Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bus rapid transit as wishful thinking

In response to Montgomery County's planning efforts for bus rapid transit, as reported on in "Countywide rapid bus system proposed" in the Examiner. From the article:

Officials in Montgomery County are proposing a new rapid transit system that some say will be comparable to D.C.'s Metrorail or the county's planned
Purple Line.

The system will be based on buses running in dedicated lanes on major roads throughout the county. It would cost an estimated $2.3 billion to $2.5 billion and have at least 16 routes down major corridors such as Route 355, New Hampshire Avenue and Shady Grove Road, according to a report by consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Those involved with planning have banned the word "bus," saying they want to differentiate the proposed system from existing bus systems like Ride On or Metrobus.

The vehicles in the system will resemble "trains on rubber tires," said Mark Winston, chairman of the county's Transit Task Force -- the group charged with designing the plans for the system.

Hype doesn't make it so...

In North America, people with choices, for the most part, do not ride buses. Even ones gussied up and all pretty.

As long as buses have to travel long distances, and parking, gasoline, gasoline excise taxes, and tolls (if they exist) are relatively cheap for motor vehicles, transit has a hard time competing.

The best executions of bus rapid transit service in North America, such as in Los Angeles, the York Region of Toronto (service provider; Wikipedia), Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, don't have particularly scintillating ridership numbers, with the exception of Los Angeles, the systems don't achieve ridership numbers comparable to the highest ridership lines in the DC region, although there is no question that it is cheaper to build a bus system _over long distances_ than a rail-based transit system.

The issue is one of providing long distance transit services to serve a polycentric (multiple centers) based system.

By definition, transit works best in a concentrated form.

Maybe it's all relative, that a bus rapid transit system is better than nothing. The real focus needs to be on infill development and transit intensification within the core of the region, where transit will have the most positive and effective impact.

Note that in North America, probably the best example of BRT is in Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, where 200,000 people ride the BRT system. However, it is the exception that proves the rule, that without a number of other complementary policy changes which were put into effect along with the bus service, likely the ridership would have been minimal.

Key policies include:

-- land use planning requirements that 40% of new jobs (office construction) must be located at BRT stops, along with retail and denser residential development;

-- limited provision of parking in Downtown Ottawa -- they have 300 spaces/1,000 workers where most North American downtowns have 600 parking spaces/1,000 workers

-- eliminating to the extent possible, the provision of free parking for employees downtown, especially for federal workers ;

-- encouraging flextime and other practices that time shift and extend the workday so that bus utilization can be maximized.


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