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Overview of the Bus Rapid Transit versus light rail debate

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Overview of the Bus versus Rail Debate in Transit


After the glory period of transit culminated with record high ridership during World War II, transit ridership went into a steady decline that has only halted relatively recently. From the end of World War II until the 1980s extensive streetcar networks that had been found in virtually every city in the United States had been dismantled and replaced with buses. The handful of cities that had constructed subway systems in the late 19th and early 20th century saw them fall into disrepair. By the late 1970s the prevailing American view was that only the poor and downtrodden rode public transit. In fact, between the end of World War II and the 1980s only a handful of new transit capital projects came on line, most notably the Washington Metro and San Francisco's BART.


However, the 1980s saw a slow rebirth towards the transit renaissance we find ourselves in today. After Edmonton got the ball rolling with the opening of their light rail system in 1978, San Diego followed with the inauguration of their initial rail line to the Mexican border in 1981. In the years since many cities have opened light rail lines, including Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Minneapolis, Saint Louis, Houston, Charlotte, San Jose, and especially Los Angeles. Arguably, some of the cities in the above list do not have enough transit ridership to support the operation of these more expensive rail systems, which can carry many more people than buses but have a unit cost per hour of up to three times that of a bus. San Jose in particular has been mocked by opponents of light rail transit as a "boondoggle" due to its relatively low rail ridership.


The ever increasing capital cost of light rail networks has recently caused observers in other cities to think of ways that transit could be improved for less money. Thus, the concept of bus rapid transit (BRT) was born. By mimicking what they believed set light rail apart from the common bus system - special vehicles, fare prepayment, and (sometimes) segregated right of way, bus rapid transit proponents believed they could achieve all the goals of light rail at a fraction of the cost. Although the concept of bus rapid transit has been successfully implemented in other cities such as Ottawa, Pittsburgh, and Curitiba, Brazil since the 1970s it has only been in the past ten years that bus rapid transit systems have come on line in the United States. Los Angeles is the preeminent bus rapid transit city in the United States, with its segregated right of way Orange Line and bus rapid transit "light" routes that are basically renumbered express bus routes with a different paint scheme; other cities in the United States that have opened bus rapid transit lines in recent years include Las Vegas, Cleveland, Boston, and Eugene, Oregon.


It is important to note that in today's planning of transit expansion, the traditional subway is almost never on the table anymore. In fact, with the exception of New York's Second Avenue Subway and Los Angeles's Wilshire Subway, it is likely that no brand new subway line will be constructed in the next thirty years in the United States (this does not include short extensions of existing subway lines by BART, the Chicago Transit Authority, and Washington Metro). This fact is primarily caused by the huge cost of constructing traditional subways in conjunction with the relatively low density of American cities.


Instead, transit expansion planning invariably comes down to two modes: light rail or BRT. Light rail supporters and BRT supporters line up on their separate sides with their usual arguments promoting their own mode and disparaging the other. Light rail supporters usually argue that Americans do not want to ride buses, that the so-called permanence of light rail (i.e. the tracks will never be removed) promotes real estate development and higher property values, and that light rail is faster than buses because it is on a segregated right of way and does not have to deal with other traffic. BRT supporters usually promote buses as more flexible than rail systems, but usually rely on the lower cost of BRT versus rail as their main argument. In separate articles I examine these arguments in more detail.


The obvious question is: which mode is appropriate in my city? Is my city ready and willing to change zoning regulations so that high density mixed use buildings can be built at rail stations? If not, then BRT is the clear choice because without high density rail will not be successful. Do I expect enough passengers to ride my proposed light rail system so that I can operate three car trains that can carry up to five hundred people every ten minutes or more during the peak period? If not, then BRT is the clear choice because I will not have enough passengers to overcome the increased cost of operating rail. While one three car light rail train can carry as many people as eight regular sized buses, if I am not filling up the train I do not need the extra capacity.


This debate is probably the most politicized in all of transit. Advocates on both sides toss around facts and arguments that sound believable but are often taken out of context. Taking them at face value is similar to taking a political attack ad at face value. Before making a decision either way I urge people to do some research on their own. I now present some case studies that should factor into the final decision.


Light rail success: Los Angeles's Blue Line advanced the cause of light rail considerably when it opened in 1990. Currently operating every five minutes during the peak period and carrying on average more than 80,000 passengers on a given weekday, the Blue Line is often crowded. However, capacity constraints caused by its street running segment mean that service levels cannot be increased.


Light rail failure: San Jose's Green Line was built to provide high quality transit service to Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, the dot.com bust happened just after it opened in 1999. Today, all of San Jose's rail lines together only carry 34,000 riders per weekday. The Green Line now operates only every thirty minutes during the midday period and ceases operation at 10:30 P.M.


Bus Rapid Transit success: The Ottawa Transitway system has been in operation for more than thirty years. Recently discussion has been underway about a conversion of the transitway to a rail line due to congestion caused by the number of buses entering a short on street segment in the downtown area. The lower capacity of BRT simply cannot deal with the huge demand for quality transit in Ottawa, Ontario. Similarly, in Los Angeles, Metro is petitioning the state of California to allow them to operate 65 feet buses on the Orange Line to handle the demand; additional buses cannot simply be added on the line because the signal priority will not work if buses operate more frequently than every four minutes.


Bus Rapid Transit failure: Not really a failure, but a cautionary tale about using BRT as a "one size fits all" solution: in December of 2010, Los Angeles Metro plans on cancelling some service on certain Metro rapid lines that have not met expectations. Lines being cancelled do not operate at a fast enough speed, do not have a high enough average trip length, or simply do not carry enough passengers.


Overall, both light rail and BRT have a vital part to play in the improvement of transit in both American and worldwide cities. I believe in all cases there is clear cut winner; the trick is conducting the necessary analysis to see which one comes out ahead.

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