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Highway shoulders can become bus lanes, but it takes work

Why not let buses drive on highway shoulders to get around congestion? According to a regional task force, that can be done, and it does often work, but it's not quite as simple as putting a sign up and saying "let's do it".

Photo from Minnesota DOT.

With pressure mounting to stretch dollars and improve mobility, creative ideas like putting buses on shoulders are getting more attention. Maryland is considering the concept on I-270 and MD-5, and Virginia hopes to have a pilot project on I-66 in Arlington by 2014.

These would add to the handful of locations around the DC region where buses are already allowed to use the shoulder. The most notable example is the Dulles Access Highway inside the Beltway.

The main complicating issue is that highway shoulders are usually too narrow and not free enough from obstructions to immediately open them up to buses. Interstate highway standards call for 9-foot shoulders, but you need at least 10 feet for a bus, and really 11 feet is preferable. So a typical highway shoulder will have to be beefed up in order to be used as a bus lane.

That's a lot easier, and cheaper, than just about anything else you could do. But it's still a construction project that needs to be planned and funded.

Minneapolis has an extensive network of over 300 miles of shoulder bus lanes on highways. But it's taken them over 20 years to get there. They have a continuous program that adds a few miles each year. They started with the low-hanging fruit, and have worked up to more complicated stretches.

That's the idea behind Virginia's pilot project on I-66. At first, the section allowing buses will be short. It won't be a busway so much as a spot where buses can jump ahead of a queue of cars. But over time VDOT could lengthen the segment and provide a larger benefit.

For safety reasons, buses are usually only permitted to go 35 miles per hour when using shoulders. Still, that's enough to get by the worst congestion. If traffic is moving faster than that, buses just stay in the regular lanes.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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"For safety reasons, buses are usually only permitted to go 35 miles per hour when using shoulders. Still, that's enough to get by the worst congestion"

that would be delightful on I395. Its very frustrating to take an express bus to utilize the HOV lanes, and to lose 20 minutes or more on a 1 or 2 mile stretch where the bus is in the regular lanes (due to lack of HOV entrances)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 19, 2013 12:49 pm • linkreport

This is just a general question, not bus-specific: I always worry what to do if I were to break down or have a flat on places like this where the shoulder is used for an extra lane during rush. What then? Isn't the point of the shoulder, at least in part, to have a safe place to pull over in an emergency?

by rdhd on Apr 19, 2013 12:54 pm • linkreport

I wanted to note that in other states I have worked in the shoulders of roads and highways are often paved to a lower standard than the roadway itself to save money. Thus, the road shoulder is not designed to handle the weight and intensity of bus traffic over any length of time. In such a case, the shoulder will quickly deteriorate and fail.

by Ryan Sigworth on Apr 19, 2013 12:58 pm • linkreport

Metrobuses are already allowed to use the I-66 shoulder around the Falls Church area.

by Ron on Apr 19, 2013 1:02 pm • linkreport

My Z29 (legally) uses the shoulders of 29 regularly, particularly approaching Greencastle Road near Burtonsville. The MTA Commuter buses do it as well. Definitely a time saver given the street has congestion about the lights.

by Adam P. on Apr 19, 2013 1:14 pm • linkreport

Aren't the shoulders being removed on 395 HOV lanes?

by selxic on Apr 19, 2013 1:41 pm • linkreport

"Bus on Shoulder" should be considered as an option for the I-66 EIS outside the beltway. Especially west of Route 28 where wide shoulders currently exist.

by jcp on Apr 19, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

@rdhd: You're still expected to pull onto the shoulder, since as you point out, that's what it's for. Those buses will just have to pull around disabled vehicles.

I've taken Fairfax Connector buses that drive on the DTR shoulder many times, and occasionally there is a disabled vehicle in the way. It slows us down a bit, but it's still much better than being stuck in traffic the entire distance.

by Gray on Apr 19, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

I used to ride those shoulder cruising buses in Mpls, and they do work to get buses through traffic.
From a WAR ON CARS perspective there was an unbelievable amount a hate directed at those buses rolling by, even from people you would expect to support mass transit otherwise. It was 'unfair' that bus riders wouldn't have to swelter in traffic with everybody else.
From a traffic management perspective, the hate was fueled by the need to merge the buses back into the travel lanes when approaching an access ramp.
From a highway perspective, there was a lot of random junk in those highway shoulders that hit the underside of the bus, or required a merge when it was too big to run over/avoid.
From a time perspective, I never really felt there was much time saving. A few minutes in what was a half hour bus ride on off peak hours.
As always, a better solution is to reduce the cars on the road.

by Alger on Apr 19, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

This is standard practice on some highways in the Netherlands. In fact, they advertised with clips of happy bus riders zooming by frustrated driver stuck in traffic. For instance between Breda and Utrecht, where a direct bus line travels about as fast as a train connection that requires a change of trains.

Pretty cheap too, €9.50 for about 1h15 in a bus.

YouTube from another route:

Buses have to follow the (variable) speed limit signage (that slows down considerably during traffic jams anyway), and bus drivers need to do special training to prevent accidents at the many entries and exits.

by Jasper on Apr 19, 2013 3:17 pm • linkreport

I agree with @rdhd's concern, especially if a breakdown occurs at night and I'm forced to pull over on a shoulder where I may not be visible to an oncoming bus. Do buses going to Dulles only use the shoulder during peak rush hour, or is it all day? Perhaps if the use of shoulders for buses were restricted to just the peak hours, this would at least alleviate the issue of night time visibility.

by Alison on Apr 19, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

@Alison, I see your concern and agree there is some risk in allowing any travel on shoulders, but I think the current rules for using the shoulders minimize that risk.

1) Buses are limited to 35 mph in the shoulder. At 35 mph on interstates it's pretty hard to sneak up on anything.

2) Buses are only using the shoulder if traffic is bad (under 35 mph) otherwise they are better off in the normal lanes. The situation you present of being in a disabled car on a blacked out road at night doesn't fit with the level of congestion needed to get traffic under 35 mph -- when buses are using the shoulders, there will be cars and their headlights everywhere illuminating the road and your disabled vehicle's reflectors.

by speaketh on Apr 19, 2013 4:26 pm • linkreport

This would work on I95 in Maryland to the Beltway. If Maryland is doing it on 270 they should do it on 95 as well.

by WR on Apr 19, 2013 5:14 pm • linkreport

I-66 outside the beltway already has shoulder use in both directions, and 267 E of 123 has buses on the shoulders already.

by dcseain on Apr 19, 2013 5:44 pm • linkreport

A much better solution would be to drop the number of available travel lines by one and use the freed up space to create a bus lane instead. We can pay for the paint with the tickets handed out to people driving in the bus lane until they get the message and stop doing that.

by Ryan on Apr 19, 2013 7:10 pm • linkreport

The only thing I would add is that the shoulders need to be cleaned effectively before use, and regularly since material collects there since it's not in constant use. That stuff is usually a killer on windshields.

by Alternatives on Apr 19, 2013 7:49 pm • linkreport

As a class, planners and architects have brought us the good with the bad since the beginning of civilization. Let’s not be so arrogant about our bully pulpit. It was planners who changed our civilization to a car-first one and now, seeing the light, they want to correct many of the excesses. Good, but don’t act like what you do today won’t be derided by future planners in the same ways roads and cars are belittled today in the bike-only e-salons of uber-urban DC.

by AndrewJ on Apr 20, 2013 5:15 am • linkreport

Seems relevant, AndrewJ.

by Gray on Apr 20, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport

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