This weekend we headed to the new Exploratorium. Because the Bullitt is in the shop with broken spokes (sigh), we took Muni. That meant an unusual amount of walking for me, all the way from Embarcadero station to Pier 15 and back. It would have been a much better day to ride, both because the weather was outstanding and because the Embarcadero bike lanes had been expanded for the weekend due to the America’s Cup. And it would also have been a better day to ride because I still can’t walk very far on my bad leg so I passed out in exhaustion as soon as we got home. Such is life. I have no stamina.
Watching the traffic along the Embarcadero was fascinating, and because my kids are even slower and more easily distracted than I am, I had plenty of time to think about it.
A while ago I read a fantastic book, Human Transit, which talked about how irritated drivers can get seeing “empty” bus rapid transit (BRT) lanes during car traffic jams. The perceived emptiness of the BRT lanes leads solo drivers to complain that these lanes take away capacity for solo drivers for no good reason. But as Walker (the author) points out, the “empty” BRT lane typically allows a fully-loaded bus to pass at least every five minutes, carrying 50-100 passengers apiece. Drivers see BRT lanes as “empty” because they are stuck in place, but their perception is flawed. Taking away the BRT would trade an hourly throughput of 600-1200 (at worst) people on buses for an hourly throughput of a few dozen people in automobiles (at best). Having the lane clear enough that buses whiz through uninterrupted is what makes BRT work.
Of course, buses aren’t full all the time. However they are almost always full when traffic is backed up, and no driver cares how many buses are in a BRT lane if private auto traffic is moving quickly. If moving people around is the goal, then pretty much every street that ever has a full bus should have a protected BRT lane. At which point more people will want to ride the bus, which would further reduce private auto traffic: it’s a virtuous circle. Everybody wins! The city is now providing less traffic for solo drivers and quicker trips for transit riders. Yet because of the false perception that the lanes are always “empty” installing protected BRT lanes has been incredibly controversial.
I thought about this as I watched drivers in cars fume in traffic on the Embarcadero, glaring at the usually-for-cars lane that had been removed to make a two-way (mostly) protected bike lane. To people stuck in the abysmal auto traffic along the Embarcadero, the bike lane looked “empty.” Early in the morning, when we were there, a bike (or group of bikes) passed northbound roughly every ten seconds, though that’s an average—sometimes a minute would pass with no bikes, then there would be a handful, etc.
The bikes passed much faster than we could walk, but because of the traffic we were walking faster than the people in cars. In about a half-mile of watching northbound traffic, I saw cars reach stop lights, lurch forward into the next clump of traffic, then wait several light cycles to get to the front of the line, and then repeat. I estimate that about 30 cars got as far as we did in 20 minutes—the same cars I saw when we started our walk. In the same amount of time, a northbound bike passed every 10 seconds, so that one bike lane moved 120 bikes. Now if you assumed that all those cars were holding four people (you would be wrong, most were solo drivers), that would mean that at 9am on a Sunday a single “empty” bike lane was moving as many people as multiple lanes dedicated to private auto traffic. However the cars were mostly filled with 1-2 people, even on a weekend. Moreover, weekend bike riders tend to be more family-oriented, so probably a quarter of the bikes we saw were hauling 1-3 kids in addition to the rider (the 3-kid bike was a BionX Madsen!) So the comparison is really more like throughput of:
- 50 people in cars using 3 lanes vs.
- 150 people on bikes using 1 lane.
And this was early in the morning—on the way back I gave up trying to count bikes because there were so many more of them in the lane by lunchtime. Car traffic was, if anything, more abysmal.
The irony, of course, is that these incredibly desirable “empty” lanes are public. They’re available to anyone who wants to use them. All you have to do is get on a bus or a bike—and if I can carry my kids on a bike even with a gimpy leg, and a senior on an oxygen tank can ride a trike while hauling his oxygen tank, and a man with no legs can hand-wheel his way along the same path, I have to think that nearly anyone can manage one option or the other. Really, the only way to take away the freedom to travel uninterrupted is to give that “empty” lane to cars.