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, June 05, 2012

Maybe the problem is long commutes | Express bus service in Montgomery County: creating a network

Map, proposed bus transit network, Montgomery County, Maryland There is a Transport Politic post, "Major Ambitions for Improved Transit in the Inner Suburbs North of Washington," on the proposed "rapider transit" plan--with all the proposed compromises (report of the Montgomery County "Transit Task Force"), I don't think it's fair to call it Bus Rapid Transit--for Montgomery County, Maryland.  I haven't really written about it, because I don't have the time to read all the planning documents (other area blogs have been covering the topic).

The comment thread on the TP post is pretty interesting, some people argue for light rail and other extensions to Frederick, while another person makes the point that:

... why won’t bus lanes, good bus maps, next bus indicators and frequent service not work. They are all about making bus travel convenient, faster and more importantly more reliable.

While you will never find me arguing against better transit marketing (From Here to There: A creative guide to making public transport the way to go from EMBARQ: The World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport) and customer service and stop facilities (Transit Waiting Environments: An Idea Book for Better Bus Stops, for the Cleveland Rapid Transit Authority by the Kent State University Community Design Center) those characteristics don't particularly distinguish bus rapid transit as a service different from regular bus service.

TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit, Bogota
TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit station, Bogota, Colombia. Note that there the bus transitways are separated from traffic, and there are passing lanes for through buses. Riders pay as they enter the station, so that bus boarding is fast. Photo: World Resources Institute. 

True bus rapid transit has a very specific definition with three essential operating characteristics (see "Bus Semirapid Transit Mode Development and Evaluation" from the Journal of Public Transportation) and a fourth element with regard to the service footprint-network:

1.  Exclusive, separate transitway allowing for high-speed relatively unimpeded travel (comparable to how subway and railroad service works--the whole point of a subway is to eliminate road crossings);

2.  Pre-payment of fares before entering the bus (comparable to how a subway system works) for limited dwell time (seconds instead of minutes);

3.  Low-floor buses with multi-door boarding, (comparable to how a subway system works) for limited dwell time (seconds instead of minutes);

4. The service is integrated into an system and network, with complementary feeder bus service, and high quality stations, service, and marketing.

Note that any bus system built without the first three elements cannot be called Bus Rapid Transit.  Too often, people focus on other elements -- the types of buses, the design scheme of the system, and other sub-components including quality marketing and stations, rather than the fundamental operating characteristics of the system.

And just having a stated "network" doesn't make a system BRT.

There are only a few places in North America with bus service meeting these characteristics.

Of course, the big problem faced by BRT in the US is that BRT works particular well in countries where there is:

1.  A great deal of transit-dependence, because a large segment of the population can't afford to own and operate privately owned automobiles, and therefore passengers have limited alternatives;

2.  A willingness to endure crush loads (passenger densities) double that typical in the U.S. (because passengers have limited alternatives), making the service more productive;

3.  Low wages for bus drivers, making it more affordable to have a bus-based transit system compared to a subway system where trains have one or no driver.

Note that the chapter in the new book Straphanger, on TransMilenio, the system in Bogota, convinces me that bus rapid transit can be a truly effective transit mode.

We don't have any great tests of BRT in the US as an integrated network, but there are instances where the service runs as a line or two, for a significant distance on a separated transitway.  The Emerald Express service in Eugene, Oregon is relatively short and straight--one line is 4 miles long, the other 7.6 miles.

The ridership numbers, such as with the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley in Greater Los Angeles, aren't particularly amazing.  But maybe that's ok; that we should accept that BRT is a kind of intermediate transit service for areas that can't really justify light rail because of lack of density generating enough ridership volume.  But I am just not sure we will ever see BRT serve as a stalking horse for light rail in the U.S.

I think the example most comparable to the proposal for Montgomery County is the York Region in Greater Toronto, where they have developed the Viva BRT system.  I don't know if they are doing prepayment, but they have many of the other elements.  But the ridership isn't particularly stellar.
Viva BRT network map, York Region, Greater Toronto, Ontario
The reason I think this is relevant to the plan for Montgomery County is that the York Region has the same problem that Montgomery County does--long distances to cover.

Beyond trip distances of 5-7 miles, unless you have separated transitways and signal priority at intersections, a trip by bus takes a long time, exceeding the normal "transit time budget" that typical people assign to their transit trip.

If the bus system proposed for Montgomery County has significant compromises to the three required operational elements defining BRT:

• separated transitway
• prepayment;
• multi-door boarding

then this system too will fail to provide us with an adequate test case to determine if BRT really can work in North America.  

(TransMilenio is also testing bi-articulated buses about 92 feet long.  In the US, buses of this length are not allowed on public streets.  And Straphanger went to press only a few months before the TransMilenio system was rent by riots and public unrest in response to failures to continue to invest in the system [partly this is a result of the fact that the buses are privately owned], which has become increasingly overcrowded as a result of high use.)

Left:  Transmilenio station photo on Flickr by st.schindler.  Below: Volvo B12M bi-articulated bus.

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