Bus Rapid Transit in the US
The headline that caught my eye was one of those “no surprise there” moments: “U.S. Lags Behind China, Colombia in Bus Rapid Transit” In fact it probably safe to say that the US lags in nearly every aspect of urban transit – as well as inter city of course where China is rapidly building an intercity High Speed Rail system when states are returning federal funds allocated to them to study HSR! It is also worth noting that the story comes from the New York Times blog “Climate Wire”. So far as I know none of our mainstream media has anything like that. Irritatingly, but in common with most mainstream media web pages, there is a report on line but the NYT does not link to it. And one of the reasons for me posting this story to this blog is that even though I may have some issues with what that report says I think you should read it and have access to the whole thing since it is free and a pdf. It is worth noting that the report is well annotated and provides an extensive list of sources and references.
The report is produced by The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy - which is genuinely independent. It was founded by Michael Replogle and has “transformed… from a small advocacy nonprofit to a leading international organization with over 60 staff members in offices in Africa, Asia, and Latin America” by its current Executive Director, Walter Hook. I make this point becuase BRT has caught the attention of a number of right wing organizations, such as the Reason Institute: not that they are transit advocates so much as advocates for reducing government spending, and BRT appeals to them. The idea was, after all, born out of poverty. Places like Curitiba and Bogota could not afford rail based rapid transit, but needed to do something both fast and cheap to reduce the impact of rapidly rising car use.
We also need to be aware of what is right and wrong with BRT since our right wing government also likes the idea for most of this region and has talked a lot of it – especially when challenged by its commitment to expanding road networks and especially freeways. By the way, I cannot resist once again asking what on earth is happening to the Highway #99 bus lanes which were largely completed nearly a year ago and still remain out of use.
BRT can be a useful stepping stone as a way of changing a region from low use bus ridership to something more transit oriented. It is not the only way that can happen. And many cities have been working hard to make their systems work better through the use of bus lanes, signal priority and other measures. Both London and Paris are in the process of building massive new rail systems as well, but have been upgrading the bus network at the same time as improving bike lanes and so on. It is as much an attitude of mind as anything else. In London they got serious about central area congestion and introduced “cordon pricing” – the congestion charge. At the same time, given the length of time it takes to build or improve rail based transit and the fact that the underground and surface systems were at or over capacity at peak times, improving bus service – speed and reliability – was the only way to go. But they did not go for the bells and whistles of BRT but rather a rolling programme of increasing services, buying more buses, and getting those buses through the traffic more effectively.
It is this programmatic effect that I think we need to turn our attention to. The report is worth studying, and it has some really useful sources. But it also betrays its belief in magic bullets because when you check out its BRT checklist (The BRT Standard) you find a number of things there that really have little or nothing to do with better transit service quality.
“Bus lanes in central verge of the road” -
All of the world’s best BRT systems have their dedicated rights-of-way in the center of the road. This is true for streetcars and light-rail systems, and for the same reasons.
The median may well be a good place to fit a new transit right of way into a highway oriented urban area. In much of the United States converting the median and centre lanes of freeways and expressways has been a common theme – for instance much of the Chicago elevated, outside of the loop, is in freeway medians. That does not make for good station locations. When the transit passenger gets off the vehicle, they become pedestrians again. And the last place a pedestrian wants to be is in a freeway median or on the centre of an interchange. These are very difficult locations to get too, and hard to convert into transit oriented development. Stations ought to be in central places not stuck out at the margins. Yes if you are going to do BRT in a US metropolis, by all means look at converting freeway and expressway lanes, but recognize that you will have an expensive project to convert such a place into an urban area. In the case of boulevards, I am also unhappy at ideas that suggest medians are good places for people. In Vancouver we are much more concerned about preserving medians for trees than people.
In fairness the report does do a reasonable job of examining “circumstances where central median alignment’s superiority is more debatable”
“Stations occupy former road/median space (not sidewalk space)” – again much depends on location. I agree that sidewalk space should not be lost but a lot can be done through the use of set backs. I am especially interested in what can be done to civilize suburban streets, where often car parking is used between the back of the sidewalk and the front of the property. Bringing the buildings forward, widening the sidewalk and creating space – not for movement but for sitting and enjoying people watching – is what makes for a good urban space. If there has to be some parking it goes in the back or underneath the building.
“Branding of vehicles and system” – if it makes the bus more identifiable then fine. But it really does very little compared to the things that are really important like increased service frequency. We have had branding here for a while, and it means almost nothing. B Line liveried buses work lots of routes that are not B Lines. The word “Express” gets used and abused. The B line you get on may or may not be branded. The high floor yellow coaches used for some freeway longer distance services turn up on Community Shuttles. Route #620 (the Ferry connection to Tsawwassen) is usually a low floor artic, not a high floor coach but spends most of its run on the freeway.
“Performance-based contracting for operators” – this is the right wing way. Again, not really to do with passenger experience, although it can be, the reason that it is advocated is as a way of putting pressure on cost reductions. That is not say that it is not a useful device but it does have to be part of the a broader service based philosophy and has little to do with BRT per se. In the birth throes of the former GVTA when contracting out was supposed to be the way of the future, we even looked at adopting a passengers’ charter – something that had been widespread as Britain converted from nationalized industries to competitive private sector provision. It was a passing fantasy that did not survive long. It has to be admitted that increasing passenger numbers have been achieved in Britain, especially on the railways. But that has not lead to any decline in passenger complaints – of which complex (and high priced) fare systems and overcrowding are the greatest.
“Peak-period pricing” – I have no idea why that is important in determining whether or not your system qualifies as BRT (see above) It might be a good idea. We used to have it system wide and people complained about how complicated it was. It now applies all day on weekdays. Incidentally, one thing I do notice when I get on the Canada Line to go downtown is how crowded the platform gets at 18:30 – and that is the time when trains are running into the yard out of service.
“Platform-level boarding” – Many of the South American systems use high floor buses. I think this may have more to do with when they were introduced but it could also be a cost consideration. The stations are more expensive than simple bus stops, but the vehicles are cheaper to build and maintain. They also have flat floors throughout. The problem we have with low floor buses – and is also very noticeable on some newer US tram and LRT systems – is that the low floor area is designed for wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.
It is not actually very friendly for many users who are able to walk but have other challenges. There are very few seats in the low floor area, and even fewer eye level grab handles. To get to the seat you have to get through an area where you hope the vehicle does not start moving- and then climb steps to get to a seat. Many more people have limited mobility than use wheelchairs – or strollers come to that. And that is an increasingly important issue as the boomers get older and start experiencing joint pain. You do not have to have been a rugby player to experience arthritis in the knees. (Incidentally, the absence of down escalators on the Canada Line also shows appalling ignorance of this issue.)
I also wonder about the number of items that get scored that are not about BRT but about having a decent transit system. These things need to be considered but again do not really make much of a difference when you do an analysis of BRT versus LRT. I wonder too about a table which has three times the points for cycle integration than pedestrian integration. We are all of us pedestrians most of the time: only a few of us are cyclists some of the time.
It is also very clear from the table that Vancouver has never had BRT – and I will be very surprised if anything that is introduced in this region using buses scores very highly on this table.