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.
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