One of the common questions we get from commenters is “why are you so sure that rail is the right solution?” and “why are you so enamored with rail?” Both these questions are often followed with “buses are cheaper”. I want to explain the main reasons why high capacity rail transit gets so many more riders, is so much more effective at moving people and why it is in the long run cheaper than bus transit. I want to focus on the argument between “bus rapid transit” (BRT) and light rail transit (LRT), so I’m going to ignore the elephant in the room: most bus rapid transit does not run in its own right of way, thus adding the largest knock against bus transit: buses get stuck in traffic.
Rail transit is more permanent than bus transit. As famous conservative rail transit supporter Paul Weyrich points out, one of the main arguments for buses is their “flexibility”. But this flexibility is the source of one of the largest draw-backs of bus transit: inconsistency. That a bus is “flexible” means that the routes are also flexible, and riders aren’t sure that a bus line will remain in place into the future. If someone is making a decision about where to live for the foreseeable future, say they’re buying a house, they won’t make that choice based on a bus line that may not be there in the future.
I’ve forwarded this argument before, and people have said “when was the last time a bus route was removed in Seattle?” When I was in high school I took the 43 to my running start classes at Seattle Central Community College. We moved from Capitol Hill to Wallingford, and I could take the 43 straight from Wallingford to Broadway. Then, in the middle of the year, Metro split the line: the 43 no longer went from Downtown through Capitol Hill to Ballard: most runs ended in the U District, where the 44 route to Ballard began. I can think of a couple other routes that did this same thing, the old 7 has been split into the 7 and the 49, the old 65 now stops in the U-District. So it happens; service can stop or shift dramatically. That makes people far less inclined to change their life around the bus.
The permanence of rails also leads to more development than buses. For the same reason as above, new development near rail transit tends to be higher density than development near bus transit: if you are building a large project, part of your plan has to be transportation. That’s the reason Microsoft settled next to SR 520, one of the reasons downtown Bellevue is so much more developed than, say, downtown Everett, and one of the reasons South Lake Union is currently attracting so much development (this is the streetcar and I-5). Imagine if I-405 weren’t permanent; would Bellevue be experiencing so much growth?
Rail is much more attractive to the non-dependent rider, and thus get more riders. As Carless in Seattle has pointed out:
[A]mong bus-based [High Capacity Transit] users, more than 60% of US bus riders do not own a car. But of rail-based HCT, nearly 60% of subway, streetcar and light rail users DO own a car. (Those numbers include Manhattan, where less than 20% of people own a car, vastly depressing the number of rail users in the rest of the US who could own a car but choose mass transit).
Seattle’s highest ridership bus routes go through the most transit dependent areas. Even with those routes, ridership is no where near the ridership of a rail line. Each Link station will get as many riders as most bus routes, and some will have far more boardings than even those routes with the most riders – and these estimates do not take into account development spurred by the system. University of Washington station, for example, is supposed to get some 27,000 daily riders in 2020. Recent light rail construction in the US has almost universally has almost universally exceeded pre-construction estimates, with only one exception (VTA, in the South Bay).
Stepping on a train is enough to see why the difference exists. Trains have a smoother ride, more comfortable seats, and more space. Boarding is also far simpler – instead of a dozen people fumbling with fares, there are several doors, and payment is done on the platform where it doesn’t affect operation. Anyone who’s ever been on a standing-room-only bus can attest to the discomfort. A forty-five minute 545 ride standing up in Friday evening traffic is enough to convince people to drive to work. Here’s photographic evidence of the difference.
The most expensive part of building high-capacity, reliable transit is the right of way – with very similar cost between BRT and LRT. Even Ted Van Dyk, the most adamant BRT supporter and light rail opponent, admits that BRT costs at most 30% less than LRT to build. For University Link, for example, 95% of the costs are for tunneling and stations. A BRT system that would serve the same corridor would need also to build its own right-of-way, and would cost just as much as light rail. And since BRT ridership projections tend to be more than 30% less than LRT in the same corridors, even if the Ted Van Dyks of the world were right, LRT would still be cheaper per passenger to build than comparable BRT.
Rail is cheaper to operate per passenger than buses are. Labor is over 50% of King County Metro’s costs. Each bus needs an operator, but an articulated bus only carries 80 at maximum, compared to 800 for a Link LRT train. And with diesel already over $5 a gallon, the gap in operations expenses will continue to grow. Even in bus systems with little to no right-of-way costs, total costs for BRT are higher per passenger mile than LRT. Metro takes a .9% sales tax share now, and moves about 365,000 people per day. A fully built out LRT package from Prop. 1 would have moved that many people by 2030, admittedly a long time, but would have cost just .15% to operate. The capital costs for rail are temporary expenses – Metro will keep spending .9% to move that many people for the next hundred years, but Sound Transit would build three Prop. 1 packages with the same money in that time. Considering about two-thirds of the Sound Transit district is King County, Metro would have to move 1,400,000 million people per day, nearly the entire population of King County right now, to be as cost effective in the long run.
Absolutely rail is expensive and takes longer to build than most bus service. But the investment pays off over time in lower maintenance, higher ridership, and more dense development around stations – which can allow for less density pressures away from rail lines. High-quality transit service ultimately makes a region more affordable, more sustainable, and in some ways more fun. That’s why we at this blog prefer rail over buses.