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Can Bus Rapid Transit and Bicycles Coexist?

The best bus rapid transit (BRT) projects are “complete corridors” that seamlessly integrate the new bus systems with other modes of travel, including bicycle facilities.

BRT’s advantages as a public transit solution are clear. It mirrors light rail or streetcar service, but at a lower cost, by placing buses into dedicated transit travel lanes, removed from other vehicles. In this way, BRT provides more efficient and reliable service.

BRT implementation means re-designing the streetscape to accommodate not only the new bus lanes and stations, but also other vehicle traffic, parking, pedestrians and—bicycles. What happens when a proposed BRT corridor overlaps with a desirable route for cyclists, with only so much right-of-way to go around? Can BRT and bicycles coexist? And how?

Where Do Bikes Fit into Your Modal Pecking Order?

Buses and bikes do not always get along. The friction is most often found in a corridor’s curbside lane. Buses and bikes go about the same speed on average in a city setting, but buses reach higher speeds between their stops. This creates a leapfrog effect: Bicyclists catch up to a bus when it makes its stop. The bikes cautiously pass, and when the bus starts again, it has to pass the bikes, which can impact bus speeds. This is bad for everyone: efficiency suffers and safety issues arise.

BRT designs would ideally relocate bicycle traffic to a parallel street with less traffic and pedestrian street-style conditions, but that is not always an option. Where bicycle use is already high on a proposed BRT corridor, there is danger in creating a similar situation to the one described above. Bicyclists may be drawn to riding in the dedicated transit lanes since they see less traffic, but doing so would increase safety risks for riders and take the “rapid” out of the BRT service.

Each community, therefore, needs to evaluate how high a priority it places on bicycle access. Should the project’s design limit automobile speeds to give priority to the buses and bikes? Will the community accept losing parking to make room for bicycle lanes? Answering these types of questions—as part of the planning process and in community feedback sessions—will establish a pecking order, or modal hierarchy, and determine the overall importance of bicycle facilities to the project.

The Seattle Department of Transportation’s (SDOT) Roosevelt-to-Downtown High-Capacity Transit Study is a good example of when cycling commanded a top spot in the modal hierarchy. In that project, SDOT and the public agreed that bike accommodations along the corridor, for users of all ages and abilities, was more desired than parking. While not all communities will reach that same conclusion, SDOT could incorporate several protected bike lane designs into its plans for their BRT project.

The Benefits of Coexistence

When a community ranks bicycles high in the modal priority, it is an opportunity for the project owner and team to create a truly “complete corridor”— where parallel streets, each with different priorities, are designed and operated to improve safety and mobility for all users. Where bicycle use is high on streets adjacent to the proposed BRT operations, design upgrades could be implemented to facilitate better access.

And, accommodating bicycles unlocks more connections to the BRT system by solving the “first mile/last mile” problem: People who live too far out from a BRT station and would otherwise drive may be persuaded to ride their bikes a few miles at the start and end of their commute. Bicycle facilities may not only solve the first mile/last mile challenge but also extend the range to as far as the first and last 10 miles, depending on users’ willingness to bike that far.

Ultimately, BRT systems and bikes can indeed coexist and complement each other. When dedicated facilities are provided—either for the entirety of the BRT corridor or for designated portions—the quality of rides for both bikes and buses is much better. The leapfrog effect described earlier is eliminated. Efficiency increases, and safety grows. For communities implementing BRT that also place a high priority on bicycle access, creating complete corridors means better transport for all types of users.

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