Friday, January 16, 2009

Leave Something Out?

I have to take issue with reports like these. The reason being is that it seems like these folks are operating in this vacuum and aren't considering holistically what will happen in the future with these types of investments. This is part of the problem in much of the environmental community and one of the reasons why there needs to be greater education on the values of transit not just in transportation but its affects on development and land use. There seems to be this massive disconnect and I haven't seen anyone in the main stream environmental movement quite get it yet.

The World Resources Institute has issued a report that states BRT is better than LRT for the Purple Line. The question is how they came to this conclusion. It's littered with the usual objections to light rail with a few new ones for good measure. My favorite quip is the "we like light rail but not in this instance" which we've seen about a million times before. In the report, they even admit to thinking short term.
Major capital projects implemented in the near-term will shape the long-term future of transport in the region. WRI urges regional planners and other decision makers to consider current needs and concerns in the context of tomorrow’s transportation challenges, especially regarding traffic congestion, fuel costs, and climate change.
So what you're saying is that we should look at everything? Well you forgot a few things guys, like changes in development patterns, particulate matter and lifecycle costs in terms of construction. Replacing all the buses every 12 years is always good for the environment. Another annoying FTA related issue is the no build alternative. It's not really a no build but rather a basic bus service. Of course incremental change from a bus line to BRT is going to be more "cost effective". The other bus line doesn't even exist! Then there is this:
As illustrated in Figure 7, only the Medium and High Investment BRT alternatives reduce CO2 emissions, with 8,883 and 17,818 fewer metric tons per year, respectively, compared to the No Build scenario. All of the remaining alternatives increase annual emission levels compared to No Build.

Energy consumption from roadways decreases with introduction of LRT, but the resulting emissions reduction is not sufficient to counterbalance the effect caused by the high electricity CO2 emission factor. While we anticipate that this emission factor will decrease in the future due to increased use of renewable energy sources and likely GHG reduction legislation, these drivers have not been included in the AA/DEIS. Further consideration is given to the electricity emission factor in the following sections.
Again. The no build doesn't even exist, so how is the BRT line reducing emissions and LRT isn't? Well the truth is it is reducing emissions because the alternative isn't the no build but rather nothing at all. Both lines reduce GHGs in the transportation sense. What we don't know is exactly what the reductions in VMT are going to be from land use and whether the land use patterns will create more incentives to walk, creating even less car trips and development patterns that themselves save infrastructure and energy costs. Not to mention they say nothing about particulates from a single source of pollution versus multiple sources that spew along a whole corridor.

In all reality, the Purple Line should be a subway. Bringing it down to light rail is bad enough, but all the way down to bus rapid transit would be a wasted opportunity to change the corridor. But for once, could someone do an analysis that includes land use change, the issues of air pollution, the real lifecycle costs? This analysis shows how much affect the FTA policy has on what our future will look like, and that is upsetting. Let's stop leaving out the whole picture.


Morgan Wick said...

I hope you've sent this straight to the source.

Cap'n Transit said...

The source is suspect. They say "We aren’t opposed to light rail in general, but we just don’t think it’s the best option for this particular project." But if you look at their "transport solutions" web page, you'll see that they don't think light rail is the best option for any project.

Unknown said...

The question for WRI is "have they ever supported a LRT Line?" From their website, it appears that rail transit of any kind is not viewed to have any role in addressing GHGs, urban congestion or anything else. Their suggestion that BRT has not gotten a good enough look is really a stretch for those of whose who watched as the Purple Line study was delayed by a governor who added a BRT option to avoid impacting his favorite country club. Now, after 20 years of study, the LRT Purple Line looks like it will move forward with strong support from the two counties through which it will run. Will WRI work with those doing their best to derail this project, or will it put aside its partisan comments in favor of seeing something done after such a long wait?

Anonymous said...

Cap'n, it's more than suspicious. The WRI's transportation program was established by a grant from Shell Oil Company, which continues to give the program $1.5 million per year. In addition, the director of Shell's foundation advises the program on policy and strategy.

Richard Layman said...

The thing you have to remember is that WRI is an active proponent of BRT as a transportation solution overseas, and they work on many projects there.

There is no question that BRT works great overseas, where far more people don't own cars compared to the U.S., and where people are willing to endure crush loads double what people are willing to endure in North America. In other words, they fit about 160 people on a 60 foot bus.

And payroll is much cheaper in other countries than it is in the U.S.

WRI wants more BRT in the U.S. to help justify their case. their work in foreign countries.

But this fails to take into account three realities: (1) most people have cars or could buy them; (2) to get people with the option of automobility to drive you have to provide a high quality alternative; (3) research has proven time and time again that choice riders will ride fixed rail and except in rare instances, the won't ride bus.

The other thing it fails to take into account is the transit reality in Metropolitan Washington where people are familiar with transit, particularly heavy rail, a/k/a Metro or the subway. I just can't see people being willing to ride the bus eagerly when they know about rail options. I ride buses and I know that except in a few situations, for the most part riders are lower income, mostly people of color. The apparent demographics do not match those of higher income populations in the region.

That being said, Montgomery County has one of the most successful suburban bus systems in the U.S., although for the most part it is designed to move people from home to subway station (although not all of the system is configured that way).

Also in our region, because policymakers know that full funding of rail-based transit (heavy, light, streetcar, railroad expansion) in all forms is not achievable, they are selling BRT too.

But we don't have, for the most part, the ability to deliver BRT in the fashion it is provided in places like Curitiba and Bogota. Fortunately, many of the 1960s freeway plans were halted by community opposition.

From the BRT perspective, it means the region lacks the type of usable freeway lane capacity that can be directed to fast BRT service. (Of course, this doesn't get into the issue of the fact that most freeway based transit systems don't work too well in terms of getting high usage.)

Instead, mostly what is being provided is limited stop but not really "express" service. I call it bus rapider transit.

We should just be direct and say we want to improve the transit system for people who have few choices, and make it work so great that people with mobility choices will ride it as well.

It's a shame that some of the Montgomery County politicos, people I had favored, are coming out in favor of BRT because they believe they can get more transit service for the same money (also fund another BRT system in upper Montgomery County).

Who cares if you fund 2 "great" systems if they aren't used, or don't accomplish the same objectives in terms of true mode shift and land use improvements.

I am in PGH at the moment. If people don't know, it is one of the only places in the U.S. with true BRT services. It's fast (at least the routes I've ridden), using old trolley right of way, and on routes separated from traffic.

But in the great scheme of things, in the mobility network in Greater Pittsburgh, it's hardly used. Regardless of the "success" of BRT in Los Angeles (again used because of lack of money for fixed rail) I think that communicates the reality of BRT in the U.S. It meets most of the definitions of what FTA says should be quality BRT. And it doesn't get used.

And the DC region has successful fixed rail transit... making lack of use by choice riders almost certain.

(Actually, although this response is too long as it is, BRT could work with the upper MontCo "Corridor Cities Transit" proposal but only because there are extremely limited fixed rail transit options currently.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for hosting an interesting discussion around WRI's comments on the Purple Line, for which I am lead author. I’d like to address a few of the opinions expressed on this thread.

First, you should know that regarding WRI's sources of funding, we are absolutely independent of Shell Foundation (which in itself is a philanthropic entity separate from Shell Company) and they have not contributed in any way to our Purple Line study. WRI is funded by a wide range of public and private organizations (see for a complete list), and we paid for this particular analysis with unrestricted internal resources. WRI adheres to a strict policy of transparency regarding our funding sources, and has a long-standing reputation of credibility and independence in our analysis. We are not pushing any agenda on the Purple Line, other than our desire to contribute constructively to an important local transit debate.

Second, regarding our stance on light rail, it is true that to date we have not advocated for LRT among the specific transit projects in which we’ve engaged. However, this does not mean that we are intrinsically opposed to light rail, nor does it mean that as a rule we only support bus rapid transit. For example, we believe that LRT would be appropriate in conditions of much higher ridership than that anticipated for the Purple Line (as this could improve cost-effectiveness and greenhouse gas emissions to a level comparable to BRT). LRT could also be preferable from a climate change perspective in areas powered with low-carbon energy sources. We certainly recognize that LRT has proven effective in highly constrained urban environments, as is the case with several applications in Europe. We also speak favorably of LRT in our report (see Appendix A, p. 20, of our report), using Portland’s MAX line as an example of a successful system.

That said, our experience shows that bus rapid transit is often beneficial to the local community – for many of the same reasons as light rail. (This is true in the U.S. as well as internationally – although currently there are very few BRT systems in the United States.) Further, in the midst of a financial and climate crisis, we believe that cost-effectiveness and greenhouse gas emissions are critical factors to consider. And as both MTA’s and WRI’s analyses indicate, BRT is stronger than LRT on both fronts for the Purple Line.

Our support for BRT should not be interpreted as an effort to delay this project any further. We fully recognize the urgent need for improved transit options in the east-west corridor (in fact, one reason we support BRT is that it can be implemented faster than light rail), and we state clearly in our comments to MTA that the No Build and TSM options are not viable. We also recognize that LRT appears to be the favored option locally, and we applaud the significant support for a transit-oriented solution. However, it is evident that BRT has been misrepresented in the Purple Line debate, and we do wish to better inform the discussion to ensure that people really understand what they are giving up if they decline BRT.

I am happy to discuss the particulars of our report further, but I just want to be clear that we have the same end in mind as you: rapid implementation of a quality mass transit system in the east-west corridor. Our analysis just happens to lead us to the conclusion that BRT is the better bet for the Purple Line.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Thanks for your comment Mr. Fuhs, however you didn't address anything I mentioned in my blog post about the urban development pattern issue as well as the true cost effectiveness of projects(which is not FTA's definition as many might think). Your post actually proves that you don't really "get it". Seems like this is a boilerplate response to anyone who opposed or made comments on your study, rather than a response to this blog's questions (or Richard's comments above) in particular.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Trolleypole,

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, it’s been an extremely busy time. I wanted to respond to your last comments specifically. First, I want to be clear that my previous response was not a “boilerplate” to any opposition. I chose to address some of the more outlandish posts on this thread questioning WRI’s motives and funding, and I was absolutely sincere in my remarks. As local residents with substantive knowledge of transit issues, WRI is simply interested in contributing our experience to the Purple Line debate, and I’m sorry if you or your readers think otherwise. You are welcome to disagree with our assessment, but frankly I think you are out of line to question our integrity.

Regarding questions of development patterns, cost effectiveness, ridership projections, and environmental impacts, these areas are certainly open to debate, and by nature are uncertain.

That said, regarding the land-use issue, I agree that transit-oriented development generally encourages economic growth and emissions reductions (as well as other benefits). However, one cannot assume that transit-oriented development would include LRT but not BRT. For example, as you may know, a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association (see looking at this issue considers both rail and traditional bus systems (although unfortunately it does not look at BRT specifically), and indicates that both can lead to significant positive land use changes. In any case, there is no reason to assume that LRT has a greater impact on land use than high-quality BRT if the systems provide similar travel times, capacities, and overall quality of service, as would be the case for the Purple Line. Moreover, developers can benefit from the shorter implementation time that BRT projects bring as compared to LRT.

Regarding cost-effectiveness, I would be interested to hear your view on what constitutes “true cost-effectiveness” if not the FTA measure of cost per hour of user benefit. In the meantime, since that is the measure being used, WRI’s analysis corroborates what the DEIS shows, that BRT is far more cost-effective than LRT in this case. It also indicates a good chance that the cost and ridership projections for the Purple Line are overly optimistic (as is often the case with proposed transit projects), and that in reality the actual cost and ridership of the system would push the LRT cost-effectiveness measure well beyond what is deemed acceptable by FTA. And in the midst of a severe financial crisis, when even state education budgets are being cut dramatically, I’d like to think that we could “suffer” with a BRT and survive without the relative extravagance of a light rail system that is more than twice as expensive while only providing marginally greater speed and capacity.

I’d also like to clarify something regarding No Build. You state in your comments that “no build doesn’t even exist, so how is the BRT line reducing emissions and LRT isn’t?” The fact is, No Build does exist… it is also known as “business as usual,” or what we have right now, today, which is the existing roads and bus systems along the corridor. This existing transport system produces a certain level of emissions. What we (and MTA) are saying is that by building a medium or high investment BRT system in the corridor, this would reduce GHG emissions from current levels by getting more people out of single vehicles and moving them more efficiently along the corridor than is currently the case. The significant fuel savings from this system would lead to the reduced GHG levels. The reason light rail would increase GHG emissions over No Build is due to the electricity source, which for this region is primarily coal-fired power plants. While people would leave their cars and move more efficiently along the corridor with light rail, the coal plant emissions generated to produce the electricity required for the Purple Line would exceed the emissions savings from getting people out of their cars. Unless the electric grid were to move quickly, significantly, and permanently toward clean energy sources, or unless the light rail Purple Line were to attract significantly more people than currently projected, light rail would increase GHG emissions for the foreseeable future.

You also mention our lack of response regarding particulates. I should be clear here that WRI’s intent with our comments was not to recreate or analyze the entire DEIS, but rather to focus on areas where we felt the DEIS could be improved. But since you ask, WRI fully agrees with the need to reduce air pollution in the region (in particular PM2.5 for which the DC area is currently a non-attainment area, and O3 for which it is a moderate non-attainment area). Using the methodologies prescribed by the federal government, the DEIS reports that all Purple Line “build” alternatives have a positive impact on local air quality, in that they are all forecast to reduce emissions in criteria pollutants from business as usual (see Table 4.7-4 in the DEIS). Thus, on the basis of criteria pollutants, there is no reason to oppose either LRT or BRT for the Purple Line. However, I repeat here that while all BRT and LRT options reduce emissions for criteria pollutants compared to No Build and TSM, this is not the case for GHG emissions. Only Medium and High Investment BRT lead to a reduction of GHG emissions when compared to business as usual. We believe that in a period of climate crisis, this is a very important consideration and should be emphasized in the decision making process.

In closing, I think it’s worth noting here the distinction between traditional buses and BRT. Richard talks about the lack of interest in buses in this country, and how BRT systems in other U.S. cities aren’t used much. It is true that the concept of bus rapid transit is not well understood in the United States, where there are only a few systems currently in operation. Richard also talks about the high quality of some of the BRT systems he’s seen, before lamenting that they don’t get used. I would ask you, does this mean we have to accept this reality? Do we therefore have to accept that even though there are superior, low-cost, low-emissions BRT systems available, we can’t build them because we think that no one will use them? Or wouldn’t it be worth investing in changing people’s perceptions and understanding of BRT and its benefits? In reality, BRT would be designed more like a light rail than a standard bus system, with features like dedicated lanes, signal priority, pre-pay boarding, elevated station platforms, and efficient and comfortable vehicles that make it much more efficient and appealing than a traditional bus service. For the Purple Line, BRT would also offer travel times that are competitive with light rail. Why wouldn’t we want this? With a well-designed, well-operated, and well-advertised BRT in place, there is good reason to believe that many people would use and appreciate the system.

Thank you again for the opportunity to comment.

Anonymous said...

I notice that Mr. Fuhs makes no mention of the fact that the most successful BRT system in the US, the LA Orange Line has already reached it's capacity limits and is on its third repaving which is severely impacting its schedule.

Matt Fisher said...

I gotta take issue with this, too. LRT now appears to be what the state of Maryland is favouring for this, being somebody living in Canada's capital, heralded as a Mecca of BRT by its proponents, while at the same time, America's capital is weighing this. LRT appears to be favoured by yours truly for this.

Besides, I notice that WRI is a supporter of BRT using Curitiba as their case. But now Curitiba is gonna build a true metro subway. I disagree with the WRI's assessment, and question some of the logic used in this regarding LRT.

"Replacing all the buses every 12 years is always good for the environment." Right. That'll save taxpayers money. Very funny. :)