The Politics of Mode Choice

» Choice of transportation mode for new transit capital projects is often just as much a reflection of politics as it is a statement of “objective” technological benefits.

Would it be an indictment of the political system to suggest that most political leaders making decisions about what kind of technology to use in new transit corridors simply don’t care about the relative merits of various transportation modes? If someone were to develop a definitive formula that established, once and for all, the most appropriate technology for any possible corridor, would it matter?

I raise these questions because when put it in the context of actual decision-making by politicians in the United States, the seemingly endless debate between proponents of rail and buses can sometimes appear downright irrelevant.

Bus rapid transit may provide the same capacity as light rail or light rail may be more effective in producing ridership increases or busways may be cheaper to construct or trains may be better transit-oriented development generators. But if there isn’t significant political support for a transportation technology, it doesn’t matter; the only proposals that are built are those that capture the hearts of the people who decide how public funds are spent.

Last week Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, her region’s biggest cheerleader for better transit, suggested that for new transportation routes, “Bus rapid transit is not acceptable.” The regional transportation agency HART has yet to determine whether it will promote light rail or faster buses for one of the many potential corridors for better transit service. But the Mayor’s statement, backed up by similar nods of approval for trains by HART President David Armijo, suggests that the only politically feasible option is light rail. When voters in the Tampa region go to the polls on November 2nd to determine whether to increase their sales taxes, they will be considering whether to fund rail, not just any sort of improved transit.

On the other hand, up in Maryland, Republican gubernatorial candidate and former Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. has suggested that he would replace the current (Democratic) governor’s plans for light rail in Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C. with bus rapid transit projects. Mr. Ehrlich has cited what he claims are the cheaper costs of bus investments, an opinion that may have more to do with reorienting transportation funding towards highways but which still could point towards efficiency in spending, important for any government program.

There are plenty of seemingly reasonable explanations for the rock-hard support of both Ms. Iorio and Mr. Ehrlich for their preferred transit technologies, but the fact is that their statements in favor of one mode or the other are based on emotional responses, not some kind of well thought-through assessment of their communities’ specific needs.

For many politicians in the United States, light rail has attained something of a mythical status, and they’ve been able to transfer the excitement about the mode to their constituents, as proven by the recent proliferation of successfully passed transit sales tax increases usually founded on the assumptions that trains are coming. There’s some good logic to this fact: Trains are sexy and different: For metropolitan areas used to only bus operations, light rail is appealing to the popular imagination in a way that bus rapid transit is simply not because of its similarity to existing services. Even if it is possible to imagine bus lines that are just as performing as light rail, it is hard to communicate that potential to the average person before a vote.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s successful campaign to advance the Measure R tax increase in 2008 and now his 30/10 transit plan, both of whose products will primarily be new rail lines, is arguably founded on both general enthusiasm for rail services in L.A. and the coinciding promise that the plan will bring those offerings to everywhere in the region. Similarly, the increase in local taxes to fund the extension of the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART rapid transit system into San Jose was endorsed by more than two-thirds of voters in the 2008 election cycle, likely because of the emotional appeal people in the area hold for the BART rail system. There are cheaper and arguably more appropriate alternatives, like a bus rapid transit line or an improvement of commuter rail services in the East Bay, but they weren’t considered because of a lack of political will to advance their development.

The fundamental question for proponents of better transit stuck asking themselves what transportation technology to support is this: Is it more important to argue for a mode that is more technically efficient or one that is emotionally appealing? Could Mayor Villaraigosa have found enough support for his plan had it promoted a series of busways? Is Mayor Iorio’s argument in favor of light rail a response to her recognition that only it will be exciting enough to appeal to voters?

More directly: If it is necessary to intrigue both politicians and the public about a new transit system in order to get it funded, the necessary corollary must sometimes be choosing the wrong transportation mode from a technical perspective in order to satisfy political demands.

All this said, I do not want to imply that the continued discussion about what transportation modes work best is a silly matter; if anything, more research is necessary to answer the questions that continue to enliven debates about the various benefits of different types of transit. If planners can demonstrate conclusively that light rail really does produce higher ridership and more transit-oriented development than bus rapid transit, then they have an obligation to push for its implementation. If, on the other hand, they can show that bus rapid transit can provide all the benefits of light rail at a lower price, then they must do the opposite.

But planners will only be able to make their argument effectively if they are able to frame it in terms that are appealing for the people who control the public’s purse strings, both in the voting booth and behind the mayor’s desk.

120 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • This is the wrong question, but unfortunately one that has been made too often. A better question might be “what mode fits X need at time Y?”. The answer could well be a multi-modal system.

    Here in the Madison Area of Wisconsin for example, transit planners have devised an excellent long-term vision of what transit should look like. The contentious issue is how best to get there. What is the better short-term solution? The better short-term solution is NOT to start installing commuter rail–the long-term vision–right away, cannibalizing the current bus system in the process.

    The better short-term solution is to add transit-ways to roads that can initially be used by rapid buses, and to give preferential use to buses in other, mixed-traffic, lanes. Such buses would not have to weave in and out of traffic, could be competitive with automobiles for the time it takes for a trip, and could persuade an increasing number of people that transit is a cost-effective and efficient way to travel. At that point, it is reasonable to install in places, a more expensive higher-capacity rail line–the long-term vision. To install expensive, near-empty rail cars too soon, at the expense of current transit riders, is counter-productive and would give transit a well-deserved bad name.

    • In Perth, Austrlia, rather than approaching multi-modal transport as when is the right time for trains to start cannibalizing buses, when they restored their train system they also reworked their bus system to take advantage of the natural complementarity between the two.

      If a commuter rail system is being built in an appropriate corridor, then it ought to be an opportunity to increase ridership on buses as well.

      This is an unfortunate side-effect of the arbitrary mode-wars imposed on local communities by lower subsidies for common carrier transport relative to subsidies for private motor-vehicles, is that what ought to be opportunities to improve multiple modes are instead turned into artificial competitive tournaments between natural complements.

    • Wad

      Susan, this is the plan Phoenix set in motion. In a span of 10 years, the Phoenix area went from having no Sunday bus service to a large transit grid with 7-day service, running well into the night, and light rail capping the efforts.

      Remember, though, that Phoenix did choose light rail early on and Valley Metro was going to build it no matter what.

      It didn’t wait to establish a bus ridership base before building light rail. In fact, Phoenix chose the light rail starter line to replace a cross-county bus service that had been its busiest service.

      What Phoenix did right was to enhance bus service as well. The earliest improvements were adding Sunday service, then adding night service (buses that had ended at 7 p.m. now ran as late as midnight), then raising frequencies on bus lines from hourly to 30 minutes and 30 minutes to 15 minutes.

      Charlotte had a similar expansion, one that was subject to a tax referendum. There was a small light rail line, but immediate improvements were made to the bus system, where most buses run 30 minutes or better, and services run to 1 a.m. seven days a week. The tax repeal failed by a 2-1 margin.

  • Toast2042

    If there’s an emotional component to adoption of certain transit modes by the citizenry of a city how can you objectively measure which one will be better for your own town given the arguably questionable data?
    Ridership and economic data could argue for light rail but if the citizens don’t accept it it won’t work. We’ve ended up arguing in a circle.

  • dm

    Too often these questions are framed around the “needs” of a community. More important questions relate to a community’s “desires.” That is why these decisions will always be political, and that’s not necessarily bad. The search for a definitive formula for mode choice is a foolish one. Instead, it is better to imagine a future for your community, evaluate whether or not it’s a reasonable one, and, if it is, decide which types of transit investments would feasibly help you get there.

  • I find it sometimes strange how here in North America the mode choice (transit expansion in general) is such an emotional issue.

    When I read about transit in Germany, cost-benefit ratios pop up all the time (except for some of the pet projects). I am not exactly sure how they are calculated, probably relating cost with the overall economic benefit to the region. But it seems to me that there are formulas relating mode choice and ridership estimates.

  • FG

    The emotional appeal is certainly strong – I remember seeing a quote from a Sacramento newspaper about their then new light rail opening to the effect of “At Last, Sacramento feels like a real city” if I remember correctly.

    There is certainly something about being able to show off trains with more pride than a bus system, whether or not one is more effective than another, enhancing civic or regional pride.

    • Woody

      I saw a quote in the papers from a Mayor of Albuquerque who said that if his fair city didn’t get good rail transit. then it would sink to third tier status like Amarillo or Lubbock! Well, that was indeed a fearsome threat: ‘Get rail for our city or we’ll be like Lubbock.’ Oh, the horror!!! Ha ha ha ha ha.

      Albuquerque got the fine Rail Runner Express commuter/intercity-to-Santa Fe system, but it still lacks a local light rail or streetcar network within the city. Not to worry though, Lubbock ain’t moving up on ‘em in the rearview mirror.

  • Jake

    I think that FG is onto something. To me, the popular desire for BART to San Jose — pushed by regional business leaders, but certainly reflected in polls of public sentiment — is about the desire for respect. The biggest city and economic leader of the Bay Area wants its own dot on that BART map that shows the whole Bay Area, and it is throwing its weight around accordingly (and willing to put its money where its mouth is). Same thing with the Altamont-vs-Pacheco high speed rail controvery — San Jose wanted to have the direct link to the state’s biggest city.

    Against that sort of sentiment, cost-benefit studies showing that other modes are more favorable don’t stand a chance.

    Maybe BART doesn’t make sense for the near future, but on the other hand, maybe it will in the long run of 30+ years, if it changes development patterns in the South Bay.

    It is easy to forget now the endless acrimony at the time about all the debt that New York had to run up during the Depression when it took over the ownership and construction of its privately-funded subway lines. But today that is long forgotten.

  • You’re right on the money Yonah. Nearly every transit line has been built with modes suggested by politicians, not necessarily the most cost effecient or effective. Even the Orange Line in Los Angeles, a BRT line, was a pet project of Zev Yaroslavski, a Los Angeles County Supervisor.

  • Tampa area resident here… LRT is without a doubt the only politically–feasible option for high–capacity transit in the Bay Area.

    HART’s existing route between downtown and the Airport, #30, is the most popular and frequent bus route in the entire system. Adding it to the planned ‘MetroRapid’ BRT system (15min headways, off–board payment, signal priority, station shelters) would be cheap compared to LRT.

    Only problem: Most people don’t know or care about MetroRapid. People who do know about it probably dismissed it as “a fancy bus” – and why would they ride on a bus? Light rail, though – everyone’s heard of it, and most who could use it for commuting say they’d at least try it.

    What’s truly ‘funny’/interesting about all this is that LRT and MetroRapid will be very similar in terms of operations and amenities. Buses just don’t have the same psychological impact as rail in Tampa, and I suspect that it’s true in most other North American cities.

  • allen

    ” If planners can demonstrate conclusively that light rail really does produce higher ridership and more transit-oriented development than bus rapid transit, then they have an obligation to push for its implementation” =Yonah

    It can’t be that simple. The question isn’t just if LRT results in a higher number of trips on it or in more transit-oriented development but what is the value of of what is produced compared to what it costs. Otherwise, some study could look at UtopiaCity’s LRT line that cost 1 billion to build and was was start to end jam packed with TOD…. all of which UptopiaCity funded with TIFs, property tax rebates, low interest HUD loands, etc. Those incentives all have costs to them and need to be taken into consideration when evaluating the ROI.

  • DT

    Besides the “sexy” factor, which I think is significant and not dismissible, the article forgot to mention the difference in operating costs. LRT is typically cheaper to operate than BRT because of the higher capacity available per driver, though this is often calculated at the target year and not at project inception.

  • Tom West

    There is an emotional component in people’s choice between car and transit, and certain transit modes appear desirable than others – even if they are equvilant by all objective criteria. So, when transport planning professional reccomend a mode, they can’t just use objective criteria. For example, an LRT service running along a former rail line is an easier sell to motorists (who make up the majority of voters) than a BRT service that takes away road lanes.
    The choice is rarely Mode A vs. Mode B – it is egneralyl Mode A vs. Mode B vs. nothing. Imagien if A is objectively better than B, which is objectively better than nothing. However, B has a much greater chnace of being built for emotional reasons. Then the best option to pursue is B, not A.
    sometimes B should be pursused because it is has a greater chnace of getting

  • mulad

    “Trains are sexy and different: For metropolitan areas used to only bus operations, light rail is appealing…”

    Yeah, the value of novelty can hardly be understated in the consumer-driven culture of the U.S. In some places, buses were seen as the great new technology when streetcars were being torn out in the mid-20th century (or at least that’s what the transit operators of the time wanted people to think). Along with highways, that’s claimed to be a significant reason why there wasn’t more outcry as they were being dismantled.

    Still, novelty only gets you in the door. The transit system must have a lasting appeal if it’s really going to work for the general population and not just transit-dependent riders. I think the differences between BRT and LRT are quite tangible, at least if you look at how BRT has been built in the U.S. — LRT often wins with roll-on/roll-off capability, smoothness of the ride, smoothness of acceleration/deceleration, no need for wheelchairs to be tied down, pre-boarding payment, more direct routing, automated station announcements, enhanced signage, better maps and schedules, on-time reliability, high frequency, and better route awareness by the public (since the the infrastructure is more obvious). Buses have advantages like the fact they don’t squeal like banshees going around curves and don’t need horns or fancy rail signaling.

    Most BRT systems have not done all they can do to be LRT-like, meaning they’re destined to be less appealing. If you want BRT to work in the U.S., it has to be built better than any BRT built here before, and has to come with guarantees that it will be maintained to a high level of quality, will have reliable and usually frequent service for at least 20 hours a day, and will not have reductions in service.

    • Nathanael

      “I think the differences between BRT and LRT are quite tangible, at least if you look at how BRT has been built in the U.S. — LRT often wins with roll-on/roll-off capability, smoothness of the ride, smoothness of acceleration/deceleration, no need for wheelchairs to be tied down, pre-boarding payment, more direct routing, automated station announcements, enhanced signage, better maps and schedules, on-time reliability, high frequency, and better route awareness by the public (since the the infrastructure is more obvious).”

      Geez. That is an impressive list.

      I’ve noted that ride smoothness is *always* a failure on buses, and even when *designed* for roll-on-roll-off, it fails on buses due to drivers not aligning vehicles properly with the platform. Acceleration/deceleration smoothness could be achieved with electric buses.

      Most of the others could theoretically be achieved by buses, but simply aren’t achieved, because if you’re going to spend that much money, you get a better bang for your buck with rails. :-P

      “Buses have advantages like the fact they don’t squeal like banshees going around curves and don’t need horns or fancy rail signaling.”
      Buses have horns. Signalling costs money but increases safety. Squealing around curves is a real issue, I’ll admit, but I’m impressed that this is the only clear advantage you can think of!

  • Realist

    For me, too many people think about transit the way a huge agro business thinks about feeding cattle – they focus on what’s simple, cheap and effective. I think simple, cheap and effective certainly have a role, but people don’t choose and use things only based on those attributes (something I think many bus fanatics are in denial about).

    If we had central planning for all of our restaurants nobody would allow food to be served only on a what’s simple, effective and cheap basis while ignoring quality and taste, but that’s what we do with public transit and as a result most people who can afford something nicer don’t take it. Light rail gets people excited because it’s not just functional but also tasty.

    In America it seems like the transit debate often is determined by underling perceptions about who transit is for. If a politician thinks it’s just for poor people, then buses it is – simple and cheap. If transit is for the middle classes then you have to offer something that has a bit of taste so people don’t just take their cars and will get excited about it. The new tram fad is a great example… not cheap, simple or very effective in terms of mobility, but tasty so popular. Some people just don’t seem to want quality of the experience to matter in the transit equation, but that’s simply unrealistic – it’s hard to think of any service where quality of experience isn’t important.

    Unfortunately, nicer is more expensive and American’s don’t seem willing to stop subsidizing cars so much (I hate parking space zoning laws the most). It also seems like rail lines are much more subject to special interest politics than roads which I don’t understand. For example, I fly out of LAX about 30 times a year and it infuriates me that they built the light rail 98% of the way to the airport and then stopped because of the shared ride van and taxi lobby. It’s hard to imagine anyone building a freeway 98% of the way to an airport, but similar things seem to happen to trains all the time.

  • Gordy

    The level of enthusiasm for light rail by its proponents is out of all proportion to its actual importance in the nation’s transit systems. For the past 30 years, cities across the country have been building and expanding light rail lines. But light rail still provides only about 4% of total trips and passenger-miles of travel by public transit. And a negligible share of total motorized urban travel. It’s essentially a distraction. Few if any light rail routes could not be served at lower cost by bus services. Light rail proponents are more concerned with their own personal enthusiasms than with what best serves the transportation needs of the community.

    • But light rail still provides only about 4% of total trips and passenger-miles of travel by public transit

      All the more reason we should build more of it!

      (Oh, more BRT as well, where that’s an appropriate solution–I ain’t picky).

      The notion that a mode of transport that has represents a teeny-tiny fraction of lane-miles (or track miles) of constructed infrastructure, is a failure for only garnering a similar fraction of trips, has always amused me. Future investments ought to reflect future needs.

      • Gordy

        All the more reason we should build more of it!

        At $100 million per mile, we’re not likely to build very much more of it, especially given all the empty seats on the existing trains, and diminishing returns.

        • Woody

          Could you share a link to data about ‘all the empty seats on existing Light Rail’? I already know of a couple of failed heavy rail commuter lines, but I thought that most of the Light Rail opened in this century have exceeded projected ridership and were regarded as successes. Please tell about the others.

          Maybe you could also school me on the ‘diminishing returns’ you fear. I know the first tracks are supposed to be put on the likely busiest route first, next on the second-busiest, and so forth. On the other hand, there are off-setting network effects that increase as the network becomes larger. Ideally the service grows from a popular route into a system that allows some households to give up the second car and survive with one car and a lot of transit use. I have a hunch that two linked lines will not be enough for that to happen, but perhaps three, and at some point when a system grows, it pays off. What do you say?

          • Danny

            Oh and the claim about $100 million per mile is pretty laughable. Light rail is pretty expensive, and we tend to make our projects more expensive than they have to be…but claiming $100m per mile is just flat out absurd.

          • Gordy

            Could you share a link to data about ‘all the empty seats on existing Light Rail’?

            According to the National Transit Database light rail vehicles average about 24 passengers (passenger miles / vehicle revenue miles). The typical light rail vehicle has 60-70 seats. That’s a lot of empty seats that cost a lot of money to provide.

            Maybe you could also school me on the ‘diminishing returns’ you fear.

            It’s not “fear,” it’s experience. From Baum-Snow and Kahn (see link below): “We find evidence of decreasing marginal returns to new rail investments for every city that had rail transit expansions in more than one decade except Portland and perhaps Atlanta.”

          • Gordy

            Oh and the claim about $100 million per mile is pretty laughable.

            The Phoenix light rail system, completed at the end of 2008, cost $1.4 billion for 20 miles, or $70 million per mile. The Gold Line Eastside Extension in Los Angeles, completed in late 2009, cost $898 million for 6 miles, or $150 million per mile.

          • Danny

            Those costs are including bridges and other grade separations, which are not costs specific to light rail.

            If you want to talk about the costs of light rail, then talk about the costs of light rail. If we decided that grade separations and bridges were fair game, then we could conclude that busways cost shitloads of money because the XBL Lincoln Tunnel cost well over $150 million per lane mile in 2010 dollars.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Not exactly light rail and not exactly recent ( opened 2004 ) but the River Line in New Jersey cost 32 million a mile

          • Danny

            Sacramento completed their light rail system for $12m per mile (year 2000 dollars).

            Of course Gordy would never allow himself to use an example that would prove himself wrong though.

          • If the Gold Line counts as an example of typical light rail costs, then the Big Dig counts as an example of typical road costs.

          • Gordy

            Those costs are including bridges and other grade separations, which are not costs specific to light rail.

            If a light rail system includes grade separations and bridges those items are part of the costs of providing the light rail system. Grade separations may be required for safety, and bridges may be required for lines to cross rivers or other barriers. You can’t simply ignore these costs as if they aren’t part of the costs of providing the system.

            Sacramento completed their light rail system for $12m per mile (year 2000 dollars).

            Where are you getting that number from? Wikipedia reports that the Sacramento light rail system started operating in 1987, more than 20 years ago, at a cost of about $10 million per mile, in 1987 dollars, and was initially only a single-tracked line. It also made use of “a railroad right-of-way, coupled with use of structures of an abandoned freeway project.” Your claim of $12 million per mile in 2000 dollars for the entire system sounds highly implausible. And 2000 was a decade ago anyway. We’re talking about the cost of future light rail construction.

            If the Gold Line counts as an example of typical light rail costs

            I didn’t say it was typical. I gave it as an example of a recently opened light rail line, that cost 50% more than the $100 million per mile figure for future light rail that Danny claimed is absurdly high.

          • Spokker

            The Gold Line Eastside Extension included a tunnel segment and two subway stations. There’s also a bridge over the 101.

            There’s also a bridge widening over the LA River but I don’t know if that’s part of the Eastside Extension’s costs.

          • Max Wyss

            For what it’s worth, the Zürich extension of the streetcar network from Escher Wyss Platz to Altstetten costs about $100M per mile.

            HOWEVER, about 60% of that goes into refurbishing and upgrading the adjacent roads… something which had to be done anyway.

            So, when comparing prices per mile, we almost must look what is actually covered within that price tag.

            If it is the first line in a city, we must not forget that non-neglectable overhead has to be built too (maintenance facilities, trackwork facilities etc.) these are things which would no longer have to be counted in for a second line (if the planning has been done properly).

          • Gordy calls LRT lines that meet the ridership projections that justified their original construction and still have excess capacity a “failure”.

            But of course, the competing private motor vehicles during peak hours, instead of continuing to run and provide service during the hours between the commute, mostly sit parked. That is a massive material waste: why, given a one hour commute and eight hour work day, with only 20% of potential trips actually operated, and typically a 25% load factor in operation, that is a waste of 95% of potential seat miles.

            Indeed, I take it that Gordy calls any road a success when it is heavily congested for a significant part of the day? I heartily commend this approach: instead of calling gridlock a problem, requiring investment in road capacity, label it a successful road and move on.

          • Woody

            Max, Not just in high-cost Switzerland do extraneous factors raise the costs of light rail. In Houston, where an expanding light rail system is underway in some of the oldest neighborhoods, the City is — of course — first replacing all the ageing water pipes and sewers, and adding or expanding storm sewers in frequently flooded areas, before they can rebuild the street foundations, long before they can think of installing new LRT tracks.

            I’m not even saying this work is not worth doing, it was urgently in need of doing. I’m not even complaining that H-town was smart enough to get the federal grant for LRT to pay some large part of the utility work out of transit funds.

            I’m just saying that cost comparisons are not always what they appear, and indeed, some high costs of LRT systems are sometimes no such thing at all.

          • Nathanael

            Gordy, the average car holds 1.2 people and has a capacity greater than 4. Now *there’s* wasteful, expensive, empty seats.

            The average bus is at an even lower usage/capacity ratio than the average light rail vehicle.

            You have perhaps forgotten that vehicles are chosen for *peak* capacity needs. When running in the peak, they should be near-full. When running *off-peak* you *expect* them to be half-empty. This is true of cars as well as buses and trains.

          • Nathanael

            FYI, Gordy, *everything* has decreasing marginal returns. The marginal returns on road *maintenance* are heading below zero on many roads at this point; as soon as you advocate ripping up massive amounts of roads, I’ll consider your argument that we don’t need much more rail.

    • Max Wyss

      In the national statistics, it is not much. BUT for YOUR city, it is much more, and that’s what really matters.

  • Yes!

    This is a dead horse I’ve been beating for a long time. (Hence the title of my blog…) Arguments about mode choice are really arguments about values, and those prefer rail vs bus, as well as those who have the reverse preference, do so not because of the technical merits of the two modes, but because of their underlying values.

    In some cases, the values involved aren’t always congruent with the public good, such as developers who want rail because they think it’ll make ‘em richer, or transit unions who prefer bus due to the higher driver/passenger ratio (and thus more jobs), but these are values nonetheless.

    But virtually every advocate for one mode or the other will have an underlying reason why, which has little to do with the differences between the technologies.

  • Gordy

    As for the claim that rail transit changes development patterns and stimulates the creation of transit-oriented development and walkable urbanism, the evidence for this claim is extremely weak. Proponents of this hypothesis support it with anecdotes and isolated examples, and neglect to mention the role of subsidies in attracting new development to rail-accessible locations. Urban planners give us breathless quotes about the “potential” of light rail to transform development patterns, failing to note that this potential is rarely realized in the real world, or that rail serves far too small a share of the total urban area to have a significant impact on the city’s overall development patterns anyway .

    Baum-Snow and Kahn studied the effects of new rail transit in the 16 American cities that added significant new rail capacity between 1970 and 2000. Of those 16 cities, only 1 (Los Angeles) experienced a substantial increase in density in the newly rail-accessible areas of the city. 7 saw a modest increase in density in such areas, and 8 saw a decline in density (in two of them, a dramatic decline).

  • FG hit it on the head, local and regional politicians love to brag about thier new and expansive rail lines. Bus lines? Not too sexy. Most commuters or travelers would prefer rail, simply becuase of the lack of stops and smoothness of ride. The bus is more of a hyper-local mode of transportation. Where as rail typically is for longer distances. Just my 2 cents.

  • What annoys me about this debate is that it’s either/or: either people won’t ride buses, or buses and LRT get the same ridership. In reality, it’s more complicated. There’s a rail bias factor in ridership, which depends on issues like the quality of buses and trains, local culture, and marketing; sometimes the rail bias is high enough to make it worthwhile to accept the higher costs of LRT, and sometimes it’s not.

    • Max Wyss

      I guess that one of the main reasons for bias against buses is that (with some exceptions), buses in the US are crappy shitty vehicles. And it might go even further back to the youth of many people who were treated with cattle transporters ehhh… schoolbuses (which in my European eyes are even crappier and shittier than transit buses).

      So, as it has been said, it is a question of “selling the system” to the general public. Of course, vehicles, stations, drivers etc. must be at a certain quality level, and that may include reasonable training and decent pay for the transit people who have direct contact with their customers.

      • Woody

        School buses are a national disgrace, exceeded only by the school cafeteria meals.

        If the Tea Partyers had to ride to their anti-taxation protest meetings in unair-conditioned school buses, and then be fed school lunches, the second round of protests would be sparsely attended if anyone showed up at all.

        Of course, this is America, so there’s a racial or class stigma to riding school buses at all. Back in my youth, it was kids from the country who had to ride to the schools in the small town, and of course the town kids were sure they were better than the country kids. Now when I go back to that Texas small town, I see long lines of pollutemobiles idling while waiting for class to let out so that the spoiled brats can be chauffeured home, and not have to ride a disgusting school bus with the kids who parents work or don’t own a second car.

  • Commentator 36B

    As has been pointed out before though, light-rail or busses or the subway for that matter, will only work if there is infrastructure around that supports it. Wether it be sidewalks, bike paths or complete streets with shopping and things going on, a certain transit mode only works if there are other integrated parts that support it.

    In my current place of residence there is access to all three modes (bus system, subway, light rail). Any of these only work though, because there is also an extremely good walkability factor. Without safe, clean streets and neighborhoods to walk in, the journey to the nearest subway station would be an unwanted adventure. I think that’s half the reason transit didn’t work as well for me in Seattle (Where I used to live for a couple of years). Even though there were busses available, some parts of downtown were you had to transfer were just sort of run down and nasty, and this is Seattle I am talking about, not some slum. Even though it was the roaring 90′s the public space seemed to crumble and that makes transit and endurance sport and depressing.

    So my point is whatever mode you choose it has got to be supported by other improvements as well. A light rail line as beautiful as it may be, won’t be used if there isn’t anywhere to walk to in the rest of the city. Witness the Capitol rail line in Austin. (much shenanigans apparently going on with that line anyway, so slightly different story there, I suppose.)

    • Nathanael

      Utterly agreed. For example, the number of bus systems which are very hard to use due to lack of sidewalks…. is outrageous.

  • Alon hit the nail in the head: The cost/benefit analysis should take into account that different modes may attract different riderships. People are obviously more emotionally attached to rail, and more are likely to ride a train. And that will have positive effects on the whole network.

    But the decision what to build should itself not be driven by those emotions, but by some hard analysis.

    • To the extent that we demand that the local community provide a fifth of the capital subsidy and all of the operating subsidy, surely direct community preferences ought to play some role?

  • poncho

    I know monorails are kind of a joke especially in transit circles but I say if thats what the public wants, will happily ride and will open their wallet to pay for through taxes then maybe this mode deserves more consideration in transit expansion. Monorails are odd but there is no denying the strong allure they have to the general public.

    I feel the same way regarding BART expansion in the Bay Area, many transit advocates are no fan of BART expansion to San Jose and East Bay suburbs but again, if thats what the public wants, will ride and will open their wallet to pay for then dammit build it (BART has very strong public support and is ridden by people who would otherwise never take transit).

    • Poncho, bear in mind that most of the time, the transit advocates do not want BART scrapped in favor of buses. The alternative to BART to San Jose isn’t buses; it’s an electrified Caltrain East, which was rejected in the 1990s because BART wanted the route for itself.

      There’s a wider responsibility here, too. Build poorly thought-out, poorly engineered lines like BART to Livermore and San Jose and the LA Gold Line, and the lines will underperform, making it harder to find money for transit operations. They’ll also be poster children for bad transit; industry flaks and net trolls will lie to the public that all transit is as bad as those lines. Conversely, build well-planned lines like Calgary’s C-Train and Vancouver’s Skytrain, and transit ridership will skyrocket, providing political capital for further transit extensions. They’ll also be instructive examples for how to build transit well in other cities.

      • poncho

        but people dont want to transfer enroute at fremont or union city when traveling between two of the major cities in the bay area. additionally the bay area does not need yet another separate rail line. yes there are cheaper alternatives but they complicate travel and turn people off. east bay to san jose is a major major travel corridor in the bay area, if there is any place to expand bart it is to link it to the heart of the largest city in the bay area.

        the bay area made a decision long ago to build bart and now a decent sized system is in place especially in the east bay. certainly now we wouldnt build something like bart from scratch, given its cost and inflexibility. but bart is certainly a high quality system.

        i am of the opinion that given how much of the bart system is already in place you’ve got to just grin and bear it and keep expanding the bart system despite the cost so that you have a seamless system in the east bay dominated by one rail mode, BART. these numerous independent piecemeal-built rail lines make travel by transit so complicated. ebart and tbart and mbart and qbart etc are a joke. if you want people to use transit you’ve got to do it right, make it easy and attractive to ride and give the people what they want because in the bay area they are willing to pay for it through taxes.

        • Adirondacker12800

          They have a way to get between San Francisco and San Jose, the existing Caltrain. Caltrain East would eventually get them to Oakland and points beyond. Faster since it wouldn’t be making a stop every few miles like BART does.

          Building BART to San Jose is like extending the NYC Subway to Trenton. Or the DC Metro to Baltimore. Or the LA Metro to Anaheim or Ontario.

          • LA actually wants to build light rail to Santa Ana. It’s part of 30/10.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The reuse of the old Pacific Electric ROW? Light rail there might make sense. The ROW is mostly available, they won’t be putting in a tunnel making it much cheaper, two car trolleys are a lot cheaper that 4 car BART trains. If we are talking about the same thing they are still at the stage of deciding what to do with that nice straight as an arrow ROW that just happens to be laying around. It could be BRT, it coujld be LRT, it could be commuter rail….

          • Yeah, we’re talking about the same ROW. On the official 30/10 proposal it’s supposed to be LRT; I think the presumption is that trains will make all stops.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Probably a placeholder, they are still studying alternatives as of April.

            http://www.pacificelectriccorridor.com/documents/scag_presentation.pdf

          • Ugh. It’s just a solution looking for a problem. Seriously, high-speed rail as an alternative to BRT and LRT?

            The optimal alternative is No Build. Spend the money on something mildly useful, like extending the Green Line to Norwalk or LRT-ifying the Orange Line.

          • Adirondacker12800

            The people on the southern end of the line are occupied learning all about HSR, even though it’s not called for they will be asked why it wasn’t studied. If they don’t make a cursory attempt as studying an alternative they then get sued for not studying an alternative. The No-Build alternative is going to get a reasonably robust evaluation which they can then use to say “Orange line first, traffic along the old PE row isn’t going to get awful until 2020.” or whatever. Alsom means when someone comes along in 2013 and get the bright idea to auction of the ROW they can point to the study and say “we need the ROW in 2025, no you can’t build condos on it.”

          • If the intention were to hold on to ROW in case it would be needed then it would be fine. But for some reason, the line found itself on the 30/10 map. It’s not very fleshed out and it might get cut, but including it on a 10-year map, at a higher priority level than the last leg of the Subway to the Sea, it not an auspicious start.

    • Wad

      Despite the allure, monorails haven’t made any inroads (no pun intended) outside of closed novelty systems.

      Seattle tried to use its monorail to be the basis for a citywide system that would compete with light rail service. Seattle had trouble building its Link, yet the monorail proponents promised a world-beating system with less costs and impacts than light rail. It couldn’t deliver on any of those promises. The idea lasted about 4 years until voters mothballed the whole plan.

      • Nathanael

        Ordinary electric rail is just as popular as monorails.

        • Nathanael

          Actually, it’s a nice example of “people can’t tell the difference”.

          Now that monorails require side escape walkways, they look practically identical to ordinary rails on similar structure.

    • Woody

      Monorails get enormous and undeserved free hype from the Disney theme parks, which in turn stole half their formula from world’s fairs, which, like Seattle’s, offered monorails as a view of the future.

      (That’s the big reason I support the HSR line between the Orlando Airport and the theme parks there and in Tampa. The line will get talked about far, far, far out of proportion to its actual intercity ridership, due to the wide-eyed tourists.)

      Meanwhile, ordinary (well ordinary in Europe) light rail trains, with wide doors, low floors and level entry, and sleek design, can get gasps and eager grins even on Houston’s Main Street. When light rail is done right, it can be as glamorous as monorails.

  • Alan Kandel

    Yonah Freemark: You asked:

    “Would it be an indictment of the political system to suggest that most political leaders making decisions about what kind of technology to use in new transit corridors simply don’t care about the relative merits of various transportation modes?”

    What about asking the same question but substituting “existing transit corridors” in place of “new transit corridors”?

    The plan for Fresno, Calif. is to add BRT on two existing corridors where city transit buses currently operate: The Blackstone Ave. and Ventura/Kings Canyon corridors, routes 30 and 28, respectively.

    As I understand it, the hope is to attract a whole new base of riders as well as keep those presently riding transit buses on these routes.

    As explained in the “BRT Master Plan (Draft) Nov. 19, 2007,” stations on average will be spaced at half-mile intervals. Difference here is that BRT buses on these routes will be afforded signal priority at intersections. BRT buses will, however, share space on the roadways with cars and trucks.

    I don’t see how an arrangement such as this can be termed Bus Rapid Transit. The running time of route 30 buses on Blackstone Ave. is approximately 45 minutes one way. My guess is that with stations spaced at half-mile intervals on average, even with signal priority at intersections, there won’t be a time advantage. And the whole notion of BRT is “rapid.”

    So what Fresno will be getting basically is enhanced bus transit as the buses are to be articulated which means more capacity per bus and improved headways of 10 or 15 minutes between buses. What this points to is the need for more bus drivers.

    When marketing a particular type of transit technology to the masses in order to gain voter support for it, the service should be pitched based on what it really is “enhanced,” not “rapid,” when such is the case. Maybe you could elaborate more on this in a future column if you have not done so already.

    “There are plenty of seemingly reasonable explanations for the rock-hard support of both Ms. Iorio and Mr. Ehrlich for their preferred transit technologies, but the fact is that their statements in favor of one mode or the other are based on emotional responses, not some kind of well thought-through assessment of their communities’ specific needs.”

    I am of the belief that BRT for Fresno as planned is not a “well thought-through assessment” of Fresno’s “specific needs.” Having said this, I fear that if this BRT application doesn’t produce a significant increase in ridership over what currently exists, another assessment arrived at could very well be a false notion that light rail transit, at even greater expense, would fare no better.

    My suspicion is that BRT was chosen on the basis of cost – although other factors were supposedly taken into consideration – rather than on what would provide the biggest public benefit and yield the greatest return on investment.

    • Nathanael

      lightrailnow.org calls stuff like this “Better Bus”, and says it’s a good idea but it shouldn’t be oversold.

      • Three distinct types of “QBT” options, Quality Bus Transport, that all deserve consideration, especially if the US were to take the national security risk of an oil-addicted transport system seriously:

        Extending beyond the patronage threshold for LRT: while the US still underfunds capital subsidies for all public transport, this is not so prominent, but rather than a “cut rate LRT substitute”, this version of QBT extends the corridor to lower passenger per day volumes than justify a LRT corridor.

        Complementary service to rail: while the short residential to station loops work just fine with ordinary city buses, few rail alignments are put into place in corridors that are a perfect fit to any single alignment, which means that there are often crosscut and alternative line of travel routes that merit investment in a permanent corridor without being able to justify a LRT line.

        Shared corridors: for Rapid Streetcars in particular, it would often make far more sense to share the lane with QBT than with regular street traffic … modern low floor buses can indeed share laneside Streetcar stops as well.

  • In Maryland , the DOT can Build the PURPLE LINE as BRT instead of LRT , and save 80 % of the cost ( $ 15 M vs $ 75 M a mile) and carry 83 % of the passenges as LRT . It will be a shame if Government does not recognise the cost difference . YOu need only to look at Cleveland, Eugene, Las Vegas , etc to see what a great look and feel you can obtain with level boarding , off bus fare collection . YOu can build Dedicated Bus Ways in the same 25 ft width needed for LRT

    • This sort of analysis is part of the problem. US$15 million a mile is not going to get you a dedicated right-of-way road (along with stops and stations)–the sort of busway which would compare to a dedicated-ROW rail line. $15 million will buy you a BRT-lite system–nicer livery, better stations, signal priority, a queue jump lane here or there–but that’s a far cry from a LRT-equivalent system.

      In some cases, that’s all you need. EmX works well by building in street medians where its available; running in mixed traffic where the ROW doesn’t exist; but Eugene is a faily small city.

      But its a fallacy to suggest that BRT has similar performance to LRT (which implies exclusive-ROW) but at a fraction of the cost–the sort of BRT that is comparable performance-wise is also comparable price-wise.

      • Daniel Krause

        You get what you pay for. Rail provides a true redesign of our urban environment, which leads to development. BRT tends to be designed to integrate into the existing road-based infrastructure, not providing the catalyst for a new way of development, etc. That said, BRT can be designed to include more infrastructure that is similar to LRT, but the cost savings is significantly reduced.

  • Mike

    Is the question, “does it have to be this way?” that mode (actually, technology more than mode) choices are made irrespective of analytical criteria? Seems to me (after closely watching a lot of such situations) that the leaders (either public officials or business leaders) who pump a project *could*, if they wanted to, be just as successful at promoting to the public a different technology (commuter rail instead of BART; BRT instead of LRT). They’d have to actually *work* at showing the benefits of the alternative technology, but I’m confident that the public would go along with a solid proposal. Hell, the public goes along with a lot of crappy proposals, why wouldn’t they go along with a solid proposal that is effectively explained and promoted and that happens to include, say, BRT instead of LRT?

    I think the question that we need to answer is *why* do these leaders not entertain the notion of an alternative, possibly “better” depending on your interpretation, technology. I don’t think that it’s based on the powerful and inflexible demands of the public. I think it’s more based on public officials (and business leaders) wanting to do something (i.e., a project) that earns them respect and increases their perceived power … and I suspect that these leaders perceive that they personally have more to gain by pushing the gold-plated alternative. After all, any old schmoe can get a cheap and simple project done, but the leader who gets a crazy expensive and complicated project done? They’ll be singing his/her praises for generations to come! (So, I imagine, goes the thinking)

    • Nathanael

      I think part of the public has gotten very suspicious of “my mode is just as good as”, because “just as good as” has generally turned out NOT to be. Particularly in the cases of the BRT scams, which are practically *always* inferior to light rail. Station rebuilds are the same thing.

      Now, this history probably biases people when it comes to choices like a grade-separated, overhead-electrified, level-boarding Caltrain versus extensions of BART — where they really *are* pretty darn similar from a rider’s point of view.

      Sensible leaders are just as suspicious of this sort of “just as good as” sell as the general public (remember, the leaders are not usually experts, even of the self-educated variety).

      Gold-plating is another issue; that’s just a tendency for all projects which require public support. Either gold-plated or done on the cheap, it’s hard to hit a happy medium. Sigh.

      • Nathanael

        Oh, to explain my comment about station rebuilds: I’m referring to the bout of “We’re replacing your classic pre-1940 station with this brand spanking new station” things from the 1950s through the early 1990s, which generally resulted in unpleasant, junky, inferior buildings. The attitude towards station construction by those doing it has been better since the late 1990s and I think people are less knee-jerk hostile to station redevelopment plans as a result.

  • Patrick M

    I would say that many political leaders DO care about the differences between transit modes and their merits, but rarely fully UNDERSTAND the comparative merits of different modes.

    Furthermore, by no fault of their own–many political leaders have trouble separating the merits of individual modal technology (bus, light rail, commuter rail, monorail, ferry, prt, etc) from the merits of different service characteristics (frequency, stop spacing, exclusive running ways, acceleration, on/off-board payment, cushiness of seats) because in the US, these service characteristics have historically been highly correlated with specific technologies.

    The most powerful reason that this is the case is that most political leaders in the US are not transit users, even on an irregular basis.

    But it’s important to keep in mind that the history of implementation of previous projects and experiences of those in decisionmaking posts matters greatly.

    Bus “Rapid” Transit is an attempt to find a way to take as many of the service characteristics that make rail generally more appealing to most John Doe/Jane Doe-would be transit customers, and apply them to buses. There’s nothing wrong with that on a technical basis.

    The problem is that the implementation of bus service in the US over the last 50 years does not invoke memories, new or old, of RAPID service. The faux BRT rollouts in Boston, LA, and a few other places do nothing to change the perception because of the compromises built into those systems that saved cost over rail, but also reduced speed and quality.

    I try to remind myself that as much as transit advocates, and particularly transit-USING advocates, are looking for better service that works, local elected officials are looking for something that their jurisdiction can be proud of as much as it addresses a problem.

    The Mayor of Tampa probably represents a majority view among US local elected officials; she has trouble envisioning bus services she can be proud of. Yet many American communities (often in college towns) have constructed just these types of bus systems. Some have then gone on to add rail as well.

    My take-away is that if you’re a transit advocate in a city trying to avoid bus/rail wars and actually improve service, develop and share your vision of a transit system with service characteristics local elected officials could be proud of. Be able to explain which pieces of the system could be best achieved with bus or with rail, or where the selection of technology is a truly minor variable compared to, say, getting DOT to give you two lanes of ROW for the transit.

  • Gordy

    The bottom line is that light rail is always going to be a small component of the overall transit system because it’s so expensive. Even though it may be superior to buses in certain respects, that added value does not justify its huge price premium. Los Angeles has almost 200 bus routes. There’s simply no way LA could afford to replace more than a small fraction of those bus routes with light rail lines, at $100 million per mile (or even at $50 million). As population and jobs become more dispersed over time, and as diminishing returns reduce the cost-efficiency of successive light rail expansions, it will be even less competitive against buses in the future.

    • Small fraction is all the transit supporters are asking for. I’m glad you agree.

    • Nathanael

      Well, dur. Rail is a high-capacity system. As long as people like their cars and are building roads for cars, buses remain the appropriate tool for routes which don’t need the capacity.

      Glad you support rail expansion.

      • Nathanael

        FYI, population and jobs are *not* becoming more dispersed over time any more. That trend appears to have ended. We’re back to the “rural areas empty out, cities fill up” trend which lasted for several hundred years leading up to the 1940s.

  • I wonder why Wendell Cox here didn’t write this instead:

    “The bottom line is that limited-access highways are always going to be a small component of the overall road system because they’re so expensive. Even though they may be superior to roads in certain respects, that added value does not justify their huge price premium. Los Angeles has hundreds of roads. There’s simply no way LA could afford to replace more than a small fraction of those roads with limited-access highways, at $100 million per mile (or even at $50 million).”

  • Daniel Krause

    The disucssion about what we want out of our transit system have brought up some great points. Do we want a bus system that still has the flavor of the highway-based urban form? Do we want railway stations that also servie as great public spaces? Or do we want to do something in between? The LA example is a good one. The El Monte busway (which now includes the Silver Line) runs in a freeway. Personally, I don’t want to wait for my transit in the middle of a freeway or on traffic sewer streets because I don’t like the environment. I like the look and feel of a rail station that is separated out from the road/highway system. I live near the Del Mar Gold Line Station in Pasadena. A lovely place was created around the rail station. By committing to rail in this case (and I am not an anti-BRT person), a vision was created around the investment because the investment was significant.

    The point is, LA has begun to redefine urbanism with rail (except for the green line), but the busways have been designed within the “autotecture.” Not saying BRT couldn’t be a force to change urban form, but typically the underlying philophy of BRT is to save money. And when a project is approached on the cheap, urban transformation is much less likely to happen. Rather, it becomes more of a utilitarian approach, which will not lead to significant change in living patterns.

    • Realist

      I totally agree. Too often US transit planners focus on what’s cheap and not what’s nice. Money matters obviously but transit is a service and therefore quality matters.

    • Wad

      Clarification: El Monte Busway runs next to the freeway, not in the middle of it, until the nonstop portion between Cal State L.A. and El Monte.

      In-freeway transit services are along the Harbor Freeway and Century Freeway.

  • Nathanael

    OK, fundamental point: buses, unless they’re *trolleybuses*, are simply inferior on environmental grounds to electric rail.

    • And if the hidden and cross subsidies supporting car transport are taken into account, and the impact of buses on the cost of maintaining city streets are properly accounted for, then there are natural thresholds for patronage along common carrier corridors, with pluggable hybrid buses at one end of the range, then trolley buses, then light rail, then mass transit heavy rail.

  • Gordy

    Glad you support rail expansion.

    I don’t support it. I might support limited expansion in a few locations, but in general I think light rail is a big waste of money. Fortunately, limited expansion is all that is politically or economically feasible.

    • And as others have mentioned, limited expansion is all that’s been proposed. TriMet here in Portland has >80 separate bus lines; utterly NOBODY thinks that they all should be converted to rail.

      This strawman, like the one in the Wizard of Oz, has no brain.

    • Ah, but if you supported light rail expansion where the full benefit / cost breakdown favored it, then you favor a massive expansion of light rail now, and an even more ambitious expansion of light rail once gas passed $5/gallon.

      Of course, hide enough of the subsidies for the road transport system away from the cost benefit analysis, and the undercounting of status quo costs will make the costs of offering people the freedom of choice look substantially steeper.

  • Gordy

    as others have mentioned, limited expansion is all that’s been proposed.

    You could have fooled me. If there is general agreement that the large majority of transit, both existing and new, should be buses, where is the FOCUS on buses? I see virtually no discussion of local bus service, and little discussion of buses of any kind. 90% of the proselytizing is for rail. Because, for emotional and aesthetic reasons, rail is what most transit advocates really want, even though it doesn’t make sense economically.

    • Woody

      Improving bus service is simple and theoretically easy: Greater frequency with shorter wait times, better buses with easier entry and exiting i.e. low floors and wider doors, easy change-free payment systems, signal priority, adequate comfortable benches shaded and sheltered from the elements, shelters set back from the noise and air pollution from the traffic sewers where main route buses run, clear and easily understood signage and maps on the bus and at the stops, branching systems that reach a wide areas without confusing riders about their routes and destinations, clean buses, low-crime stops and especially transfer points — and ultimately bus-only lanes, even bus-only contraflow lanes. (And somehow avoid the, er, disappointments of ‘BRT’ as experienced in Boston, Cleveland, and various other American cities.)

      I’m sure others could add to this list. Feel free to add more points yourself.

      But in the end, this will probably be a short discussion. The answers are pretty simple, after all. Getting public and politicians to support better buses is very difficult, especially getting good service to unfashionable neighborhoods. Meanwhile the Party of NO! ideologues constantly denounce any public transit at all — while cheering on plans to pave over the world with more and ever-wider subsidized roads, dreary and expansive parking lots, and ugly and costly parking garages.

      • And the politically easiest way to gain support for improved bus transport is as part of an integrated system, where the broader demographic appeal of local and regional rail service is leveraged for increase bus patronage on complementary bus routes.

      • Nathanael

        The fact is that nobody ever proposes Better Bus service. Well, hardly ever. The LA “Rapid” was a no-brainer, and I’m sure all us rail advocates supported it. It also cost very, very little. SWIFT in suburban areas of the State of Washington… that one bus line in the Bronx… there might be another example, I suppose.

        That’s the thing. You don’t need a fortune to make better buses; you just need willpower. (And willpower is lacking when NYC has police cars blocking its bus lanes.) Most “BRT” proposals tend to be proposals to spend money on giant hunks of infrastructure, and if you’re going to do that, you should go for rail and get the extra ridership. (Because there is a well-documented rail bias — “identical” bus service gets FEWER RIDERS.)

    • Limited expansion of LOCAL rail is all that has been seriously proposed. The idea that proposals to build a 220mph or 110mph intercity transport corridor should be lumped in one category with proposals to build local streetcar, rapid streetcar, and regional rail services just because they all run on steel wheels on steel rail is as silly as lumping together planes, trains, trucks, cars and monorail because they all run on rubber tires.

  • … planes, trucks, cars and monorail …

    … though that was a funny movie

  • Gordy

    BruceMcF, if you seriously think that the vast sums of money spent on rail transit have increased rather than reduced bus patronage, please produce your evidence for this highly implausible claim (and I mean some kind of systematic study, not the usual anecdotes). Even Peter Rogoff, the FTA administrator, recently criticized the focus on rail transit. Rogoff noted the huge costs of rail compared to buses and the fact that rail accounts for three-quarters of the $78 billion backlog of deferred maintenance in the nation’s transit system.

    The admission that light rail has only a small role to play in the overall transit system is also a tacit acknowledgement of the weakness of one of the most common arguments made by its proponents – that rail transit stimulates an increase in urban density and walkable communities and associated environmental benefits. The study I cited earlier found that in almost every case rail transit expansions in US cities over the past few decades have failed to induce substantial increases in density even in areas close to the new rail lines. But even if that were not the case, areas close to rail lines are such a small share of the total urban area that density increases rail-accessible areas could have only a small impact on total urban densities anyway.

    • Where do you get from light rail only following a few corridors to light rail playing only a small role? These aren’t the same. Calgary has a gross total of 3 LRT corridors, making 2 lines. It also has about 80% of its transit ridership using the trains.

    • Gordo, regarding “BruceMcF, if you seriously think that the vast sums of money spent on rail transit have increased rather than reduced bus patronage“, you are not thinking through the issue very carefully. Bus and light rail are natural complements, but any integrated system is a system: tapping the complementarity requires devoting attention to effective system design.

      Perth may be an anecdote to you, but for people interested in effective transport design rather than pursuing already-selected conclusions, it is a case study in how to use effective design to take advantage of the natural complementarity between bus and rail to gain both an effective rail system and increased bus ridership.

      That the same is not done as frequently as it should be in the United States is an indictment of the mode-wars mentality which introduces artificial obstacles development of an integrated transport system.

    • Nathanael

      So you’ve just documented that rail gets more ridership despite being massively underfunded, yet you want to shortchange rail further? Please do reread the numbers.

    • Nathanael

      All evidence shows that adding rail to a bus system on a high-capacity trunk route increases total system ridership while reducing operating costs. I don’t know where you think contrary evidence is — hint, there is no contrary evidence.

      • No, all of that evidence is anecdotal, in the sense that each piece of evidence involves an actual observation that can be conveyed as an anecdote.

        On the other hand, since the evidence for adding rail on a high capacity trunk route reducing total ridership is non-existent, it is entirely non-anecdotal evidence.

  • Jerard Wright

    Re:Alon Levy
    29 August 2010 at 02:16

    You must like sticking your foot in your mouth regards to projects that are not in your city. The Santa Ana Corridor will require an Alternatives Analysis for that segment at that time a mode/technology if any (leaving room for NoBuild) will be determined.

    It never specified it as Light Rail on the voter maps and current planning maps, it was your assumption.

    • If No Build is an option, how come it’s being considered for 30/10?

      • Jerard Wright

        Because 30/10 is merely an acceleration of the Measure R projects.

        Within the No-Build they can recycle those capital funds into that subregion (per Measure R language) into other potential transit projects.

        The AA/MIS/EIR studies will give the legal reasoning to do that without needing another voter amendment to change the Measure R project as Measure R is flexible enough with some projects that have no definition of what the project will look like to have some wiggle room in case the project doesn’t fully pan-out.

  • Jerard Wright

    Because if your trying to get Federal funding you have to include that in there. If No Build becomes the option that would then shift the focus on potential other projects in the study area subregion.

    Measure R was crafted in such a manor that allowed for wiggle room on corridors that were not so specific or haven’t began their Environmental Reports.

    • I’m not asking why it’s legally mandated to put a No Build option; I know that already. I’m asking why include a project in 30/10 that you don’t even know you want. The room for No Build for the Santa Ana line is not the same as for, say, the Subway to the Sea, where it’s just there to act as a baseline to compare the preferred alternative with.

  • Jerard Wright

    The other side component was that in the SCAG (A larger entity than LA County Metro as it involves other neighboring counties) Regional plan it inclded using this right of way for a MagLev project but when that leadership at SCAG changed, the MagLev project died in the process, thus this right of way need to go into the Alternative Analysis phase to determine that it also serves the Gateway Cities region of the County.

    There’s another project on the 30/10-Measure R project called the “San Fernando Valley-Westside Transit Corridor” aka the Sepulveda Pass transit corridor that needs the AA phase to determine whether it would be a BRT, LRT, HRT.

    • The 405/Sepulveda line is actually useful. The Santa Ana line isn’t.

      • Jerard Wright

        The Santa Ana line isn’t useful? Without having this particular study for this corridor you don’t have the funding or even the suggest making other potential improvements such as a Green line extension to Norwalk Intermodal station and or expansion of Commuter Rail in the SE Los Angeles County.

        • Why do you need the Santa Ana corridor for that? There’s the existing Metrolink corridor. The Green Line to Norwalk could be justified as HSR feeder alone, and any additional commuter rail could be justified as a) building transit for a fraction of the cost of greenfield light rail and b) again feeding HSR.

        • Anyway, a bigger issue is that it’s literally a solution looking for a problem. Doing it the right way would not ask “Here’s an ROW, what can we do with it?” but “Which ROW would best serve the transit needs of Orange County?”. It would also be heavy on service questions – service plan, station placement, frequency – and light on asking which mode to use.

          • Jerard Wright

            Fair questions to ask Alon, but Orange County is a fairly large area and the current plans for Metrolink-HSR shared corridor considerations may make the Santa Ana Corridor useful in providing redundancy and increased capacity to serve Orange County which the current Metrolink line misses out on and in future with other rights-of-way within Orange County -BTW that is outside Measure R and 30/10 area- that can tie into this and serve the County like opening up to directly into Disneyland and Huntington Beach.

            Also this redundative corridor capacity may be needed as widening the existing ROW for Amtrak/Metrolink and HSR as ran into significant opposition.

            Again the point is that the right-of-way opens up these questions and opportunites for conversation and fiscal feasiblity as the Norwalk connection to the intermodal station if done as all subway would cost over $1 billion dollars, elevating it through Norwalk would be cheaper but not politically desirable but that would only serve the immediate area of Norwalk and leave every other part of that region indirectly out in the cold.

            Why do you need this right of way to study these options? Because the right-of-way will encompass a larger regional study area that would enable the inclusion of other potential connections in via a TSM or combined project option as it will serve the LA County Gateway Cities region.

          • Jerard, you’re only partially addressing the concerns I have. Discussing what capacity constraints there may be on the Metrolink line should surely be part of an AA for LA-Orange County service, and the constraints surely depend on what level of service is planned for the line. Starting with an AA for another line doesn’t make sense, not yet: you shouldn’t build relief lines before knowing that the line they’re supposed to relieve actually has a capacity problem.

            Maybe electrifying and running non-compliant trains at high frequency all day would be enough to satisfy demand. Maybe there won’t ever be demand for 10 tph peak plus some HSR through-trains, well within the capability of a two-track line with passing sidings at select stations. Or maybe not. That’s the point of an AA.

            The Norwalk connection doesn’t actually require an AA for the Santa Ana line. Norwalk has a Metrolink station and a future HSR station; an AA that starts with service and not with a corridor would be equally good at starting a discussion on why the Green Line doesn’t connect.

  • Jerard Wright

    Re:Alon Levy
    1 September 2010 at 04:09

    Alon,

    What planet are you living on? the Norwalk extension would also require an AA to do this extension because the original AA/EIR for this project is outdated. (20 years old)

    As for not needing to “build it” per ALon rules makes no sense because during the conversations with Transit leaders in the LA area (Alon, where do you live again?) when discussing the upcoming HSR, recognize that there will be a capacity constraint along that corridor from LA to Irvine where currently, Freight, Metrolink and Amtrak run on. Now you add HSR and you’d have a capacity constraint without much potential of widening the ROW.

    So why not have LA be pro-active and begin planning and looking for capacity relievers for Metrolink or Amtrak, etc in conjunction with this? Sounds to me that is a sound planning mechanism.

    • First, you need some AA/EIR to claim a certain corridor will be at capacity. Hunches aren’t enough. That would involve doing an AA for LA-Orange County service, including both a Metrolink corridor option and a Santa Ana Line reliever option.

      And second, the fact that Americans think there’s a capacity constraint doesn’t mean a capacity constraint actually exists. In both California and the Northeast, commuter rail planners have bizarre ideas about what two-track lines are capable of, all of which end up translating to “Give us more money to increase capacity.” Metro-North thinks managing 20 tph on a four-track line is so difficult it restricts the Acela to 75 mph; Metrolink thinks a two-track commuter line with passing sidings running 4 tph at the peak is going to hit capacity once they put 4 tph of HSR on it.

      • Nathanael

        Be fair, Alon; the Metro-North New Haven line has so many speed restrictions anyway that a blanket 75 mph restriction makes little difference.

  • Jerard

    “Hunches aren’t enough”

    This isn’t a hunch my friend this a living and true reality that exists now and the AA/EIR for HSR is bringing that to the forefront (As I’ve told you in at least 3 posts in this very thread but you obviously don’t read, you simply respond) as it has been for the last 10 years here in the Greater LA area.

    Alon, where do you live again?

    Not only does this include Metrolink, Amtrak and HSR but there’s something you’ve consitently overlooked its called the freight trains between LA and Fullerton is very busy with freight along with the passenger railroad and the right-of-way can not be widened without considerable environmental impacts, which is why they are included in the documents and as well why there are going to need to prepare in the future as it can be referenced in future Environmental report.

    Such as a couple of other key Measure R projects such as the Expo Line and Regional Connector started out as alternatives for the subway studies many years ago and out of different set-backs and outcomes have come to the forefront as new viable projects for OUR region.

    • The living and true reality is that 7 tph or whatever you think will be on LA-Anaheim is doable on two tracks.

      Yes, LA-Fullerton is a major freight route. HSR will not share tracks with freight, which means that it will involve four-tracking that segment. Allowing a modernized Metrolink to use the HSR tracks would cost next to nothing.

      And yes, the Expo Line is a nice alternative to a subway study. It came about because people were studying questions like “How do we best connect Downtown to the West Side?” and not “What kind of transit do we put on Wilshire?”

      Also: drop the “You don’t live in LA” crap. I pay taxes to support those boondoggles, just like you pay taxes to support chaff like New York’s 7 miles of subway for the price of 80.

      • Yes, I agree: This site is all about making comparisons between (and learning from) the decisions made about transportation by cities all around the U.S. and even the world. While local experience is always useful, having someone who is not a local make an argument isn’t a bad thing either. Let’s debate on the merits, not on the personal.

        • Jerard Wright

          Yonah,

          I agree, but when the person in question doesn’t even want to address or at the very least understand what information the local resident is giving him then it makes the conversation a one sided “Alon knows it all” when it shouldn’t be.

          I apologize for partially inciting this to be a personal argument but I have to address location as to give an understanding of how those things may work and apply to one city but can’t apply to another one as I’ve been explaining here to provide context to inform others who from other parts of the country and around the world.

          Every time I respond back with some information to get an understanding, Its responded back with more things such as the “7tph”. I’d like to know where that source is from. That way WE may actually learn something here.

          • Jerard, you never actually asked about the 7 tph. You just claimed the corridor is at capacity. So here goes: Metrolink runs 3-4 tph peak, depending on how you count. HSR won’t run more than 3 tph – if it does, it will be overkill for the demand. Amtrak is about 1 tph peak, but HSR is going to wipe it.

            Now, here’s my question to you: what’s the special context of SoCal that makes it impossible to run 7 tph (or for that matter 18) on two tracks with strategically placed passing sidings?

  • Nathanael

    “The fundamental question for proponents of better transit stuck asking themselves what transportation technology to support is this: Is it more important to argue for a mode that is more technically efficient or one that is emotionally appealing?”

    False choice. Rails are more technically efficient *and* more emotionally appealing in the vast majority of cases.

    Buses are all very well for low-capacity/low-volume uses. Bus lanes allow them to manage slightly higher capacity. Bus*ways* are practically useless and are only reasonable in extremely rare cases, such as across bottleneck river crossings where the traffic flow is very diffuse on either side.

  • A key thing to remember is that this behaviour is not unique to transit – we see similar “politically” driven decisions in virtually all areas of human endeavour (government, private industry, families, etc).

    So why do leaders sometimes seem to put less value on technical criteria and more value on other intangible factors? How do we, as professionals, provide good advice in the face of alternative preferences?

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