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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Intelligently Designed Transit?

Posted by on September 26 at 23:38 PM

So one of my roommates left a copy of Sierra Magazine on the john. Within it I found an article about a cheap transit solution, which essentially involves treating the bus like a subway on surface streets that is, prepaid, curb-level boarding gates with physically separated lanes for the buses. Over the last two weeks I’ve spent most of my toilet time daydreaming about the prospect of a sexy Seattle transit system. Today I finally got around to checking out the website for the Bus Rapid Transit system. Turns out the Cascadia Center (the one funded by scientifically minded Christian fundies - AKA the Discovery Institute), is already on the ball. In fact, the meeting just happens to be tomorrow afternoon:

A New Vision for Developing Transit for Livable Cities
An Afternoon with Enrique Peñalosa
Rainier Square Atrium, located at 1333 Fifth Avenue in Seattle, on Wednesday, September 27, at 1:30 p.m. Registration begins at 1:00 p.m. Cost for the event is $15 and includes a hosted reception.

Finally, something enviro-hippies and neo-con fundies can agree upon.

-Brandon Eng

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Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) isn't, and never will be, actual rapid transit. It will never be as fast as a subway or monorail. Why? Because it has to share the road with cars. Regardless of the sexy vehicles, or the prepaid separated boarding gates, or the bus-only lanes, BRT still has to stop at intersections, and takes away lanes that cars currently use.

Just look at 3rd Ave, which is currently being used as a temporary substitute for the Bus Tunnel during rush hour. This is more-or-less what BRT would look like. It takes 3rd Ave off the grid for cars, forcing all other vehicles off onto other streets, making other streets more clogged. Despite having 3rd Ave all to themselves, busses still travel much slower down 3rd Ave than they used to in the bus tunnel (where there were no stop lights).

The only true "rapid" transit is getting the vehicles (light rail, monorail, or whatever) OFF the streets. Either above ground or below ground, where it isn't competing with cars (and intersections, and stop lights, and pedestrian traffic). That way they only have to stop at transit stops to let people on/off, and don't fight with cars for the same pavement.

BRT is better than nothing. It would be somewhat faster than the current system of busses. And every full bus load of passengers means 40 less cars on the road. But BRT is a poor substitute for real rapid transit. It is slower for passengers than real rapid transit, and it makes at least some of the streets worse for other vehicles.

If you have an effective transit system (light rail, monorail, or whatever) that is faster and more convenient than driving, then you'd really get a lot of people out of their cars and using the transit system. As long as transit is slow and inconvenient, most people who have the option will opt to stay in their cars.

Brandon Eng's post just illustrates how seductive BRT can be for anyone who has never seriously thought about transit issues before.

The term "bus rapid transit" is inherently an oxymoron. As SDA in Sea has pointed out, even if the buses get their own dedicated lanes, they still have to navigate street crossings.

But more important than that, building a mass transit system is never just about getting from Point A to Point B; it's about changing the points that people want to get to and from.

Paradoxically, the fact that fixed rail transit requires infrastructure is a good thing. Buses are easy come, easy go. Developers are eager to build big projects near rail stations. Near bus stops? -- that's another story.

Now if you're building a subway or an elevated/underground light rail or a monorail, the infrastructure actually gets the train away from the traffic. Sure, you could do the same thing for buses. But if you're going to go to all that trouble, why bother with buses?

Then again, as SDA says, BRT is better than nothing, or for that matter conventional bus service. The sad thing is that Ron Sims and King County Metro are trying to pass off their little "Transit Now" proposal as BRT when it's not even that; it's just more frequent traditional bus service. Try asking some of the higher-ups in Metro how Transit Now is BRT -- it's like pulling teeth.

Well, the sadder thing about Ron Sims is that he's holding up Curitiba, Brazil with its BRT system as a model for Seattle. Instead of aspiring to be like San Francisco or Vancouver, he's trying to emulate a provincial city in a Third World county. But hey, if I were in the bus business, I guess I would present buses as the solution to all our transit problems too.

For those of you not familiar with Curitiba, here's a link to an article about how their transportation system came to be. It's not the best system in the world, but what's amazing is how much they were able to accomplish with so little, and in such a small amount of time. Also, like cressona suggests above, they used transportation planning to guide growth instead of the other way around.

Actually, the frightening thing about BRT is that often enough it's the favorite transit solution of transit foes. The Seattle Times editorial board loves BRT. Not only is it cheaper than stuff like light rail, but they know it will never be nearly as attractive as light rail, or driving for that matter.

Then once it fails to catch on after several years and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, it can be discontinued, and transit foes can hold it up as an example of how transit -- any transit -- just doesn't work around here.

Think of BRT like a Trojan horse. It's the gift of transit from people who want to kill transit. An unwitting public welcomes it, believing it's a cheap and effective transit solution, and then it turns out to be anything but. And there you have it, the highway interests manage to fend off the transit challenge.

By the way, you can even kill two birds with one stone. BRT buses need their own HOV lanes, and once you've built the HOV lanes, what's stopping you from opening those lanes to single-occupant cars?

Brandon's wide-eyed acceptance of BRT reminds me of another transportation Trojan horse -- the hydrogen car. At first glance, environmentally sensitive folks look at it and think, "Wow, what a great technology." But then look underneath the façade at who hydrogen's biggest fans are: the American oil and car companies. Why do they love it so? Because it's the vehicle fuel technology of the future -- and will continue to be the vehicle fuel technology of the future.

BRT is complete crap, and Mr. Eng is being hustled off to a re-education camp this morning.

That's the last time we let Unpaid Intern have the keys to Slog all night.

What about radio dispatched, door to door minibus service? Like they currently have for disabled people? I think the PI Editorial page guy recently mentioned this, to be paid for by tolls on roads like the viaduct.

You need something convenient to get people to and from the light rail collection points. It could also serve for shorter trips.

Instead, Seattle likes to throw these huge double-long busses at the problem - and all they do is clog things up.

On many streets - eg, 1st Avenue in in Belltown / Lower Queen Anne - they take up both lanes sometimes.

BRT is a no-go. Sound Transit disagrees. Dan, fire his ass.

Your Boss Dan Savage hates bus rapid transit. You should read some back issues of the Newspaper you work for.

Please talk to you boss before spewing this kind of nonsense on the Slog.

Please take it easy on the intern. the suggestion is sound. it's not the mode, it's the right-of-way or degree of grade separation. right-of-way is costly. both LRT and BRT are continuums of service quality dependent upon how much exclusivity and service frequency they are provided. In several citiess, BRT does rise to high capacity transit (e.g., Curritiba, Quito, Aldeline, Ottawa). The key factor is funding. Building new exclusive ROW for any transit mode (e.g., monorail, subway, LRT, or BRT) is quite costly. The SMP had $55 million per year and could not provide new transit ROW in two corridors. BRT is sometimes the best that can be afforded. Metro Transit may attempt to provide arterial BRT similar to what Vancouver and LA have provided. LA also has a new BRT Orange Line with exclusive ROW on an abandoned freight rail line. That is how many modern LRT and BRT lines have been provided ROW (e.g., SkyTrain, Sacremento, San Diego, St. Louis, San Jose, Ottawa, NJ, Charlotte). Hey, we should be considering diesel LRT for the BNFSFRR Woodinville subdivision between Renton and Woodinville.

another concept the right-wing economists and the left-wing environmentalists could agree upon: system-wide dynamic tolling on our limited access highways.

Dan Savage hates Bus Rapid Transit and has already convinced readers of The Stranger to oppose any attempt at BRT in Seattle.

Intern, please talk to your boss before inflicting this nonsense on your gentle readers.

Hopefully the seminar can help answer some questions, like:

What are comparative costs per rider, per mile, etc?

What really increases bus ridership?

How much impact does a sense of permanence really have? How do they create a sense of permance with BRT? There are some areas in downtown Portland that light rail runs through which seem pretty run down, even though rail has been going there a very long time.

It is worth noting:

--the light rail through Rainier Valley is not fully grade separated, there are something like 24 places where there are crossings. My understanding is the trains will have "signal priority." Well, buses can too.

--buses have more flexibility to go where people are living, then get onto a dedicated right of way.

--for long distances, buses can have point to point express routes. Trains have to stop at every station, unless there's an alternate track for a bypass. The NY subway does have some bypass tracks. However, light rail in Seattle does not.

Let's say light rail gets built over the I90 bridge and then through Bellevue into Overlake. The number of stops could really add up -a person on a point to point bus could probably be in Bellevue much faster than someone who's having to make all the stops in the Rainier Valley, then Mercer Island and then finally downtown Bellevue.

It is always interesting to look at actual experiences and learn from what other people have done. I hope the seminar gives some insights that can help us be more effective at reducing pollution and congestion.

I second the comment by commentator regarding signal priority. This is something that all at-grade rail systems use (see Portland, SF, Minneapolis, etc), and is being planned for the proposed BRT lines in Metro's Transit Now initiative.

BRT is a good way to provide mass (rapid) transit, but it has to be done right. In Curitiba, the primary trunk lines are linked into the neighborhoods by a slew of feeder lines. The trunk lines have headways of two minutes, meaning more frequently than train service in most cities in the world.

The difference in places like Curitiba and Bogota (the former mayor of which city is the speaker at the Cascadia event) is that the powers that be in these cities have embraced transit as a priority over cars. We don't have that here, regardless of whether that transit takes the form of buses or trains. If we did have the institutional will (which still counts more than 100 blog commenters), we could see real improvements to transit in the Puget Sound region. Until that day, we're going to be bickering about piecemeal strategies.

Eddiew: Please take it easy on the intern. the suggestion is sound. it's not the mode, it's the right-of-way or degree of grade separation. right-of-way is costly.

Spoken like a true pencil-pocket-protector engineer who never bothered to consider the political context of anything, never mind the land-use implications.

Here's the intern's quote: "Over the last two weeks I’ve spent most of my toilet time daydreaming about the prospect of a sexy Seattle transit system." Sounds like that's being framed as an alternative to light rail/subways/monorail to me. Sounds like music to the ears of the Trojan horse crowd.

There's a reason the highway interests love BRT while they fight tooth-and-nail against rail. Because not only is BRT something they can build themselves but because, if it's done the way it's going to be done 90% of the time, it's not going to be any competition to their real bread-and-butter, general-use highway lanes.

Suppose you did go to all the trouble and expense to give buses just the same level right-of-way as a subway or monorail would get. Why would you even bother going with buses at this point? Commuters/consumers prefer rail. Yes, as you say, Eddiew, on some level it is the right-of-way, but nobody in their right mind around here is considering spending that kind of money for mass-transit-level right-of-way for buses.

And remember how the light rail supporters who turned on monorail would go on and on and on about monorail's limited capacity? Well gosh, even the smallest monorail trains the SMP was considering are huge compared to buses.

Yes, BRT does have its applications, however limited. And that's not what this post -- or most of the discussion about BRT -- is about.

Beachhead: I second the comment by commentator regarding signal priority.

More Beachhead: The difference in places like Curitiba and Bogota (the former mayor of which city is the speaker at the Cascadia event) is that the powers that be in these cities have embraced transit as a priority over cars.

And what happens with BRT when cities start embracing cars over transit? Bus-only lanes are easily converted into car lanes. The whole pay-to-play HOT lanes thing could be seen as just one step down that slippery slope. And just as bus lanes are here today, gone tomorrow, so is signal priority. HOV lanes and bus priorities are always one Eyman initiative or one Republican legislature or Republican-appeasing, Frank Chopp-inspired Democratic legislature away from getting phased out. And there goes your whole "mass transit" system.

On the other hand, let anyone try dismantling SkyTrain in Vancouver or BART in San Francisco. Those systems are there, and people know they're always going to be there. And that's really all the difference in the world. Why? Because it's something that developers can build around. Because it's something people can live and work near and be able to say to themselves, "Ten or 20 years from now, my home is still going to be that much more valuable because it's near a rail station."

Cressona: agreed, it's a lot easier to reroute buses than it is to take apart rails. However, you're missing my point, which is that if a transit system has the support of the powers that be and is implemented effectively it will be succesful, whether or not it is BRT or LRT.

One of the ways I would define an effectively implemented system is that land use and zoning corresponds to the system. This is what has been done in Curitiba, Bogota and Los Angeles. Once land use patterns support transit, it rarely goes away (see any older city that has grown up around transit for proof of that).

It's been done with both buses and trains, all around the world. If the will existed here, it would be no different.

Beachhead, I think you're missing my point. No matter how long or how fervent the support of the powers-that-be is, "BRT" just does not have the ability to spur the kind of development rail can. It doesn't have the capacity and, more important, no developer is going to bet millions of dollars on the durability and fervency of those powers-that-be's support.

It's a bit like the perception difference between dating and getting married. No employer is going to give health benefits to somebody that their employee is just dating.

I understand your point, I simply disagree with it. BRT that has been implemented effectively (see definition above) does affect development patterns. Do a google image search for curitiba, look at the density that exists in the downtown core and along the main roads that carry BRT. This did not exist before BRT.

Curitiba has grown from 300,000 people in 1968 to 1.6 million today (4 million metro area). That growth been based around the bus rapid transit system.

My argument, that I still think you're not fully understanding, is that if we in Seattle were to embrace transit as fully as has been done in other cities, we actually will be able to change development patterns.

To be clear, when I say "embrace transit", what I mean is a dedication from the agencies involved to make transit as or more convenient than cars. If this is done, which may require switching general use lanes over to buses or train lines, and zoning is amended to support the new system (city and region-wide), the effects on land use will be approximate, regardless of the mode used.

And to clear up another point, let me say that I am not a proponent of BRT to the exclusion of LRT. I believe that politically, it will be easier to create a regional LRT system than it would be to make a BRT one. I think that the long-term success of transit in Seattle and the puget sound requires rail service.

What I disagree with is the odd perception that has cropped up among many people that bus rapid transit is not a viable transportation option. The truth is, there is room for both options, and in cases of cost vs service, it's likely that we'll see both in the near future. Likewise, I believe that once we have BRT with dedicated right of way, the political will required to convert it to rail is not as great, and we will see the opportunity for more rail in the future.

These aren't mutually exclusive options. If anything, they're complementary.

Wow, Beachhead. I'm beginning to think you work for Ron Sims. Question. What's different about Seattle and Curitiba? For one thing, how about a difference between the United States and Brazil:

  • United States per capita GDP (gross domestic product): $41,800
  • Brazil per capita GDP: $8,400

Source: CIA -- The World Factbook

This suggests Brazilians can't afford widespread automobile ownership the way Americans can. So "BRT" has a better opportunity to serve as the transit backbone there since it's not having to compete with sprawling, automobile-oriented development on a widespread basis when it comes to influencing development patterns.

Just for argument's sake, though, let's suppose that "BRT" does have the ability to influence development patterns in the United States. You would have to admit yourself that grade-separated rail transit has much, much greater ability to change development patterns than "BRT" does, even if it were grade-separated.

As for the perception that "BRT" is not a viable transit option, that's not my statement. My statement is that it's not as viable an alternative where rail transit is seriously on the table. Buses do best when they're complementing a rail backbone, not when they are the transit backbone.

Are train lines really permanent? Just as with bus lanes, HOV etc the answer is "it depends on the politics." The Burke Gilman trail used to be a rail line, now it is a bike and running path. Lots of train tracks in South Lake Union or downtown Seattle near the waterfront are now partially covered up or have been removed.

Another interesting discussion item would be "what are the outcomes we want, how do we measure those outcomes, and what is it going to cost to get there."

What percentage of transit riders do various cities have? What is the growth rate, and how much does it cost to increase the number of riders? Again hopefully looking at the experiences of other regions can help us make more informed decisions.

Just fyi, Curitiba has one of the highest per-capita income levels, the highest standard of living, the highest level of car ownership, and the highest transit ridership of any city in Brazil. Don't assume these things.

Again, we're back to the same argument. I agree that rail is great for altering growth patterns in cities. However, it is not the only way. You cannot ignore the lessons of Curitiba and Bogota and Los Angeles and Santiago and Jakarta. BRT does affect development patterns, and if it is implemented as a complete and settled system, it has every bit as much influence on development patterns as rail.

If you haven't done the google image search for Curitiba yet, please do. You'll see that in fact BRT does encourage density on a scale beyond anything we have in Seattle.

This is a more interesting discussion than I thought it would be.

I suppose BRT could be as sexy, and as efficient, as those with the "institutional will" wanted it to be. Given the right equipment, it could be better than light rail.

But in Seattle, do we have the will? Or is BRT just going to be a halfway measure that pleases no one.

At least with light rail / subway / monorail, you know it's gonna meet some minimum standard.

Based on the bus system we have, BRT is liable to be crap.

Telegraph for Ron Sims: This is what "Bus Rapid Transit" really is.

Bus Rapid Transit in Seattle would use curb lanes.
That would eliminate on-street parking.
It would make such an arterial into an urban highway.
BRT would destroy pedestrian-orientation of a street since such streets MUST have on-street parking.

Consider N 45th in Wallingford. Imagine it without a buffer of on-street parking. Bad news indeed.

BRT wouldn't necessarily removing parking lanes. In fact, in cities that have made the leap to fully supporting BRT systems, many times the solution has been to actually remove a car lane. This is obviously a huge political step, but it's an important one. It demonstrates that transit is being given priority as a system, and that roads are not only for cars.

In Curitiba, this is exactly what happened, and bus service was increased in those lanes to the point where buses arrive every two minutes. The person-moving capacity is actually increased. When Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, was in town some months ago, he made this exact point. If you provide service that is actually better than cars, you don't need that extra space on the roadway for automobiles.

The last thing I want is a city of highways (hence my slight hesitation at jumping whole hog behind the Streets and Transit proposal for the viaduct), but this is not necessarily the only outcome.

Another interesting example is in Portland, where the newish Interstate Max runs up Interstate Avenue in north Portland. Car lanes were removed from the street, and parking was maintained (see also Sound Transit's central link on MLK. Parking will remain, although businesses may be gone in that case). Not only can transit capacity be added without creating highways, but the same problems apply to buses and rail both.

BRT definitely has its place. Its place is serving as a medium capacity spine connecting CBDs with low density suburbs. This proper application can be seen in
, where five dedicated busways serve the sprawling low density suburbs of the city. These are limited access roadways, used only by buses and emergency vehicles.

That works great there as a supplement to the existing commuter train network, serving older, denser suburbs. Local bus routes can access the busways from their suburban rounds for quick access to the core. Curitiba adopted a similar strategy early in its development, reserving space for the busways on the wide boulevards radiating from the center city.

BRT could have worked in Seattle. The tunnel could have been kept exclusively for buses and the express lanes on 5 and 90 converted to two way bus only roadways. The E-3 busway could have been extended all the way to southcenter.

This would have the advantage of greatly expanding the destinations served by reasonably rapid transit: extending the busway to a southcenter hub instead of building Link would have allowed routes serving Tukwila, Renton, Kent, etc. to have a predictable speedy trip over much of the route. Instead, we have one stop outside the city limits, with a few more to come someday, none of which will improve most southern transit riders commute.

BRT is a feasible alternative for consolidating suburban routes onto dedicated busways serving major activity centers. Simply putting more buses onto the street with some fancy signs telling you when the next one is coming, ala Mr. Sims, is just the same old crap. The die has been cast, and true BRT lost to light rail in Puget Sound, which is fine, but don't dismiss the concept altogether.

Bus rapid transit will never be true rapid transit -- WHO THE FUCK CARES? It takes 12 minutes to get from Broadway to the Ave -- do you REALLY need to get there in 9 like light rail would get you, even with one hole stop in the middle? What if you don't want to go to the ONE stop on Capitol Hill or ONE stop in the U District (Montlake doesn't count)? If you take a bus across 520 on rush hour you'll know that it's ALREADY plenty rapid -- it'll already save you about a half hour on travel time without any fancy bus lanes.

Nobody wants to say it, but the only issue with the anti-bus lobby is that buses have poor black women on them and sometimes you have to sit next to them. Maybe they should have a few "luxury" buses that cost $45 per trip from West Seattle to Ballard with a complimentary tote bag. Maybe put a little discount section in the back for the urban clientele. Then everybody will be for BRT.

Good post #26, somejerk.

I always marvel at how people dump on Metro - which really is a pretty good system that a hell of a lot of people regionally use. I didn't drive until my early 20's, so I was a big bike and bus guy early on, and later often still took Metro when I worked downtown and didn't have other stuff to do after work (or when my cheap-o car needed some repair or other).

BRT is no substitute for dedicated rights-of-way (which Link light rail sorely lacks through SE Seattle - el's, subways, or retained cuts are a lot better), but it does have its place, and does have the potential to get more people who live far from the Sound Transit starter line onto transit if it's done right.

That said, taking the bus to where I need to go would triple my commute time (at least), so I'm not getting out of my car any time soon, but BRT and rail isn't necessarily an either/or proposition.

Off topic - does anyone other than me think it's kind of dumb to kick the Puget Sound Dinner Train off an old rail line - from Renton to Woodinville, I believe - in order to build a recreational bike/walking trail instead of some sort of dedicated passenger rail transit? Not that trails aren't great, mind you, but given the growing need for mass transit on the eastside (which will move a lot more people than biking or walking, particularly among the suburban types), talk about a missed opportunity to use an existing right-of-way....

The problem with the rail line used by the Puget Sound Dinner train is it only has one track. You can't have trains running north and south simultaneously on the one track without some sort of a switch where the trains could pass. I don't know if the right of way would be wide enough to build another parallel rail line, or what the cost would be of another Wilburton Trestle etc.

I saw Enrique Penalosa speak yesterday. He was amazing. He barely talked about BRT and spoke mostly about how and why cities should be dense and it wasn't the usual lip service. I'm not going to do justice to his talk; he was animated, funny, and said things I hadn't heard before. And most impressively, he made Bogota look like the best city on earth. That's a feat!

You can see what he had to say on the website; I'm sure it will be on there pretty soon, as the talk was yesterday.

The reason Bogota went with BRT was a) the cost (it would take Bogota 100 years to reach Seattle's per capita income so rail was out of the question) and b) it was to consolidate all of the independent bus drivers out there that make the streets so chaotic. They didn't really have a bus system, just a bunch of guys who each own their own bus. It was a total mess.

Also, 80% of people in Bogota don't have cars.

Thanks Commentator - while I imagine they could develop a switching system (fe - if the trains ran as infrequently as Sounder does), I figured there was probably some reason why it wasn't as easy as it seemed.

Mr. X: I agree. Why not maintain and improve the corridor for both rail and trail. enough passing track would have to added to provide 15-minute headway service by diesel light rail; the track would have be improved, signal system upgraded, stations, etc. freight and dinner train could remain.

city comforts: Route 44 could be improved and parallel parking in Wallingford business district could be retained if bus bulbs were installed. other improvements: low floor buses, faster fare collection, better service frequency, and shifting NE 45th Street interchange with I-5 to HOV only, shifting SOVs to NE 50th Street.

all: yes, Penalosa was quite good. back to intern. suggestion was to learn from him and adapt what we can here.

OMG the intern has a mind of his own. WE CAN'T HAVE THAT!

Buses would excel in a hub and spoke system, where a network of buses centered around major transfer points, where a set of express buses would route transfers to Downtown and other centralized locales... rather than routing the whole mess of buses through or close to Downtown, creating long routes and schedules that are nearly impossible to meet.

I leave work 10-15 minutes late just so I don't have to stand around 25 minutes waiting for my bus home to show up. It'd be nice if I could just walk out the door and catch it, and there are a dozen others who agree with me just at that stop.

Also, re: train lines 'permanent?'... it takes a lot of time and money to have a contractor physically rip up a set of rails or cover them, and replace the rails elsewhere when you want to change a rail route. Those who state its ease seriously underestimate the time consuming nature and cost of the task, especially in today's construction-inflation dollars.

Changing a bus route is as simple as removing the old signs, placing new signs and telling the bus driver to go somewhere else.

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