Thursday, May 25, 2006

My way or the busway?

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.])


Anonymous said...

Adam, I would advise that you be very wary about Rapid Bus Technologies. If done right, the lines will cost just as much as LRT. Also, TCRP report 90 that you are discussing along with the GAO report on BRT were pushed heavily by Tom Delay and his transit hating ilk. The thing about BRT is that it doesn't fool anyone. It is still a bus and people can see that. Light Rail in Dallas has caused 3 billion in development. Streetcar in Portland has spurred 2.3 billion and Buses with their own lanes in Houston have not spurred a single development. In fact, the 5 Lines in Houston that travel in Barrier separated HOV lanes get less riders than the Main street LRT at 37,000 a day. I urge you to check out the huge benefits of Light Rail can bring over Rapid Bus that is built to similar specifications.

Adam said...

Yikes. I have no wish to be associated with Tom Delay or with any "transit hating ilk." However, I think Anonymous is over-reacting to my post. I was not endorsing BRT over LRT or heavy rail in general, but was suggesting that I thought the busways in Pittsburgh could work pretty well and possibly better than Light rail in the same corridors.

Specifically: I was reacting to suggestions that the East Busway in Pittsburgh be converted to light rail. Perhaps it should have been light rail in the first place--at the same cost--but converting it now makes no sense. Better to spend the money on the transit-oriented development and on an extension to Monroeville.

The site is critical of the West Busway for low ridership figures and because it doesn't actually reach the airport. The latter is a justified criticism. The former is unjustified--of course, ridership has failed to reach projected figures. I would assume this is because the projections assumed some measure of growth (or at least population stability) in the West End of Pittsburgh and the western corridor suburbs. The Pittsburgh MSA was the only top 25 MSA/CMSA to lose population from 1990-2000 (that's metro area, not central city, folks), which means any ridership projections based on population growth should be junked.

Extend the busway to the airport and move it through some higher-growth areas in the Moon-Robinson area and let's see what happens.

Pittsburgh is not Houston, Dallas, or Portland so the comparisons are rather point-less. In any case, "Barrier separated HOV lanes" doesn't exactly sound like the kind of BRT we are talking about here: dedicated busways with the buses then fanning out into farther-out neighborhoods and suburbs. (The East busway does not follow a highway corridor.) Yes, I can see that having the bus move a little faster down a freeway than the cars would indeed not fool anyone into thinking that this is "rapid transit."

One thing I find interesting is that buses seem to have a stigma. Well, if the object is to get people out of cars and onto public transit, then I suppose one has to take stereotypes and irrational tastes or distastes into account. So if it turns out that so many people won't ride the bus that we reach the tipping point where installing a busway rather than a trolley line loses in the cost-benefit analysis, than by all means, chuck the BRT idea.

Jonathan Potts said...

There's a fairly big racial dimension to all this. Buses do indeed have a stigma and the bottom line is that many middle and upper-income whites won't ride them. So light rail, whatever its merits, is a way to lure affluent whites to use public transit.

In Pittsburgh, light rail exists only in the South Hills, going to Downtown, and while serving some middle and lower income communities, also benefits affluent communities like Mt. Lebanon. So the residents served by the East Busway, many of whom are black, are resentful--perhaps rightly so--of the T system.