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, October 25, 2011

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.

I admit I am not a fan of bus rapid transit generally, because it is promoted most often as an excuse to not do rail-based transit. And the experience in the U.S. is that rail-based transit is the best way to get choice riders to give up their cars. Some criticism of BRT proponents is that they are just tools of the road-building lobby.
-- Institute for Transportation and Development Policy report, Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit

From the Post article:

Montgomery County is considering building a 150-mile network of dedicated bus lanes to move its growing population more quickly while easing traffic congestion, but even supporters won’t use the “B” word.

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.

Generally, BRT is a kind of con job when it is promoted in the U.S.

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.

In South America, people are willing to withstand double the number of people on a transit vehicle as we are in the U.S. So a 60 foot bus in a BRT system in South America carries 150+ passengers during peak, while the same bus is rated for 80 passengers in the U.S. So you need double the number of buses and double the number of drivers in the U.S. to carry the same number of people compared to Curitiba or Bogota.

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.

In this collection of papers from the Second International Conference on Urban Public Transportation Systems sponsored by the ASCE, there are a number of papers on BRT, which specify the definitional criteria for BRT. Most of what is provided in the U.S. is more what I call "rapider" transit, it isn't BRT from a hardcore definitional standpoint. OTOH, most of the places with true BRT don't have astounding ridership numbers, at least when compared to South America.

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 while slightly higher than the ridership numbers for the DC region's busiest bus lines, the Metro Orange Line BRT service in Los Angeles comes nowhere near the equivalent ridership numbers projected for the Purple Line light rail in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland, for which there is a vociferous contingent of BRT proponents (mostly because they don't want the old rail line, in many people's backyards, to be converted back to rail.)

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.

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