Commentary

ABQ Doesn’t Need Bus-Rapid Transit System

Mayor Richard Berry wants to introduce bus-rapid transit to Albuquerque with a line along Central Avenue. While the idea of bus-rapid transit has merit, the city’s plan to dedicate lanes to buses and give buses priority over other traffic at signals will significantly increase the daily congestion faced by Albuquerque commuters.

With the help of Rapid Ride buses, commuter buses and other innovations, ABQ Ride has more than doubled Albuquerque transit ridership since 2000. Few other transit systems have such an impressive record of growth.

However, this growth didn’t come without a cost. The money the city spent operating ABQ Ride also more than doubled since 2000, and transit fares cover only about 12 percent of bus operations. Counting capital costs, each transit ride costs taxpayers more than $3.

Roads are subsidized too (subsidies I would like to end) but, because roads are so heavily used, those subsidies are relatively small when measured per user. Highway subsidies average two or three pennies per passenger mile, while subsidies to ABQ Riders average nearly 90 cents per passenger mile.

Hopes that bus-rapid transit will generate billions of dollars worth of economic development are doomed to disappointment.

Even after doubling ridership, transit remains irrelevant to most Albuquerque residents. Transit carries less than half a percent of the area’s travel, while less than 1.75 percent of the city’s commuters regularly took transit to work in 2013.

More Albuquerque residents walk to work and more work at home than take transit to work. Even people who have no cars don’t rely heavily on ABQ Ride. Census data reveal that, of the 4,338 Albuquerque workers who lived in households with no cars in 2013, just 27 percent took transit to work, while another 27 percent either carpooled, or drove shared or employer-supplied cars.

Transit will never be important in Albuquerque because Albuquerque jobs and residences are too spread out. Cities with high transit usage, such as New York and Chicago, have hundreds of thousands of downtown jobs. But only about 44,000 jobs are located in Downtown Albuquerque and the rest are so finely distributed that transit is not a viable option for most people.

Still, bus-rapid transit can make transit more attractive to some people by increasing frequencies and speeds. But this can be accomplished without dedicating scarce traffic lanes to buses or giving buses priority at traffic signals.

Even during rush hour, a lane dedicated to bus-rapid transit would be empty 99.8 percent of the time. The giant (and expensive) buses the city wants to buy for Central Avenue may also be unnecessary as a typical Albuquerque bus carries an average of fewer than 9 people at a time over the course of a day.

Dedicating two entire traffic lanes on Central Avenue to buses and giving those buses priority at traffic signals will do far more to increase congestion than any relief provided by the few cars taken off the road by the bus. Why should a few hundred bus riders a day be given these privileges while tens of thousands of people in cars are forced to sit in traffic?

Some say that encouraging people to ride transit saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but that isn’t necessarily true. In 2012, the average ABQ Ride bus used more energy and emitted more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average SUV, and three times as much as a Toyota Prius.

Hopes that bus-rapid transit will generate billions of dollars worth of economic development are also doomed to disappointment. Other cities that have built light rail and dedicated bus lanes have found that they produce no economic development without tens of millions of dollars of additional subsidies to developers.

Albuquerque should experiment with running buses more frequently and making fewer stops. ABQ Ride can also experiment with having people prepay to ride buses in order to speed bus boardings. But dedicating lanes and traffic signals to buses will increase congestion for everyone else, a cost that should be considered unacceptable.

Randal O’Toole is the author of “Rapid Bus: A Low-Cost, High-Capacity Transit System for Major Urban Areas.”