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.

More links:
Dan Savage on BRT.
Wikipedia on BRT
Bus Rapid Transit.net

6 Replies to “BRT vs Light Rail”

  1. I dont understand who buys Ron Sims’ bullshit. He and his supporters keep using BRT stats from other cities to defend his “BRT” which is *totally different* than anyone else’s BRT. And the movers and shakers go “uh huh.” There must be some major coin to be made in this BRT stuff. I don’t see how, but that’s only way I can explain people eating it up so much.

  2. It’s not about money for Sims, it’s about power. Career-politicians want power, and expanding metro makes Sims more powerful.

  3. One fact that is rarely mentioned is that light rail is no more “rapid” than regular bus transit, let alone bus rapid transit.

    Here are examples of Sound Transit’s light rail time estimates vs. Metro’s trip planner (which takes traffic into account as long as there aren’t any very unusual circumstances), at 5pm rush hour on a weekday:

    Westlake to International District Station
    Bus: 8 minutes
    Light Rail: 6 minutes

    Westlake to Safeco Field
    Bus: 8 minutes
    Light Rail: 8 minutes

    Westlake to Columbia City Station
    Bus: 28 minutes
    Light Rail: 18 minutes

    Westlake to Tukwila International Station
    Bus: 33 minutes
    Light Rail: 33 minutes

    I can’t find the time estimates for the Capitol Hill or Montlake stations, but they used to be on the web site, and the time figures were even more favorable to bus service, due to better bus coverage to these areas. Bus service south of downtown is very poor, which accounts for the poor time to Columbia City.

    Bus time estimates are much better for non-peak hours, and are actually faster than light rail for almost all stops. This doesn’t take into account the massive advantage in number of stops that bus service has over light rail or other “rapid transit.” If you want to go to the north end of Broadway instead of the south end, bus service will save a significant amount of time over light rail.

    I only see two real advantages for “rapid transit” over current bus mass transit:

    1) Frequency of departures. Light rail will have departures every 6 minutes during rush hours, while some bus routes only depart every 30 minutes. Increased funding to close or eliminate this gap would cost a small fraction of the cost of light rail or any other “rapid transit,” and would serve a much larger area than fixed light rail. This would undoubtedly increase ridership by a huge number. I know I look for other options when I find I have to wait 30 minutes for the next bus. Additional direct routes would also be very helpful (for example, in reducing that Westlake-to-Columbia City time estimate).

    2) The “fun” factor. Riding light rail, streetcar, subway, or monorail is cooler than riding a bus. There’s a reason the monorail is a tourist attraction and Metro Route 43 isn’t. Updating the bus fleet (hopefully in conjunction with solving #1 above) would also close the gap between bus service and “rapid transit.” This is already being done already on a small scale with good results. Sound Transit commuter buses have more spacious, padded seats, overhead compartments, individual lighting and air, and wi-fi. The new CT double-decker buses also sound like a good option. Imagine if these buses were available on popular routes like the aforementioned 43 — I can’t imagine any result except a boom in ridership numbers.

  4. Jamier-
    I think the “westlake to wherever” statistic is wildly misleading. What about Columbia City to the Airport? And 28 minutes vs. 18 is huge!

    But you are right that light rail isn’t always “rapid”. When it hits grade in South Seattle, Link will not be much better than the bus.

    BRT probably makes sense on some roads in the region; I-90 and SR-99 from Downtown north come to mind. Other roads, such as I-405 and especially SR-520, they are just too crowded for BRT, and no one will bother getting out of their cars for it.

    In a way, ST 545 is already BRT. It comes every 10 minutes, makes four total stops between Overlake and Downtown and runs in HOV lanes the whole time. It has the Wi-Fi you talk about, the overhead storage and the padded seats. It does attract quite a bit of ridership, and it is obviously a success. I am not against BRT anymore, I just think rail, especially through the city, is a much better option for the type of deep-nest congestion roadways that are far too crowded.

  5. I will challenge the Westlake to Safeco Field in 8 minutes by bus any day! This isn’t even possible by car let alone a bus! Since I work in SLU, on game nights I leave work and sometimes it really is faster to walk from SLU to Safeco, not a bad walk! Politics aside, we have a problem, when you need to get from point A to point B as soon as possible various modes of transportation work better than others depeding on the area whether that be BRT, Light Rail, Streetcar, Commuter Train, etc. It is my hope that is what Ron Simms is trying to maximize in this area. I agree mostly with Transit Now, and I do agree with daimajin that ST has routes like the 545 and 550 which I use regularly that are basically rapid routes.

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