Categories
Bus Light Rail Nashville

Nashville plans for a big boost in local transit, and is hoping its voters will step on board

» The city’s mayor has announced a multi-billion-dollar plan that would bring new light rail and bus rapid transit routes to the city’s core, but critics are suggesting it won’t work. It depends on the design.

Nashville is booming. The region that encompasses it is growing by an average of 100 people a day, and the rhythm has held up for several years now. The combined city-county Nashville-Davidson has added more than 60,000 residents since 2010 alone.

Developers are catching up, constructing thousands of new residential units, office buildings, and other projects; much of the development is happening downtown.

Yet the city’s transportation system isn’t made for the growth. The highway system is bottleneck-after-bottleneck, and the transit system is underfunded and underused.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s hope is to offer an alternative through a massive new transit program that she announced in October. It would rely on voter-supported tax increases.

But the proposal could face the same problems previous Nashville transit efforts have—namely inadequate public support and vocal opposition. These opponents, as I describe below, are relying on inadequate and deceptive claims to critique investment in transit, but they’re right that the system won’t automatically be effective in attracting riders. Nashville needs better transit, but it’s got to design its system appropriately if it’s going to work.

Fixed-guideway transit for Nashville

Mayor Barry’s plan is to have the city’s voters approve a significant increase in four local taxes in a May 1 referendum. The proposal would increase the sales tax incrementally and add surcharges on existing hotel, rental car, and business taxes. Funds would raise enough to fund $5.4 billion in capital investments, plus a billion more in operations costs over the next 14 years, when construction will be completed. That’s not as large as Los Angeles’ or Seattle’s 2016 referenda, but it’s a big investment in a much smaller metropolitan area.

Indeed, Nashville’s plan would be enough to provide the city’s almost 700,000 inhabitants a large new transit network, encompassing 26 miles of light rail, 25 miles of bus rapid transit (BRT), and significant improvements to the existing bus service and Music City Star commuter rail line.

Lines would largely extend out from downtown, where a $936-million, 1.8-mile transit tunnel would separate trains and BRT services from street traffic. It would make Nashville the fifth U.S. city to invest in a modern light-rail downtown tunnel, after Buffalo, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Dallas* (like Seattle, it will include both trains and buses).

As the map below indicates, light rail lines would extend northeast along Gallatin Pike, west along Charlotte Avenue, northwest along a former rail line, and southeast along Murfreesboro and Nolensville Pikes, all major arterial routes. Four BRT corridors would fill in the gaps. The result would be an urban core generally well served by fixed-guideway transit services.

As currently described, the network would feature relatively high-performance light rail corridors, “traveling in their own lanes,” with transit signal priority and frequent weekday service. The trains would begin running 2026, with full completion by 2032.

The rapid bus corridors, which would be implemented more rapidly, would be electric, have limited stops, also feature transit signal priority, and, “where feasible and supported by the community,” include dedicated lanes and off-board payment.

In sum, the network is projected to attract significantly more riders than the existing regional network, which carries about 33,000 daily bus riders and 1,200 commuter rail users. The city estimates that the rapid bus corridors would see between 9,600 and 11,600 boardings a day and the rail corridors between 61,100 and 71,400. If these projections are realized, the city’s system will carry more riders per mile than those in Charlotte, Dallas, and Denver, and it would more than double existing use of the system.

Over the 2018 to 2032 construction period, about $900 million, or about 10 percent of the total, would go to operations and maintenance costs, with the rest paying for the massive expenditures related to the new rail and bus lines.

That’s a very capital-heavy allocation of resources, and it has its limitations. Light rail service on weekends, for example, would only be scheduled for every 30 minutes. And some local buses would continue to provide service only every 30 minutes, at best. But a new Frequent Transit Network would offer service every 15 minutes or faster on the 10 busiest bus routes, which would have significantly longer hours and an expanded fleet.

The opposition

Assuming these outcomes play out as planned, should the voters endorse Nashville’s proposal? Would the city be getting its money’s worth?

For critics of the project, massive investment in transit simply doesn’t make much sense. Vanderbilt University Associate Professor of Economic Malcolm Getz epitomizes the opposition, and he has produced a lengthy critique that’s been used by local media as evidence for the proposal’s failings. A few years ago, Getz was a key opponent of Nashville’s proposed Amp BRT line, which ultimately failed in the face of state legislative and local business opposition.

Getz’s arguments are similar to those used by most opponents of transit investment in cities across the U.S.: For one, he argues, transit does not reduce congestion and in fact may make matters worse if trains or buses take space away from cars on the street. Two, transit is slow because it requires transfers and thus will not increase ridership. Three, the benefits would go to just few people (since most people don’t use transit), and transit would accelerate gentrification. And four, the availability of new types of car services, combined with tolled express lanes, actually would be more beneficial.

These claims—like many of the popular criticisms of transit—mislead, simplify, and contradict.

It is true, as Getz notes, that the fundamental law of road congestion means roads will fill up to their capacity, so more transit is unlikely to reduce congestion in itself. But evidence does, in fact, show that transit plays an important role in reducing overall automobile traffic, even in places like Nashville where it accounts for a small share of commuters. As such, improving transit service can be an essential mechanism to move more people around a city without having to build more highways.

Getz suggests that eliminating automobile lanes for dedicated lanes for transit will exacerbate congestion by forcing the same number of drivers into fewer lanes. But such reductions in vehicle traffic have been shown either to have minimal impact on roadway capacity or actually reduce the number of people driving. Just as importantly, transit can carry a lot more people in a lot less space than automobiles on roadways.

Of course, transit can only be effective if it’s carrying people, and that’s a shortcoming that Getz relies upon throughout his criticism. He suggests, to summarize, that there’s virtually nothing that can be done to attract people onto the region’s trains and buses because they are slow and require transfers, and thus that those vehicles will be empty no matter what.

But there are ways to make transit effective—it’s just that Getz isn’t much interested in them. As noted above, he’s opposed to dedicated lanes, but those are essential for speeding up transit and actually making them competitive with cars. Nashville’s transit system is quite low-ridership today, but one reason for that is that the service it provides is slow and infrequent, exactly the deficiencies this transit plan is designed to address.

Getz’s claim that Nashville’s transit system simply won’t be well used, and thus does not deserve significant investment, is simply a reflection of existing conditions and an unwillingness to believe that cities have the capacity to change.

Moreover, he is willing to use an argument that contradicts his other claims—that transit will induce gentrification by increasing property values near transit stations. Why, though, would transit improvements increase values if no one is using the system? There is significant evidence that transit investments increase surrounding property values, and the reason for that is that transit improves accessibility. In other words, you can’t both argue that transit won’t be used and that it will increase gentrification.

Getz’s proposed solutions include increasingly relying on ride-hailing services and putting buses in tolled express lanes on Nashville’s highways. Yet encouraging people to take Uber or Lyft into downtown wouldn’t do much at all to solve congestion—in fact, it might make it worse if people are subsidized to take those vehicles instead of the bus. Moreover, given that such services are hardly self-supporting today, and far from inexpensive, it’s hard to see this approach as effective in the long term.

While tolling expressways might be effective in cutting down on traffic, putting the buses there instead of on arterial surface streets would essentially remove transit from the places where it can actually thrive: In walkable, relatively dense neighborhoods, and relegate it to an automobile-dominated corridor.

Plus, Nashville’s massive growth requires new transportation capacity. Simply tolling some highway lanes won’t actually increase the ability of the region to handle more people. That’s why it’s so important that transit investments be offered as an alternative.

What future for the city?

Despite the limitations of Getz’s arguments, they are getting play in the local press. One reason for that is that there are reasons to be skeptical of the potential for Nashville transit improvements.

The city is incredibly sprawling, with a population density of just about 1,300 people per square mile—far less than what is typically needed to make fixed-guideway transit effective, which is something in the range of 10,000 people per square mile. I’ve written critically of the previous transit proposals in Nashville precisely for this reason. Along the proposed lines, densities are higher—3,000 to 4,000 people per square mile, but still pretty low.

As such the city should be focusing intensely to construct larger projects along the routes and downtown to ensure that the transit investment is worth it. The existing land use code also has high parking requirements—at least one space per unit for residential uses, and one space per every 200 to 300 square feet for office uses—that should be eliminated to support a transit-focused city.

This plan is better than the previous one, focusing more on improving transit in the center, where it is likely to work best. Whereas the previous proposal would have extended light rail 30 miles from downtown, this one goes, at most, about seven miles from there. While the city extends roughly 15 miles from downtown, the underdeveloped, exurban parts are not to be served by this plan. That means that it’s designed to encourage development in the core by capitalizing redevelopment of existing built-up areas. That’s the right approach.

The inclusion of a transit tunnel downtown is a radical, expensive approach, but it’s ultimately a good idea from the perspective of making the system as effective as possible. By separating trains and BRT services from traffic, the system will avoid the pitfalls of places like Portland, where light rail vehicles crawl through downtown, and make it far more feasible for people to travel from one side of the city to another.

Moreover, the plan’s opponents are missing the larger issue: This transit plan isn’t really about responding to Nashville’s current travel patterns, for better or worse. It’s about creating a framework for the future development of the city around a reliable transit system.

If the proposal is successfully implemented, it will make it possible to have a transit-oriented life in a city where living without a car is now virtually impossible. It will create the groundwork for an alternative mode of development than the parking-heavy construction that currently dominates.

Despite the vocal opposition, Nashville’s citizenry may, in fact, be willing to go along with Mayor Barry’s transit proposal. It’s a big ask, and it will hit people in their pocketbooks, but the city’s residents are hardly arch-conservative; they voted 60 percent for Hillary Clinton in 2016 despite her winning only 35 percent of the statewide vote.

Even if they vote for the referendum, though, the way the transit projects that are funded by it are ultimately designed will play an essential role in determining their effectiveness. The fact that the city is proposing to include dedicated lanes only where “supported by the community” suggests that the city’s leaders are already anticipating opposition from neighbors in places such as along the West End corridor, which connects downtown to Vanderbilt University, and where the Amp project met its demise a few years back. But the transit services will only be useful for people in the city if they’re designed to be as rapid as possible.

Better transit for Nashville, then, means more than just passing new funding for the city’s system. It means making sure that the projects built are designed to work and to actually attract riders. That’s the really difficult part.

* Several cities, including Boston, Cleveland, Newark, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, built light rail tunnels many decades ago and have kept them operating. Tunnels in Dallas and Los Angeles are planned or now under construction.

Image at top: Downtown Nashville, from Flickr user Jason Mrachina (cc). Map of proposed Nashville fixed-guideway transit routes, from City of Nashville. Updated Jan. 31, 2018 to clarify changes to local bus service.

Categories
Bus Finance New Orleans Streetcar

When transit service is substandard, can we plan for capital expansion?

» New Orleans fantasizes about new streetcar routes as its buses barely make the grade.

Public transportation expenditures are typically divided into two buckets: One for operations expenditures — the money that goes primarily to pay the costs of gas, electricity, and driver labor — and the other for capital investments, which sometimes means maintenance but often means new vehicles and system expansions. Because of the way in which these two buckets are funded, a transit agency that may be in dire straights in terms of paying for system expansions may be providing excellent, well-funded daily services. Or the opposite could be true. This is a consequence of the fact that federal transportation grant support, and also often local system revenues, are required to be spent in one of the two areas, with little ability to transfer funds between them. The division between capital and operations funding produces some strange dynamics and perverse incentives for transit agencies, and the results are not always ideal for the typical rider.

Take the example of New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was one of the most transit-reliant cities in the country, with more daily rides per capita on its transit system than Philadelphia, Seattle, Baltimore, or Portland. Of commuters, 14% took transit to work on an average weekday in 2000. By 2010, the figures had been slashed; just 7.5% of commuters took transit to work, according to the Census. The following map shows that this change occurred across the city.

Drag vertical line from left to right to see before and after (if this does not work for you, view the article in a web browser). “Before” image is from 2000, “after” from 2010. Images from Social Explorer.

The change in transit use has a lot to do with the changes in the city’s demographics before and after the storm; it has become slightly whiter and wealthier. But it also has a lot to do with the terrible transit service that the city has provided. A recent report from local transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans notes that only 36% of the transit trips offered in 2005 were available in 2012, despite a population that was 86% as large as it was in 2005. While in 2005, 80% of routes had scheduled headways of 30 minutes or less during peak hours (and 28% had peak headways of 15 minutes or less), in 2012, only 24% of routes were offered every at least 30 minutes and just 9 percent at least every fifteen minutes.

The result is the following map of service levels, from Ride New Orleans, which demonstrates clearly that service is simply unacceptable. The red routes in the map illustrate routes that serve customers with headways of more than 30 minutes. Only the green routes — which are the Canal-Cemetery and St. Charles Streetcar routes — come at least every fifteen minutes. Most of the city has truly insufficient transit options. Non-white neighborhoods have been particularly hard hit.

But people are streaming back into the buses and streetcars nonetheless. Trips per revenue hour, which measures service efficiency, are now almost as high as they were in the early 2000s and continue to rise. In fact, the New Orleans system now beats out what are considered respectable transit agencies in Miami, Minneapolis, and St. Louis on that count. And ridership continues to grow. Fortunately, Veolia — a private-sector* transport provider that runs New Orleans’ transit system under contract — has been expanding service to meet demand. In January, it added some new routes; in September, it is restoring service to an additional 13 routes. Things are looking up on the operational front, but the system will still be far less effective than it was before Katrina. Yet the city’s transport planners are also laying out plans for a different type of improvement: Many more streetcar lines running throughout the city, as illustrated in the map at the top of this article.

Last month, local planners revealed a $3.5 billion expansion plan that is contingent on securing funding from a number of sources. The proposal suggests 34 track-miles of new streetcar service by 2030, going far beyond the “Desire” streetcar that is currently partially under development along Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. A new line would extend north to the University of New Orleans; another east through the Lower Ninth Ward; a couple would flow through the central business district; and a connection would be made between the Canal and St. Charles Streetcars. It’s an appealing vision, particularly when combined with three new bus rapid transit and two light rail lines planners have also envisioned. And, like most U.S. regions, New Orleans’ transit investments so far have been substandard, so planning for the future is reasonable.

But it’s also a plan that comes across as incongruous with the rather disappointing state of the day-to-day bus services that most people rely upon. New Orleans’ plans for new transit expansions are in many ways the consequence of federal guidelines that guarantee that capital expansions will be pushed through whatever the state of regular operations. Because transit support from Washington, D.C. explicitly prevents spending on operations for most cities, it would be a mistake for New Orleans to pass up on the funds available for new construction.

Indeed, from a budgetary perspective, there is nothing about plans for new transit expansions that either prevent better operations or encourage it; operations and capital budgets might as well be coming from different agencies altogether. The Canal Street Streetcar is only ten years old, but its City Park/Museum branch only has trains operating every half hour, even at peak. The Loyola-UPT Streetcar, which opened last year, only provides service every 20 minutes, including at peak, not enough to allow people to rely on transit without having to consult a schedule, which should be a goal of transit operations planning.

What is the point of making the substantial investments in these capital projects if the city cannot guarantee that service on those lines will be offered acceptably? How can we be sure that all these new lines being proposed won’t receive similar mistreatment for the day-to-day user? New Orleans’ situation is not unique. Because local and state governments are expected to fund transit operations, the provision of service throughout the U.S. is highly inequitable; indeed, evidence suggests that poorer regions like New Orleans are simply unable to pay for the kinds of excellent day-to-day transit services that wealthier regions can. But both rich and poor regions are able to invest new lines, because the federal government commits to those projects. Whether these lines are funded to actually serve the people nearby, though, is another question.

One appropriate federal policy response might be to require that transit agencies receiving funds for major capital expansions guarantee that service on those new lines meets some minimum, such as headways of ten minutes or less during peak hours and fifteen minutes or less off-peak, as long as other system operations are not negatively affected. If transit agencies respond by suggesting that projected ridership doesn’t justify such service levels, perhaps such lines shouldn’t be funded at all.

* Confusingly, Veolia is a subsidiary of the French company Transdev, which is 50% owned by the French Caisse des Dépôts and 50% owned by Veolia Environnement. The Caisse is effectively a public bank controlled by the French government, and Veolia Environnement, which has some private investors, is also owned in part by the French state and in part by… the Caisse (9.3%). Which means that New Orleans’ public transit, oddly enough, is operated by a company whose primary owner is the French state. Globalization is confusing.

Categories
Bus Nashville

Is Effective Transit Possible in a Transit-Hostile City?

» Despite the sound intentions from the mayor, opposition may kill Nashville’s BRT project.

One of the primary arguments made for investing in bus rapid transit (BRT) is that such systems can be implemented not only more cheaply, but also with more ease, than rail lines.

A look at the situation in Nashville suggests that there are limitations to that “ease.”

Much like in cities across the country, residents of Nashville have strenuously debated the merits of investing in a 7.1-mile, $174 million BRT line called the Amp. The project would link the city’s east and west sides, running from the Five Points in East Nashville through downtown to St. Thomas Hospital, past the city’s West End. With dedicated lanes along 80% of its route, frequent service, pre-paid boarding, level platforms, transit signal priority, and an improved streetscape to boot, the line could potentially serve about 5,000 rides a day, double the existing demand. In this year’s federal budget, the Department of Transportation recommended allocating it $75 million over the next few years.

From a pure public transportation perspective, the line makes perfect sense: It serves the city’s central east-west spine. Within a half-mile of its stations are 33% of the county’s jobs (132,000 of about 400,000) and 5% of its population (32,000 people), and it is currently undergoing something of a building boom. It would link several hospitals, Vanderbilt University, the downtown core, the transit center, and several tourist attractions. And it would offer transit service speeds similar to those available for private automobiles today.

Yet this week, Mayor Karl Dean — who has been the project’s primary proponent since 2008 — pulled back, reacting to vocal opponents and a state legislature that threatened to block the line entirely. He agreed to eliminate dedicated lanes for buses along about half of the project’s route.

What gives?

For years, opponents have been mounting a campaign against the Amp, arguing that the project would massively increase congestion by taking away lanes of traffic, require wasteful government spending, and destroy retail and restaurants — thereby reducing sales tax revenue. The Stop Amp coalition, it seems, is funded by a local auto dealer, Lee Beaman. Lawn signs have sprouted everywhere.

You might think the project was recommending turning streets into a bus-only zone, depriving motorists of the freedom to use this all-important corridor. But the investment in the new BRT line will actually guarantee the same number of through lanes on 60% of the corridor, and the route will have two lanes of automobile traffic in both directions throughout. These are not skinny streets; they already have at least five lanes of traffic running on them. But the BRT would require taking space from cars. There would be some negative consequences for those who currently drive.

Moreover, the opponents note, there is “already bus service along the proposed Amp route… and the buses are not running at capacity!

Indeed, it is undoubtedly true that Nashville’s recent experience with transit has been far from inspiring. In Davidson County (whose government is shared with the city), 13.3% of families live below the poverty line and 7.6% of households have no vehicle available at all; another 40.3% have just one vehicle available. Yet just 2.1% of the city’s residents take transit to work, representing about 34,000 daily riders. The city’s commuter rail system, the Music City Star, carries just about 900 people per day on average.

But opponents have failed to note the connection between the city’s poor transit service and the demand that would undoubtedly result were better bus services made available. The bus that current serves the city’s West End is scheduled to make the 5 mile trip from downtown to the St. Thomas Hospital in 27 minutes at rush hour — about 10 miles per hour. No wonder few people ride it.

Nonetheless, partially thanks to the support of the Koch Brothers, the state legislature, including both Republican and Democratic members, decided over the past few weeks to make its voice known through legislation. The State Senate passed a bill 27 to 4 that would prohibit center-running transit altogether (most of the Amp would run in the center of the street) and require approval from the State Department of Transportation for dedicated bus lanes. The State House’s equivalent bill would apparently allow for center-running transit, but still require state approval for what is, in the end, a local matter.

Local support for the project, including from the chamber of commerce, has been significant, but not strong enough to push back a hostile state legislature or the local motorists. Thus the rationale behind the mayor’s decision to rid the line of its dedicated lanes in the most controversial areas of the line, in the wealthier West End segment and in front of Mr. Beaman’s car dealership.

One wonders how long the plans for the other dedicated lanes along the corridor will last. Without the dedicated lanes, most of the BRT’s travel time savings, the feature that will make the buses actually attractive to riders, will be lost.

As Daniel Kay Hertz has noted, the popular conversation about appropriate transit investments, in Nashville as much as anywhere, is typically moderated by people who rarely if ever rely on transit. Of course there is opposition to reducing lanes for motorists when virtually everyone who owns a business or runs for office relies entirely on their personal vehicles to get around. How in the world can they be convinced to believe that a BRT project has value?

This phenomenon, which is more than anything else a structural adherence to a pro-automobile transportation policy*, is certainly even more true in a place like Nashville — where decades of sprawl and auto-dependence have wiped out the city’s transit system** — than it is in a major transit market like New York or San Francisco, where similar opposition still pops up all too frequently.

Yet there remains a large, and often potentially underrepresented, share of the population — the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the young, the people who simply don’t want to drive — who would benefit from improved transit, even in a transit-hostile place like Nashville. Who represents their interests?

* One might also refer to it as a structural adherence to the needs and preferences of the wealthy.

** As recently as 1970, 7.3% of Davidson County’s workers used transit to commute.

Categories
Bus Light Rail Metro Rail

Recent Trends in Bus and Rail Ridership

» Evidence suggests expanded rail operations produce higher ridership gains than more bus service.

In researching the article I wrote last week for the Atlantic Cities on bus rapid transit (BRT), I wanted to provide a basic piece of evidence that offered support for the idea that typical bus operations were not offering the sort of service that attracted riders effectively. My sense (hardly a unique perspective, of course) was that bus services in cities around the country are often simply too slow and too unreliable for many people to choose them over automobile alternatives. Rail, particularly in the form of frequent and relatively fast light and heavy rail, may be more effective in attracting riders, but so might, the article hypothesizes, BRT services, which provide many of the service improvements offered by rail.

To provide such evidence, I compared ridership growth between 2001 and 2012 on urban bus and rail services on the ten U.S. transit networks that had rail routes in 2001 and did not expand them significantly during that period, as shown in the following chart. I excluded cities with rapidly growing rail networks, such as Los Angeles or Portland, under the presumption that the installation of a new rail line may result in a considerable shift from bus to rail simply because of changes in service patterns resulting from the opening of that line (e.g., riders may be encouraged to take rail rather than bus because certain bus routes are eliminated or re-routed with the opening).

Ridership change, bus versus rail, 2001 to 2012

The chart’s data — based on a limited sample of information — show that nine of ten urban rail and bus systems saw higher ridership gains along their rail routes than their bus routes (or less loss). The only exception noted here is Buffalo, whose bus routes saw a higher jump than the city’s light rail line. The conclusion we can take from this compelling, if limited, data point is that rail services do seem to be providing a greater benefit to passengers than buses do.*

Similarly, as the following chart demonstrates, when evaluating growth of ridership by mode as a share of overall system growth, the evidence suggests that rail lines, new or not, are more effective in contributing to building overall transit ridership than bus services (a slightly different metric than the above chart, which simply compares ridership by mode in 2001 with same-mode ridership in 2012). Of the 27 systems shown here, the rail lines of 22 of them contributed a higher proportion of ridership growth than the bus lines.

Ridership change as a percentage of overall change, bus versus rail, 2001 to 2012

(To explain this graph, imagine a hypothetical transit system with 100 million riders in 2001 and 120 million in 2012. Of that 20% growth, 15 million additional riders can be attributed to rail and 5 million to buses; this would produce a 15% “contribution” from rail and 5% contribution from buses, which would be graphed here. In a real-world example, Boston’s MBTA increased its urban ridership from 314 million in 2001 to 360 million in 2012; of that growth, 41.4 million riders were added to rail and 3.7 million were added to bus lines. Therefore rail produced a 13% “contribution” (i.e., 41.4/314) and bus a 1% contribution.)

There is no question that this conclusion about the relative merits of rail in inducing ridership increase is a frequently promoted idea among advocates for rail expansion. A quick review of ridership changes in many major cities is enough to articulate this point. For example, as the following chart shows, in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, the rate of ridership increase on rail services (not including commuter rail) has been far higher than on bus services over the past decade.

Ridership change in three cities, 2001 to 2012

This comparison, however, is not adequately to say definitively (if a blog can ever do so) that rail produces more effective ridership growth than bus services. It doesn’t take much investigation to find that between 2001 and 2012, Los Angeles dramatically expanded its rail network, adding two new light rail lines. Meanwhile, though Chicago’s ‘L’ rail network saw no extensions, bus services were curtailed dramatically thanks to a difficult funding environment resulting from the recession.

What, then, is the interplay between a city’s investment in added transit services by bus or rail and the resulting ridership changes by mode?

To begin to evaluate this question, I compared the ridership data presented above (from the American Public Transportation Association) with vehicle revenue hour data (from the National Transit Database). Vehicle revenue hours can be used as a proxy for service provided.** In theory, if no other variables change, an increase in revenue hours should result in increasing ridership, simply because people are more likely to ride if frequencies are higher. Response to increased service, though, may vary depending on whether bus or rail services are being altered.

The following chart shines some light onto this question by considering the 27 transit systems mentioned above. The x axis indicates the change in bus or rail revenue hours as a share of total change between 2001 and 2012; the y axis indicates the change in bus or rail ridership as a share of total change.

The linear correlation between service increases (or declines) and ridership change is stronger for rail services (r-squared of 0.51) than buses (0.40) for this admittedly limited sample. But the overall conclusion, illustrated by the trendlines, seems to show that increasing revenue hours on rail produces higher ridership gains than on buses. The trendlines indicate that, on average, a 20% increase in revenue hours would produce a 10% increase in bus ridership and a 27% increase in rail ridership. In other words, rail appears to be more than twice as effective in generating ridership growth than traditional bus service.

Service change versus ridership change, bus and rail, 2001 to 2012

I reexamined these results with a different time period, from 1996 to 2007, comparing changes in bus and rail service hours with ridership. These comparisons (among a smaller sample of 22 systems, most of them the same) provided a similar result, though with stronger correlations and even stronger evidence of ridership response to rail service growth versus bus service growth. In both cases, rail service improvements produce higher-than-proportional increases in ridership on average whereas bus improvements produce lower-than-proportional increases in ridership.

Service change versus ridership change, bus and rail, 1996 to 2007

This review provides a preliminary and small-sample look at the relative attractiveness of bus and rail services. Clearly these data cannot be extrapolated to assert a “guarantee” that rail service improvements are more effective in generating ridership than bus service improvements. Moreover, other factors, such as changes in bus routes in response to rail openings or other changes, must be considered but are not here.

But these data do at least imply that there is a strong preference for rail services over bus, and that from a policy standpoint, ridership is more likely to grow with increases in rail service. Riders respond when they’re offered better service!

————

* I do not consider the impact of BRT lines in this analysis (which, you might note, should put at least an asterisk on the hypothesis I articulate in the Atlantic Cities piece) because of the limited BRT implementation thus far and the fact that most current “BRT” provides mediocre service improvements that do not parallel the advantages of rail.

** There are other metrics that can also be used to measure service provided, such as vehicle revenue miles or vehicles in service. In all cases, a “vehicle” is either a bus or a rail car. A train is made up of multiple vehicles.

Categories
Bus Infrastructure New York

Combining Local and Express Bus Services in One Lane

» New York and Chicago debate putting BRT lines in street medians.

Last week, the New York City Department of Transportation announced that in the Bronx’s planned Webster Avenue bus rapid transit corridor, buses will run in lanes along the side of the street — not in the median lanes previously being evaluated. For this 5.3-mile route through the center of the borough, the decision will reduce bus travel speeds, increasing rider commute times and ultimately limiting the benefit of the BRT investment. The move evoked concern that the city was settling for less-than-best when it comes to bus transport in New York.

Yet the issue is more complicated than that, since many BRT lines share their routes with local buses.  This has implications for cities across the country that are investing in BRT.

Here’s the problem: In addition to BRT along Webster Avenue, New York plans to continue offering local bus service that would hail at all the existing, very frequent stops (whereas BRT would only stop every half-mile or so). If bus lanes were placed in the middle of the street, local buses would either be stuck in regular traffic lanes or have to weave in and out of the middle lanes to get to and from local stations. Or the city would have to put up the funds for local stops every block along the median bus corridor, which would be financially — and probably physically — prohibitive, in addition to likely holding up express buses while local buses are stopped.

Moreover, median lanes would quite inconveniently require automobile drivers to either enter the bus lane to turn left, or go around the block to make a turn.

So the city has settled for lanes along the side of the street that can be used both by BRT and local services. In this design, Webster Avenue joins the other BRT corridors already up and running in New York and almost every other city in the country that’s building BRT. Those side lanes will almost definitely get obstructed by car traffic, which will have to move through the lanes to make right-hand turns. In addition, the insistence of community groups and local businesses that parking be preserved along the sidewalk means that parallel parking, positioned to the right of the bus lane, will be a constant source of interference into the BRT traffic.

The Webster Avenue corridor, currently served by the Bx41 from Gun Hill to the Hub, is more than just a local route; it is currently being considered for express service to and from La Guardia Airport, providing the Bronx its first (potentially) quick, direct connection to a major jobs center.

Chicago, which has its own major BRT plans in development, is currently studying whether to place its BRT routes for its Western and Ashland Corridors in the median or along the side of the street. Four alternatives are up for consideration, two of which would include a median routing (and buses with left-side doors), and the other two which would run on the side of the street, sharing the lane with local bus services.

That city’s initial analysis demonstrates the advantages of the median alignment: Faster service for customers (up to 80% quicker than current operations), and a resulting larger increase in ridership. A comparison of options by Grid Chicago provides an overview of those benefits, in the context of their relatively higher cost. If the goal of the transit system were to simply to increase the ridership of the express transit services — ignoring all other issues — the median would appear to be the right place to go.

But it does seem rather incongruous to promote a median-running BRT lane when local services remain relegated to the side of the street, especially when some passengers are likely to choose on the spot between the two options when taking their trips. Does it really make sense to use the bus-only lane half as much as there are buses available to fill it? Shouldn’t dedicated bus lanes be shared by both local and express buses, with the only difference in service being the number of stops at which each calls?

Moreover, the side lanes BRT alternatives being proposed in both New York and Chicago will have considerable advantages for customers, as shown in the rendering below. On Webster Avenue, bus-only lanes will run along 4 miles of the route, and car travel lanes are expected to be eliminated, reducing automobile traffic to one lane per direction. Pedestrian crossings and walking areas are expected to be significantly upgraded. Transit vehicles will be provided signal priority at intersections. Bus stations will be positioned adjacent to sidewalk extensions, making it unnecessary for buses to turn when making a stop.

The New York design does suffer several failings, however, that could be relatively easily resolved. As shown in the plan at the top of this article, the current proposal for Webster Avenue is to stop local buses as is currently done, along the sidewalk, replacing current parking. This makes sense for local-only stops, since a local bus pulled up to the sidewalk would allow an express bus to pass it without moving out of the bus-only lane.

But for stations shared between BRT and local buses, having two separate stops — one along the sidewalk (for the local) and the other next to a bulb-out (for the BRT) — makes little sense. In off-peak periods, when bus headways are 10 minutes or more, smart customers may simply want to take the first bus that shows up, express or local. They shouldn’t have to move to a different place on the sidewalk beforehand, so at shared stops, BRT and local vehicles (neither of which is supposed to be passing the other there) should both open their doors at the sidewalk bulb-out.

Of course, it bears repeating that as the Chicago study demonstrates, placing buses along the edge of the roadway significantly increases travel times compared to median-running buses. Even if buses in the side lanes make the most sense overall, they pose a challenge to actually speeding up riders, which is what BRT is supposed to do.

The advantages of running buses along the outside lanes of the roadway address the problems of places where there are both BRT and local services offered. But along certain routes, one might argue that differentiating express and local services is inappropriate and that the most important goal is to provide the highest quality operations on all routes, not just those designated “BRT.” In Paris, many of the Mobilien “BRT” corridors have relatively frequent stations, but buses are often placed in the median lanes, with stations in the center of the roadway. There are no local or express services, just good-quality buses that hail at many stops but at least don’t get caught up by traffic in between them.

Footnote: My thoughts go out to the people of New York City, who are surely more interested in recovering from the storm than debating how to build BRT. But perhaps this will be a welcome distraction. Apologies for the extended period away from new writing at The Transport Politic.

Images above: At top, corridor plans for Webster Avenue, from New York City DOT; at bottom, a rendering of the corridor, from NYC DOT.