Has the Amp's Design Left the Station?



Since we kicked off the day here at Pith by praising the daily, let's keep the good vibes going.

In the Saturday fish wrapper, The Tennessean's Josh Brown finds a fault line in the ongoing debate about Mayor Karl Dean's $175 million bus rapid transit project, The Amp. All along, one of the fundamental arguments about the project has been between opponents who claim it will increase traffic congestion on West End and proponents who say it will not only relieve some traffic, but pre-empt congestion that's coming either way.

Brown adds some context to that debate, reporting that The Amp as proposed is uniquely dependent on dedicated lanes and that local officials "never analyzed whether a bus line with the same mass-transit-style features — such as stations with level boarding platforms and pre-purchased tickets — would prove just as effective without the bus-only lanes.

Metro officials hired an engineering firm in 2011 to analyze four different transit systems for the east-west route. The firm compared an express bus to an Amp-style line with bus-only lanes. It also looked at two types of light rail or streetcar service — one version in mixed traffic and the other in dedicated lanes.

From that study, completed in early 2012, city officials chose bus rapid transit with bus-only lanes as the most efficient and cost-effective option.

Missing from that analysis, however, was a comparison of the type of bus rapid transit system that is far more common across the country. In cities such as Eugene, Ore., and Cleveland, Ohio, transit lines use a variety of lane configurations in addition to dedicated lanes, such as bus-only lanes at peak hours or curbside bus lanes that are shared with turning traffic.

In Eugene, just 2.6 miles, or 27 percent, of the 9.5-mile line use bus-only lanes. In Cleveland, about 4.1 miles of its 6.8-mile route use them.

Preliminary designs for the Amp call for dedicated lanes in the center of the road on roughly 82 percent of the route. If built, Nashville’s line would feature the country’s longest total length of former car lanes used now for buses only. Lines in Los Angeles and Hartford, Conn., used old rail lines for the lanes.

Project developers talked about other bus rapid transit styles but ruled them out along with such options as monorail and subway, said Jim McAteer, Nashville Metro Transit Authority’s planning director.

“It was definitely part of the conversation,” McAteer said. “We didn’t necessarily include every piece of that in the analysis that was put in the final report.”

For obvious reasons, giving The Amp its own lanes would mean faster travel times for its users. But an Amp-style project without — or, at least, with a smaller percentage of — dedicated lanes is an interesting hypothetical compromise. Indeed, it would seem to line up with what vocal Amp opponents like Vanderbilt University professor Malcom Getz have been calling for, something more akin to the BRT Lite lines already running with success on Gallatin Road and Murfreesboro Pike.

The argument for such a compromise seems pretty simple. If people use the service, it will take some cars off the road and likely relieve some traffic; if users are scarce — as Amp opponents predict might be the case — then we won't have taken lanes away from automobile traffic in the process. The argument against that approach — some of which is outlined in the Tennessean piece — is loss of speed that would inevitably come with shared lanes, the lack of infrastructure officials say is needed to "transform" the corridor, and the perhaps unspoken factor that an incremental step instead of the more dramatic one caused by The Amp would not sufficiently force the kind of culture change you need in order to make a car-driving town into a transit-riding city.

Brown's reporting seems to suggest that such a change in the plans for The Amp is unlikely, and his piece includes several quotes that illuminate why. Be sure to read the whole thing.

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