Without dedicated center lanes, the Amp project needs a new title.
Since we last checked on the debate over Amp, Nashville's proposed BRT system, things have gone from meh to bad to worse. In the past few weeks, Tennessee state legislators have issued new directives that will make the project considerably harder to pull off. At issue is the design of BRT itself — namely, whether or not buses should be allowed to run in an exclusive lane.
Here's where things stand at the moment: both state legislative bodies have approved bills that prohibit some Tennessee cities from "constructing, maintaining or operating any bus rapid transit system using a separate lane." The House version allows such a design if approved by the metropolitan government and the state transportation commission. The Senate goes one step further to prohibit BRT from running in a center lane, effectively blocking Amp as it's presently conceived.
The Senate's objection to a center-lane placement for Amp is a rather clear pretext for opposing the project in any form. The bill's sponsor, Senator Jim Tracy, has said he worries about the safety of pedestrians reaching the center of the street to board the bus, but as Streetsblog and others have pointed out, the median placement actually enhances safety. Rather than asking riders to cross the full length of a busy two-way arterial to reach the BRT stop, they would only have to cross half.
The concern over dedicated lanes is a much more understandable one for people unfamiliar with BRT — which, it seems safe to say, would be much of Nashville's population. If you're a local resident who commutes by car everyday, and who feels congestion getting worse and worse, it's reasonable to wonder how removing cars from two lanes will improve the situation. In fact, dedicated lanes are what produce the greater traffic savings, and precisely what have made BRT so effective in other parts of the world:
That video comes via the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which has established the leading BRT standards. The idea behind exclusive BRT lanes in the center of the street is simple: fewer conflicts with general traffic leads to faster trips and more riders. Dedicated lanes prevent other cars from slowing down the buses. The central street placement helps avoid cars that are turning or parking, as well as other vehicles (e.g. taxis and delivery trucks) that otherwise need the curb.
ITDP calls dedicated busway alignment "essential to true BRT corridors." The institute's guidelines offer a variety of configurations that either meet, exceed, or fall below international standards. At the top of the list — earning seven points out of seven, with four needed to meet BRT standards — is a two-way busway aligned with the median. At the bottom, earning zero points, is a busway aligned to the curb:
Time will tell which Tennessee bill emerges as law of the land. But sufficient damage to the project may have already been done. Perhaps feeling pressured by state officials, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has directed Amp leaders to redesign parts of the system without dedicated BRT lanes. In a press statement, Dean referred to the redesign as "BRT-lite." He used the term "compromise" to explain the proposed revision, but "compromised" feels like a better fit.
This isn't to say Nashville wouldn't benefit from changes to its bus network that don't involve dedicated center lanes. New York City's Select Bus Service has been a big hit despite sharing the curb and being separated from general traffic by only a painted line — very much in the BRT-lite spirit. But if it's already hard to sell a city on a $175 million BRT program, think of how much harder it will be when what you're selling isn't BRT.