BRT vs Light Rail


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 comments

SLU Streetcar Over Cost


I missed this Friday, because I don’t actually subscribe to the Times, and the P-I has been running cover stories about local American Idol contestants. Apparently the South Lake Union Streetcar is about $3 million under budget because of cost over-runs, lower than expected advertising revenues, and higher than expected start-up costs. Metro, which will operate the car, wants $2mn per year rather than $1.5mn because the costs will be more than they had anticipated.
The good news is the city has already lined up advertisers for all of the cars and 6 of the 11 stations.

Nick Licata, who is not getting my vote in the future, was against its construction and still continues to cause trouble about it. “I think it’s unfortunately indicative of how we’re not paying attention to the more basic services around the city. How did Seattle become unaffordable? It’s through a number of these projects that benefit a small sector of the population.”

How did it become unaffordable? Because of the general housing bubble and a robust economy! Not because of a street car! Good transit will make the city more affordable as people will be able to lower the number of cars per household or even ditch their cars entirely.

This project is important, and I hope it succeeds, because if it is successful it will mean that more streetcars will be built. And the car was a bargain, more than half of the car was paid for by landowners by a neighborhood property tax.

0 comments

Buying Rail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

It’s good to see WSDOT taking control of more rail lines in Eastern WA:

The purchase of the CW Branch of the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (PCC) is part of a nearly six-year effort to preserve the PCC, which is important to Eastern Washington’s agricultural industry. The state will pay $9.0 million for all track and right of way on the CW Branch, which runs from Coulee City to Cheney and Spokane, and certain real property on the PV Hooper and P & L Branch not previously purchased. The state will also receive the operating rights on all three branches.

“Rail is a vital part of our transportation system and supports a large portion of Washington’s agricultural community,” said Paula Hammond, WSDOT Chief of Staff. “This purchase conforms to the recommendations of the recently completed statewide Rail Capacity and System Needs Study and supports Governor Gregoire’s goals for economic growth in our communities.”

This is especially interesting in light of the article in today’s New York Times about the state of the dams in WA’s Lower Snake River. The focus is on opening the dams for salmon runs, but it also notes that the dams allow for barges to float wheat down river. Get rid of the dams, and you need to find an alternative transportation network, like rail.

Of course, you can own all the track you want, it doesn’t make a difference if the train doesn’t stop, as happened with the new intermodal facility at the Port of Quincy, WA.

0 comments

Revisiting the Monorail

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.


Seeing that poster the other day got me thinking about the aborted Seattle Monorail Project again. I know most people would rather forget it (opening day was supposed to be December 2007, just seven months from now), but there were some valuable lessons there, and certainly the alignment, Ballard – Downtown – West Seattle is going to need to be served by high-capacity transit sooner rather than later. Especially if the Viaduct goes away.

Transit Now will help in the short term, but even the snazziest buses will get caught in traffic on the West Seattle Bridge or stuck waiting for the drawbridge in Ballard. After the Monorail died, the idea was broached to put in a light rail spur connecting SODO and West Seattle. Assuming you could deal with the technical challenges of crossing the Duwamish River, that certainly seems feasible.

But on the North end, the idea of a monorail between downtown and Ballard is still appealing, for a number of reasons. First off, building another downtown tunnel through Belltown seems unfeasible, especially since it would have to somehow cross through the Battery Street Tunnel. Second, we’ve already got a monorail running down 5th Avenue, and people are at least used to it (and used to the monorail making its way through Seattle Center). Finally, a monorail bridge over the Ballard ship canal is more cost-effective than a tunnel.

My only real objection to the monorail is the cost of maintaining a separate transit system (two separate maintenance facilities, engineers, etc.). But if we’re going to maintain the Seattle Center monorail anyway ($4.5M for the latest round of repairs alone), we might as well make it go somewhere.

I’m fairly sure there’s zero political or public will for reviving this concept while the body of the last monorail project is still warm. Still, there’s something there worth saving.

0 comments

Speaking of Beacon Hill…

According to this PI article, Beacon Hill station needs to be moved 88 feet because of water, and that will increase cost and may delay the opening of the line as much as two months from the original July 2009 start date. Almost a million dollars has been put into a “contingency account” because of this.

Beacon Hill station has been more expensive than anticipated before:

Beacon Hill costs also have increased prior to Thursday.

The biggest contract for the Beacon Hill work was $294.6 million being paid to builder Obayashi Corp., up from an original price of $280 million. Obayashi and Sound Transit are negotiating over another $20 million contract.

In 2003 and 2004, the agency increased Shannon & Wilson’s Beacon Hill consulting fees by more than $3.4 million.

This is a good lesson for Sound Transit when considering the other underground stations that will be built for the Link System over the next ten years. Beacon Hill is certainly the deepest, most complex of these, but there are a lot of similarities in terms of scope relative to the University Link.

Even with the problems, it seems that Sound Transit is sincere about delivering what it has promised:

Other delays, including a shutdown after a fatal construction accident at the site in February, could hold up by two months the opening of the section between downtown Seattle and Tukwila, according to an agency progress report for March.

To prevent that, Sage said, the agency is trying to get subcontractors to complete work on part of the station ventilation system a few weeks earlier than planned and is pressing other contractors to complete electrical signaling and communications systems early as well.

Agency spokesman Geoff Patrick said Sound Transit still expects to open the line to Tukwila by July, 2009.

Awesome! They seem to be doing a fabulous job.

0 comments

One Tunnel Down, One to Go

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Monorail Map

Speaking of ST videos, here’s one of the tunnel boring machine breaking through Beacon Hill. That means one of the two tunnels through the hill is completed. now they have to go back and do the matching, southbound tunnel.

Just to put this in perspective, at 4,300 feet, the Beacon Hill tunnel is just under one mile. For the proposed North Link, we’re looking at a tunnel roughly six miles long, extending from the Convention Center, through Capitol HIll and the U District, and emerging somewhere around NE 75th St and I-5.

Beacon Hill is the easy part.

On the other hand, Northgate to downtown in 13 minutes? That’s pretty sweet. Imagine shopping downtown on a Saturday and having the nice clerk at The Gap say, “well, we’re all out of that size, but we’ve got a few left in our Northgate location.” You walk 2 blocks to the Metro tunnel downtown, and 15 minutes later, boom you’re at Northgate Mall. Pretty slick.

Personally, this solves my own issue with the lack of a real electronics store downtown. Why is that, anyway? Downtown condo-dwellers don’t buy stereos or flat-screen TVs? C’mon!

0 comments

STB Answers Your Questions!

Sam, in the comments of my post about Double-Decker buses, asked if the double decker buses differ much vis-a-vis articulated buses in terms of fuel efficiency. I posed that question to Martin Munguia, Community Transit’s public information officer, and here’s his reply:

The double decker gets slightly better gas mileage than the articulated buses. Our articulated buses get about 4-5 miles per gallon, while the double decker, according to the manufacturer, get about 4-6 mpg, on the higher end while on the highway, which is largely where our bus will be driving.

Of course, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison since we have
history with the artics (cool bus-people talk for articulated buses – ed.) on our routes and no such history with the double decker yet. Over the course of our yearlong lease fuel efficiency is one element we’ll be watching.

Five vs. six is actually a 20% increase in fuel efficiency if they get it, but it looks to be about the same. I also asked Martin whether boarding times would be longer and here is his response:

If you’re talking about a capacity crowd boarding or deboarding at the same time, say at a commuter park & ride in the morning, the answer is yes [they would be longer]. Rather than getting on the bus and heading straight to the back to sit down, as on an arctic, people will get on the double decker at the front and decide to go up the stairs or stay downstairs, as well as whether to sit in the front or rear.

When boarding or deboarding in traffic, there will not be as many people getting on at the same time, but it still could take longer as some people will go upstairs to sit, or come from upstairs to deboard. There is a camera at the front of the top deck so the driver can see if someone is coming is standing and won’t start moving until that person is either seated or makes her way off the bus. This is the primary reason this bus will not be used for local service.

In the commuter situation, boarding in the morning and deboarding in the afternoon will not add significant time, maybe a couple minutes.

So it’s a small trade off.

I also asked Sound Transit about the safety in Beacon Hill Station, since there will be only elevators (and emergency stairs) to get people to the surface. Jennifer Lemus responded with the below.

When light rail opens, there will be a very visible security presence – this is similar to what Sound Transit did on the Tacoma light rail project. Security personnel may ride on trains, as well as patrol the Beacon Hill Station’s underground platform, aboveground plaza, and elevators. The Beacon Hill station itself has been designed to provide good sightlines and lighting, so as to avoid creating dark corners where crime could occur.

So the station was designed with security in mind. It also looks like Sound Transit is doing their due dilligence on planing with local law enforcement.

This design has been extensively reviewed with City of Seattle Police and Fire Departments. Other security elements in the station design include closed circuit television cameras, panic alarms, and intrusion alarms. Before the station opens, Sound Transit will conduct a threat and vulnerability assessment for the station, including talking with neighbors and reviewing crime statistics. Neighborhood activism (i.e., citizen Block Watch) will also make a difference in helping maintain a safe environment

She also attached a document about safety on Beacon Hill Station. However, due to techincal limitations of blogger (can’t upload pdfs), I am unable to share that with you. I will try to figure out a work-around.

0 comments

Density Doesn’t Have To Be So Dense

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Wired has a fascinating article this month on Dongtan, a “green city” of 500,000 residents (roughly the size of Seattle) being planned for an area near Shanghai. The London-based urban design team working on the project made some interesting discoveries in their efforts to build an environmentally-friendly city:

The team found research on energy consumption in cities around the world, plotted on a curve according to population density. Up to about 50 residents per acre, roughly equivalent to Stockholm or Copenhagen, per capita energy use falls fast. People walk and bike more, public transit makes economic sense, and there are ways to make heating and cooling more efficient. But then the curve flattens out. Pack in 120 people per acre, like Singapore, or 300 people, like Hong Kong, and the energy savings are negligible.

For reference*, based on numbers I grabbed from Wikipedia and some quick calculations:

Portland, OR = 6.5 residents per acre
Seattle = 11
Vancouver, BC = 21
Copenhagen = 24
Stockholm = 41
New York City = 42

Wikipedia has limited data on Stockholm, so take those numbers with a grain of salt. In either case, this stuff is important to keep him mind when we have heated conversations about density. Not all densities are created equal, and it seems clear that adding a few more residents per acre could cut Seattle’s per-capita energy use dramatically without turning us into Manhattan.

*Wikipedia separates the land within the city limits from the water. I used the land-only numbers, since you can’t build on water. I don’t know if that’s what the Dongtan guys did or not. I suspect they, too, used land-only, since NYC’s density drops to 27 res. per acre if you count all the water.

0 comments

Traffic Versus Pollution

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In addition to all the wonderful freedom they provide, cars have two major negative effects on society: pollution and traffic (three if you count the health problems related to auto-centric lifestyles, but that’s still pretty new and second-order compared to the first two). We often conflate the two, but they’re really separate problems.

In fact, one could easily see solving one of them while exacerbating the other. That’s the impression I get reading this article on plug-in hybrids. The more energy efficient our cars become, the cheaper they are to drive. Common sense tells us that people will then drive more, thereby making traffic worse.

This is not to say that energy-efficient cars shouldn’t be welcomed with open arms. It’s just that a good deal of public support for mass transit comes from a combination of the two. If operating a car gets cheaper, there goes one half of the coalition. Thus, it may reduce the demand for transit, while, perversely, making congestion even worse.

0 comments

“Going the Way of Seattle”

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In case you were wondering, that’s not a compliment in Canada:

The provincial government’s plan to build massive amounts of new road space in the Gateway project will significantly alter the region’s transportation and land-use patterns.

The provincial government has mainly promoted the Gateway Program as a necessary investment to reduce congestion for commuters and trucks, and it also has argued that road expansion means that emissions will be lowered because vehicles will be idling less as they wait.

. . .

And former Vancouver councillor Gordon Price, also a close watcher of the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland scene, calls it “a tragic turn in the direction of this region.”

“If [the provincial government] does what it says it’s going to do, we are going the way of Seattle.”

The article has some useful contextualizing of Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver’s relative efforts to be environmentally friendly with their infrastructure development, though it singles out Seattle as the “perpetual loser” in the 3-way race, sometimes in spite of itself:

Seattle went the other way, rejecting proposals for regional mass transit twice in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ever since, Seattle has become legendary for devising one transit plan after another, only to have each one shot down by one coalition after another of opponents. Ironically, that happens in spite of the fact that the Seattle public shows signs of wanting to do the right thing environmentally. Bruce Agnew, of the Cascadia Project, notes that sales of hybrid cars are higher per capita in Seattle than anywhere else.

(Via Casciadia Report, who takes a middle-of-the-road stance on the Vancouver expansion project)

0 comments

Reading Tea Leaves Inside the Viaduct Timeline

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Even if we don’t know what we’re going to do with the main section, work is starting on the rest of the structure. Here’s the plan, courtesy of the P-I:

Closing parts of the Battery Street Tunnel from mid-2008 to 2010 for seismic strengthening, a new ventilation system and possibly to lower its floor for greater vertical clearance. Detours may be needed. John Pehrson of the Belltown Neighborhood Association said new ventilation towers may block views of Elliott Bay.

Retrofitting a 3.5-block segment of the structure, between Lenora Street and the tunnel, which planners intend to connect to whatever replaces the 1-mile viaduct segment along the central waterfront. Todd Vogel of the Allied Arts Waterfront Committee said the retrofit could prevent burying viaduct lanes under Elliott and Western Avenues to reduce noise.

A $545 million removal of the old viaduct between Holgate and King streets, from 2009 to 2012, and building a new intersection between the sports stadiums.

Part retrofit, part rebuild, and part… wait-and-see. But here’s the interesting thing for surface-transit supporters. You’ll recall that Governor Gregoire said the day after the vote that the time frame for deciding the fate of the viaduct is “two years, before the state’s next biennium budget is approved.”

The surface-transit option’s best hope is that the Viaduct is closed for a significant portion of those two years, to prove that we can live without it before a decision is made. It should go without saying that no one wants to see the road destroyed in an earthquake or an Oakland-style disaster. But a construction closure, like the one being planned between Holgate and King, would be just the ticket to prove that we can, in fact, live without it.

But the timeline doesn’t work: the state budget will be passed in 2009, probably before the Holgate-King section gets closed. Why not start tearing it down sooner? It’s risky to close the thing down for construction without a final plan, but if we’re serious about what it’s going to

Either way, it’s going to be close: the 2008-9 budget will get approved any day now. So assuming the 2010-1 budget is similarly approved in May of 2009 — and assuming the viaduct doesn’t get hashed out in the final, frenzied days of the approval process — the fate of the viaduct will likely be decided before it closes for reconstruction. If you’re a rebuild supporter, that’s a good thing.

On the other hand, if you’re Greg Nickels, and you don’t want to see another viaduct, this is your only chance:

Early next year state crews also will begin moving Seattle City Light power lines from the 1953-vintage viaduct and burying them underground.

Gee, Mayor Nickels. . . It sure would be a shame if Seattle City Light had to close the viaduct down while it moves the power lines, wouldn’t it? I mean, if the public utility decided that, hey, in the interest of public safety, the viaduct had to close for a few months and people had to find another way to get around. That wouldn’t help your argument at all, would it? (wink, wink)

0 comments

37 miles of bike-lanes coming


Seattle is installing 37 miles of bike trials in the city, according to its Bicycle Master Plan. The Ballard News Tribune has a nice, if slightly Ballard-centric analysis. The plan includes bike trails, bike lines, “sharrows” (pavement arrows that indicate for cars to share the line), bike shoulders and much, much more. There’s a real nice section about bicycles and transit. The deadline for comments on the plan has been extended to May 18th, so take a look at it here.

Hopefully, this will help reduce car-head and piss-off the old-timer haters that have proudly put this city in statis for decades. Certainly, it doesn’t please The Stranger’s Erica C Barnett, but she’s a little, well, unstable.

Cross-posted at I am Seattle traffic.org.

0 comments

Double Decks!

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Snohomish County is adding double-decker buses to its fleet. Apparently they’re better than the articulated buses because they hold more passengers and can be used in inclement weather.

One of the knocks on rapid transit by bus is that, while the initial costs of building a system are low, the operating costs are higher, since a bus can hold up to 60 or 80 people per driver, but a train can hold several hundred people per driver. Double-decks would help make buses more cost effective to operate.

Apparently they fit easily under the freeway overpasses, which is, of course, a good thing.

0 comments

Mobility Plan Passes Council

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The City Council is moving forward:

Seattle will spend $8.1 million to develop a new “mobility plan” in hopes of finding an alternative to building another elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct.

City Council members voted unanimously Monday to create the plan, which may call for more transit, changes in surface streets, trip reduction, and vehicle tolls.

The surface-street option was rejected by WSDOT early on, but many have argued that that study was flawed because it simply removed the highway and didn’t think holistically about trip reduction, increased bus service, etc. This new study would presumably take all of those factors into consideration.

I’m optimistic. This is the first sign of genuine political movement toward a third way. However, it’s important to remember the lessons of the failed monorail project: if an idea doesn’t have the backing of the political establishment, it can easily be killed. Councilman Steinbrueck has made great progress in shepherding this through, but we’re still a long way away from anything approaching a political consensus.

0 comments

Tunnel Boring = Completely Awesome (not at all boring)

The tunnel boring-machine has broken through the other side of Beacon Hill, completing the 4,388-foot-long tunnel that will contain the Beacon Hill Station northbound. The Japanese-made tunnel boring machine weighs 375 tons (!!!), and can bore the holes within 5 millimetres of the engineers specifications. With the weight of the trailing gear it weighs nearly 650 tons.

Now the crews are going to take the machine apart, take it back t other side of the hill, and bore the southbound tunnel. The machine takes 21 truck loads to haul.

Beacon Hill Station will be 160 feet below ground and will only be accessible via high-speed elevators. Cool stuff. I wonder if that station is going to be smelling and nasty with hobos and other transients. I sure hope not, and I hope that there is security on those elevators otherwise it could be a scary situation.

2 comments