Cities are using more and more of their street space for bus-only lanes. One of the most cost-effective ways to provide and improve public transportation, bus lanes consist of taking a shared traffic lane and restricting its use to public transit vehicles only. In recent years cities as different as Indianapolis, Seattle, and Washington D.C. have made bus lanes a key part of their transit infrastructure.

The idea is that by giving the bus its own right of way, and in some versions aligning local traffic lights to ease the bus’s progress, busses can avoid traffic congestion, stay on schedule, operate more efficiently, and provide a better rider experience. Philadelphia launched a pilot program this month to test twin bus-only lanes for five blocks along Market Street and JFK Boulevard, where 13 routes operate, for 18 months. The new bus-only lanes reflect laudable goals, and have been a successful tool in many places. But the project’s limited scope will undermine many of these objectives. Like so many other decisions on how we use local street space, it shows a lack of ambition among the agencies responsible for building, designing, and maintaining Philadelphia’s streets and infrastructure.

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Successful busways, like New York City’s 14th Street busway that became permanent in 2020, don’t just run for a few blocks. The 14th St busway was able to shrink commute times by nearly 10 minutes along a one mile stretch between 8th and 3rd Avenues. This turned the bus from an option that was barely faster than walking into one that is often speedier than driving. Philadelphia’s plans for Market and JFK are less than half of that length, meaning that we are looking at significantly less potential impact on travel times. By opting for a half-measure, we are undermining the pilot even before it’s up and running.

This is a common problem in Philadelphia, especially when it comes to designing street space and public spaces. The city makes all the right points and uses the right rhetoric, pointing out that half of the street’s users are bus riders, reminding policymakers that 42% of Black households in Philadelphia don’t have cars, and the climate and equity benefits of public transportation, as WHYY reported. Then when it comes to actual implementation, city officials tiptoe around parking and traffic concerns, even when public surveys have shown a strong majority of residents in favor of rethinking our streets. Yet in situations where street space is being returned to motorists, like Martin Luther King Drive, no public comment is required. Instead of caving, OTIS and city policymakers should expand the bus program and vision based on the facts.

While it might be intuitive to believe that closing a longer stretch of Market and JFK might lead to more traffic on side streets, this wasn’t the case for New York, where a 14th St. evaluation found that car volumes decreased overall on side streets and avenues, and results so far show a bump in bus ridership on this route. It turns out that when you shave a significant amount of time off trips and regularly stick to the posted schedule, more people are willing to take the bus. This takes cars off the street, meaning less traffic for everyone else.

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Cutting off Philly’s pilot at 20th Street and relying on paint lane markers without physical protection or enforcement might feel like a savvy compromise, but the effect will be much less effective bus lanes, just like the existing lanes on Walnut and Chestnut, which are regularly blocked by double-parked cars and have barely visible paint in many places.

Philadelphia, despite inheriting one of the most extensive rail systems in the country and some of the nation’s most walkable neighborhoods, seems unwilling to give public transit a real fighting chance. Is it any wonder that we’ve lost more transit riders than any other city since 1970 when we can’t even manage to build a bus lane that goes the entire distance between City Hall and University City?

For the first time since the birth of the baby boomers, we are once again a growing city, per the latest Census numbers. The city is retaining graduates of its universities more than before, and attracting young people and immigrants from around the country and world. It is hard to imagine any of them are choosing a city life filled with traffic and limited street parking because of the ease of driving here. The better bet is that they are coming to live lives that don’t revolve around these things — so their next-door neighbor doesn’t drive over for dinner. Recognizing this doesn’t mean a war on cars, but substantive efforts to not rely on them.

It is time the city realizes this too — and starts believing in its own transit plans, including with these new bus lanes.