October 12, 2003

Rapid transit in Cambridgeshire

Guest Writer | Inter-modal Competition
 
Gabriel Roth has been writing about roads from a free-market perspective for over twenty years (and for all I know a lot longer). His publications include:

Roads in a Market Economy
Federal-Free Highways
Private Road Ahead, with Eamonn Butler, Adam Smith Institute (no web version available)

Here, he considers the proposed Rapid Transit system between Cambridge and Huntingdon.

Does anybody know what is happening about the "Rapid Transit" scheme to provide a 23 km "guided bus system" [click here for an example from Adelaide. Ed] on the abandoned St. Ives to Cambridge rail right-of way?

Cambridgeshire: courtesy of MultiMap
While the idea of using abandoned rail track for bus transport is commendable, the current plan (for which public comments were invited last summer) is not designed to make efficient use of the available capacity. Only twenty buses per lane per hour are expected to run on the system in peak-time in 2016 - taking up less than five per cent of lane capacity! Two unexamined alternatives, which allow more vehicles to use the route, would substantially increase the benefits and reduce the costs to public funds:

First, to provide the system as described, but without the "Guided bus" technology, and allowing all buses and minibuses to use an "unGuided" system;

Second, and even more interesting, to open up the "Rapid Transit" system not only to buses and minibuses (at no charge), but also to other vehicles on payment of a fee. Fees would be charged electronically and varied in response to traffic levels so as to ensure free-flow conditions at all times.

The first alternative, to dispense with the guidance system and allow all buses to use the system, would effectively turn it from a "Guideway" to a "Busway". More buses would use the system, so usage and benefits would increase.

However, even if all buses were allowed to use the system, much unused capacity would often remain on it The second alternative would allow this excess capacity to be used by other vehicles on payment of a fee, collected electronically, without vehicles having to stop. And the fee would be varied, and kept high enough to ensure "free flow" traffic at all times.

Express Lanes, accommodating both buses and toll payers, have important advantages:

Such "Express Lanes" have been operating successfully in California since 1995 and are being considered for major US cities. They seem to have potential in other countries also, and the Cambridge "Rapid Transit" proposal, suitably amended, could be the first application in the UK. Or do bloggers see good reasons for not applying them in Europe?

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Comments

Should it be a guided busway? Should it be a dedicated busway? Should it be an express toll-road? Should it be a tram line? Should it become a railway again? Should it be at all?

I don't know. Neither in the general nor the specific. That's why I am in favour of free markets. Markets are neutral. You want to build a road? Go ahead, be my guest, it's your shirt not mine. Ditto, funky gizmos, groovy marketing strategies and all the rest. Generally speaking the good ideas will prove profitable and win out and the bad ideas will wither and die.

By the way, any further info on Californian Express Lanes?

Posted by Patrick Crozier on October 12, 2003

I agree that the important test is the market one, and wonder whether Cambridgeshire would allow a private company to buy that disused right-of-way and convert it to an electronically controlled toll road, with no toll booths and toll levels varied to ensure free flow at all times.

For that is exactly how the first "HOT" (High-Occupancy or Toll) lanes were started in California, in the 1990s!

They were conceived, designed, constructed and then managed by the California Private Transportation Company (CPTC), which was owned in part by the French toll road company COFIROUTE. Opened in 1995, they consist of two pairs of "Express Lanes" in the median of a 10-mile stretch of the heavily traveled State Route 91, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. The Express Lanes require payments to be debited electronically from accounts opened with the CPTC. Accounts are identified by electronic scanners reading portable transponders placed in the cars. Toll rates vary from $1 at night to $5.50 at peak travel periods, and are changed periodically to ensure the lanes remain free flowing. Initially, HOVs (High-Occupancy Vehicles) were allowed to use the Express Lanes free of charge, but they have been charged at half-price since 1998. The SR91 Express Lanes have become profitable, and popular; all income groups use them, women more than men. They are being copied in other US urban areas.

Posted by Gabriel on October 13, 2003

Patrick,

I don't know the specifics of this situation, but bear in mind the fact that even a twin-track railway line is pretty narrow - you'll be pushed to get a modern-standard single carriageway on the trackbed, let alone a road of a standard for mixed traffic. The beauty of the guided bus approach is that they only need the barest minimum of road space to operate - unguided buses require more, and mixing cars in will ensure that we need a full EU-standard road. Maybe all that overhead would kill the alternatives?

I must admit, I've been interested in guided buses since I read a "Scientific American" article years ago looking at how a Latin American city (Sao Paolo?) created a really successful mass-transit infrastructure rapidly, and for a fraction of the cost of trams or underground railways. Perhaps, if the equipment is standardised and simple to fit, it will be possible for competing operators to make use of the common infrastructure - my understanding is that the guidance systems are not enormously complex.

Posted by Robert Dammers on October 13, 2003

The consultants' drawings show a typical width of 8.2 meters, which is over 25 feet. Some unguided busways are just 2x12ft lanes. Examples of 2x12ft busways include the major ones in north America which are in Pittsburgh (2) and in Ottawa (4 or 5 I believe). The Pittsburgh ones are in fact built along former railway rights of way and on former railway bridges.

However, Robert has hit upon the truth, because the Cambridgeshire scheme includes a bridleway/maintenance track that runs alongside to provide a leisure/cycle route along the length of the track. Of course, in today's climate, any infrastructure plan can be trumped by a pedestrian/cycle track.

Might a logical response in this case be that an alternative that saves £70 million in public funds could pay for cycle tracks in other places?

Posted by Gabriel on October 13, 2003

I've checked, and the article I was thinking of was the March 1996 Scientific American, on the urban planning of Curitiba in Brazil. They decided they couldn't afford underground railways, so they went for dedicated bus lanes, with bus shelters build like metro stations - so one has shelter from the elements, and gets into the bus at bus floor level (there is an enclosed "platform"). They didn't use tracking mechansisms to tighten the lane width and concentrate the buses more, as I recall. Looking on the web, Curitiba seems to be something of a poster-child for public transport in less well-to-do countries. No-one seems to dwell on the fact that the focus on buses happened after Volvo built a manufacturing plant in the city (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Posted by Robert Dammers on October 15, 2003

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