» 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.