders and other users of the city streets have been sharing rave reviews. Importantly, the city has successfully run a process they can apply to any future project — transit or otherwise.

Summary: Municipal innovation in bus lane projects can lead to improved climate outcomes and equitable economic recovery.

Transit lives at the intersection of climate, equity, and economic opportunity. Bus lanes are a flexible, powerful, and low-cost piece of the transportation planning puzzle. They are also a key example of how government innovation isn’t always just tech — after all, there’s nothing particularly flashy about a dedicated bus lane — but is often a function of how municipalities engage residents, plan and staff projects, and set goals that reflect equity as a key value and a key outcome. Washington, D.C., Honolulu, and Portland are just three examples of how cities in the American Cities Climate Challenge are working in new and better ways to achieve ambitious climate and equity goals.

Additional resource: To address some of the distinct challenges inherent to bus priority planning and implementation, these three cities (alongside LA and Atlanta) worked with Climate Challenge partners NRDC, NACTO and Nelson\Nygaard to develop communications and analytics tools for municipalities. This Bus Priority Toolkit can help planners and policy makers at cities and transit agencies solve two key two key bus priority implementation challenges: 1) Building the case for bus priority infrastructure by identifying effective ways to tell the story about why bus priority measures are key tools for climate, transportation access, and equity; and 2) Evaluating the benefits and performance of bus priority measures once they have been implemented. To access the Bus Priority Toolkit, click here.

Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

The American Cities Climate Challenge, funded and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is a collaboration between 25 U.S. cities, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Delivery Associates, and national and local partners. To learn more, click here.

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