Transit and traffic congestion

Reminder: Transportation networks are built for people, not cars.

Santa Cruz Metro just posted up the agenda for their October 28 board meeting. Attached to the agenda was a letter from Capitola resident Bill Delaney. He asked Metro to consider a routing change for buses that use the Capitola Mall transit center on 41st Avenue. 41st has the highest traffic volume of any local street in Capitola and ranks pretty highly for all of Santa Cruz County traffic volume. Traffic frequently backs up onto Highway 1 from 41st. Delaney asks the board to consider a change in the existing route, which uses Clares Street to get from the mall to 41st. In this Google Streetview for Clares at 40th , you can even see a Santa Cruz bus at the front of the traffic queue.

View Larger Map

Delaney is pretty well informed (he had written to the board, the RTD and letters to the editor on Capitola traffic issues previously and he generally makes good sense) so I don’t discount his suggestions out of hand — he may very well have a good idea in his re-routing suggestion — but one thing popped out at me:

“The bus takes up the equivalent of about four vehicles increasing congestion.”


Santa Cruz Metro bus routes 54, 55, 56, 66, 68, and 69 serve the Capitola Mall station. I don’t see boarding numbers broken down at a station level for Santa Cruz Metro, but each of these routes have a fairly high average ridership. The Live Oak and South County buses in particular (66, 68 and 69) carry over 20 passengers on average, and at Capitola Mall I’ve seen close to 50 people packed on these buses, especially in early evenings. Those “four vehicles” that are displaced by the single bus, on the other hand, each usually carry a single rider. The single-occupant vehicle mode share in Santa Cruz County is 72%, so three of those cars carry a single person, and the fourth car has a passenger in addition to the rider.

The four vehicle claim is a stretch as well. Santa Cruz runs mostly 40 foot coaches. A Toyota Prius is 15 feet long. Add three feet of shy space to the front and back (not atypical in heavy traffic), and you see each vehicle takes up 21 feet. Realistically, a bus carrying 20 to 50 passengers takes up the same space as two cars or small trucks transporting 2 to 5 people. In moving highway traffic, a single bus takes up 50% more road space than a single occupant vehicle.

Mr Delaney, we build transportation networks for people, not cars. Each of those cars moving to and from the mall transport people, just as the buses transport people. Maybe your suggestion to route buses through a narrow, poorly paved residential street has merit, but please don’t suggest that buses in Capitola increase traffic congestion. If those bus passengers all drove to the mall, traffic there would be even more unmanageable than it already is.

Update: Gary Fisher reminds me that this visual illustrates things quite nicely.

Space for people


  1. Excellent point. As you know, a lot of bikes could fit into that car space as well, and pedestrians, too! Bikes are fast enough that I’m not sure peds win on a “people per hour” basis, but now I’m quibbling.

  2. I like the idea behind the “space required to transport 60 people” graphic, but it’s unfortunate that the photograph with the cars used a longer lens (or the camera was closer to the street) than the others. If you compare the size of the people in each photo, or the width of the street, you’ll see what I mean. It unnecessarily exaggerates the space taken up by the cars. The truth is good enough!

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one to see that.  I wince every time I see this image being used..maybe it’s time to create a new version that doesn’t use trick photography.

  4. Denver RTD created a similar comparison in the Elitch Gardens parking lot that didn’t do this zoom thing. I seem to recall it’s a better image, IMO, but I can’t find it online anywhere.

  5. Nice! Counterargument is buses making stops cause turbulence. Countercounterargument is there is a feedback loop on the roads to a fixed congestion level and at that fixed congestion level buses ate more efficient, especially considering buses don’t take up space for parking, nor do they search for free parking, which also causes turbulence.

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