Tuesday, May 5, 2009

BRT: Deserving of of its Poor Reputation?

The heat's really been turned up on MBTA's Silver Line BRT service. The Overhead Wire and Transport Politic each have stories about the planned addition to this "system". Without re-hashing the articles, there's a lot of angst among Bostonians and pro-transit people because $115 million dollars is being spent to connect the currently separated "branches" of the Silver Line.

At face value, the concept of connecting the various branches to make a more complete "system" makes sense. However, if you read the details of the proposal vs. the original plan, there is reason for many people to be unhappy. Additionally, many commenters brought up personal experiences with the shortcomings of the Silver Line, including slow speeds through tunnels, awkward transfers, and efficiency issues (i.e. switching from electric power to gas power in the underground segments of the BRT.)

Their views and frustrations are certainly valid, the Silver Line has been poorly planned, and poorly run. Check out this report by the Sierra Club on the Silver Line (It's biased, but does make good points).

All in all there's a lot of information being flung like mud back and forth over the Internet between Pro-BRT agencies like "The National BRT Institute", or "The Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center" and Pro-LRT agencies like "Light Rail Now.org" or "Light Rail Transit Association". Both sets of websites are very one sided, and very biased in their viewpoint about transportation. If a person were to have no knowledge of transit and different modes of transit, and they logged onto Light Rail Now.org, they would leave the website thinking LRT was the best form of transit EVER, and thinking that BRT was garbage. The same goes for pro BRT websites. If a person logged onto a Pro-BRT website, they would leave thinking BRT is amazing, and LRT is a waste of money.

I don't like one sided viewpoints, so I tried to sit down and figure out if BRT really is deserving of its status as the crappy version of LRT. There are some common threads in the arguments that fly back and forth between LRT and BRT folks, which will be discussed individually. These are; which is cheaper to build/maintain, which is more cost effective, and which has the propensity to attract more riders?

Which Mode is Cheaper to build/Maintain?

BRT: BRT advocate's main argument is that BRT provides the same levels of service as light rail, but at a substantially lower construction and maintenance cost. One BRT website reports that the average construction cost per mile for LRT is around $70 million, while BRT is a "mere" $25 million per mile. Additionally, they claim savings in maintenance and operations costs, citing that there is less infrastructure, and simplified vehicle maintenance due to the fact that where as LRT has overhead catenary, a signaling system and rails/ties, BRT has paved road and buses, that are essentially no different from other buses which operate on the street, thus simplifying maintenance facilities, and employees needed.

LRT: LRT' advocates counter that these claims are a mirage. That in fact, Busways can be just as expensive as LRT if not more. They cite Pittsburgh's own West Busway as their main example. Which, like every other Port Authority project since the beginning of time has come in late and over budget. The cost of the project was $320 million for 5 miles of Busway, or roughly $40 million per mile. LRT advocates also claim that any cost savings in construction and lower overhead for maintenance are outweighed by the fact that the guideway for a BRT system has a MUCH shorter lifespan, along with the shorter lifespan of the buses vs. LRV's.

My Take: Edge BRT. There's a couple facts that should be taken into account. The West Busway was insanely expensive, and its cost per mile is much higher than what BRT advocates state the average cost per mile should be. However, that cost of $40 million is less than the average LRT. (Look at the NSC, if you DON'T count the tunnels, the construction cost per mile is approx $166 million*)

Which mode is More Cost Effective?

BRT: Advocates claims that BRT is more cost effective because the overall construction and maintenance costs are lower, and you get all the benefits of LRT. They even claim some advantages that LRT can not share, such as the ability of certain bus routes to operate at grade for portions of their route, and on the guideway for parts of ther route (for example, the Allegheny Valley Flyer which travels to East Liberty at grade, and then bypasses the bulk of Pittsburgh traffic by traveling the last 5 or so miles into Downtown on the Busway.)

LRT: LRT advocates claim that these benefits are overstated, and that BRT cannot provide the levels of service that LRT can. A study conducted by the city of Hamilton, Ontario found that in every city surveyed but one, operations and maintenance costs per rider were LESS for LRT vs. BRT.

My Take: Rest of the world, Edge LRT (Pittsburgh, Edge BRT). Why is that you say? There is a big caveat to this study; wanna know the only city whose cost per rider was higher for LRT than BRT? That's right, Pittsburgh. Across the board in Pittsburgh it costs more per passenger to run the T than it does to operate and maintain all three busways. The Hamilton report surmises that has to do with Pittsburgh's relatively low population vs. some of the other cities studied, such as Portland, San Diego, and Denver.

Which has the Propensity to Attract More Riders?

BRT: This is the one point the BRT advocates will readily wave the white flag on. They have recognized that the public prefers rail, whether it be a heavy metro or LRT. There are numerous studies on both websites to back this statement up. Even the BRT websites have not tried to directly challenge the assertions that BRT is less attractive to riders than LRT. Instead, they have undertaken studies on how to make BRT more attractive to those who prefer rail. (In short, their proposed answer is, make it as much like rail as possible).

LRT: Who's to argue with logic like that? When the BRT folks are conceding that they are not as attractive to riders, there's not much more to say.

My Take: Rest of the World: Edge LRT. Pittsburgh: Push. Once again, Pittsburgh bucks the trend. Pittsburgh's busways carry on average 17,000 more people per day than the T.

In most cases is LRT superior to BRT, in my unqualified opinion, yes. However, I think there is a tendency to dismiss BRT and I believe that notion to be a little bit short sighted. Clearly in the case of Pittsburgh, the Busway system has been very successful when you compare it to the T. Busways carry more riders and do it for less money.

Is a BRT a sure fire option over LRT? Of course not, but LRT is not always guaranteed to be a better option than BRT. In a place like Boston, BRT doesn't necessarily make sense, especially given the existing infrastructure and dense population. However, in a smaller population city like Pittsburgh, it's clear that BRT can fill a vital role. It can provide high quality, and rapid service by taking buses of the street and putting them on their own separated grade guideway, and do it more effectively than LRT. The point is, maybe urban planners need to look at both options, and don't just look at the biased opinions of special interest groups who clearly have an agenda beyond providing efficient transit service.


ClickNathan said...

I wonder what affect the communities in PGH have on these studies. The East Busway serves both low income areas where people are more likely to need transit as well as the more progressive populations who are, again, more prone to see buses as a way of life. Not to mention most of the colleges.

The South is MUCH more hilly, more suburban in that once you pass Dormont you need a car as neighborhoods become more segmented (shopping plazas here, residences there). So perhaps the population is just not that into transit.

Hands down, a morning commute on the T is 5x more appealing than the bumpy buses.

Michaek said...

I would suggest that the stats on BRT vs. LRT in Pittsburgh are misleading because of the relative population densities served. (That is, the East Busway serves areas of much higher population density.) I'd also guess that ridership on the East Busway corridor would increase substantially if it ran rail vehicles rather than buses, due to both increased capacity and rider preference.

East Busway Blogger said...

You bring up some very good points about the areas that the respective forms of transit serve.

Your points feed well into the arguments of public perception of BRT vs. LRT. Additionally, your last comment is very telling and I think encapsulates public perception very well.

I still have to wonder how much of that negative perception is self inflicted, at least in Pittsburgh's case. The East Busway is bumpy, the buses are beat up, smokey and loud just like all the other Port Authority buses.

If you want to give the public the perception that BRT is just as good as LRT, then you can't maintain it as if its an inferior option. That includes guideway and vehicle maintenance. Investing in high capacity Hybrid or battery powered buses as the sole EBA, EBS, and EBO I think would do wonders for people's perceptions. Also, how about a little paving every now and then?

Having said all that, I can't argue with a quick and easy way to get from my backyard to Downtown

East Busway Blogger said...

I can't say that you're wrong. I thought of that myself as I was putting this all together. I could honestly see a rise in ridership if the East Busway was converted to LRT.

However, I'm not sure that for an extra thousand or so riders a day it's worth, say $90 million for infrastructure and increased maintenance costs. (just throwing these numbers out for sake of argument, they could be higher or lower)

I think HONEST studies would have to be conducted to find out just how many people who do not currently use the busway would be willing to use it if it were converted to LRT. On a side note, throwing out numbers like the Port Authority is known to do(30,000 riders a day on the west busway??????) to justify projects is not recommended.

Paz said...

Ditto the previous post. It's apples and oranges between the busways and the T. Population and length is different dramatically.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Nice post. Right off the bat I'll admit i like LRT better. My question for Pittsburgh would be, how many more riders would the region have if the busways were rail? We may never know. But the external costs such as GHG emissions from tighter land use patterns around stations and particulates from buses shouldn't be left out of the discussion.

As much as people want to make this out to a cost issue, I personally believe it is more of a livability issue (I also believe that LRT for core corridors is necessary) I also believe that all major routes in a city that aren't transit spines should have features of Bus Rapid Transit. Why is it something special that only mainline corridors should be considered for? Why not que jumps and real time arrival for all corridors? Because this discussion that is going on around the country (BRT vs LRT) is due to the fact that we don't invest enough in transit. Therefor we're kicking ourselves trying to figure out how to cheapen the program rather than how to invest in our future. We should be kicking the highway people, demanding that they stop using scarce resources for a suburban interchange when that money could serve more people in the city.

East Busway Blogger said...

Thanks! I'm a novice in this area so it's nice to hear kind words from people who are more knowledgeable than I am.

There's so much in-fighting between advocates of different transit modes. You're very much pro-LRT, but can say that BRT like functions have a place in transit and transportation systems. Unfortunately, many transit advocates have an absolutist approach. Either it must be BRT, or it must be LRT. Meanwhile, as you said, they're building another suburban interchange and neglecting transit.

Michaek said...

I agree with Pantograph Trolleypole: turf struggles should be against highway development rather than road-based transit development. Perhaps the folks who have absolute positions against BRT are thinking back to dieselization as a strategy for dismantling public transit networks, more than opposing BRT in itself.