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.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

More (reconsideration by me) on Bus Rapid Transit as a legitimate transit mode

Over the past few months, I've come to realize that my previous opposition to bus rapid transit has been more about the positioning of BRT as superior to fixed rail transit services by pro-motor vehicle and anti-rail folks (as well as by government agencies that didn't want to pay for rail) and less about the quality of BRT as a specific type of transit service.

And I am reminded of this once again through the introduction of a new BRT service in Chicago, called the Jeffrey Jump ("Coming this fall: Rapid transit buses to 'Jump' ahead of traffic" from the Chicago Sun-Times).

It's a limited stop service with couple of enhanced bus stops as demonstrations for how to change bus shelters for the better, design (still dowdy if you ask me), some dedicated transitways and queue jumping at traffic signals.

BRT has a proper role within the overall transit service network, the issue is proper positioning of the service within the network and not being dishonest about what it can and can't do.

The Metropolitan Transit Network

So transit service in a metropolitan area is delivered at a number of scales, which in other writings ("Meta-regional transit network") I define in subnetwork categories of primary, secondary, and tertiary (which is in part an extension upwards outside of a community and deeper within a community, based on the discussion in the Transit Element of the Arlington County Master Transportation Plan).

- Regional (between metropolitan areas)
-- railroad passenger services
-- commuter buses
-- inter-city bus
- Metropolitan
-- subway/heavy rail
-- railroad
--commuter bus
-- metropolitan (cross-jurisdictional) bus
-- ferry (depending on the jurisdiction)
- Suburban (inter- and intra-jurisdictional services, although primarily intra-jurisdictional)
-- railroad
-- light rail
-- streetcar
-- bus
-- shuttle/circulator services
- Center City (primarily intra-jurisdictional)
-- streetcar
-- bus
-- shuttle/streetcar services

While BRT is positioned by proponents as "rail service" on wheels, that's extremely misleading.  A bus carries maybe 80-90 passengers, while a 6 or 8 car subway trainset carries 1,000+ people and can do this 20+ times/hour.  And, nowhere in North America does BRT generate particularly striking ridership numbers.

Generally, light rail is a good option for 30,000 or more riders/day, while heavy rail needs to be able to serve multiple hours at 20,000+ riders per hour.  BRT is a good service for ridership potential less than that of light rail, but once ridership numbers are higher, while installation costs are higher for light rail, operating costs are less.

In South America, where BRT is extremely successful, services operate in communities with a high rate of poverty and transit dependence, riders are willing to withstand crush densities (the number of people per square foot of space) double that of people in North America, and labor costs for bus drivers are much cheaper too.

Does BRT induce spillover real estate development a/k/a "transit-oriented development"?

In the US too there is the issue of whether or not bus service spurs economic development of new and denser real estate, while there is no question that over long periods of time and with the right zoning regime, fixed rail transit does lead to more intense real estate development including local examples in DC and Arlington County, Virginia, not to mention Alexandria and in Bethesda, Silver Spring, and Rockville Maryland, and the classic example of streetcar-induced development in the Pearl District of Portland Oregon.

Some claim that real estate development has been induced by the Health Line BRT in Cleveland ("Billions of dollars in development, redevelopment stir up dust around Cleveland" from the Cleveland Plain Dealer), but I'd argue most of that development would have occurred anyway, given the various redevelopment efforts in the Euclid Avenue Corridor and the constant forward growth of the universities and medical institutions in the University Circle District there ("Cleveland Ignites Job Growth With Rebuilding Project" from the New York Times).

To be fair, it took upwards of 25 years to begin to see the impact of the WMATA subway system on commercial and residential real estate submarkets in the Washington Metropolitan Area, and there are many other factors that positively or negatively shape such opportunities, so I can't be too quick to judge Cleveland's BRT system on this metric.

BRT and other express bus services as a full-fledged component of Metropolitan Transit Networks

Still, BRT or express bus services can be offered on a wider scale to provide faster journeys and better transit options within a metropolitan area.  Maybe massive networks like that suggested in Montgomery County (blog entry "Maybe the problem is long commutes | Express bus service in Montgomery County: creating a network") will work, maybe they won't, but there is no question that focusing such services on the corridors that have the right antecedents for success already in place will help us prove whether or not BRT truly has a place in transit service provided across North American metropolitan areas.

... now if I were in charge of bus marketing at CTA, I'd try to license this song for use in promoting the Jeffrey Jump service, although maybe there are newer and better songs referencing the word "jump," like this one or maybe this cleaned up of course ("CTA will make you... jump, jump") for more urban consumer segments, or this retro version (too slow for the 21st century probably).

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