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.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Transit stuff #3: bus rapid transit vs. the creation of foundational suburban mass transit systems

Maybe we should be thinking of bus rapid transit as a way of building a trunkline/foundational transit system for suburbs rather than some magic bullet.   A Coalition for Smart Growth initiative, Communities for Transit, is out in force at the Montgomery County Agriculture Fair this week, to promote the proposed Montgomery County Bus Rapid Transit system.

Because I was with other people, including young children  more focused on animals and playing than going to information booths, I wasn't able to make it to the main gate, where apparently CFT has a duded-out bus and more information, but I did pick up info from people stationed at the other entrance.  (Ironically, the CFT booth is at the automobile entrance to the fair, not at the entrance used by people coming to the fair by bus.  Given the nature of the fair, and the fact that many people don't cover the whole thing, they needed a second booth at the other entrance.)
These CFT volunteers live in Friendshp Heights, Maryland.

I guess like how some people don't recognize that the point of certain kinds of transit services aren't for fast inter-city transit but are intended to enhance transit service within cities, and that's okay--see my piece "Making the case for intra-city (vs. inter-city) transit planning" vs. this Vox piece by Matthew Yglesias "Meet the worst transit project in America," and this from Reason about Detroit, "Is Detroit's New Light Rail Line America's Greatest Boondoggle?," I do have concerns that bus rapid transit is oversold.

There is no question that BRT is oversold compared to fixed rail transit, at least in those communities that have the density that makes economical the more costly choiceof fixed rail, because there is not one good example in the US of more people choosing to ride "bus rapid transit" compared to fixed rail

HealthLineCleveland HealthLine photo from Flickr by SoCal Metro.

Cleveland's HealthLine has ridership lower than most of DC's highest ridership bus lines, and much of the development said to have been sparked by the BRT line would have been construced anyway. Similarly, Boston's Silver Line BRT has abysmal ridership.

But looking at the flyer that CFT is handing out at the Ag Fair, it occurs to me, although I haven't yet come up with the succinct language needed to describe the concept, that what is being planned for Montgomery County isn't so much "Bus Rapid Transit" but an upgraded, complete, and foundational transit system, not unlike my concept of "Signature Streets", which suggests that communities should think of their mobility system holistically, as an element of an integrated public realm framework, and define and build out a "road system" that equally accommodates pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users as well as motor vehicle operators, while simultaneously contributing positively to neighborhood and community quality of life, rather than diminishing it as so much of the road network does currently.

No community here... Rockville Pike, Montgomery County, Maryland.  Washington Post photo.
Rockville Pike, looking north, which Montgomery planners want to transform into a network of urban villages.

Route map, side two of the flyer
Flyer, side two, route map, bus rapid transit system, Montgomery County Maryland

Side one of the flyer
Flyer, side one, Communities for Transit, Montgomery County bus rapid transit system

The idea is that a county like Baltimore County should designate their primary road network, and build it and brand it as "foundational," and by doing so they can build the resident support necessary to pass votes for bond issues (comparable to Seattle's Bridging the Gap program, Oklahoma City's Metropolitan Area Projects program, or the Los Angeles or Denver sales tax initiatives to fund rail expansion).

It happens that Montgomery County already has Metrorail stations and two railroad passenger lines serving various points in the county, but the reality is those fixed rail transit services are oriented to DC.

A bus rapid transit system as conceptualized in Montgomery County's Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan is a different type of program which allows the suburban county to define its own transit agenda in a complementary manner to what already exists, but as an upgrade and rebranding.

Other examples.  Perhaps the Orange Line BRT in San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles
is maybe a better example of being able to serve as the trunk line for suburban transit rather than as a rail system, even though the end point station of North Hollywood links to fixed rail service.
Shown at left, the Orange Line runs in a dedicated transitway (formerly used by a passenger railroad line and then streetcars, not unlike how some of the Pittsburgh area busways are former railines too).

This ought to make the Orange Line a candidate for seeking approval for running buses longer than 60 feet in length, which would increase the capacity of the system, which has about 30,000 daily riders.

Warden Station, York Region's first rapid transit hub, in Markham. Viva system photo.

Perhaps the best example in North America of a suburban BRT system as an upgrade and creation of a foundational trunkline system within a bus transit system is the Viva system in the York Region of Greater Toronto.  There are five VIVA lines, one has ridership greater than 21,000 daily riders, and another is greater than 5,000 daily riders, while the other three have small ridership numbers.

Yes, they don't get ridership numbers like we do in DC proper for our bus lines.  But that's ok.  Also see "Maryland gubernatorial campaign transportation agenda."

Their ridership should be compared to other suburban jurisdictions that lack the density and concentrated activity and employment centers that are necessary to support successful fixed rail transit service.

Conclusion.  Still, it is unfortunate that many transit systems with cities as their foundation are yoked to and outnumbered by suburban jurisdictions and voting blocs, which can hamper the ability of the core system to grow and to stop the pressure to continually extend the system outwards in ways that make the system less efficient and more costly to operate.

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At 9:29 PM, Blogger washcycle said...

LA wants to convert the orange line to rail.

At 12:02 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I saw that, but part of what happened was a change in state law? which previously had prevented planning for conversion of BRT to LR (a/k/a "wtf" and an example of how state legislatures are used by interest groups to preference particular policy choices regardless of whether or not they make sense).

In any case, I don't think there is any planning underway as of yet.


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