In a Failure of Municipal Ambition, Plans for Detroit Light Rail Shut Down as Focus Shifts to BRT

» More people will be served by the bus lines than would have been affected by rail, but new plans are predicated on a regional accord on funding improved regional service.

In early 2010, the U.S. DOT announced that it would award a $25 million TIGER grant to Detroit to begin construction on a new light rail line along that city’s central spine. For two years, hope spread through America’s most notorious shrinking city: This project, perhaps, would provide the boost to resurrect the Motor City.

Last week, just as the latest TIGER grants were being unveiled for other cities, local leaders announced they would reneg on that promise due to a fear that operations costs would be impossible to cover. A less aesthetically pleasing — but far more extensive and regionally funded — BRT program would be inserted in its place.

This situation speaks two realities: First, Detroit continues to be a mess — both politically and financially. Leaders of surrounding counties have shown themselves unwilling to compromise, expressing hostility over the idea that local tax funds might go to aid the transportation system adjacent city rapidly descending into zombie mode. Second, the U.S. DOT rushed its initial selection of TIGER grant recipients and showed that it was incapable of following through. Detroit’s fiscal situation in 2010 was not much better than it is today; how could the government have expected the city to fund the project’s operating costs then if it can’t now?

For Detroit’s civic ambitions, the death of the $528 million light rail plan is devastating news. Over the past two years, as it has become increasingly apparent that the current situation is far from sustainable, business, political, and community leaders have staked their hopes for the future of the city on the rail project. Not only would the 9.3-mile transit line running up Woodward Avenue provide substantially improved access to downtown, they argued, but it would spur a major increase in development in the area. Mayor Dave Bing suggested that the population of the city would be encouraged to relocate to more transit-accessible neighborhoods, especially along the corridor. The light rail line would give the city a competitive advantage.

This outlook was never realistic: No rail project, no matter how nice, can singlehandedly reverse the systematic decline of a once-huge city. Development will come to downtown Detroit when there is a demand for housing units and employment there, not when there are tracks along Woodward Avenue. Moreover, the city’s existing employment-housing imbalance, in which 60% of the city’s job holders go to the suburbs for work, means that a downtown-focused project would likely be ineffective in resolving the commuting needs of many people.

The decision to cancel the project, however, came down to the fact that Washington was worried that the City of Detroit would be unable to subsidize the costs of operation. The city’s existing transit services are in turmoil: The downtown People Mover, a one-way automated elevated loop line, practically shut down this month due to a lack of agreement about funding it. Fewer than half of the city’s buses are in operation, due to neglect and maintenance issues. Suburban bus services, offered by SMART, have declined considerably faced with less-than-expected revenues. To make matters worse, there is little fare or service integration between the three operations.

The Federal Transit Administration expressed concern that the situation could get even worse if the light rail line’s operations costs required the elimination of some bus services. Several months ago, FTA head Peter Rogoff argued that Detroit’s goal to use annual state and federal grants as the primary source of funding was an untenable long-term approach.

But an alternative providing a steady revenue source would require regional cooperation, and indeed the government hoped that the Detroit region would integrate its transit offerings into a single regional authority. Yet disagreements across county lines have imperiled the concept of a regional transit authority repeatedly; a $600 million effort to build a regional rail system in the 1970s, for instance, was scuttled when surrounding counties refused to join in. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson argued against a regional transit tax this summer and in fact has been a stated proponent of, as he says it, sprawl.*

The new bus plans, serving surrounding Macomb and Oakland Counties as well as Detroit’s Wayne County, apparently will relieve that tension because, unlike the light rail efforts, they would not be focused on the central city’s downtown. The regional transit authority is again being promoted, this time by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Four BRT corridors would run 83 miles between the region’s largest destinations (local leaders say “110 miles,” but maps revealed by the News only show 83). 34 stations would connect downtown with the airport, Birmingham, Troy, and Selfridge, primarily along Woodward Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, Michigan Avenue, and M-59. The extensiveness of the network as proposed will provide a level of service an order of magnitude more significant than would have the light rail.

The project is in the earliest stages of planning, so the levels of service to be offered by this BRT network are unclear. How many exclusive lanes will be provided for the buses, for example?

This proposal is similar to the 67-mile “Golden Triangle” announced by suburban leaders in Spring 2010. Yet while that less-lengthy plan would have cost about $800 million, Governor Snyder has suggested that this new BRT network, referred to as the “Metro Connection Tri-County Triangle,” could be built for $500 million. That price seems too low for 83 miles of exclusive busways — and it certainly would not allow for particularly ornate stations. Meanwhile, the state legislature must still approve a regional funding plan if the project’s operations costs are to be covered.

Let it be clear: Even if the BRT project provides a lot more services than the light rail for a similar capital cost, its operations costs will be far higher. Under the existing legislation, in which the federal government is prohibited from providing operations support for transit services, the only way this project will get off the ground is if the suburban counties agree to massive increase in transit funding. That may seem like an unrealistic prospect, but it is probably more feasible than assuming suburbs would agree to fund the operations costs of a city-only rail line.

None of these funding dilemmas have prevented private and non-profit supporters of the rail project, who had collectively submitted $100 million for the line, from complaining about the needs of the downtown. They suggest that a 3.2-mile line, costing $225 million and running from the river to New Center, could be funded with federal New Starts funding. Yet the U.S. DOT seems to have made clear that there will be no dollars for light rail in Detroit.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bing, unfortunately, continues to use fantastical rhetoric when it comes to promoting the BRT system: “With Detroit’s rich history of innovation,” he wrote in the Free Press, “There is no doubt we can build a system that competes with other successful BRT lines in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.” Yet the development of the BRT plan should have little to do with competition; its primarily purpose must be to serve the transit-dependent population of the city. Will it get the chance to do so, or relegated to the dustbin like most other transit plans for Detroit?

* Though Patterson has said that he would allow citizens to vote on such a tax if it were put up to referendum.

67 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Cameron Slick

    This is another example of how the federal government needs to fund transit operations as well.

    The only redeeming part of this new plan would be for design of brt lanes and rows that could be converted to lrt later. Just putting them on highway shoulders or striped lanes won’t cut it. For brt to work, like it has in los angeles and ottawa, it needs to be virtually identical to light rail: platforms, speed, offline fare collection, and frequency

    • Ocean Railroader

      They could at least make some bus only lanes on some of the existing city streets for now consdering the city is emptying out.

  • How much do you want to bet that the BRT will turn into Rapid Bus in an attempt to do it on the cheap and won’t amount to anything better than a limited stop line on three corridors with fancy stations?

    • Marcella D.

      This is a very likely outcome. It becomes all too tempting, due to the lower technical standards of buses (as they rely on humans steering, not signaling and automated operations etc.) and availability of roads, to solve any cost overrun with “design downgrade”.

    • Nathanael

      I will bet, this being Detroit, that the BRT will turn into *nothing at all* instead. Not even stations. Maybe limited-stop routes. And then it will be cut due to shortage of funding.

      Pathetic, Detroit, utterly pathetic.

  • poncho

    well one thing is for sure, they have plenty of oversized arterials and freeways designed for a city of 2 million with more than ample room for dedicated transit lanes.

    • Marcella D.

      Arterials, yes, but freeways are not meant for transit like pedestrianized plazas are not meant for cars. Keep the buses (3rd World solution) out of the highways, please.

      • Cory M

        Poncho was referring to Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan being wide boulevards with 3-5 lanes(+lane for Parking) in each direction. And in my experience of driving on them, are pretty empty.

  • Excellent post, but I disagree that BRT’s “purpose must be to serve the transit-dependent population of the city.” What purpose is served by this imagined segregation of potential markets? By all means compete at a realistic quality level that doesn’t seek to carry someone who has a BMW in his driveway, but that might convince a less affluent family to rely less on cars, or even own fewer of them.

    If we declare the desired customer to be “transit-dependent,” we limit a system’s imagination and license it, prematurely, to be mediocre.

    • Nathanael

      This is Detroit. There are still rich people with BMWs in their driveway, of course — and because of the collapse in population, they have uncrowded roads to drive on (though they’re full of potholes and falling apart).

      Apart from them, everyone in the area is bankrupt.

      The private interests — the companies run by the people with the BMWs — actually wanted light rail bad enough they were willing to *pay* for it. They don’t want BRT. This means that the system will degenerate into nothing-at-all. The supposed BRT is just a face-saving excuse for cancelling the funded light rail line.

      Goodbye, Detroit. Further decline seems inevitable when you keep making the wrong choices over, and over, and over, and over. As long as people can leave, they will.

      • Ocean Railroader

        But this city is also being killed off by high crime which is also driving people out of it faster than any 100 million or 500 million or billion dollar transit system could bring them in. It also has one of the highest murder rates in the county.

        • Nathanael

          The masses of abandoned buildings are part of the reason for the high crime rate. The idea behind a transit line would be to create a concentrated area of population and commerce with no abandoned buildings in which the crime rate would be locally suppressed…. it’s an idea, anyway.

      • Adirondacker12800

        BMWs in Detroit. An interesting concept. I suppose driven by upper management at Chrysler, Ford and GM?

        • FG

          Very interesting concept indeed. It is possible, though, my grandfather in many years of living in Detroit never bought a car made there, though once they moved to Dearborn he broke down and bought a Dagenham Ford. He bought cars in Canada when the dollar was stronger and the taxes were less on his purchase.

          I think the psychology of Detroit Metro is a big factor in their resistance to transit – everybody was car obsessed and working for the big three was coveted – my dad lost girlfriends because he didn’t want to be an automotive engineer but wanted an non-engineering academic career. Everything revolves around the motor industry and people can’t conceive of anything else and developing transit would be a failure of the way of life they built up for better or worse.

    • I struggled a bit with that conclusion. I completely agree that the problem with saying a particular system is designed for the transit-dependent is that you end up with mediocrity. Transit should be good enough for everyone to feel happy and safe using it.

      But I believe that in cities like Detroit, where transit is terrible to begin with but hundreds of thousands of people have no choice to use it, the “primary purpose” of public transportation must be to serve the transit-dependent. Without understanding that, we could end up spending hundreds of millions on another project like the People Mover, which did virtually nothing for the poor but made the non-transit dependent of the city content about their investment choice.

      • This is exactly why Woodward Light Rail is so needed: it is an upgrade of existing bus service on the Woodward corridor, the busiest and most crowded buses, serving those already using transit, but would also likely attract choice riders. It would give current riders a dependable, express option, and allow DDOT and SMART to reallocate resources to the vital feeder lines.

        As the Federal application process showed, the ridership on the corridor is already very high and underserved. In fact, the current ridership is better than recently-developed light rail lines in Minneapolis, Charlotte, Norfolk, etc. The Alternatives Analysis considered BRT for Woodward but found that Light Rail would be more operationally efficient given the existing high ridership and the opportunity to attract choice riders and economic development.

        Also, no one seriously believed the City alone would operate the project once completed, so the Mayor, Governor and FTA’s sudden claim (where was this 6 months ago when FTA approved the project?!) that they are now concerned about future operating funding rings hollow. The whole point was to get construction underway, and finally get the needed RTA created and funded to run it, with the City’s quasi-governmental DEGC leading construction in the meantime.

        Contrary to Yonah’s always-excellent graphic above, the BRT concept is just a proposal and not “planned,” an important distinction. It exists only as a rough whitepaper created by a local transit enthusiast. It stills need an RTA and a funding source, and must run through same 5-year New Starts process that the Woodward Light Rail project started 5 years ago. While it would be a great enhancement to a future regional transit system, it does nothing to serve the transit-dependent within the City and suburbs. It covers only 2 corridors of current high transit ridership and only offers limited-stop long-distance trips, not the local and medium-distance trips light rail on Woodward will serve. This point seems lost on the Mayor and Governor who have now both said that BRT will replace the local bus service (?!), which is not true.

        Metro Detroit needs an RTA and a funding source to coordinate regional transit, maintain and improve local bus service and build the missing rapid transit the region needs. Woodward Light Rail is a very important centerpiece of a larger regional transit plan approved in 2008 but not yet funded. To throw away the years of work now makes no sense, and I hope the FTA will see this and help get things back on track.

  • Nathanael

    Looking at this, I expect the BRT will go nowhere. The cancellation of the light rail line will be a dead loss, unless the private interests decide to build it anyway.

    The Ann Arbor commuter line might get built. Ann Arbor is doing OK, as opposed to being a bankrupt, dysfunctional nightmare like Detroit *and* most of its suburbs.

    • Buckeyeman

      No, The Ann Arbor line will NOT get built. Any chance of that project EVEr getting built simply does NOT exist. WALLY rail won”t get built either. They’re both pipe dreams pure and simple.

      • Nathanael

        Interesting… why do you say this?

        The Ann Arbor line would (a) run on existing tracks and stations already being upgraded by Amtrak and the state, and (b) be funded by a city which isn’t bankrupt. That sounds far more plausible to me than WALLY — the idea that Ann Arbor could chase up enough money to buy one train and operate it doesn’t seem completely outlandish.

  • Nathanael

    Next question: who gets the redirected TIGER money? I know there are still good rail projects out there where the local government isn’t going to throw up its hands and give up.

    • Nathanael

      Oh goddammit. The article says the Feds plan to waste the money on “planning” for the BRT system which nobody wants and which will never be built. Contractor pork.

      • Ocean Railroader

        I’m really getting tired of our county spending hunderds of millions of dollars on these dumb plans how much does it cost to get a group of clowns to add lines to a city street that says bus only. In China they would most likely building something that is cool.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I wounder would this place consdering extending the existing people mover that is already here and running to other parts of the city in that it and the train cars on it are all ready there and a extension of it to some where else wouldn’t hurt it.

  • Chad Brick

    I am embarassed for both my native Michigan and as an American in general. We can’t do anything anymore other than cut taxes and pretend we went to church on Sunday. It’s sad how far we have fallen, and how few people even seem to know it.

    • Ocean Railroader

      This who set up makes us look like dimwits in the long run in that they have said they are not going to do it and yet they are stilling going to go though it with this is more like the baby of the Califoirina High Speed Rail distaster only instead of a 100 billion it’s a 500 million set up.

  • Jonathan Parker

    Yonah correctly points out that Detroit’s tenuous economic future, current financial situation, and lack of regional cooperation are the chief factors for the failure of the LRT proposal as anything else, BRT proposals included. One question: If FTA is and has been concerned (rightly so) about applicants ability to sustainably fund new operations of new high capacity transit projects without cannibalizing its bus system, then why did FTA give Detroit the TIGER grant to support the LRT project in the first place?

  • Susan De Vos

    I like it that the article starts out by saying “More people will be served by the bus lines than would have been affected by rail, but …”

    • Alan

      BRT is more economical than light rail and gives you the same advantages plus flexibility. Rail is outmoded tech.

      • Nathanael

        Bullshit. BRT is less economical than light rail if there’s any volume (more drivers per passenger, buses wear out faster than cars, wider lanes are required, concrete and asphalt wear out faster than steel), and gives you the disadvantages of poor ride quality, dependence on fossil fuels, and higher costs.

        If you can cover a larger population, it may be worth it to build something crummier and more expensive, but don’t imagine that it’s “better”. Buses are outmoded tech.

  • First Time Poster

    Yonah: “Even if the BRT project provides a lot more services […] its operations costs will be far higher”. Is this specific to Detroit transit or are BRT operations as a rule more expensive than comparable light rail services ? Thanks

    • Operations costs are generally composed of the following: Driver wages, vehicle maintenance costs, right-of-way maintenance costs, and energy costs. Because light rail vehicles carry more people/driver than buses, their driver costs are lower — if the vehicles are full. Their vehicle maintenance costs/passenger are relatively similar. If we are comparing busways with LRTs, right-of-way maintenance costs are about the same. And electric traction (LRT) is generally cheaper than gas (BRT) per passenger. So this makes heavily trafficked corridors cheaper to operate with LRT than BRT.

      All that said, the primary reason the BRT plan would cost more to operate than the LRT one is that the BRT one would provide almost 10 times as many route-miles, which means more than 10 times as much driver costs.

      • ASK

        So this makes heavily trafficked corridors cheaper to operate with LRT than BRT.

        Yonah,

        Looking at National Transit Database information on the average cost of operations per revenue mile for LRT and for bus service, that argument doesn’t really hold true.

        Also, you’re sayng here that the BRT system will cost more than the very limited LRT system because it PROVIDES MORE TRANSIT SERVICE to the whole region. What’s wrong with that?

        • There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! I would love to see more transit service for the region. But the whole explanation for canceling the light rail line in the first place was because its operations costs weren’t being funded… So can we trust that the Detroit region will be able to assemble a funding portfolio that pays for much more service in the form of BRT? I hope so, but I am simply bringing this up as an issue.

          In terms of LRT vs. bus, you’re right in terms of national averages. But I specifically pointed to “heavily trafficked” routes for a reason. There are many LRTs in the U.S. built in areas with transit ridership that is too low to justify light rail from an operational perspective.

          • Cory M

            I believe the State of Michigan is the lead in this, the grown up(State) is tired of its children(Detroit, Suburbs) bickering about Mass Transit.

            So the State wants its biggest metro area to have a comprehensive transportation system.

        • simple

          ASK,

          The NTD stats you point to are not inconsistent with Yonah’s statement that “heavily trafficked corridors [are] cheaper to operate with LRT than BRT.” LRT may be more expensive to operate per revenue mile, but the primary cost driver for all modes is labor, so in as much as LRVs (and LRV trains) can carry more people per transit operator than buses, LRT will exhibit lower costs per unit of capacity than buses. “Heavily trafficked” is the key to this equation. If the ridership demand isn’t sufficient to fill LRV trains at fairly frequent intervals, buses may be cheaper to operate. Still, if we expect to encourage growth in transit demand over time, LRV trains will get proportionately cheaper to operate as ridership grows, whereas a bus-based line will get proportionately more expensive to operate as ridership grows.

  • Jeff Wegerson

    I have been following BRT for only a few years so forgive any ignorance on the topic.

    Is it that federal and even state dollars can only be gotten with full blown plans? Why don’t we ever see evolutionary BRT. I live in Chicago. I am holding my breath here for BRT, particularly on Western Avenue. Because I get my car fixed on Western Avenue I have experienced it as a regular bus route during rush hour.

    A few years back they tried an “Express Bus” mixed in with the regular buses. I directly experienced teh reality of simply spacing stops a half mile apart barely made a difference. I was not surprised to see that experiment discontinued.

    The biggest problem for buses and rapidity is, of course, the sharing of lanes with cars. And the biggest problem with sharing with cars comes at certain choke points where traffic backs up behind problem intersections for several blocks and/or consecutive stoplight cycles.

    So an evolutionary BRT process would say, okay, lets create a grand plan for Western to become a BRT some day that will look pretty much like XYZ and even have pre-designed into it beforehand certain elements that could allow for a future light rail. Nothing unusual about that kind of thinking. I’ve seen it suggested often in BRT discussions.

    But what I don’t see, and here likely my novice status shows itself, is the implementation of partial features of BRT leading up to the full implementation. Take the problem choke points on Western. Can’t there be two blocks of exclusive Bus lane leading up to the congested choke point intersection to speed the eventual BRT past the waiting cars? And then later a station of some kind for pre-payment and fast loading? And then maybe still later the bus gets to have an effect on the traffic light.

    In the parts of the rest of the route where there are seldom backups the bus would still mix with mostly moving traffic and the occasional passenger or three at a time would still pay the driver.

    You do that to problem intersection after problem intersection and pretty soon you are talking about seriously rapider transit. No?

    It seems to me that a place where that approach should really be workable is Detroit.

    • Ocean Railroader

      The Thing with the BRT I don’t understand if this thing is a bus running down it’s own lane on a city street than why does it cost so dang much to built this thing that is almost the same cost as a light rail line. Such as at least with a light rail line you have to rip up the street and install eletric catenary and other things which makes it’s cost understanble. But with the BRT it is really a oversized bus running on city streets marked off from main traffic with over glorfied bus shelters than why though does it cost almost the same as a light rail line?

      • Andrew

        It doesn’t. It can be cheaper. As you say – a ROW can be as cheap as a can of paint. Given the heavy loading of buses – without some upgrades to the pavement at least at station areas you might run into some pavement trouble.

        But signifcant bus upgrades can literally be achieved with a can of paint and a new service pattern – this happened recently in Beijing: http://english.sina.com/china/p/2011/0524/374640.html

        They introduced non stop service directly along a multi billion dollar metro line and its able to provide much quicker service than the metro (which has only two tracks and no passing) and is stealing riders from metro as well as drawing new people out of their cars. Most US cities are not Beijing, but the example stands.

        • Beta Magellan

          It’s worth noting that this are paralleling the Batong Line, is a feeder for Line 1—people headed towards more central areas of Beijing would need to transfer at Sihuidong in either case.

          Although I’m not sure if this is the case above (since Andrew’s describing a quasi-suburban commuter bus), when I lived in Beijing the Metro definitely has a price premium over buses. I knew plenty of people who would take a bus on Chang’an over the subway for reasons of economy. There was plenty of traffic to keep both standing room only, of course—if anything, Beijing needed prices to be high to ensure that Line 1 didn’t go overcapacity.

      • Beta Magellan

        If you want to do proper BRT, you have to go into the median, which involves a lot of street configuration—the Metropolitan Planning Council’s plans suggested around $15 million a mile for doing this at a bare-bones level, but in Cleveland, where they put a lot more money into streetscaping and design, it went up to around $30 million. You might also want new buses, which drives up costs even more (especially if you can’t import nice three-door low-floor buses from Europe thanks to Buy American). Given that inexpensive American light rail goes around $45 million, there’s still some price advantage to street-running BRT (streetcars might dip into this level, but as planned in the US they aren’t real, high-capacity transit but rather mixed-traffic circulators, so they’re not really comparable—in France, properly-planned tram lines also go for around $45 million).

        The sort of service Andrew describes in Beijing seems closest to replacing a lane on a highway or upgrading a shoulder to support buses, which can be cheap (but in the case of replace-a-lane, nearly impossible politically). And fully-separated busways like those planned for Connecticut cost the same as light rail because you have to do a lot of the same engineering—good stations, grade separations, etc.—as a light rail line (I’d expect the same to be true for metro-like busways like Brisbane’s).

    • Nathanael

      The problem is that BRT is a scam.

      If a city was really interested in doing “incremental BRT”, they’d call them “bus lanes”, “bus stations”, and “limited-stop buses”, and start building them. Of course, “bus lanes” would involve removing lanes from cars, so nobody in the car-worshipping political culture of the US will do it, except Sadik-Kahn.

      “BRT”, in contrast to “bus lanes”, is just a highway-builder’s excuse for stopping trains from being constructed.

  • Detroit is a long-time systemic vicim of the car-culture since the early 20th century. When Chicago was building transit, Detroit built more roads and highways. When Chicago became more dense, Detroit became more spread out.

    Then the auto industry downturned and exposed the system flaw a century in the making.

    • Ocean Railroader

      It also lost out to warm weather cities such as Miami that naturally drained away the people and tax dollars. It also jacked it’s taxes up sky high which put pressure on the people to leave. Such as if you are going to pay $5000 a year for a place up north and have cold and snow for half the year but than you have a southern city where the taxes $3000 and it is much more warmer and you don’t spend a lot less money on heating and have a lower crime rate it is naturally going to drain people and the jobs away. Also the southern cities are more compettive and cut and more willing to make deals to attract people and jobs.

    • FG

      I don’t think that the Detroit area is any less dense than Chicago (obviously, the city proper has lost population, but at it’s peak it was similar to Chicago in many ways). My grandparents lived in an inner suburb (Dearborn) and it was about as dense as similar areas would be in Chicago, i.e. small houses and two-flats on small lots, street parking or very narrow driveways (few alleys, biggest difference).

      • Adirondacker12800

        According to Wikipedia the density in Detroit is 5,144 people per square mile. In Chicago it’s 12,750 or roughly two and half times as dense as Detroit.

        • Cory M

          Chicago metro area is twice the size Detroit(population wise). Better comparison is to Boston or Dallas. Detroit is spread out. in the late seventies Novi was at the edge of the suburbs(about 50 miles from downtown Detroit) now it is Howell(about 75 miles) At this rate in the next 20-25 years it will join Metro Lansing to create one continuous suburban/urban/post urban landscape.

          that is why transit is needed to stop this sprawl.

          • Dallas is not a good example for density either, but at least its leadership started building Light Rail Transit in the 1980s. By 2020, it will have a fairly comprehensive rail transit network, perhaps moving as many patrons as Atlanta.

            Ditto for Houston.

            • Maybe it’ll have a network that looks comprehensive on a map, but judging by current trends, most stations will be park-and-ride hell, the job centers will be unwalkable, and travel times will not be competitive with driving.

              Houston’s Main Street Line provides a much better example of light rail done well. It doesn’t look as nice on a map, but it serves reasonable dense employment centers, leading to high ridership relative to route length. Cost per kilometer was a bit higher because of the on-street construction, but the cost per rider was very low by American standards.

              If you want to see how light rail performs when everything is done right, which isn’t the case even in Houston, you’ll have to go outside the US. I can post some photos I took the other day in Nice, along the section of the tramway between the train station and city center. The tram uses dedicated lanes and goes in a transit mall when the street is too narrow for additional traffic lanes; the streetscape is pleasant to walk in and has plenty of foot traffic; parking is done in paid garages, which in the local style are underground or at least look like inhabited buildings from the outside. Thus, with just one line of 9 km, Nice gets more light rail ridership than Dallas’s 115-km network.

              • Nathanael

                And all of these compare well to Detroit.

                Sprawl looks a lot worse when the city population starts shrinking. If you are running a shrinking city, you *must* have a plan for consolidating the population, making areas urban or rural, eliminating the areas with long stretches of abandoned buildings interspersed with occupied buildings.

                Youngstown, Ohio has a shrinkage plan, although it’s having trouble executing the plan. Flint, MI doesn’t exactly have a plan, but it’s making serious efforts to convert housing to farmland.

                Detroit is just sort of letting things happen.

  • Cameron Slick

    Yes ocean railroader is right,

    Southern cities are more willing to cut their wrists and educate their children for a 19th century workplace, but air conditioned.

  • Andrew

    Yonah,

    It feels like in a few recent posts, you’ve been saying one thing but actually really making a pretty compelling argument for the opposite. You seem to think that BRT will:

    1. have a better (if still slim) chance of actually securing the regional funding operating subsidies it needs
    2. having the potential to serve more of the destinations that are relevant to the city – since only a relatively small portion of the jobs are in the downtown core
    3. cover a much wider area for the same capital cost as LRT

    You also don’t mention that in a city that’s hollowed out, there’s likely to be spare road capacity around that can be used for BRT dedicated lanes at little cost.

    Finally, your analysis of operating costs of fixed guideway systems seems optimistic – especially in the literal shadow of the 9% farebox recovery ratio of the Detroit people mover.

    I have a feeling you’re eager to just come out and say that the city of Detroit – which cannot finance even its schools – really doesnt need a lightly used fixed rail transit system. You don’t – but your article nevertheless lead me to that conclusion.

    • Beta Magellan

      While I’m agnostic about all of Detroit’s current transit plans, I don’t think it’s at all unlikely that Detroit’s light rail would have a better farebox recovery ratio than the people mover (maybe not a great ratio, but better). Woodward’s one of Detroit’s most-trafficked bus corridors, so it seems that a light rail line along it would at least serve the regular transportation needs of residents. In contrast, the people mover wasn’t really planned with everyday commuter use in mind—it connects attractions and wasn’t designed with people’s everday needs in mind.

  • One major reason why BRT is a better choice for Detroit, at least right now, is the enormous distance people take transit to work. The LRT would end around 8 Mile, but Detroiters routinely head for work another 10 miles further out in the suburbs. Under a LRT system people would still have to transfer to buses to get to their work (assuming that bus service along Woodward would be cut to pay for the rail line). The other thing is there simply is not enough ridership to justify rail construction, although I agree that due to the vacant nature of Detroit streets and land that I would expect rail capital costs to be lower than other cities. Vancouver, BC has a successful plan of building up corridor ridership with BRT until the numbers justify rail; why can’t Detroit proceed with this winning model?

    In any case, I am not in favor of any transit expansion in Detroit until the 2 existing agencies merge together and the resulting one is able to restore some semblance of an acceptable local bus system. When one bus service cut 23% of its service last month and the other one due to labor strife cannot operate more than half of its fleet, I believe it’s madness to build more transit for the agencies to run into the ground.

    • Cory M

      I agree with the BRT first then LRT later approach. It makes more sense. The state should force the 2 Transit systems to merge and form a regional transit system with a whole new board of directors and a fresh start on all contracts with labor and suppliers. It was done in Grand Rapids around ten years ago(GRATA was a poorly run bus system, but with voter approval and a small millage increase, it was fired for handling bus service in Grand Rapids metro area. The newly formed The Rapid took over the assets of GRATA with a clear mission to improve the system. And every year it has improved bus service.
      It is kind of funny that a Public transit board was fired to be completely replaced with a different one.

    • Nathanael

      With all the vacant Detroit land, the wise thing to do is probably to legalize homesteading on it. People don’t *want* to ride the bus for hours to work. Would they prefer to build houses on vacant lots near their workplaces? Or, if out of work, to farm vacant lots?

  • Progressive Capitalist

    If the public money backs BRT curbside on the cheap, and the private money still backs a shorter LRT line curbside for development, who wins the battle for Woodard Avenue?

  • Ben Smith

    Being a little more optimistic, I could see something being built. I think the airport line should be built, if nothing else. While it won’t directly help the commutes of residents of the city, it may help to bring corporate investment into the core rather than into the suburbs, thus creating jobs in the city and potentially stimulating demand for other transit projects within the city itself.

    On a side note, that vision sounds way too conservative coming from me. I’m scared…

  • Buckeyeman

    No one understands more than I do that any kind of rail transit isn’t necessarily going to cure all urban ills but it most certainly isn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be the poison either. No matter what anyone says, it’s still about as essential a tool in in urban planning and development. Just because rail transit can’t do it all is no reason not to build it so it might as well be included as a develpmental tool.

  • BRT is still a good option. LR is nice, but it costs so much for start-up costs, and it only truly works well in dense cities to begin with. The whole “build-it and they’ll come” in getting development to hopefully build dense projects is a flawed idea where it’s a risky bet and not something solid to rely on.

    I know from experience in living in Houston. We’ve had a light rail since 2004, but very few development projects have sprung up. There’s seems to be more issues and costs than anything. This is a very car-cultured city, and it takes so long for them to secure funds and build the tracks. People hate the trees being ripped out, businesses getting shuttered, cars dealing with street-level rail, etc. It just pulls out more hate for mass transit than anything.

    I think car-focused cities should start out with BRT first, and then move onto light rail. I think as long as BRT routes and stations are as well built and laid out as a LR, people will like it just the same. Improving bus technologies are making them more green and versatile than LR.

    • It’s kind of weird you give Houston as an example of bad light rail, when, on a cost per rider basis, it does better than any other BRT or LRT project in the US.

      The BRT-first strategy is not going to end car-dependence. Even light rail is iffy, though Calgary has a really good experience with it. There’s a fair amount of rail bias in ridership, independently of all else – and all else is generally not equal, because cities that build cheap BRT will also be cheap about related things like signal priority.

      In a first-world city, there’s no excuse to build BRT in a Latin American fashion. Start by upgrading all bus service, which means at a minimum integrated fares, citywide off-board fare collection, signal preemption, and dedicated lanes on busier and more congested segments. Then the top bus corridors can be railstituted. Trying to do BRT corridor by corridor combines the worst attributes of buses (they’re buses) and trains (they’re inflexible).

      • Jeff Wegerson

        Ok that’s the answer I was looking for when I asked about evolutionary BRT. I’m not sure what you mean by “citywide off-board fare collection.” It seems that fare-collection could be done at the busiest stops as a run-up to full (or fuller) BRT. Is complete city wide implementation necessary for benefits to be derived? Or do you simply mean begin installing it even on routes not slated for fuller BRT treatment?

        Your point about creating the worst of both worlds doing corridor by corridor has never occurred to me. It makes sense.

        I really wish I understood signal preemption, the technical as well as political issues, better. I am not aware of having experienced it, so am left curious as to what it is like in real life situations.

        Now I will begin reading your blog.

      • Nathanael

        “In a first-world city, there’s no excuse to build BRT in a Latin American fashion. ”

        Except, you see, you’ve just hit on the key point. The US isn’t acting like a first-world country any more, it’s acting like a banana republic.

  • Alex Lennartz

    Great piece Yonah. A perfect example of a city suffering from self-inflicted wounds. Article attached dives deeper into the mess Detroit is in:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/30/us-detroit-church-idUSTRE7BT0FI20111230

  • thetransportpolitic.com-More people will be served by the bus lines than would have been affected by rail, but new plans are predicated on a regional accord on funding improved regional service.

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