Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

December 1, 2003

City: Visions and Revelations

After a decade of Visions from the Rev. Harris, we now find he has given us Revelations.

The Visions were of motorists dutifully taking to Very Rapid Mass Transit leaving the freeways unclogged so that the Philistines would be free to use their cars.

The Revelations came when mass gridlock did not occur during the recent bus strike when, according to current "sustainable community" theory, it should have. In fact, some said that traffic moved much better than normal.

And so we see that, unlike St. Paul, the Rev. Harris’s latest Revelation does not accord with his Vision.

Public transportation has some effect in ameliorating traffic congestion by getting some people out of their cars and into buses. But it is not as much as you might think. We know from the 2000 Census data that of those who commute on our highways, 10 percent do so by bus and 90 percent by car. During the strike, most of the bus commuters found rides. It would be surprising if more than half of them drove their cars to work alone. If such were the case, there would have been a 5 percent, or less, increase in traffic.

On the other hand, buses have a traffic congestion causing ability all their own. Other vehicles tend to avoid the curb lane on streets where buses are frequent because they would spend too much time stuck behind buses at stops. On some major arterials it effectively takes the curb lane out of general service.

Thus, on a three-lane road with frequent buses, one lane essentially becomes dedicated to buses thereby taking one-third of the lanes out of service for general traffic. Conversely, a bus strike releases that one lane and increases the general traffic space by 50 percent.

The effect of this is going to vary by road and circumstance. We would hope that the city took the unique opportunity to study the effects of not having large city buses on our streets. The insights gained might help develop new ideas to ameliorate some of the bus fleet’s congestion causing effects now that the strike has ended and it has returned to the streets.

These new ideas would hopefully be in addition to some of the obvious ones. One is increasing the use of bus turnouts wherever possible to take buses out of the traffic lanes.

Another is to increase the use of vanpools since they tend to stop at people’s places of business, and even then only briefly, and not in traffic lanes on major arterials. (When did you last get stuck behind a vanpool?)

In the past the problem has been that vanpools have been expensive relative to express buses. A vanpool from Mililani is priced at $85 per month, all included, whereas a monthly bus pass was only $27.

However, express buses are far more costly to operate than vanpools. The $85 per person monthly covers the vanpool’s operating costs while express bus operating costs are about $200 per person monthly and so are vastly subsidized. Were we to subsidize vanpools instead of express buses we would not only save on our taxes but also help with traffic congestion.

Jitney buses and shared-ride taxis — presently not allowed — are other options that have much of the congestion-relieving and money-saving features of vanpools and should be encouraged. Think about this: We have a public transportation system that loses $110 million a year and we forbid someone from competing with it and reducing our losses. Go figure.

There have been lessons to be learned from this bus strike. Let’s hope that we don’t forget them.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater