ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART) system and bus-only lanes have been notoriously linked to traffic confusion and numerous collisions. Now more than two years after starting service on Central Avenue, a group of students is trying to figure out if the bus system has helped reduce the number of car crashes at large.

Students from the University of New Mexico (UNM) recently completed a research project attempting to answer the question: “Did the construction of the ART system result in more or less collisions?” The traffic safety-focused research uses data from the New Mexico Department of Transportation based on crash reports from law enforcement agencies.

Story continues below:

“This research is the beginning of really taking bus rapid transit systems here in the US, especially in mid-sized cities like Albuquerque, seriously,” says Sheida Carugati, a UNM student who worked on the research. “There was all this talk, and a lot of scandal, behind the ART line that we really just wanted to see as objectively as possible.”

Envisioned as the start of a high-speed bus network, ART services began on Central between Unser and Tramway, and on Louisiana to the Uptown area back in November 2019. A principal component of the system is the use of bus-only lanes, which the city built along Central between Coors and Louisiana, replacing what used to be medians and general traffic lanes.

Shortly after ART service began, KRQE News 13 reported dozens of crashes involving cars colliding with buses near intersections. Illegal turns into and across the ART lanes accounted for many of those crashes. Then, in May of 2020, the city installed ‘pin curbs’ along portions of the route. That seems to have helped with the issue of people driving into the bus lanes, according to city officials. Now, UNM students are taking a closer look at how the bus-only lanes themselves, and without the buses, have impacted street safety.

The goal of the research was to assess whether the installation of the bus-only lanes — without buses operating — eased traffic collision numbers and severity. The student researchers used data compiled by the New Mexico Department of Transportation, which includes motor vehicle collisions that were reported to various police agencies from November 2013 to December 2019. Nick Ferenchak, the UNM professor who oversaw the research says the data isn’t perfect.

“Probably a lot of fender benders [and] minor collisions, even ones people report to the police,” he explains, “don’t really get in the database.” But serious injuries and fatalities do show up in the data. And as it turns out, after construction of the ART route but before buses began running, the number of collisions per month and per mile decreased in nine of the 15 sections of Central Ave. the students looked at. Of those sections that saw decreased collision counts, five of them were statistically significant at the 90% confidence interval — i.e. there’s only a 10% or lower chance that the reduction in collisions were due to something other than the ART lanes.

“Central Avenue, known also as the ART corridor, has seen some significant safety improvements,” their research paper shows. In fact, areas around UNM and Nob Hill saw a 57% to 100% reduction in the severity of collisions after the construction of ART, their results reveal. In other words, the percentage of collisions resulting in serious injury or death decreased significantly along these portions of Central Ave.

It’s important to note that the UNM research data doesn’t include time when the ART buses were running. It instead shows a reduction in collisions associated with the installation of the ART lanes. Ferenchak, a professor in the UNM Department of Civil, Construction & Environmental Engineering, says that in the future, they might be able to look at the effect ART bus operations have on roadway safety. But without buses at least, the changes to Central Ave. seem to have calmed traffic, perhaps simply because the bus lanes and associated infrastructure slow drivers and prevent some left turns.

These types of systems “are innately traffic calming, just because of how they’re constructed with the designated bus lanes — so, automatically people can’t drive as fast, which decreases your chances of being seriously injured,” explains Esther Bia, another undergraduate student who worked on the research. “Also, it takes away the interaction of buses with traffic. So that also takes away a factor of potential traffic accidents.”

While much of Central Ave. saw fewer car crashes and pedestrian-related collisions with the arrival of the bus lanes, there were a few outliers. The portion of Central Ave. from Louisiana Blvd. to Wyoming saw a 9.3% increase in collisions after the construction of the ART lanes, the report shows. And according to the report, it’s not clear why crashes increased there.

Story Continues Below

An image from the research paper shows that collisions tend to happen most commonly at intersections. This image shows an increase in collisions causing serious injury or death after the construction of ART at the intersection of Louisiana Blvd. and Central Ave.

West of the Rio Grande, Central Ave. also saw decreased collision numbers, the research shows. From Coors Blvd. to Atrisco Drive, the number of collisions per month per mile decreased by 22.8% after the installation of ART lanes, the research shows. In absolute numbers, that means that segment of Central Ave. went from having an average of 14.5 collisions per month per mile before ART construction to 11.2 collisions after the bus lanes were installed.

While portions of Central Ave. experienced a decrease in collisions, the research found a slight increase in collisions across the city as a whole. It’s not entirely clear why that is, but the researchers have a few potential explanations.

“It just could be many different things,” Carugati says. It could be “driving culture here, racing culture, a growing population, that kind of thing, although the growing population rate doesn’t really coincide too much or too well with increasing crash rates. So, it’s a hard question to answer.”

The research doesn’t reveal everything about how ART has impacted local traffic, especially because when changes happen on one street, it could affect traffic on nearby streets as people seek alternative routes. The research showed that after the construction of ART lanes, Zuni, Lead, and Coal Ave. — which are often used as alternatives to Central Ave. — saw a 9.6% increase in the number of collisions per month per mile. Joseph Aguirre, a long-time advocate for road safety near the UNM area who wasn’t involved in the study, says that to really get an idea if Albuquerque streets are safer because of ART would require a comprehensive study.

“Any look at Central alone is inadequate. What we need is a transportation plan for the corridor as a whole (Central Ave., Lead Ave., Coal Ave. and the north-south blocks in between),” he says. After all, one safer street near other unsafe streets won’t lead to a healthy community, he adds.

Ferenchak at UNM says he plans to keep using ART as a research lab for his students. “I’m already thinking about next year,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll see some data to see what actually happened when the buses started running.”

Students Carugati and Bia are both planning on graduating this year. Carugati says she wants to keep working with public transit systems after graduation. Bia says she’s considering either going to graduate school or getting a job as a transportation engineer.

And they both gave thanks to their classmates who also worked on the report. “Definitely want to shout out my team members,” Carugati says.