Houston has decided to go with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) rather than Light Rail. Their project was more expensive than they expected, and the feds wouldn’t pay for part unless they switched from rail to buses. This is bound to continue the conversation here about BRT vs Rail that has been going on for sometime.
The BRT that they are selling us here and that which is going up in Houston are two very different things. According to the click2houston article: “B.R.T. is a diesel bus on rubber wheels that’s similar to light rail in that it follows a fixed guide-path and makes far fewer stops than a regular bus.” In Seattle, BRT is essentially more buses that make fewer stops but that’s it. They would not be on their own paths, and they would not have elevated platform stops.
Also, BRT is not the stopping point for Houston, it’s just an interrum as they move torward rail. Again, from the click2houston article.
Chairman David Wolff says B.R.T. allows METRO to live up to the spirit of the referendum. And notes as METRO’s building these lines, it will lay down tracks so it can switch to light-rail if ridership numbers justify it.
“That’s an additional expenditure which we wouldn’t have to do, but we want to show people that we want to get to light-rail as soon as we can,” Wolff said.
King County Executive Ron Sims, has been keen on BRT for years. After the viaduct vote went down, many more Seattle-area politicians have been talking about BRT. Erica C Barnett at the stranger had a nice summary six months ago.
The primary argument for BRT, especially during the Bush era of parsimonious transit funding, is that it’s cheaper and easier to implement than light rail. But while it’s undeniably less expensive to put buses on existing streets than it is to build the substantial infrastructure needed to create a new rail transit system, there are other measures of cost-effectiveness besides capital costs.
[T]he data is clear: BRT draws far fewer transit riders—and, importantly, far fewer new [Emphasis in the original, Ed.] transit riders—than light rail or other fixed-rail systems. In a 2001 study that’s often cited as evidence that BRT can work along the former monorail Green Line, the Seattle Department of Transportation found that elevated transit like the monorail or elevated light rail would add about 56,000 daily riders to the North Seattle-to-downtown corridor; BRT would add just 32,500. From West Seattle to downtown, the disparity was even more startling: nearly 28,000 riders for elevated rail, and just 10,000 for BRT.
Real-world statistics bear out the Seattle planners’ estimates: In Houston … there are six BRT routes running on 44 miles of freeway HOV lanes throughout the city. Currently, just 36,000 people use the system. In Portland, a much smaller city … a 33-mile light-rail system carries nearly twice as many riders as Houston’s: some 74,000 a day. Because of the higher ridership, the cost per passenger mile … is actually lower in many cities, including Portland, for rail than it is for “affordable” BRT.
Bus lanes, unlike rail, can be easily converted for use by other types of vehicles, in effect subsidizing private autos with public-transportation dollars. In Houston, highway lanes that were originally dedicated to “bus rapid transit” have been converted into HOV lanes where buses compete with private cars. This is exactly why you’ll never see real economic development around a bus stop: Buses can be moved; trains have to go where the rails go.
There is a really important point under the surface of Erica’s argument here. BRT does nothing to improve property values, while light rail improves property values considerably. That is why South Lake Union residents were willing to pay half the price of the streetcar there. And Streetcars aren’t even mass transit, just rail-based local transit. Imagine what a real rail system would do for this property values.
Admittedly, few places have tried BRT in America. As this article, with a more positive spin on BRT than the Stranger, says:
flexibility, she concluded that “bus service has a negative image, particularly when compared with rail service.”
She said rail-based plans are often viewed as the mark of “a world-class city” and an image-enhancer that can attract developers.
“As more experience is gained with BRT, its advantages and disadvantages will become better understood,” she said.
BRT is better than nothing, for sure. But it is not the sort of rapid, mass transit that will get people to leave their cars. Rail is.