I went this week to the Eastern Corridor Transit Study public input meeting on the Pitt campus.
I came in late, in time to hear a Gen-Y'er (or maybe Z; are we up to Z yet?) speaking in favor of light rail because it projects the right image to young people. A couple of speakers later, a member of the Sierra Club from Edgewood wanted to know why nobody was talking any more about converting the East Busway to light rail.
As I sat there, my thoughts went like this: when I moved to Pittsburgh, busways seemed like a clever idea because you can have the feeder routes go from neighborhoods to the busway to the downtown hub and then spread out again, thus giving people one ride to work (no transfers). (I suppose I'm still recovering from my 3 transfer ride (4 on rainy days) from my apartment in Arlington, MA to Logan airport. But that's another story.) Light rail is nice and makes me feel good and progressive in that old-timey back-to-the-past sort of way, but it seems that busways are cheaper, can be built faster, offer more flexibility, and might get people out of their cars sooner which is better for the environment than waiting around for light rail.
So I raised my hand and said all this (except for the part about Boston).
This set off quite a debate. Apparently I aligned myself with the bureaucrats at the Port Authority and with the realists against the environmentalists and the civic boosters.
So I decided I better read more about it.
See these thoughtful discussions here, here, and here. And here is a report from the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies on Bus Rapid Transit.
Turns out, Pittsburgh is either in the vanguard (trailing a bit behind Ottawa) or hopelessly stuck in the past or too cheap to do it right.
I'm still leaning toward BRT (now I'm learning the lingo). I understand the environmental concerns, but it seems hybrid technology is making buses cleaner and it's not as though the electricity to run light rail lines doesn't come from somewhere. I also understand the economic development issues that would seem to favor light rail over buses but as some of the comments in the discussions above point out (and as I pointed out at the meeting on Tuesday), you can have transit-oriented development around a busway station just as you can around a light rail (or heavy rail) station.
One other point of interest: I learn from the National Academies' report that BRT was touted in the transit plan prepared for the National Capital Planning Commission in the late 50s (1956-1959). I suppose I'll have to wait until I read Zach Schrag's The Great Society Subway to find out why this didn't happen in the DC area. I'm happy with the Metro--don't get me wrong! But imagine if the Capital Beltway had a dedicated busway alongside it. It would make all the planning for the proposed Purple Line moot. (I also take a personal interest since my father joined NCPC in 1959. Did Dad kill the Washington busway? Now that would be ironic. [And also impossible since he was the general counsel and not a transportation planner.])