Jarrett Walker is an international consultant in public transit planning and policy. He writes the blog Human Transit and is author of the book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives.
Why emphasizing frequency, speed, and reliability in all conditions is so critical.
Would you like to live on a congestion-free transit network?
New Zealand’s Labour Party—currently the lead opposition party in Parliament—just endorsed a “Congestion Free Network” for the country’s major city, Auckland. The concept was developed by the advocacy group Greater Auckland, and it’s designed to emphasize the most important thing that makes transit reliable: its protection from congestion caused by single-occupant cars.
By way of disclosure: I’ve done extensive consulting for Auckland Transport over the years. But I had nothing to do with coining this term, which is one that other cities should consider adopting. “Congestion-free transit” cuts through some of the most fatal confusions that bedevil transit debates.
In most cities, rail is protected from traffic but buses aren’t, so the average person’s concept of buses includes being stuck in traffic. But being stuck in traffic has nothing to do with whether you’re on rails or tires. Many old streetcar lines (and most new ones in the U.S.) are mixed with car traffic and suffer frequent disruption as a result. Meanwhile, buses can be highly reliable where they are protected from traffic, as in the best Bus Rapid Transit systems.
Talking about a “congestion-free network” is an excellent way to get people past this confusion. It helps people see an interlinked system of frequent services that can be counted on to run reliably, regardless of whether they’re on rails or tires (or water). Auckland’s congestion-free network, for example, would include a mix of commuter rail, light rail, buses in exclusive lanes, and ferries on the harbor.
One of the great values of the term is that everybody understands what “congestion-free” means. Focusing solely on frequency, for example, doesn’t make sense for motorists. It also highlights a critical aspect of transit that transit agencies don’t control. It helps people see who has to act, and what decisions need to be made, to make this network a reality. For bus services, these decisions are about the allocation of street space, usually a city government role.
Logically, the congestion-free transit network should be the major lines within a larger frequent transit network, where the latter consists of all transit services (bus, rail, or ferry) that are always coming soon. Not all frequent services can be protected from congestion unless the streets are entirely closed to cars: Some streets, after all, are just too narrow for that.
But the congestion-free network does succeed in promoting the reasons why we protect transit from traffic, and what we achieve by doing that continuously, all across a network, regardless of the transit technology used. If you just want to get there, or if you want to have access to as much of your city as possible, the distinction between rail, bus, and ferry matters less than you may think. What really matters is frequency, speed, and reliability, and that’s exactly what a congestion-free network describes.