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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Why Bus Rapid Transit Won't Work, At Least Not Here

Posted by on Tue, Jan 8, 2013 at 4:54 PM

Theoretically, I'm technology agnostic when it comes to mass transit. Light rail, heavy rail, monorail, no-rail—I don't give a shit how many rails you have as long as it's grade separated. That's the secret to reliable transit: Not getting caught in traffic.

So yeah, theoretically, as Paul points out, true Bus Rapid Transit can work great. Until it doesn't. For the very flexibility that makes BRT cheaper to build also makes it cheaper to cut corners and eventually dismantle:

Wherever you build lanes that cars could use, car drivers will want to use them, and will exert political pressure to do so. Every BRT project that exists or is planned anywhere could be converted to a road for cars, without spending an additional dollar on construction.

This is not to say that BRT is useless. It certainly is not. BRT belongs in all our big cities, as one piece of a larger multimodal transit network. But the same flexibility and low cost that makes BRT attractive in many locations is simultaneously the reason it cannot be trusted to deliver on long-term promises in the same way as rail. It is easy to eliminate, and it has too great a history of being eliminated.

If you think about it, that's kinda the story behind the I-90 bridge's center HOV lanes. Originally built with the understanding that these lanes would be converted to transit, pro-car patriots like Kemper Freeman have fought and fought for BRT over the bridge instead of rail, knowing full well that this would leave the lanes open to cars. Angry drivers, stuck in bridge traffic while the center lanes remained virtually empty, would demand it.

But lay down tracks on the those lanes and what's done is done. (Well, almost.)

Technically, BRT could work. But politically, not so much. Politicians looking to do rapid transit on the cheap will inevitably cheapen BRT until it isn't really rapid at all, and any dedicated lanes will face a constant battle to fend off HOV and SOV encroachment.

So give me a rail or two, and let's be done with it.


Comments (21) RSS

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29 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
LEE. 27
please don't let it go unnoticed. please continue impotently posting on this blog for no real reason but to hear the sound of your fingers as they stroke the keyboard and that feeling of self-satisfaction as you hit the Post Comment button. please continue to shriek with rage whenever you see a bicyclist whiz by you as you are driving somewhere, knowing they aren't paying for the road. please tell us about the upcoming Romney presidency.

please... don't keep us in suspense.
Posted by LEE. on January 9, 2013 at 10:56 PM · Report this
LEE. 25

fine. rather than "desperate", let's take my personal situation for example: I am "really excited" about the "prospects" of more "efficient mass transit" that might "get me out of my car more often" and off a road where I might get purposely get into a "head-on collision" with "you".
Posted by LEE. on January 9, 2013 at 4:44 PM · Report this
kk in seattle 23
To Matt, Love, Wikipedia:
There is now general agreement that this conspiracy was not the main reason for the decline in street cars in the USA. Wrote one author "Clearly, GM waged a war on electric traction. It was indeed an all out assault, but by no means the single reason for the failure of rapid transit. Also, it is just as clear that actions and inactions by government contributed significantly to the elimination of electric traction."
Posted by kk in seattle on January 9, 2013 at 1:09 PM · Report this
treacle 22
Per various comments above, esp. @8, the only way BRT would work is if we went all Baron von Hausmann on Seattle and demolished various sections to create Les Grandes Boulevardes to build dedicated bus lanes.

But since that has approximately -zero chance of happening in our little peninsula, then rail, with it's smaller tunnels and separated lines makes great sense to me. Plus, it's already underway, so let's keep expanding it.

<rant>Seattle MISSED ITS FUCKING CHANCE for intelligent mass-transit in 1962 after the World's Fair debuted the Monorail. City developers could have reserved rail/monorail right-of-ways then for the very growth Seattle was courting by holding a World's Fair in the first place. BUT NO... no right-of-ways reserved, no rail/monorail lines built... and now we have to fucking retrofit the goddamn city for the burgeoning population, already desperate for better transit.

Fucking idiots.


Posted by treacle on January 9, 2013 at 1:04 PM · Report this
Matt from Denver 21
@ 1, those rails didn't disappear due to attrition. They disappeared because the auto manufacturers purchased streetcar companies and shut them down. The goal? Get more people to buy cars.

I'm surprised nobody has already commented to tell you that. Maybe it's not as well known as it should be.
Posted by Matt from Denver on January 9, 2013 at 8:41 AM · Report this
LEE. 20
@6 &11


...wait, no it's not. what would be interesting is for you to tell us about your days as a Skinhead Against Racial Prejudice.
Posted by LEE. on January 8, 2013 at 11:02 PM · Report this
@14, Mr G is NotFan and a few other noms de troll. You can recognize them by the use of "progressive."
Posted by sarah70 on January 8, 2013 at 10:33 PM · Report this
Downtown Seattle has dedicated bus lanes at certain times of day.
Posted by Rhiannonreh on January 8, 2013 at 10:18 PM · Report this
In Portland, cars can drive in the MAX lanes and Street Car lanes. But motorists get the fuck out of the way because it is well known that those trains take a full city block to come to a stop. If you fuck around trying to hog the lane, you're liable to get killed.
Posted by wxPDX on January 8, 2013 at 10:16 PM · Report this
Agreed, Goldy. While there are other arguments to be made, this one is particularly relevant here because of WA's initiative system that makes it easier for public programs to be Eyman'd. Given that there have been efforts to make carpool lanes nonexclusive, it is reasonable to predict that BRT lanes would also get hijacked at the first budget or traffic crunch.
Posted by MemeGene on January 8, 2013 at 9:51 PM · Report this
The real story would be Dow Constantine's role in this BS rebranding.
Posted by hmmmmm on January 8, 2013 at 9:27 PM · Report this
So Mister G is now a race-based concern troll?

Listen up, "G".

In our case (unlike Portland's), rail is coming from an entirely separate, dedicate funding stream. Replacing inefficient buses in high-demand areas allows for better and more productive redeployment of those same buses elsewhere.

Bus riders -- of which you clearly have never been one -- win big when trains and buses work symbiotically improve their efficient and mobility range.

That's why no major cities anywhere in the world succeed with "bus only" networks. Too much waste is involved. Even Curitiba, the inventor of BRT, is building a subway right now.

Anyway, you shot your argument to smithereens the moment you used the word "flexible". All you mean by that is "I intend to drive/stop in your lane and fuck up your bus service wherever possible, because you can hypothetically go around."
Posted by d.p. on January 8, 2013 at 7:10 PM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 13
@7 I was just in SF, and I couldn't even recognize the "dedicated" bus lanes because there were so many taxis, SUVs and Benzes driving in them. I drove in one for 2 or 3 blocks before I noticed the signs. Of the two lanes, at least a third of non-bus traffic was in the bus lane.
Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on January 8, 2013 at 7:01 PM · Report this
Cynic Romantic 12
It seems to work pretty well here in Brisbane, Autralia, if you are well organised and aren't in a particular hurry. People complain that it is expensive, but it's expensive to own and run a car too.
Posted by Cynic Romantic on January 8, 2013 at 6:32 PM · Report this
fletc3her 9
I could imagine the BRT system running out at the edges, but Seattle doesn't have any BRT infrastructures in the core. The buses run right down third with all the other buses, traffic, pedestrians, etc. And it just gets worse from there.

At least the A line from Tukwila to Federal Way runs in an HOV lane for more or less its entire route. It has signal bypasses in several places where the bus can continue even if the light is red in its travel direction and signal priority in general.

I don't think the B line has a similar level infrastructure and the disastrous C and D lines don't even have all their stops yet.
Posted by fletc3her on January 8, 2013 at 5:56 PM · Report this
blip 7
In SF we have dedicated bus lanes on some of the major thoroughfares not serviced by lightrail (parts of Potrero Ave and parts of Geary/O'Farrell downtown, probably others, too). If there is a political fuss about it I haven't heard it.
Posted by blip on January 8, 2013 at 5:36 PM · Report this
I'm still hoping that the light link will make it to Bellevue. That, and I'd like to get some sort of long-term parking solution available at the Issaquah highlands park & ride - as it stands there's no way for me to bus or rail to the airport if I'm going to be gone for more than 24 hours or depart/arrive on a weekend.
Posted by Tawnos on January 8, 2013 at 5:16 PM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 4
The real argument is that the expensive bit is grade seperating. Once you do that, buses aren't cheaper than rail. It's easy to forget how expensive roads are until you need to build a new grade seperated one. Elevated rail takes less concrete than elevated roads. Rail tunnels are smaller than bus tunnels.

If you're not grade seperating, there's an argument for BRT. But to do it right you need to take capacity from cars, and not just at the easy parts (like Seattle does). You need to take capacity at intersections and bottlenecks. If you can ever imagine taking a lane all the way down Denny, never sharing with cars even to let them turn, and giving buses signal priority, then you'd have real BRT. But this absolutely won't happen in Seattle in the present day.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on January 8, 2013 at 5:07 PM · Report this
kitschnsync 3
Also: BRT is more expensive to staff and maintain. Rail lasts longer.
Posted by kitschnsync on January 8, 2013 at 5:04 PM · Report this
kk in seattle 1
I find this utterly unpersuasive. Two examples (one in Delhi and one in D.C.) are not "wherever." And rails criss-crossed an enormous number of arterials in most major American cities until the 1940s. Most are gone now.
Posted by kk in seattle on January 8, 2013 at 5:00 PM · Report this

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