Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bus Rapid Transit from an expert

In a class yesterday evening I was fortunate to listen to a presentation by Paul Schimek, a senior transportation planner at TranSystems and a BRT expert. I've written quite a bit on this blog about my misgivings about BRT, so I was eager to hear from a strong advocate and ask him some questions. The centerpiece of Paul's presentation was the BRT system, TransMilenio in Bogotá, which set the modern standard for BRT by the foundations of a comprehensive system.

It's an impressive system that was built to strict BRT standards--dedicated lanes, or quickways, prepaid boardings, platforms level with the bus to avoid steps, ultra-modern articulated buses, etc. What's more, a second part of the system not shown on the map above is an entire network of feeder buses to the trunk lines. Many of the quickways are double lanes in both directions to allow for passing, which is required to accommodate local and limited service. BRT was used in place of rail for the reduced time and cost of development. The cost for the initial segment was US$5.9 million/km, has 1.4 million riders a day in 2009, enjoyed 75% approval (Wikipedia.) The system opened in 2000 after only a couple years of development, according to Paul. There are a score of other noteworthy topics about TransMilenio, including the financing and contracting with pre-existing private operators.

Paul also described the BRT project in Ottawa, which is an older system constructed along unused highway lanes that had been intended for highway expansion. I had a couple questions about BRT that I was able to inject at this point. I rode the Ottawa buses in January from the Via Rail train station just outside downtown to the city center. My experience was poor. We exited the train station at around 9pm on a weeknight. I had been tracking the required bus on my iphone and it was also listed on a monitor in the train station. The connection would be tight, and unfortunately it required us to cross the wide street in front of the station and proceed through a covered corridor (think airport parking lot connection). At the end of the corridor we followed stairs leading down to the busway, which in this case was a lane down below the main street. As we negotiated the last flight of stairs with our large backpacks I saw a bus pull up and take off. We walked down to the bus shelter dispirited. There was no digital sign to indicate the next bus, but I knew they were twenty minutes apart. You can imagine that the temperature was around 0˚F, and the shelter was no more than a cold metal enclosure. So we trudged back up the stairs, back across the walkway and street, and plopped down in the train station to await the next bus. Upon boarding the next bus we took a series of quickways and shared roads. The buses were nothing special, the stops were ugly and minimal, as you would expect along a highway. We alighted at a nondescript intersection that was near our lodging. The bus was in local mode at that point, since one could get off every few blocks. The Ottawa train station serves direct connections from Toronto and Montreal, thus it is well used. I can't imagine why you would want visitors and businesspeople to arrive at the gateway to the nation's capital and jump on a bus. In fact, there are plans to replace this route with light rail.

To be fair, the Ottawa system lacks some BRT characteristics, such as pre-pay, level-boarding, modern buses, and upgrading stops to "stations." After disparaging the system in front of the class, I next asked Paul about the qualitative differences between BRT and light-rail/streetcars. Ottawa is not a pretty city, and the bus system seems to match the look of the city, even right in front of the beautiful national parliament building and Fairmont Hotel. I referenced the beautiful city centers in Europe that make use of light-rail/streetcar service in largely pedestrianized areas. Is there not a symbiotic relationship between a city's surface transit system and the city itself? In other words, a beautiful center in Europe theses days often begets a beautiful transit system, because anything less would not be fitting with the desired feel of the place. But it seems like there is also some knack for a beautiful transit system to spread beauty to its surroundings. Glancing at some Portland, OR streetcar images, there certainly seems to be some beautification that accompanies it:

Of course, these landscape improvements are often coupled with streetcar projects and cost money. But I think the idea of "coupling" is the key here. When you tear up the street to put in streetcar tracks, you might as well tear up the area around it and make it look nice, even if it's just the station area. Check out the light rail station in downtown Calgary:

Ugh, why didn't they take the asphalt out? This is a pedestrianized street! Calgary's system is a few decades old now, and I don't think planners would make this mistake nowadays with downtown rail. When you couple landscape improvements with rail installation, you achieve an implicit or explicit cascading effect to the surroundings. The street is nicer and has good access, so it attracts the type of people that want unique shops, nice housing, etc. It doesn't mean that the surrounding buildings must be leveled and rebuilt to Portlandia standards, but there is pedestrian-oriented, intellectual transformation of the place.

Can BRT achieve the coupling effect? Yes and no. One reason we install BRT is to save money. This often means that there is no additional money available for streetscape improvements. That's not a failing of BRT, but it's just a common precursor to BRT projects. To not spend the extra money on coupled streetscape improvements is foolish--half the point of new rail or BRT is to aesthetically distinguish it from the previous modes in order to enhance attraction to the service and surroundings (the other half being the improved level of service characteristics.) There have clearly been landscape improvements associated with the Transmilenio project, so I won't write off BRT's ability to couple:

I fear that in the US political context, as Paul testified, BRT will mostly be the solution for projects that fail to receive federal funding for rail. This lead to my other concern about BRT, which is that its mode equivalency with traditional bus service makes it an easy target for corner cutting. One may decide to build BRT, but if it's possible to save money by not having all dedicated lanes, not have special vehicles, not repaving the street to give the feeling of a fixed guideway, etc., then oftentimes those features will be cut from the project. And this seems to be common in the US. Boston's Silver Line cut corners at every turn. The Washington St. line has next-to-no dedicated lanes, and both lines rumble over the same bumpy streets as any other buses. They mostly lack prepaid boarding, have no step-free platforms, and lack a score of other fundamental BRT features. With streetcars and light rail, there is no mode equivalency, except when cities unwisely put streetcars on shared lanes with car traffic. Because surface rail requires a major change to the street service and requires a different type of rolling stock, compromises are hard to make. Plus, the higher cost of installation and vehicle acquisition make some compromises nonsensical. If you are going to put rail on a shared car lane, you might as well leave it as a bus. If you are going to regularly run buses over your dedicated streetcar lanes in place of the streetcars themselves, you might as well have left it as a bus (i.e. it's only financial sound to replace streetcars with buses for occasional maintenance or emergencies, and it's okay to let buses share the streetcar lane but not replace them.) It turns out the most common failing of surface rail projects is putting in too many stops and not giving signal priority.

Paul also argues effectively that BRT can be not just equivalent to rail but better, because it gives you more direct link capability (BRT buses can go off the dedicated lanes onto shared streets, whereas rail riders must alight and jump on a local bus.) I agree that not transferring is nice, but it's possible to have a trunk light-rail line that is easy to access without requiring local bus connectors. Europe succeeds at this remarkably well with friendly biking streets. In fact, having only trunk lines or no transfer-free service may even encourage better decisions about the character of a neighborhood. Taking people the first or last mile using buses without a transfer may encourage us to leave the local streets as they are--car dominated and unlivable. When you create a trunk network and put radii around each station to see whom it serves, it can lead to a good discussion about friendly networks to access the station, whether on foot, bike, personal electric motorized transport, or bus. Here's a radius map I made for a BART station in El Cerrito, CA:

Here I pointed out that the outer 2 mile radius could be covered in just 12 minutes by an electric bike on a steep hill, and just as fast by a regular bike in the non-hilly parts. The local buses are useful, but they happen to fit in with the car-heavy status quo.

I think the real problem with the bus transfer to rail is that the buses are typically not synced to the predictable rail lines. Countless times I've alighted the train only to see the bus depart oblivious of the train schedule. If you make sure the local buses have carfree lanes, signal priority, and sync with the train schedule, you solve most of the problem with transfers. Oh, and no double fares or transfer fees, of course! Or better yet, make your local buses free.

Finally, I believe there is a real qualitative difference between modern rail and modern BRT buses. Rail is smooth, easier to automate to reduce jerks (noticeable changes in acceleration), it's safer, and there is something magical about rail that is hard to capture in even the most perfect BRT bus--even an electric, battery powered bus. As a country built on inter- and inner-urban rail that we lost to the bizarre forces of history, I think we are entitled to have it back in modern form. The fact that we chronically under-finance transit while cars bathe in hidden subsidies and dreadful externalities means that we have the capability to shift the money and space wasted on cars to high quality transit systems.

Paul made me think highly of BRT, and it's certainly a friend in the battle against car-dominated cities. From a people-moving perspective BRT matches up well and even exceeds rail in some ways. But movement is part of the larger ecosystem, and when you look beyond movement rail looks stronger. The 1) lack of mode equivalence of rail that reduces corner-cutting, 2) its somewhat stronger ability to be a place-maker (however unfair to BRT), 3) its tangible comforts and intangible qualities, and 4) its history as the post-industrial shaper of the nation and cities all make it the best surface transit choice whenever possible. Others have made similar conclusions, but I needed to reaffirm my intuitions by mulling this over.

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