Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Suburban Double Standard

An interesting quote from the folks in Massachusetts.
Egan said that Governor Deval Patrick and Aloisi remain committed to bringing rail to the region because "we will not get the same economic bang for the buck" with bus service.
This is in response to the South Coast commuter rail alternatives analysis in which they were examining express buses as an alternative. I never understood this need to study the alternatives to a commuter rail line like express bus when for the most part the reason to build the line would be to take advantage of the rail ROW. It's either cost effective and useful or its not.

Now on the issue of bus and rail and the quote above. It seems like a bit of a double standard. Why would you say something like that to the suburbs about rail when you are doing exactly the opposite in the core with the Silver Line BRT tunnel. Can't have it both ways guys.


Anonymous said...

"Compared with train lines, bus lines are usually much less expensive and building them often makes less of an impact on the environment. The express bus concept, which includes dedicated lanes, is estimated to cost $500 million, but would draw fewer passengers."

WTF? Are they trying blow green smoke up peoples butts?

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Yeah that's the BS that Randall has been pushing lately. Building rail lines are more carbon intensive and therefor a bad investment. Another reason why we should keep pushing back on that annoying lie machine.

Anonymous said...

There is some logic to what they're saying--where there is pre-existing ROW, it's cheaper. In the suburbs, there is pre-existing ROW. For the Silver Line, there is not.

Note that I said "some" logic. I believe rail is almost always better, but I make sure to deconstruct opposing arguments effectively.

t_F said...

These discussions will remain irrelevant as long as we continue to fetishize one mode of transit over another. Whats the difference between bus and rail? steel vs. rubber wheels? c'mon. in some contexts, buses will serve demand better, and in others, rail will. In either case, transit must be optimized for best performance based on population density, geography, available budget, political will, distance between stops, land use, etc., etc.

yes, I'm a "fan" of rail, but transit decisions demand pragmatic and innovative thinking or else nothing will happen. pragmatism, as we learned during the Bush years, is impossible when you put blind ideological faith in something.

arcady said...

The problem is that we have an oversupply of buses, and an undersupply of rail. And in some cases, like the Silver Line in Boston, it's just so completely and totally obvious that the bus is the wrong solution. Likewise, for regional rail type operations, buses really just can't compete. Either they go fast, or they serve cities along the way, but they can't do both because they'd have to exit the freeway. BRT is not a new idea: it's been around in some form since at least the 1950s, and it's rarely the right tool for the job.

t_F said...

The fact that BRT has been around for half a decade is irrelevant to this discussion. My point was about specific innovations that might allow transit to be deployed flexibly, according to existing and future demand (not bus rapid transit as a categorically new idea). For example: contact-less electification and sunken tracks could ostensibly support electric bus fleets AND lightrail in the context of a shared corridor. The result: local buses could potentially go express along a right-of-way shared with rail.

Condemning bus rapid transit as ineffective because "it has to exit the freeway" makes no sense. All modes including rail need to stop, unless you’ve devised a system for moving alightments. Whether they stop on the side of a freeway, on a fixed railway, a grade-separated transitway, or along a hybrid corridor such as the one described above, mode of conveyance does not figure in.

Lets get real: cities like LA or Houston will never be well-served by rail in the short-term. We need a more flexible hybrid approach, or at the very least, a plan to transition to more rail-happy cities. People will drive less in the coming decades, but its going to take a while.

Not sure what you mean by “we already have too many buses.” The fact is, before the suburban exodus of the 50s and 60s, bus ridership was much higher per capita than it is now in many cities, certainly much higher amongst the middle-classes. The middle classes will be back, soon, and they won’t care if its wheels of steel or wheels of rubber, just that it saves them cash and gets them where they need to go in the shortest period of time.

arcady said...

t_F: having to exit the freeway is actually very, very relevant here. Most freeways don't go through the center of town. Many rail lines do. So a bus, to serve the centers of towns, has to exit the freeway and drive some distance down local streets. The train just has to decelerate for the stop, and then accelerate back up to line speed. Whether the stop is along a freeway or on a rail line in the center of town actually does make a huge difference.

The other fundamental problem with bus transit is that it's fundamentally a fairly low capacity mode. In any transit network, you're going to have some kind of ridership distribution with a core of high-ridership routes and a periphery of low-ridership routes. You can't have one without the other though: the periphery is what feeds the riders into the core. The problem is that if your core is bus-based, the total system capacity is inherently limited, and the ridership on the periphery is very poor. If you want to have a ridership that's high enough on the periphery to justify those routes, the core won't be able to handle it. So in LA, for example, in many cases, there's really nothing more that can be done with buses. The magnitude of the problem is such that only rail can fix it, at least along the busiest corridors. And the Orange Line just goes to show that the cutoff for rail to be more effective isn't so high: it's already hit the limit of its capacity after only 3 years.

Matt Fisher said...

They can't have it both ways indeed. Randal O'Toole is a (pardon my French) w***e for more highways.

To Arcady: Our core transit here in Ottawa has been bus based for the past 25 years, and the problems are already inherent. Won't you agree that the Transitway we have has a capacity problem that can't at least be served with 400 or so more buses? You are right about your undersupply/oversupply comment.

In a little "shameless plug", you can read my comment in the "A Different View" posting. I have something witty at the end. I'm closing my comment the same way as I just did in there: :)

t_F said...

arcady: there are plenty of examples of bus transitways that discharge on a grade-separated platform above or below the freeways and roads. Bogota, Los Angeles, yes even Boston's Silver Line. This isnt to say that exiting the freeway is a bad thing, however: the advantage of buses over rail is that they are not tethered to fixed infrastructure and are therefore more flexible. This means that they can pick people up at local stops, drive express along the freeway, and drop people off locally downtown or wherever. Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus route #10 is a great example, serving commutes between Santa Monica and Downtown LA. Think how much more effective would it be on a separated transitway?

To your second point: Bus is certainly not a low-capacity mode. Yes, buses carry fewer passengers than light or heavy rail, but they carry 50 times the amount of a single-occupancy vehicle (car). At those margins, it hardly matters if you're carrying 50 or 250 people--just add 4 more buses, better than adding 200 cars.

Lastly, your hierarchical distribution of ridership works great in hub-and-spoke cities like those on the east coast, where there's a clear downtown center and surrounding periphery. Younger sunbelt cities, however, often lack this sort of hierarchy. There are many transit itinerariess, not just the standard core-periphery journey. The importance of non-core/periphery routes is bourne out by the very example that you use against BRT: the orange-line, which is near ridership capacity (a good thing!). This is due in large part to the fact that the orange-line is not grade separated and therefore must deal with stack-ups at traffic signals.

So, there's at least three options for the orange line: grade separation, conversion to rail and/or conversion of boulevard(s) to the north into redundant transitways. I would certainly endorse an orange-line lightrail to help ease the load and augment transit options. But this needn't preclude busses from continuing to run over the orange line--this would be a missed oppportunity. For who live, say, in Canoga park and work in Hollywood, a door-to-door local/express/local bus is a lot nicer that two intermodal transfers.

Matt Fisher said...

I've heard enough about the "one seat ride" argument. The "one seat rides" in Ottawa, while sounding good (in theory), contributes to dozens of buses bunching up. Let's not fight over whether trains are better or whether buses are better, but let's not substitute buses in place of where there should be rail. I don't want to turn this into "mode wars".

Why was it a good idea to pave over rail lines for busways, when rail would have clearly been more appropriate? I know what you mean. Lower density routes are not ideally suited for rail, especially since we don't want to pay costs that are too high to initially bear. But we don't want to accept the notion that buses are better than trains in corridors clearly meant for rail. Let's not turn this into the "mode wars". (Dang, I ended the paragraphs with the same phrase.)

The public prefers rail more than buses, and dozens of improvements will not change that perception instantly. The "benchmark" of comparison is not Curitiba. Yes, the flexibility is a major advantage of buses, but, like cost, it doesn't trump every other consideration.

arcady said...

t_F: I am personally quite familiar with the LA transportation system, and while I think a few targeted improvements to certain bus corridors would help make life easier for bus riders and maybe make the bus more attractive, the fact of the matter is that pretty much everyone who would want to take buses already is. To attract more ridership, you need a system that is faster than driving, which is, surprisingly enough, not that hard in the traffic choked Westside. And what I said about a distribution of ridership is pretty much true anywhere, because no matter what, trip destinations are going to be more concentrated in some places than others. In a city like LA, it might be many hubs instead of NYC's four or so, but there's still a huge difference in ridership between the 20/720 bus and the 177, and that would persist even if the 177 was free and infinitely fast. Routes like the 720 or Orange Line are core routes (in terms of network structure and trip distribution, not geographically), and routes like the 176 or 177 are peripheral ones. LA, in particular, has the problem that the core routes do not have enough capacity, and the only way to increase that is by building rail.

By the way, it's also not entirely obvious that your one seat ride is necessarily better than a transfer. If the direct bus comes once an hour, but the route involving two transfers runs every 8 minutes, I suspect the latter would be more successful. Oh and freeway stations, especially bus stations, have proven to be very expensive failures for the most part, at least in LA. The only two remotely successful ones are I-105/I-110 (because of the transfer), and Cal State, because they got the rare benefit of a major destination with many bus riders right by the freeway.

Alon Levy said...

Lastly, your hierarchical distribution of ridership works great in hub-and-spoke cities like those on the east coast, where there's a clear downtown center and surrounding periphery. Younger sunbelt cities, however, often lack this sort of hierarchy.This is not really true. The two most decentralized major cities in the US are Miami and Philadelphia. Philly has emptied out, and has several large edge cities, for example Cherry Hill and King of Prussia, as well as many edgeless cities, which are even lower-density than edge cities.