What makes Bus Rapid Transit different?
The purpose of building a bus rapid transit system along 14 miles of Pacific Avenue from downtown Tacoma to state Route 7 in Spanaway is to move people up and down the heavily traveled corridor faster.
There’s little question that the $150 million dollar project — a light rail on wheels that uses dedicated bus lanes and fancy stations for quick, efficient boarding — will accomplish that when it’s completed.
But that doesn’t mean everything is settled or that no debates remain. There’s a dispute simmering about whether to build passenger stations along the curb or in the center of the road on roughly 3.6 miles of the planned route.
The difference of opinions — which was on display during Tuesday night’s Tacoma City Council meeting — largely comes down to one important factor. It’s a factor that, historically at least, has failed to be properly considered when designing our roads and transportation networks:
Proponents of building stations in the center of Pacific Avenue with dedicated bus lanes to serve them, known as the “hybrid option” in wonk speak, say people using the system would have to cross fewer lanes of busy traffic to board a bus.
Perhaps more importantly, they correctly note the hybrid option would slow general traffic — slightly, but noticeably.
That desire is sure to rile the War on Cars crowd, but it shouldn’t get in the way, because this isn’t about acquiescing to tired suburban rhetoric. Especially when the real difference in time traveled for those in single-occupancy vehicles would be less than two minutes by 2040.
More pointedly, doing everything possible to ensure and increase pedestrian safety should matter to Pierce Transit’s board of commissioners, the governing body expected to make the call next week.
“Speeding up traffic increases car crashes and car-pedestrian crashes,” explains Downtown on the Go Executive Director Kristina Walker. “The more lanes of traffic there are, the faster vehicles travel. We want all people to be able to access the system safely.”
Chris Karnes, a local transit advocate, member of the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel and a member of the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, agrees. Karnes noted the high number of car-pedestrian accidents along Pacific Avenue, along with the area’s dependency on transit, particularly among people of color and low-income residents.
“Transportation design is an issue that touches on environmental and social justice,” Karnes says.
That’s an opinion endorsed by the Tacoma City Council, which voted unanimously Tuesday night to nudge Pierce Transit to choose the hybrid option over the curbside design. Along with transit advocate groups like Downtown on the Go, it’s a view shared by the city’s Transportation Commission.
That might be considered a ho-hum development by some, and perhaps it would be if not for the fact that it goes against a recommendation from Pierce Transit’s bus rapid transit technical advisory board.
That board, made up of engineers, planners and representatives of the state Department of Transportation, recommended the curbside option earlier this year after significant contemplation, according to Ryan Wheaton, Pierce Transit’s executive director of planning and community development.
So, what we have here is a classic transportation face-off, pitting familiar foes.
In one corner, you have those who want cars to slow down and take a back seat (for once).
In the other corner, you have the cold efficiency of thinking of our roads as auto-centric arteries, to be designed accordingly.
“We feel that they are both really good alternatives,” assured Pierce Transit CEO Sue Dreier. “We like them both. We just want to build something that works for the county, the city and WSDOT.”
Dreier added that she believes both options are safe but acknowledged that Tacoma’s long-range planning is “more pedestrian-centered.” This, she says, is at least partially behind the city’s preference for the hybrid option.
It remains to be seen whether all those jurisdictions can play nice and agree on one of the two options.
Either way you look at it, building bus rapid transit along Pacific Avenue will help people get from Point A to Point B.
Ensuring they’re as safe as possible during every part of that trip?
That should be part of the equation, too.