The bus doesn’t move ahead

Opinion

Third in a series on the mobility issues present in our city.

On October 1st 2012, during the mandate of Xavier Trias, the first phase of the “Nova Xarxa Bus” (lit. New Bus Network, from here on “NXB”) was put into service. This was a sort of a watered-down version of the “RetBus” project, proposed during the previous mandate of mayor Jordi Hereu. This project foresaw high level bus corridors (similar to a BRT) which would cross the city along straight corridors and then branch out. The NXB project ended up being nothing more than a rearrangement of bus lines coupled with some isolated improvements in priority using only the tools in use until now: bus lanes and specific traffic lights for turns. All of this is sadly representative of mayor Xavier Trias’ inheritance in the matter of public transit: lots of noise but little investment nor improvement. A simple rearranging of bus lines and a few stretches of bus lane were wrapped in a big publicity campaign, all the while the previous project was completely undone, and would be omitted even in name, despite having set the basis for this other network.

The “Nova Xarxa Bus” hasn’t really been a failure nor a success, mostly because there’s so little to it. Despite the nice name and acronym and marketing campaign it still meant no innovation whatsoever, nor any significant change in bus operations other than what has been previously mentioned, mainly the rearrangement of bus lines. One of the apparent selling points of the NXB was that bus lines would have straighter routes which would lead to an improved speed. Of course most of the lines integrated into the NXB were already quite straight to begin with, so commercial speeds haven’t really improved in any significant way that could be attributed to these changes. Nowadays, TMB (Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona, lit. metropolitan transports of Barcelona, the municipal subway and bus operator) tries to promote the NXB selling us the statistics of the NXB lines separate from the global averages, which results in better than average speed and demand. Selected lines get better stats than the whole network on average? Stop the presses!

We were also sold on these lines being easier to use thanks to their orthogonal disposition. There have been some utterly impractical maps published, where NXB lines are represented by single lines (instead of one for each travel direction) over an excessively schematic map of Barcelona, showing an also excessively schematic path that makes it impossible to clearly make out where the bus actually runs through. All the while these maps don’t show absolutely any transfer to other transports other than the NXB lines: nor conventional bus lines, nor the subway, nor train stations nor trams. Where previously we had one single bus network with a large map that was a bit of a tangle but at least offered all the information on lines and transfers now we have two overlapping bus systems, of which the main one has a map where one can’t make out where the bus runs through nor which transports it connects to. Did I mention we were sold on the intermodality of this new bus network? What they didn’t say apparently was that this intermodality was only intended between NXB lines and nothing else. All of this has been a sorry spectacle in the most typical Barcelonian style on the level of the intellectually challenged, because it is not imaginable that such a sorry display of sloppiness, incompetence and empty marketing would fool anyone who doesn’t have shit for brains.

The true problems of the TMB bus system are quite simple to observe actually, partly because they’ve been the same for a great many years now, and partly because they’re the obvious reason for the awful bus service. The main problem is likely commercial speed, not just because it’s an essential element for a convenient service, but also because it has a close relation to frequency, efficency and capacity. The average speed of the bus affects much more than just the time a bus ride will take. A better average speed means that a bus lines requires less time to be travelled, consequently the same number of buses can offer better freqeuency and more capacity. Inversely, fewer vehicles are needed to maintain the same frequency and capacity. In any case efficiency is improved: The same resources yeild more.

The buses’ slow speeds are due to various factors. Mainly the lack of signal priority, or even bus lane on strategic stretches (like Gran Via between Marina and Glòries); the common obstruction of bus lanes; and an anachronistic protocol of operation which only allows entry through the front door. Many main bus itineraries have bus lanes on most of their length, yet this has by far not been enough to achieve reasonable speeds. In fact, Diagonal ave. is the street where bus service is slowest in the whole city, despite having a bus lane in both directions. Conventional bus lanes have the shortcoming that they’re situated at the slowest part of the street, the part closest to the curb. This is the area where cars load and unload, where they enter or exit parking garages, as well as right turns. These legal already impair bus speeds, especially on large thoroughfares, but one has to add the continuous invasion of bus lanes with illegal uses, like motorbikes and automobiles or even vehicles parked illegally, both passenger vehicles and even goods being delivered. A right-of-way in the center of a street, such as on Tarragona street or Paseo Colón are the best way to resolve these issues. They’re situated in the fastest part of the street, away from loading and unloading, or invasions of the bus lane. It isn’t always possible to implement a ROW since it requires some more space than conventional bus lanes. Despite this it should not be excluded as a possibility, ideally executed in a more compact and austere way the the examples previously mentioned (also pretty much the only such examples in the whole city, which nevertheless get undeniably good results) for example following the concept suggested in the previous article of dedicating certain streets primarily to public transit, in the same way that other streets are dedicated primarily to automobile use. Additionally simple measures can be taken such as enforcing the existing laws and seriously fining bus lane invasions. It is sad to see how common it has become that the police just pass by the constant traffic violations of automobiles and especially motorbikes constantly invading the bus lanes.

Essential to get good commercial speeds for buses is traffic light priority. Since almost half a century there exist various systems of traffic light priority, and results are generally very good. Here in Barcelona we never got past an experimental applications on Muntaner and Aribau streets. If no system like this has been put into practice it’s for one single reason: to not bother automobiles. No point in repeating what was already explained in a previous article, but this is a perfect example: Bus priority is not implemented so as not to affect traffic, and traffic isn’t reduced because bus service is awful. Catch-22. Streets with green wave such as Mallorca/València are the biggest problem. On this streets we find a phenomenon where the bus loses this green wave at every single stop, having then to wait at the red light for the next green wave. This means that in addition to the time it takes to load and unload passengers at the stop the bus loses about 45 seconds, which is what the usual red lights take. It doesn’t seem like much, but one ought to keep in mind that TMB calculates 1,5 minutes between stops. Losing 45 seconds each time means commercial speed is 50% lower, which also means that journey times are 50% greater. Thus a 20 minute trip becomes a 30 minute trip instead.

Another problem with bus operations is the anacronistic protocol of allowing entry only through the front door. It’s commonly said that TMB has no interest in allowing entry through all doors because it allows them to present very low fare evasion numbers (also one should not exclude the possibility of some executive getting extra payment for low fare evasion, just as is the case with punctuality). Once again what matters to TMB is their marketing, part of which is gloating over the least fare evasion among all transport systems. Of course once again this is a scam, because although these low fare evasion stats mean less fares lost it also means that bus service is significantly slowed down, which in turn means less efficiency and higher cost of operation, as well as worse service for bus riders. It’s imperative to change this protocol to allow entry through all doors so as to speed up service. This is nowadays common around the whole continent, where systems like Barcelona’s which only allows entry through the one door are more of an exception, especially in large cities. It’s not reasonable for a bus to lose up to 1-2 minutes at every stop with high demand, something that has become more common with the NXB lines. As fewer lines mean concentrating demand there is often more people entering the bus than previously, when demand was spread out over various bus lines. This is not meant as a critique of the orthogonal lines, which by themselves are not an issue, but only to an operation inadequate tothat concept.

To sum up, bus service in Barcelona is a disaster, a black hole for funding which doesn’t measure up to expectations except marketing-wise, and with the company more interested in spending its money on shiny new buses instead of improving the service’s efficiency. We all enjoy having fancy new buses, but a good service would likely be more beneficial, even if it meant buying fewer new vehicles. The presidency of Mercedes Vidal at TMB, just like the previous legislatures, has not brought any clear change to the disastrous politics of that same company. It follows that one must assume that the administrative sphere is pretty iron-clad against any political interference that would try to clean up this mess. This situation means that while the city is trying to advance with small, careful steps toward less automobile usage, this essential public transport is left behind, incapable of forming part of anything resembling a modern transit system, all the while tiring the general public. This infamous “dinosaur cemetery” that is the administrative level of TMB is being responsible for the discredit of bus service, the company itself and even public-owned operation of public transit. There is no better argument for privatization of basic services than the dysfunctional publicly run operation. How are progressive politicians going to convince us that privatization of transports is bad, when the TMB bus operation is an utter disaster, while the Tram operations don’t present these defficiencies? Here at BCN Movilidad we’re clearly in favor of public ownership and operaion of transit services, but for this situation to be viable it’s essential that publicly run services show their advantages. Otherwise this public ownership and operation will only be positive on paper, confronted with a reality of inefficiency and sloth that, wether we like it or not, will play right into the hands of those defending the dismantling of the welfare state and the privatizations of public services. And the only ones at fault for this will be the very public enterprise that couldn’t measure up in the first place.

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