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

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.

Downtown Tunnel will be a bus and train tunnel


I hadn’t realised that the downtown tunnel would still run buses through it when it reopens. According to the tunnel’s website, most of the Metro routes that went through the tunnel will be put back into it when the retro-fit is finished sometime at or before September this year. The tunnel buses, which had been electric only though the tunnel, will become diesel-electric hybrids and go wireless with in it. How this will effect air-quality in the tunnel is not mentioned. Once the train finally starts running in 2009, the tunnel’s hours of operation will increase to 18-21 hours a day which will be pretty nice.

Update: The tunnel will be ventilated by fans that have been installed.

San Francisco Transit

I read this crazy comment over at Slog and it got me thinking that if Seattle is aiming to have transit like the San Francisco Bay Area does, it is not aiming all that high. I lived in San Francisco for years, and I can sum up the transit systems pretty simply.

BART

BART serves primarily the East Bay, those (especially from the East Bay) who commute from the suburbs into the city, and those going to SFO airport. That’s about it. Click the left link for a map. It does serve as a single subway line within the city along Mission toward Daly City, but it is a subway line that is mostly covered by Muni trains as well. When the Link Rail line is built, it will be about like BART is now, and when the East Link line is built, it will actually cover a greater portion of the region because BART doesn’t cover the South Bay at all, and doesn’t go into Marin county either. The most southern stop is Fremont. Sure it goes all the way to Pittsburgh, but that is the middle of no where. BART = Central Link

MUNI

MUNI can basically be divided into two parts, MUNI rail and MUNI buses. There is also the cable car, but that is mostly for tourists and costs $5 to ride just up Nob Hill. MUNI metro rail (see the map at the right) serves mostly the South and West parts of the city, bringing them into the downtown shopping and Financial District. Note that only Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell, Civic Center, Van Ness, Church, Castro, West Portal and Balboa Park stations are underground. The first four are actually shared with BART, so they are not unique subway stations. The rest of the stops are all above ground, making them like the South Lake Union Street Car. These lines are all much better than buses, but they only serve to bring people from the outskirt-neighborhoods into the employment centers downtown, and they don’t even serve most of the city. There is no Muni line to North Beach or Richmond District for example. There is one line missing on the map, the Historic F line, but that is mostly for tourists and basically goes along the embarcadero to Fishermans Wharf from Market. Muni Rail = More extensive version of Capitol Hill/SLU street cars


Muni bus (map to left) is pretty great as far as bus systems go, but it still is a bus. According to ratings, Muni is average or below average. One of the reasons buses seem good in San Francisco is because they are going very short distances. San Francisco is only 47 square miles (Seattle by contrast, is 83 square miles of land plus another 59 square miles of water), so a ride on the 38 from Downtown all the way out to the Richmond is only about four miles long. And it still takes 30 minutes on the local. Buses are definitely better than those in Seattle, but they are working with an easier city: smaller, with no large lakes in the middle, and denser. Also, since it is a city-run operation, not a county-run operation (San Francisco is its own county as well as city), it has a much smaller area to deal with.

Caltrain

Finally, there is Caltrain. Caltrain is a commuter rail from the city down the penninsula and eventually into the South Bay. I used to takes it nearly everyday from the city to San Jose. It is wonderful as far as commuter rails go, a 50 mile trip from San Francisco to San Jose only take 55 minutes on the “baby bullet” super express trains. However, it is essentially useless for anything other than commuting, because outside of the commuting times of day, all the trains are local, and the trip to the south bay would take literally hours. Caltrain = (faster) Sounder

What I haven’t Covered

I am missing “Golden Gate Transit” which serves the Marin, sort of like Community Transit serves Snohomish, and SAMtrans, which serves San Mateo sort of like Metro serves the ‘burbs but I have never ridden those, so I can’t comment on them. Also, Santa Clara County has it’s own street car, which serves some neighborhoods in the South Bay, but there’s not much to that, since the South Bay is so vast and sparse relative to the city, its difficult to build mass transit down there that serves most neighborhoods.

Summary

In all, the Bay Area has better transit infrastructure, and MUCH better road/highway infrastructre (that’s a whole other post). But I think with a few more Street Car lines and the Central and East Link built, Seattle will have a similar level of transit service to the Bay. That’s when we need to shoot higher, maybe looking at Boston or Chicago… My dream though I guess.

More Wi-Fi for Buses!

I am really late on this, but Metro has rolled out Wi-Fi to more buses in the Seattle Area. The 255, 644, 197 and selected trips on the 952 have Wi-Fi. Sound Transit has Wi-Fi on the selected 545 and the Everett-Seattle Sounder Commuter rail. The 545 is my route so I am really happy about the service.

Metro has teamed up with Sprint Cellular and Junxion, Inc., a Seattle-based mobile connection provider, to offer Wi-Fi service on 48 buses serving the four transit routes. (Wi-Fi service on the Route 952 will be limited to the last trip in the morning and afternoon.) The Junxion boxes have been outfitted with a cellular air card allowing passengers to use their laptop computers or Wi-Fi-enabled devices to access the Internet.

The Wi-Fi is basically like mobile phone wi-fi, so it switches towers as you travel. This works fine for surfing the web or checking email, because these protocols are stateless, meaning the data is transmitted and the connection is terminated. It doesn’t work as well for something that requires a persistant connection, such as remote desktop or ssh, but you’re on the bus what can you expect! And only geeks like me use those things anyway.

Good work Metro and Sound Transit, Wi-Fi is great and I wish you would roll it out to every bus.

More Park & Ride Parking at Northgate Starting Tomorrow

Starting Tomorrow, May 2nd, Metro will open it’s portion of the parking at Northgate’s new garage. According to metro’s website:

Metro’s spaces are located on floors 1 and 2. They are marked “Reserved for Park-and-Ride Customers Monday through Friday.” … With the new spaces in the garage, Metro will now have more than 900 parking stalls available for transit customers using the Northgate Transit Center.

That’ll be enough for now, but maybe more will be needed when the Light Rail gets finished.

Foot Ferries?

The PI today ran a story about the possible rebirth of passenger-only ferries in the Sound and even Lake Washington. Apparently the success of the Elliot Bay Water Taxi, the coming traffic hell, and the development of Puget Sounds westside has people thinking back to the days of the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet. Also, the state would like to get out of the business of running passenger-ferries, and King County Metro or Sound Transit would take up running the ferries.

Some words of caution from me: (1) The Water Taxi works because it runs in the summer when it is most fun to take a ferry, (2) all transit projects lose money and passenger ferries would be no exception, (3) if 520 is so dangerous during a windstorm, imagine a passenger-ferry on Lake Washington.

All in all it’s a fine plan, but I think the focus should remain on off-grade trains.

Good News, Bad News for Ferry Riders

Well, the bad news first. Washington State Ferries is increasing fares by 2.5% starting May 1st. This isn’t all that much, if you consider that inflation averaged about 3% last year, and the good news is that fares won’t go up again automatically next year, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they do with the poor state of the Ferries’ finances.
The really good news? The Elliot Bay Water Taxi (pictured above) kicks off on Sunday! If you don’t know about the water taxi, it’s a $3 boat ride from Pier 55 downtown to Seacrest Park in West Seattle. It’s really a treat on a warm summer day, and I recommended taking any out-of-town guests on it, as a way to get to Alki Beach. It only runs from May 1st to September 30th, which is really unfortunate as it is one of the fastest ways from West Seattle to downtown.