Better Transit, Even on the Cheap, Doesn’t Always Come Easy

» A new bus rapid transit line opens near Eugene, Oregon as protesters argue against future investment.

With the rise of bus rapid transit and the increasing movement for better bicycling facilities have come a new form of community protest — a sense of indignation among some members of the affected areas about abandoning parts of the road they they had once assumed were to be entirely reserved for cars. From New York to Berkeley to Eugene, places more typically known for their liberal politics are becoming battle grounds over the right and wrong ways to use the street.

This week, Eugene’s Lane Transit District celebrated the opening of the $41 million, 7.8-mile Gateway EmX extension, a new BRT route that links downtown Springfield (a nearby town) with the Gateway Mall, the PeaceHealth medical complex, and other destinations. The first EmX (Emerald Express) route, a 4-mile $24 million link between downtown Eugene and downtown Springfield via the University of Oregon, opened in 2007.

From all outward appearances, Eugene is doing BRT just right. The new line has 60% of its right-of-way reserved for buses alone; it features extended buses with doors on both sides and commodious, neighborhood-integrated stations; it offers reliable and fast service every 10 to 15 minutes thanks to signal priority; customers can take advantage of level boarding and off-board fare collection; and it is very well routed, reaching the center of all the places it is meant to serve, not their margins as do so many transit corridors. In three years, ridership doubled and exceeded 20-year projections. Operations costs are low enough that the initial corridor may be profitable.*

For a medium-sized metropolitan area like that of Eugene, BRT of this sort makes for an ideal investment. The project could be completed more cheaply because the city agreed to allow the bus line to run in the center of the street. And more expensive technology, like light rail, would have likely provided unnecessary capacity for a medium-sized city like this.**

Nonetheless, the expansion of the EmX system has not been uncontested. Protesters from the west side of Eugene, where the next BRT corridor is supposed to go, have been fighting its construction for months. These opponents have suggested that the new $105 million line would hurt the nearby communities and lead to the elimination of jobs because it would reduce traffic throughput and require the acquisition of several residential and commercial properties.

The transit district expects to eventually construct up to 61 miles of EmX routes, crisscrossing the region on all of the major travel corridors.

The controversy over bus rapid transit in Eugene is the most recent of what has become a familiar meme in the annals of alternative transportation development. In New York, new bus rapid transit corridors and bike lanes have been accused of disrupting business and shutting down parking. In Berkeley, opponents have set their sights on a reserved bus right-of-way and argue that its construction will reduce retail activity, making regular commerce all but impossible. In Toronto, new Mayor Rob Ford has come out swinging against street-running light rail because he wants to end “the war on the car” imposed by the previous mayor, arguing that subway investments are more appropriate (and out of the way), despite their much higher costs.

These fears, however, have a lot more to do with the specter of disrupting the status quo than anything else. People who are used to have having all parts of the streets in their neighborhoods open to private vehicles at all times cannot imagine how it could possibly be a good idea to provide dedicated lanes for buses or for bikes. A recent New York Times editorial cartoon satirized this perception, raising the possibility that in the future every mode of transportation will get its own lane — except for the private automobile.

There is an alternative: Constructing transit rights-of-way out of the way of the street. Doing so, though, usually costs far more and is often less effective in connecting a community’s most vibrant districts. Thus the best option for transit investments — both in terms of cost-effectiveness and ridership growth — often requires taking space away from cars. That’s especially true in smaller metropolitan areas like Eugene-Springfield, which can do the most with the least amount of money if they choose to devote private automobile lanes to bus services.

For cities and transit agencies attempting to improve services in these budget-constrained times, keeping the communities along proposed new transit routes happy is essential. The argument in favor of dedicating lanes to buses or bikes must be a compelling one that ensures to a community that in exchange for lost car lanes and parking spaces, there will be an increase in traffic from people using non-automobile based modes. And the improvements must be good enough to convince the people along the routes that they will want to take advantage of them themselves.

Such arguments are not easy to make, but if a city wants to avoid — or at least subdue — conflict over transit improvements, it must engage them as strongly as possible. Otherwise, reasonable and cost-efficient investments like the EmX will be lost to squabbling.

* Operating costs, at $1.15/passenger, are lower than standard bus fare of $1.50/passenger.

** I should note that some have suggested that the initial line, with some of the corridor in one-lane sections, is not good enough to be real BRT. But with frequencies only every 10 minutes, the shared lane doesn’t pose much of a problem. And the transit agency has been able to reduce running times by more than 25% per trip — meaning something is being done right here. One concern is the new route’s loop segment along which alternating buses travel in either direction. This is a travel configuration that will likely confuse some users.

Image above: Eugene EmX in its dedicated lane, from Flickr user Chris Phan (cc)

38 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • This leans toward the psychological rather than the technical. Once a person believes something is true, he or she will tend to grow more attached to the idea when challenged, even with all the data in the world saying that it’s false. When changing minds, it’s important to make people feel good about themselves first (softens the blow, I suppose). Heh, you could take a page from the automakers’ playbook and hire booth babes, but that wouldn’t go over very well (or perhaps it would go over too well…).

    Unless you’re toying with people’s fears, changing the minds of a population that’s dead-set against something requires a relative army of smart people who have the social skills to engage opponents one-on-one in a positive way. It’s a challenge, though I think some projects have actually been able to pull it off. I suspect that’s one reason why public infrastructure projects tend to be more acceptable in Europe, though — places with denser social networks can often handle this naturally.

  • Max Wyss

    Very often, local politics are more pragmatic and topic-oriented (as opposed to ideologic) than regional or federal politics.

    Very often, people are against an infrastrcture project… until they have it. And then, they no longer want to give it back…

    A few articles ago, Strasbourg was mentioned; there were many business owners who predicted the end of all things. And nowadays… they are more profitable than ever before.

    This also shows that most people are actually reasonable (as long as they are not blinded by ideology).

  • JJJ

    Like others have mentioned, the default is ALWAYS change = bad.

    Urban planners would be well served taking some marketing lessons from apple and the like, where change suddenly becomes the only desirable outcome.

    Im excited to see REAL BRT in america. That picture made me smile.

    And now I look for 5 or 6 people to come in and say “it should have been rail” ignoring the massive cost of electrification and the price of the rail vehicles and maintenance facility.

    • It should have been an electric bus?

      • JJJ

        I love electric buses. Of course, the cost of the wiring is just like with rail.

        The difference is that you can start out with a diesel bus and then in 5 years wire it up and buy electric buses if you wanted to, having to change nothing about the stations or busway.

        LRV, it’s an all or nothing thing. And while yes, diesel LRVs do exist….we shall ignore them, they’re not worth it.

        • Max Wyss

          What counts as “LRV” in the US is considered mainline network vehicle elsewhere. There are some extremely successful such vehicles, such as Talent (used where Alon referred to), GTW, AGV, and others. All these vehicles are also available in electric version, where the GTW is insofar clever, as the “power cube” can simply be replaced, and the passenger units remain the same.

        • Drewski

          The French have already implemented no-catenary electric traction on an urban tram line, in Nice. APS. You have a center conductor, either a flat rail or a track, and it powers up in moving blocks. It can work well in places which don’t have much snow. The Willamette Valley (including Portland) doesn’t get much significant snow, but 40% of EmX is in street running. Historically, trolleybus lines needed two trolley poles, since they can’t ground through rubber tires. Dunno if APS would work for trolleybus operation, but it does exist and it is in operation.

          • Max Wyss

            That French system was pioneered in Bordeaux, and I believe to remember that they had serious problems until they got it really working. It is also way more expensive than overhead wires, and therefore only recommended for places where overhead wires would be really, really, obstructive. For a system-wide use, it is not recommended.

            For short catenary-less stretches, there is also the possibility to equip the vehicles with an energy storage system, such as batteries, supercapacitors or flywheels. Actually, in the 1950s, there were some experiments with the “Gyrobus”, where a flywheel was revved up at the stops, and provided enough power to get to the next stop. Considering the advances in flywheel technology (because of usable materieals), it might be interesting to find out how well such a system would work nowadays…

            The reason why trolleybus systems need two wires is because there is no reliable ground connection which could be used, as stated. Visually, a trolleybus wiring is not thaaat obstructive, as it is rather light. The only places where it gets heavy are switches and crossings.

          • I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember how much of the Nice tram is catenary-free. But I do know that Nice isn’t even as snowy as Portland. The central city averages about one snow every ten years, if I’m not mistaken; snow is rare enough even in the hilly suburbs that it causes major road disruptions.

          • Buckeyeman

            Back in the heyday of streetcars there was the conduit plow system which was used in Washington, D.C., parts of New York City and parts of London, England. Whaenever there was a changover to overhead wires a plowman was needed to remove the plow while another guy raised the trolley pole with the opposite process occurring in the other direction. There was also a short-lived experiment prior to the introduction of the conduit system in Washingtom where contact plates were placed between the rails to supply power but the plates weren’t always dead when they were supposed to be and the experiment was terminated when a few horseowners’ horses were electricuted. The plates were only supposed to be live when a car passed over it but it apparently wasn’t always the case. Every time I read about what they have now in Nice and Bordeaux, this early experiment come to mind.

            • Max Wyss

              On a very simplified level, the Alstom system (as used in Bordeaux), and those very early experiments are indeed the same principle. The difference is that control technology has considerably advanced, and they now consider it to be prime time-ready.

            • Drewski

              I mentioned APS specificially in consideration of the old DC Transit lines. Unless DC gov’t has changed the law, it was previously illegal to run catenary in the District (at least, in the core of the city). NO, the Nice APS section isn’t that long. (I thought the Bordeaux non-catenary section was battery-operated, so I apoligize if I erred in acknowledgement). In DC, the subsruface conduits were routinely choked with debris–not to mention the impact of infrequent but heavy snowstorms.

              If APS or any other non-catenary concept is advanced, it becomes far more cost-effedtive to build street or light rail in places which don’t get much snow. That’s a very large portion of the US, as well as many emerging markets. If you can build an induction-based system that holds up in heavy winter weather, then that could be sellable for both aesthetics and performance.

              I remember a time here in Cleveland when we had a bad winter storm (c 1990 or 91). All three of our rail lines are catenary-powered. It was a good two weeks before the weather warmed enough to allow rail services to resume, because the catenary was ice-coated. It happens on third-rail systems too.

              • Max Wyss

                The problem is nevertheless that the APS (or similar systems) are rather expensive (definitely more than a catenary system). So, if it has to be for full line length, it may become the killer argument (but then, as we see much in this site, US systems are very expensive anyway).

                There is another “keyword” in the previous message: debris. In many USAn cities, that’s more the problem than snow…

                As stated, most promising could be induction based charging of supercapacitors at stops might be a promising approach (supercapacitors because they can be charged very fast). And as soon as catenary can be used, the supercapacitors can help as boosters for acceleration and thus reduce the energy consumption of the vehicle.

          • There are also no-contact inductor systems. These might be especially appealing for pluggable hybrid electric buses, since the inductor feed could be installed at stops and layover positions to provide supplementary recharging through the day.

    • As someone who’s almost always skeptical of BRT in the US, count me in favor of this project. The cost control here is impressive, by North American standards.

    • Yeah, a society is in a bad place if they think all change is bad. If nothing is changing, then the only thing you can do is try to repair what exists — and that’s not always going to happen. Being too restrictive just leads to stagnation.

      When we change things, we have to make them better than what was there before. There has been a lot of bad change out there in the last 60 years, so many people are predisposed to disliking new projects.

      Of course, Apple didn’t turn around overnight — their transformation goes way back to the original iMac in 1998 (and of course changes needed to happen inside the company even before then). Remember the iMac? No floppy drive! Oh the horror!

      Local governments and transportation agencies all across the country need to reinvent themselves and prove they can make positive change again. Of course, not everyone can find a Steve Jobs equivalent for transportation. Fortunately — unlike Apple, who guard their technology — many urbanists are all too happy to share their ideas.

    • Max Wyss

      There is a “natural” system evolution, if capacity has to be increased:

      1) You start with a simple bus.
      2) You start seperating lanes for bus operation (this step is important; the buzzword for it would be BRT).
      3) You get articulated buses.
      3a) if the route is flat, you get double-articulated buses.
      4) You electrify and have trolley buses; and you start with articulated vehicles from the beginning
      5) You get double-articulated trolley buses
      6) You start laying tracks. As you already have reserved right of way, you can start building quicker, and if you have done step 4 right, you already have a lot of the power supply infrastructure ready. You’d start with single or double articulated vehicles.
      7) Run double or triple units, up to the legal length of trains.
      8) Create a second line (preferrably express) above or below ground or… where you can run way longer trains. Keep to original line as “local distributor”.

      The decision to upgrade must only be influenced by capacity requirements, and never by politically inspired prestige.

    • If its successful ~ which is to say, if it drives clustered development along the corridor ~ electric light rail ought to be provided one day. Evidently given the throughput capacity implied by bi-directional single lane segments, expanding to two lanes throughout would provide substantially more vehicle capacity, so there’s no reason to rule out running both light rail and BRT in the same corridor.

      The same logic that there is a level of ridership at which mass transit is more appropriate than light rail implies that there is a level of ridership at which BRT is superior to light rail.

      Quite often people will advocate for a particular mode in a one-size-fits-all mindset, but one-size-fits-all is at the base of the gross energy inefficiency and spatial mis-allocations of our current system.

      • Buckeyeman

        Anytime Brt has to be settled for, the right of way absolutety, positively SHOULD be made as rail-ready as humanly possible and feasible. I don’t care what order of transit there is or is going to be, by all means every possible provision for upgrading to the next order of transit above it should be installed if at all possible. It can only help when ridership reaches the leve where upgrading to the higher order is totally justified.

  • t1ewis

    can’t we get Dick Chenney out of the bed to go up there and tell them to go **** themselves?

  • BrianTH

    This is sort of the exact opposite of addressing the resistance to change problem, but I wanted to note that aerial gondolas have the potential to provide a cost-effective alternative to subways without significantly competing with surface modes of transportation. Of course the NIMBYs probably aren’t going to embrace that prospect either.

  • Drewski

    Although the BRT here in Cleveland (Euclid Corridor, a.k.a. the Health Line) was through some pretty desolate territory, and didn’t yield anything close to 25% improvement in running times, the loss of traffic lanes has proven a minimal issue. Originally, the westernmost part of the downtown section was supposed to be buses and taxis only, but neither the city nor the transit authority had the courage to stick with that. Euclid used to have two to three lanes in each direction; now there’s usually one constant lane. There are major arterials parallel, to the north (Chester Av) and south (Carnegie Av), and driving down Euclid isn’t drastically slower. Having that physical transit r/w does make a difference tho–it discourages private cars, so most people I know making the drive do so on either Chester or Carnegie. This does bring up a big difference between transit r/w in a roadway in an older urban area, versus a newer urban area. If I go to Nashville, there is no alternative to West End/Harding once I get west of 440. When you’re taking road space in a growing area, and there are no viable alternative routes, then yes, I can see why there might be community opposition. Problem is, it’s precisely those corridors which are most likely to require alternatives to the status quo. EmX seems to be working now, and may yet form the basis for rail operation, but for now it’s making best use of public money at the lowest possible cost. The community needs to be reminded of this–that improved transit service isn’t an act of war, and a transit r/w is intended to stretch public transit subsidies in a way that reduces operating costs while attracting new riders. That’s a strong example of good stewardship of taxpayer money.

  • Tommy Samson

    At least this seems to be real BRT, with (mostly dedicated) ROW… as opposed to buying some secondhand diesel buses from the 1980s, slapping a fresh coat of paint on them, running them on existing streets (no dedicated lanes or separate ROWs) and calling them “BRT”.

  • Thanks for the link to my earlier article on EMX, Yonah.

    I stand by my earlier comments about the original section, as well as the vehicles themselves. However, I too believe this extension is a positive move. I haven’t had a chance to ride it yet, but I did inspect the new alignment late last year, and I was very impressed. While I’m still not sure if this really makes more sense than LRT, it is a major improvement over conventional bus and looks likely to be a great addition to the cities’ mobility.

    Hopefully future EMX lines will be equally well thought-out, and this will indeed become a comrpehensive system.

    On a related note, I should add one caveat to my critique of the original line: it may simply not have been fair to jusge it so harshly. In my observation, pioneer systems are almost always far from ideal. Second and third extensions are far better measures of system value.

    Kudos to Lane Transit District for a major improvement.

  • Peter

    Wow, from the opponents’ website:

    “Cost of EmX vehicle: $960,000 in 2003 Mileage: 3.2 mpg (diesel)

    Fuel Costs: Low Efficiency @ 3.2 mpg (diesel)”

    So, the fact that the buses seat 44 and have standing room for 100 is not mentioned. Talk about SLANTED information.

    • Never let facts get in the way of making a point I guess.

      I must admit though 3.2mpg is lower than I’d have expected. But yes, with only 10 passengers or 9 and the driver if you want, it gets 32mpg/p which compares straight up or better to many of the single ride cars out there on the same streets.

    • An example of the flaw in not having a federal funding source dedicated to oil-efficient and oil-independent transport. Pluggable hybrid buses cost more up front, but save operating costs and are far more fuel efficient ~ get that to 60 passenger miles per gallon or above at 25% seated load factors, 600 passenger miles per gallon in crush load and we have a far more substantial insurance policy against an oil price shock.

  • One other bit of information on the proposed West Eugene BRT extension.

    The proposed extension would run on, or parallel to, West 11th Avenue, the main thoroughfare through the western portions of the city of Eugene, and is part of Oregon Route 126.

    The road, in addition to being an urban thoroughfare, is a state highway of regional significance, connecting the Eugene/Springfield area with the Oregon Coast. The configuration of W 11th is that of your typical sprawlevard, a 4-lane street signed for moderate speed, with numerous signallized intersections, driveways, and other access points. The volumes of traffic on W 11th are well above capacity–needless to say, it’s a mess.

    There have been, over the years, several attempts to bypass West 11th. Back during the big freeway boom, a proposed freeway called the “Roosevelt Freeway” (see here, here, and here for more info) would have provided a bypass for West 11th; this freeway was cancelled in the 1970s. More recently, a proposed expressway (of considerably more modest scale) called the “West Eugene Parkway” was proposed and designed; it too was killed by a coalition of environmentalists and other road opponents. One portion of the initial Eugene freeway network that was built was the northwest quadrant of the Belt Line Highway, it’s a freeway starting at W 11th, running north to the Santa Clara area, and then turning east and ending near Gateway Mall (and the northern end of the new BRT line discussed in the article); but this freeway doesn’t go near downtown Eugene, and is not an alternative for most W 11th traffic.

    Given all of that, it’s not entirely unsurprising that West Eugene residents–a part of town which is more sprawled out than the downtown core and University areas–are opposed to the idea of removing road lanes for bus service. Much of the traffic which uses the road is regional traffic that has no alternative, and which won’t benefit from the bus. The first two EmX projects have much smaller traffic impacts–either running in an excessively-wide median on Franklin Boulevard, or running on exclusive lanes on local streets for which there are several parallel alternatives.

    In many ways, it’s possible to construe the West Eugene EmX project as a “punitive” transit project–one which reduces auto capacity without supplying equivalent transit capacity; and in this case doing so in a particularly obnoxious manner, and in a place where the land use isn’t conducive to transit. While some transit advocates consider this a good thing, under the theory that auto use should be discouraged, and tough shit for those who make the poor choice to buy cars and live in suburban sprawl; such projects are bound to produce a backlash among the motorists being so “penalized”. That the West Eugene project is considerably less popular than the first two lines, is not unsurpising.

  • Drewski

    I’m sitting here looking at this corridor on Google Maps. In raw spatial terms, there’s generally enough room to double or even triple the width of W 11. But that “open” land is parking lots, and taking advantage of the lack of buildings would still require land acquisition (very possibly through eminent domain). Taking parking lots could violate planning and zoning laws, because existing businesses could be left with inadequate parking. It’s unrealistic to expect businesses to share parking, probably even harder to try to mandate it through law. The remaining option would seem to be to have all parking owned and operated by the city, which would require buying all existing parking… No, all those parking spaces are not going to be full, not even in the busiest shopping season. It’s not going to happen. But that reality rarely matters as much as accommodating the car.

    Another thing. If you look up the area in Google Maps, you see what an extraordinarily ugly place it is. There is no standard setback. There is…there are no standards. Buildings of varying sizes, randomly sited on their lots, with no order of any kind. You see the sheer waste of land. I remember reading a book by (architect) Victor Gruen; there was an example of the substantial difference in footprint when houses were configured in different ways–each house centered on its lot, versus grouping the houses together and having more open land. The houses remained the same size. This is a great demonstration of that concept, and the multiple costs that come from considering each property as its own island.

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