I want to clarify a bit what I was trying to say, and what I was not trying to say, in my last post.

  1. It’s a bad thing Rapid Ride won’t materialize. I couldn’t state this any more strongly. We need as much transit as we can get; our buses are currently packed to the gills. Just because I prefer rail over BRT doesn’t mean I’m against BRT, I just prefer rail to BRT. In my last post, I was trying to point out that I think it’s a bit telling that we never seem to get that cheap BRT that we are promised by the anti-rail crowd. That doesn’t mean I would prefer these bus projects cancelled.
  2. If we could get more bus service in any form, that would be a net good thing.I ride a bus to work every day and it’s great. It comes a few blocks from my house, and drops me off right in front of my office. In order to provide service like that, the bus has to stop a couple dozen times between my house and my office. That’s what buses do really well: providing local service. Rail can’t do that level of local service very well. It’s a good thing we aren’t asking it to.
  3. Saying buses are cheaper than rail in the long run is a misleading argument.We’ve discussed this ad nauseam at this blog, see here, here, here and here. The two sentence version: Buses are suited for one sort of transit, rail for another. BRT is trying to get buses to do the type of service rail is best suited for, which never seems to really work. The most common anti-rail argument is that investment in rail is regrettable because we can get BRT to do the same thing for less money.
    But the very crux of the argument is dishonest, because no one has ever seen this BRT that can do what rail does. We’ve seen BRT that can’t do what rail does, Boston’s Silver Line and LA’s Orange Line. And we have seen BRT that costs almost as much as rail (see the Silver Line). But we’ve never seen BRT that can do what rail does.
  4. I don’t think light rail is cheap, I think light rail is cheaper than the alternatives.Roads are very expensive. Adding one lane to I-405 from Lynnwood to Renton will have cost about $11 billion. Adding a lane to I-5 just in the city limits of Seattle would be more than $25 billion. The Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement will be about $4 billion or more, and the 520 bridge will be about the same. Each of those cost considerably more money per mile than light rail does, with the viaduct and 520 bridge each more than a billion dollars per mile. None of these will move as many people as light rail would.
    Light Rail is cheaper to operate per passenger miles than buses are, which is why you want riders going long distances to do so on rail. HOV-lane BRT around here is not going to work if I-985 passes. Even if I-985 fails, congestion and fuel will continue to eat into bus funding, making buses ever more expensive to operate per passenger mile. This is why buses are better suited for local access than rail, and rail is better suited for longer distances than buses are. Investment in light rail will pay off spectacularly, because we’ll be able to put buses that are used for long-haul service back to where they are effective, into shorter local service. Once riders get on rail, the become much cheaper per over the distance, we save money, and can improve service. Light rail isn’t cheap if you have no buses, and buses aren’t cheap if they are asked to do what rail should be doing.

I am very much pro-bus, which is why I take the bus to work everyday when I could drive, thank you very much. However, I do have a problem with the Doug MacDonald, et al. argument that, every thing being equal, buses can do what light rail can do cheaper. It’s a dishonest argument, and the first bit of proof that BRT is not cheap is provided by the fact that we don’t seem to be able to get any cheap BRT.

The only people I can imagine who would be happy that Rapid Ride might not arrive are the anti-everything set, who claim to be in support of BRT, but, of course, were against the vote that was supposed to fund Rapid Ride to begin with. They might be happy because they can continue to make the the argument that  BRT will be cheaper than rail, and instead of having an example to compare light rail to, they can continue to compare Link to BRT systems in far away places like Lima, Peru and Bogotá, Colombia. They know full well that BRT can’t do what light rail can, and they can remain against any form of transit that actually works.

34 Replies to “Re: Rapid Ride Buses May Not Materialize”

  1. I wonder if BRT is as hard to do as Light Rail. It could be that it’s hard to implement BRT as well as.

    1. It’s not that it’s hard. It’s that it’s impossible. It does not do all of the things that rail does.

      There’s a fundamental point missing here. Moving a person from A to B is not the issue. Both can do that. The problem is that one of them becomes more expensive over time, and the other becomes less expensive over time, because of the externalities both create. Rail gets cheap because people build around it. Buses get expensive because it doesn’t counter sprawl.

  2. Thanks for your positive post and allowing the dust to settle a bit. I’ll suggest a summary (with my own added twist)

    Bus and Rail do best when given exclusive or mostly exclusive right of way. That way they don’t get stuck in traffic.

    New, exclusive right of way is expensive. So it makes sense to spend where it will serve the most people throughout its life. Re-allocation of right of way is cheap when the mode receiving the exclusivity is similar to what was there before.

    What urban rail does best is carry larger loads of people than bus. If it is a streetcar, it’s a bit more, if it is heavy rail, it’s tons more. Light rail trains (per train) can carry many more than a bus (per bus). The marginal cost of adding new users to a rail line is typically far less than bus (once the capital cost of the ROW and cars has been made).

    Marry exclusive right of way and rail together and you have a tremendous opportunity to serve tons of people effectively (measured in user and operator cost).

    Marry the re-allocation of existing right of way (think 15th Ave W) with good bus service and you get cost effective BRT that can serve many people and be cost effective (again, measured in user and operator cost). Not as many as rail can in a single corridor, but if enough lines are provided, it may serve as many people as rail.


    With that type of understanding we can begin to evaluate where we should invest in rail versus BRT. Let me assert that it is not the length of trip that should drive mode choice so much as the density of trip making. As this blog correctly asserts, creating exclusive right of way for BRT can be just as expensive as Light Rail but may not achieve the same capacity. But capacity is only a measure of constraint; it neither indicates nor drives demand. High densities and good service (fast, reliabile, frequent) to places where people want go drives demand for transit.

    The biggest question we face in the field of transit is not whether we should build rail or BRT; for we should do both. The real question our region needs to determine is where these modes should be applied so that we can build an integrated and robust transit network as soon as possible that give us the most bang for our buck.

    And this is where I fall off the Sound Transit wagon.

    1. Why is that? Because you think rail is a bad idea? I think BRT can suit certain corridors well. 520 light rail will be genius if we could just get a less congested 520. Same with 405 BRT.

      The problem is that we’ve neglected high-capacity transit for far too long.

    2. Labor is a big cost factor for buses (bus drivers), which never goes away. Capacity is so much greater for each LR trainset, and you have the ability to go driverless with grade seperated systems.

  3. Andrew, after being ‘roughed up’ a bit, your retraction/clarification is appreciated, and reinforced well by ‘multimodal Man’, which I agree with.
    I think where your steel wheels fall off the track is when you make false statements like:

    “Light Rail doesn’t compete with cars in traffic.”
    The first time a car doesn’t yeild to an LRT coach on MLK, and gets whacked by the train (probably a weekly or monthly occurrance), then your statement is false. San Jose keeps a push-pin map in ops for both N-S segments. The mixed use ROW has a ton of accident pins in it.

    “Light Rail doesn’t run on fossil fuels.”
    Most electricity is generated by fossil fuel. Our region gets many electons from hydro, but that power can be easily diverted south or east, then we pull in fossil generated electrons off the grid. The electrons happily flow to the biggest load. It’s not as simple as you suggest.

    “Light Rail can carry far more people for far cheaper after it’s constructed.”
    Generally yes, but not absolutely true. The point made by Multimodal can be carried a bit further. Cart paths, become roads, become bus routes, become enhanced bus lines (BRT), become LRT corridors, become HRT, etc. It’s not one or the other. It’s current technology, married to current demand, weighed against cost/benefit, tempered with logic. All modes have their place in time. LRT on I-90 will yeild 4 car trains every 4 minutes carrying 137 per car for about 8200 passengers each hour, each direction.
    A lane can carry about 2000 vehicles per hour. In buses, that’s about 164 trips per hour, leaving an excess capacity of the roadway of around 1800 or so empty slots. You could add more buses, but trains are maxed out. Now that’s a lot of buses to get on/off I-90 and through the stops, but not impossible, given multiple origins and destinations on both ends.

    Metro cost per mile is about $.75, while Link will be about $1.24 according to ST. A GAO study comparing LRT/BRT showed LRT at $.55 and BRT at $.38 /passenger mile in 2002.
    IT JUST DEPENDS on the system, the city, the circumstance, and a ton of other factors. It’s not LRT v. BRT, with the former emerging as the victor.

    “Light Rail really ought to be the future of public transit in our region.”
    Maybe yes, and maybe no. Depends on how much you want to spend, how many it will carry, how competitive it is to other modes, how development is driven, …… You get the point.

    It chaffes me to see all these comments making their case for or against LRT or BRT. It’s always black/white. Never grey.

    1. What?

      I compare buses to LRT and you mention the dozen or so crossings link has with cars. What the hell are you talking about??? What bus route has fewer crossings???

      That is crazy nonsense.

      “our buses don’t run on fossil fuels, but other electicity does”? is that really your argument?

      Your cost per mile numbers ARE NOT COST PER PASSENGER MILE!

      Not the same Andrew who wrote this post.

      1. Go to the EPA website, and type in your zip code to see where your electricity is generated.
        You’ll be surprised to find that even Seattle gets less than half it’s electricity from Hydro. The other half is from fossil(gas,oil,coal).

    2. You know, with all our subsidized roads here most anyone should be able to start a private BRT company since it’s so efficient, right? Private highway buses are common in Japan. (Hint: they’re usually faster and more expensive than non-express trains, but obviously lose out to Shinkansen.)

      1. You would think this would be the case, but throw in the cost of insurance, the threat of getting sued, plus the unions raising hell against any transit company which, gasp, does not hire union drivers in order to save some money on labor costs and it quickly becomes a no win, high barriers to entry type venture to anyone without huge pockets.

        I think if we weren’t such a sue-happy culture, we would see more bus companies competing. I could be wrong though on how much of a factor that actually is though.

  4. And before anyone says 1800 more buses on I-90 is lunacy, I said slots, not buses. It could be a lot of 3+ carpools and vans, and a few more buses.

  5. It’s fine to be so open-minded about buses and all, but at some point we need to ask how much is enough. Buses have a lifespan of about 25 years, IOW, longer than we can expect oil to be our energy source.

    Buses are, in general, a big PIB. They need drivers to work split-shift peak travel times and they need to be parked for major periods of the day. They may last about 25 years, but that includes one or two total rebuilds, and of course, you can’t just rebuild at random, you have to rebuild a class to keep the economies of scale.

    And buses are about promoting sprawl. A rail line is pretty straightforward- “come over here”. Buses live and die by their promise to go someplace new (either that, or the anti-rail nuts will have to admit that the “flexibility of the bus” really means “service cuts”).

    But we already have enough sprawl! People want buses now because sprawl has been a social and political disaster. This is a problem that should be corrected, not extended.

    In general, bus service should be extended by building more electric trolley routes and light rail or streetcars to free up the LPG and diesel buses. Simply adding more buses is not a solution.

    1. Thank you SC for this incisively worded and absolutely correct comment. The one exception – very few diseasel buses last even 20 years.

      Can we please move beyond sending a fossil fuel powered bus an hour (and planning for half hourly service) to every South Flatbread in rural PieSnoKi County? What we need immediately are at least 400 electric buses in the densely populated areas while we power up for 200-400 miles of light rail. Hang wire and lay rail – it is an investment NOT a cost!!

  6. Why is this a BRT vs. light rail debate? Very few people in the region are making it out to be like that. Some of those people are prominent opposition to Prop. 1, but many opponents are just against transit — BRT, light rail, buses, HOV lanes — in general. Sound Transit, for example, will run BRT across the SR-520. Their own studies indicate that BRT, not light rail, would be the best choice for the I-405 corridor.

    BRT’s biggest flaw is that it’s very easy to cut corners and get it wrong — no exclusive right of way, no ticket vending machines, the inability to enter from different doors, a dependence on oil — whereas it’s easy to get rail right. Now, RapidRide is not a good implementation of BRT. Even if it were, it would suffer from the problems highlighted above regarding cost.

    But the budget problems facing RapidRide have absolutely nothing to do with BRT or RapidRide. The BRT routes have barely began capital investment and most aren’t even finalized. Gas prices aren’t causing RapidRide buses to have diminishing returns — because those buses aren’t even operating yet. Yes, it is ironic that BRT backers point to the low investment cost of BRT only to see RapidRide reach the point where it might not be funded. But that irony is not illustrative or important.

    RapidRide is at risk because funding is in question for the rest of the bus system. And local buses — yes those ones that depend on fossil fuel, get stuck in traffic, and don’t have their own right of way — will be an important part of our transit network forever.

    Of course I want a rail future for Seattle as well. I don’t even bother comparing BRT to light rail because of course light rail is the better mode to move a lot of people reliably and frequently at a lower cost. But RapidRide isn’t competing for light rail dollars or corridors.

    RapidRide being completed is good for all transit fans. It shows that transit agencies, even one like Metro who faced a perfect storm of financial and energy issues, can get stuff done. It builds bus lines that are clear and easy to understand, with frequencies such that you don’t have to use a schedule. It opens up the bus network to many more people — and those transit users are more likely than not to support expanding light rail.

    And once RapidRide nears completion, we should push cities to build transit lanes and push metro to install ticket vending machines. And we should criticize the hell out of the system to make it as good as possible. But we shouldn’t, especially as strong supporters of transit, talk it down any more than we talk down the 545 or the 8 or whatever other route we use to get to work every day.

    With all due respect to everyone, I have to wonder how much of this has to do with Ron Sims.

    1. Re: Ron Sims. Yeah, I think that nails it. For the bloggers here, he is a hate figure because he’s wrapped up in day-to-day Metro King County management and survival. Sound Transit is a totally different powerbase – his influence over which is extremely diluted and it competes with one of his agencies (that is currently struggling due to its diesel contract). Dude is in a bad position. Not that he still isn’t wrong but he’s not arguing from obvious mala fide or anything when he opposes Sound Transit (for that, how about the d-bags at the Discovery Institute).

      I think we should remember that he is a bonafide progressive who actually suggested the one tax that would probably be helpful in solving our current infrastructure issues (an income tax) when he ran for governor. The Transit Now stuff is a baby step but would actually bring some high-capacity lines up to about the standard of non-North American bus lines (off-bus ticketing! greater distance between stops! reserved rights of way!). That he is opposed to Sound Transit’s light rail plan is his mistake but he’s no right-winger beholden to Kemper Freeman and the eastern suburbs.

      1. cjh, I am a blogger here, so hopefully it’s becoming more clear to you and our audience that there are a rainbow of opinions among us. To be fair, it seems I am the most supportive of RapidRide and least cynical of Ron Sims.

      2. That’s nice that you’re part of the board here when 60%+ of posts are made by andrew and Ben S.

    2. It’s true that rapid ride isn’t competing with light rail. I never said that it was.

      I am talking about the argument that we don’t need or want light rail because BRT is cheaper. What does that have to do with Rapid ride? Obviously if rapid ride were cheap, we would be getting it. The fact that we won’t get it is proof that it’s not cheap.

      1. I don’t think that light rail is any more recession-proof than BRT — I mean, if it were a year or two ago, RapidRide would be moving along fine. I don’t think it proves that BRT is better or worse, unfortunately. :)

  7. Well, let me just say that the local bus as we have known it doesn’t need to be around forever. Any long-time Seattleite knows it’s often quicker to walk than wait for the bus, and if you can bike you can beat the bus over 3-5 miles, easily.

    The bus as we have known it, in fact, is just a kludge adopted by a city being drained by the suburbs, c. 1940-1970. It has less and less relevance to the new Seattle with high densities and citizens who are healthier and more active.

    So that is one problem with the bus. It is not, in fact, our trusted friend. It’s a historical artifact, like the wood-share plow or horse-drawn reaper.

    In terms of the future the bus is the vaporware of the transit world. And this business about Sims being pro-transit, except, you know, just not now- that’s just stupid. If you wondered why some of us don’t like BRT, could there be a better answer than Sims proposing RapidRide as an alternative to Link extensions but actually, apparently, not intending to implement the RapidRide?

    Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice- can’t fool me twice.

    1. Do you ever get out of your Mason County model train fortress?

      The closest a major, modern, very dense city comes to being bus-free (on a rides per capita basis) is probably Tokyo. Even there, Toei Bus, the government-run service, has a rolling stock a bit over half the size of Metro’s covering about the same number of route miles. There are also the many commuter buses run by the train companies to and from neighborhoods and their stations but I haven’t been able to find a good number for them.

      Of course buses are a historical artifcats, but so are non-reserved right-of-way trams. Basically no one who has kept their fixed-guideway transit is building trolleys that go down the middle of the street without seperating them from most if not all traffic. Here in the United States, however, we seemingly want to revivify the romantic urban life at the exact moment before the destruction of fixed-guideway in most of our major cities, ignoring the technological and planning advances of the last 60+ years that have been going on in the rest of the world. I suppose it is true that nostalgia for the recent past is a particularly American phenomenon.

      Also yes, yes, Sims is intentionally scuppering his own transit agency because of his hatred of light rail. That makes perfect sense.

      Why are so many engineers conspiratorial half-wits?

      1. Every technology is a historical artifact. Someday we might have vacuum-tunnel trains and floating cities like in Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! or The Diamond Age. Or teleportation, of course.

      2. No more than you and far smaller than serial catowner’s strawmen.

        I think most rational people would read this serial catowner paragraph as suggesting that Ron Sims was using RapidRide as a stalking horse to kill transit:
        “In terms of the future the bus is the vaporware of the transit world. And this business about Sims being pro-transit, except, you know, just not now- that’s just stupid. If you wondered why some of us don’t like BRT, could there be a better answer than Sims proposing RapidRide as an alternative to Link extensions but actually, apparently, not intending to implement the RapidRide?”

        Do you have a differing interpretation? How is saying that’s bullshit building a strawman?

        Or do you mean the bit about the trolleys? Well, serial catowner’s support for them is well-known. I wanted to attack the “historical artifact” nonsense because my point is actually rather closer to joshuadf’s – even things you like are historical artifacts. And the “historical artifact” crap gets thrown at fixed-guideway transit so much (and believed by people!) that flipping the script is something that just makes zero sense unless you’re a masochist.

  8. please note the last sentence in the multimodal man post re “bang for buck”. In network design, both bucks and rights-of-way are limited. The usual comparisons in this blog on one LRT line v. one BRT line. But due to the high cost of the ST East Link LRT, at $4.5 billion, the actual comparison could be several BRT lines v. one LRT line. In many systems that implemented modern LRT, abandoned freight rail ROW was used. ST is largely building new ROWs and that is costly. Neither line has to have complete grade separation to be effective. That absolute reliability comes at high capital cost and those funds have opportunity cost. The high cost of exclusive ROW is justified between Northgate and South McClellan Street.

    1. I don’t think that any BRT system would get nearly the funding of a light rail expansion. People just don’t think that buses work as well as trains. And really, they’d be right when the buses immediate get stuck in traffic and begin waiting at stop lights as soon as they exit the freeway.

      If Prop. 1 passes, I don’t think anyone will doubt whether the cost was justified or not. Development in Bellevue, for example, around train stations has the potential to shape our region for quite some time.

      I don’t think that BRT is an alternative to rail, as you imply and Ron Sims says explicitly. However, if there look at a place like West Seattle or Kirkland <-> Redmond that aren’t getting rail for a while then, of course, improve bus service and focus on making the route fast.

      But can BRT do what East link can without right of way? No. Connecting Downtown Seattle to Downtown Bellevue to Bel-Red to Overlake with BRT is going to require lanes, light synchronization, and a dependence on oil.

      1. Dependence on oil is only for buses? How does one transport all that concrete to the construction site without diesel trucks? How do light rail operators get to work? They’re likely not going to be able to afford to live next to rail stations. How will Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy service all their power lines? What will fill all those park and rides that Sound Transit wants in order to pump the ridership numbers? How will we truck in all the food to feed the hundreds of thousands who will live with walking distance of light rail stations?

        Exogenous one may cry! Hah! That’s what Dino Rossi says about human activity in light of climate change.

        You may say that all the vehicles mentioned above will be electric someday. If it were possible to have electric semi trucks and plug-in everything, then electric buses would be just as feasible. Oh wait, we already have electric buses. They just don’t travel off their guideway like a car. Oh wait, neither can light rail.

        I too am concerned about reliance on oil. But I have enough sense to recognize that a $17 billion capital project cannot be fueled by hydro power alone and that Link is a far cry from sustainability.

        The “non-polluting rail” card is a poor one to play if you want to dismiss buses. Focus on tangibles, please.

      2. It has nothing to do with pollution. Even if sales taxes receipts hadn’t fallen, Metro would be facing major financial headaches due to erratic diesel prices. This problem has affected nearly every bus agency in the country — I’m surprised you missed the memo.

        I think the comparison of that to contractors or City Light trucks is just insincere. Obviously buses move much further daily and are far more dependent on fuel to accomplish their job. Electric buses do not travel more than 30 mph.

    2. Well said, wizz. Something like the “sum of the parts” arguement.
      ……..go sonics!……

    3. Any number of comparisons can be made showing system X is “better” than system Y simply because of different assumptions. Maybe everyone will start biking to work and they’ll close down all the freeways and stop operating the buses. Or better yet, everyone will become a sustainable farmer and not need to go to an office at all! It’s all about predicting the future. No offense, but I think new ROW is a better bet than dedicated lanes for BRT. In any case it’s the only thing on the ballot that we can Vote YES on.

  9. I’m not seeing a lot of comprehension here of what I was saying, so I’ll try again.

    The bus system we knew was built to serve a low density city with declining levels of walking and bicycle riding.

    The bus system we are promised is imagined to be *cough* ‘like a train’, but cheaper.

    In the meantime, the face of Seattle has changed entirely. Still, we hardly approach cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam with very high levels of walking and bicycle riding.

    So, call me a crazy visionary, or a stick-in-the-mud (but seriously, can it really be both?), the bus is neither something that has been here forever, nor something that everyone will need forever. It’s an artifact, of a half century in which America quaffed the world’s oil in huge gulps, rebuilt the landscape in indecent haste to put everyone in cars, and never imagined that this might not go on forever.

    Stick a fork in it, it’s done.

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