Numbers, innumeracy and mobility: part one, buses vs. fixed rail transit
Wikipedia photo of the Cleveland HealthLine BRT by GoddardRocket. The Cleveland HealthLine system is well designed with particularly attractive bus shelters.
Today's Post has some letters to the editor about riding buses, "[links will be added when the paper puts them online, there is a lag]," in response to an article, "Montgomery looks to busways to ease traffic," on Montgomery County's initiative around bus rapid transit, which has been initiated at the instigation of Councilman Marc Elrich.
Planners, developers and local officials analyzing how to build and pay for the express bus network say they are acutely aware that buses conjure up images of slow, unreliable, second-class transit. Their pitch: Picture these buses as trains on rubber tires.
“We want riders to view it much more like rail,” said Dan Wilhelm, who oversees transportation issues for the Montgomery County Civic Federation and serves on a county transit task force.
This is the crux of my argument with proponents of BRT. The numbers of people that ride fixed rail transit are much greater than a bus, you need at least 2 very full buses to equal one train car, so you need many more buses to equal one train.
To tout the possibilities in the U.S., they use examples from South America, from Curitiba and Bogota mostly, without making key distinctions, such as much lower wage rates--you need a driver for each bus, lower penetration of automobile ownership so more people are transit dependent, which also influences willingness to withstand crowding--called "crush loads" in the transportation field.
So BRT isn't equivalent to a train, even if the buses are nice.
OTOH, I do think that Montgomery County, more than most other jurisdictions in the U.S., has the ability to model best practice BRT deployment in the United States, in a spatial context where lack of density makes light rail and heavy rail uneconomic.
Montgomery County already runs one of the most successful suburban bus systems in the U.S., even if one of the letter writers notes that budget cutbacks means that service is degrading, and they aren't even printing schedules for some routes as another cutback.
So if anyone can make a suburban BRT system work, it might be Montgomery County. In North America, the model suburban BRT system is the Viva service in the York Region of Toronto. But the ridership numbers there are comparatively low. OTOH, in the outskirts of Toronto, they wouldn't have transit options without this kind of service.
Note that comparisons to the HealthLine in Cleveland aren't accurate for Montgomery County because that's a city-based system, and note too that it was built in place of the fixed rail line that people preferred, but couldn't afford. Their ridership numbers aren't particularly stellar either.