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.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bus transit, for choice riders

In my blog entry ("Detroit in Underdrive") on Detroit's decision to not build light rail but to do "bus rapid transit," Brian Morrisey criticizes the entry in comments (on my home computer some bug prevents me from using the comment function) saying that it's

disingenuous considering that nowhere in the US is BRT truly implemented with all its necessary components. Most just are just dedicated bus lanes that still must contend with traffic and existing infrastructure.

I don't think it's disingenuous, just reality.

Only in Pittsburgh does BRT function mostly like how BRT does in South America, with one major exception, there isn't pre-payment before bus entry, and the buses don't have low floors with multiple entry doors.

But the most important factor, travel on dedicated busways, is the way most of the Pittsburgh BRT routes function. Even so, the routes have never achieved anywhere near the expected ridership. That being said, they have much better ridership, especially for the region's population, than most of the other BRT routes in the U.S.

Most of what we might call BRT in the U.S. is more what I've called "bus rapider transit" but maybe is better termed "branded bus transit," where the buses have attractive livery designs (like the DC Circulator), more attractive bus shelters, and better branding campaigns, including the provision of signage, mapping, etc.
Metro Rapid bus, Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
Metro Rapid bus, Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

Zum bus, Brampton, Ontario. Photo: Christopher McKechnie,

Bus shelter, Silver Line, Boston
Bus shelter, Silver Line BRT, Boston. Photo by Steve Pinkus.

Metro Rapid map sign, Los Angeles. Photo: TBSH.

Here's a resource I just came across but haven't read yet, Developing the Next Frontier: Capitalizing on Bus Rapid Transit to Build Community, which is a ULI task group report evaluating the opportunity for development in association with new BRT services in Seattle.

Plus there is the EMBARQ: The World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport report on transit (bus) marketing, which is very good as well, From Here to There: A creative guide to making public transport the way to go.

This is an issue too with inter-city bus services vs. railroad transportation.

I find it interesting that conservative newspapers like the Washington Examiner continually push bus "rapid transit" over fixed rail transit.

Ostensibly it's about cost, but at some level it's about supporting roadways and the sprawl paradigm--because buses use the same roads that cars use and because heavy rail, light rail, and streetcar systems are focused on intensifying land use and are typically focused on center cities and inner ring suburbs more than exurban locations, while bus rapid transit is more about providing exurban transit service, more like commuter bus service rather than transit as part of the firmament of sustainable communities.

Today's Examiner editorial, "Stop being so 'Kardashian' about mass transit," is typical, although I bet if "push came to shove" and it was a matter of taking away roadway lanes from all traffic and dedicating them to busways, the paper would editorialize in favor of the automobile.

From the editorial:

The cost of the 15-mile CCT "train on rubber wheels" -- including dedicated lanes -- is about $491 million. Compare that to the $1.93 billion it will cost for the 16-mile Purple Line connecting Bethesda to New Carrollton, or the $2.2 billion for Baltimore's 14-mile Red Line. These two light rail projects are sucking up state and federal transit funding. Had state and county officials chosen BRT instead, they would have had enough money to build the Purple and Red Lines and the CCT -- with $3.2 billion to spare.

Detroit also planned to spend $528 million on a 9.3-mile light rail line serving its hollowed-out urban core, but city officials wisely pulled back because of very real concerns that Detroit could not afford the light rail line's annual operating costs. They are now shifting $500 million to a 110-mile BRT system that will connect three counties and the airport, and help 60 percent of still-employed city residents get to their suburban jobs. Motor City will soon have largest BRT system in the nation, joining other cities with successful BRT lines such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia

Since BRT is so much cheaper and way more flexible, and provides mass transit to a much larger area for the same capital costs, why would any public official even consider fixed rail?

BRT is cheaper and arguably it is more flexible, but the reality is that cheap and flexible aren't the right questions, especially if you are focused on maximizing use, not minimizing initial cost.

The answers to the question of why would any public official consider fixed rail over buses are pretty simple:

1. More people ride fixed rail transit than buses;

2. The non-transit dependent (choice riders) will ride fixed rail transit when they don't appear to be willing to ride buses, even better branded buses;

3. Fixed rail transit investment repositions communities around transit and within their respective regions as choice locations--this is an essential and key difference between the modes;

4. As a result, fixed rail transit spurs significant private commercial and residential development and investment, at many times the cost of the public investment in transit. In the U.S., this has not been the case for investments in branded bus transit.

But I would argue that in order to generate these benefits, you need to have a network of fixed rail transit, one or two lines isn't really enough, at least for communities on a significant downward spiral. For example DC vs. Baltimore. Both were declining cities when subway systems were first proposed.

DC got a five line subway system. Baltimore got a truncated subway line, later complemented by a light rail line using an existing industrial railroad alignment.

DC's central business district and a couple dozen neighborhoods have since revitalized as a result of transit service, while Baltimore continues to languish. The subway has stanched DC's population losses, while for the most part, there has been minimal private investment spurred within Baltimore as a result of the subway and light rail lines.

The same issue of "bus" versus "railroad" comes up for inter-city transit service.

Initially with the so-called "Chinese buses" and now with upgraded services from Greyhound (Bolt Bus), Coach USA (Megabus), along with other services operating regionally.

The Washington Times ran an op-ed by James Bacon of Virginia's Bacon's Rebellion blog, "The intercity bus revolution," highlighting the success of entrepreneurial inter-city bus services over more expensive railroad-based services. From the article:

While President Obama dreams about spending hundreds of billions of public dollars building a high-speed, intercity rail network, an entrepreneurial revolution in the old-timey bus industry is scoring dramatic gains in market share for intercity travel - without government subsidies.

After decades of losing customers, the intercity bus industry began experiencing an entrepreneurial renaissance in the mid-2000s. And 2011 was the best year yet. According to a study published by DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, intercity bus was the only major long-distance passenger mode to grow appreciably this year. Daily intercity bus operations expanded by 7.1 percent.

But the article doesn't acknowledge that these bus systems are in fact highly subsidized, because they are "free riders" (other than gas taxes and tolls) on the already developed local road and highway system, and their use of an ill-defined curbside infrastructure can be problematic in terms of quality of service, not to mention that companies may stint on maintenance to reduce costs, which puts customers at risk.

See "Firm with routes to New York told to take buses off road" from the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and "Chinatown buses' offer cheap rides to NY" from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That being said, I think the services are great because they enable low cost inter-city transit for people who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

Railroads and airlines use a dedicated infrastructure, which is more costly, but also allows these modes to travel much faster (ideally, in the case of railroads, where dedicated right of way without crossings doesn't always exist) than buses.

Plus high speed railroad service is being developed to provide alternatives to air travel, given concerns about reduced access to oil, and even if it is true that oil production will increase because of new technologies, the fact remains that concerns over greenhouse gas emissions encourage the consideration of railroad travel, not to mention the fact that providing airline service and airports is economically costly--as an industry, airlines have mostly lost money throughout the industry's entire existence, with some exceptions like Southwest Airlines.

It's not the same question, and confusing the modes by asking and answering the wrong questions doesn't move our transportation system forward generally, and certainly doesn't move it forward in terms of the question of a more sustainable and robust paradigm either.



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