One of those contentious issues among some transit advocates is the promotion of rail versus bus (and especially Quality Bus or Bus Rapid Transit) for public transportation. I’ve mostly been on the fence about this as an interested bystander who rides both bus and rail, though I probably lean more towards the “bus” argument since I swing conservative as a natural cheapskate.
I’ve seen some interesting discussion lately that just may swing me more towards the ‘rail’ side of things, though.
I’m going to simplify greatly, but the usual arguments in favor of buses revolve around much cheaper capital costs and route flexibility. You can get a bus service going just for the price of a few buses, a barn to house them in, and signs for the bus stops. Light rail projects requires years of planning and public input before you even put a shovel in the ground, on top of the millions of dollars per mile required to lay track and build stations. Even Bus Rapid Transit, which uses right of way reserved just for buses, is said to be much less expensive to build than fixed guideway (aka rail) systems.
Bus transit does have an image problem to overcome, but bus advocates say this is not a function of the transportation mode, but rather the investment a transit agency is willing to put into the bus system. Buses can be just as pleasant, quiet, clean, and fast to ride as any train. Many commuter express services that cater to higher paid office workers have amenities such as free WiFi and coach style seating.
Rail advocates point out that even bus infrastructure has capital costs in road building. Bus rapid transit ridership in the US have failed to meet expectations, while ridership on new light rail lines consistently exceed projections. Rail advocates say building rail is important to build support for transit among the American middle class, who won’t ride the bus (that image problem again) but do ride commuter and light rail systems. William Lind of the Heritage Foundation notes that most rail commuters in the Chicago region, for example, are from the politically conservative suburbs and are vocal supporters of public transportation.
Light rail operating costs can be less than that for buses. One of those extra-long articulated buses can carry fewer than 100 people (uncomfortably), while a typical VTA 2-car light rail train can carry 200. Caltrain has a capacity of about a thousand people per 5-car train. BART can carry up to 200 passengers in each car, and they string them out ten cars long with a single operator.
So there are arguments for both bus and rail, and bus advocates created Bus Rapid Transit as a way to overcome many of the rail arguments.
Cap’n Transit posted what I think is an interesting and important argument in favor of rail, though — the specter of Peak Oil and declining government revenues.
Consider this: Rail vehicles last much longer than buses, and railroads last much longer than asphalt roads. As local governments fail to keep up on local road maintenance, the roads become more potholed, while railroads continue to remain usable for less money. Trains are also cheaper to operate not only in terms of personnel but in energy cost as well.
Cap’n Transit writes:
Those who argue that we should be spending less on capital owe us an explanation for why we should do this while the government is not spending less on car infrastructure. After all, it’s the relative value of transit that will ultimately drive the mode shifts necessary to accomplish most of our goals, and if we stop investing in transit while others continue to invest in roads, the relative value of transit will decline.
The most defensible argument is that we should be investing in transit expansion, but it should be “BRT” (something better than a regular mixed-traffic local bus, to be eternally negotiated downward) and not rail. These arguments clearly ignore the long-term cost of maintenance and operations.
And then we run out of oil, and only the rich can drive. People are left using the transit system that’s built. Which would you rather have: the rail one that will last for years, or the roads that will get more and more potholed as the years go on?
It seems to be a fairly compelling argument for me.
In the SF Bay Area, we have a couple of BRT projects in the works. AC Transit breaks ground on their BRT system through Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro next year.
VTA plans to implement BRT from Eastridge Mall / Alum Rock, through downtown San Jose along the HP Pavilion and by Diridon Station and continuing down El Camino Real to Palo Alto Transit Center, with about a third of this distance built as a median busway, and the rest as “mixed flow BRT” (in other words, they’re stuck in ECR traffic just like any other bus, though there are enhancements like bus priority lanes at intersections. The Alum Rock segment is planned to be operational by late 2013, with El Camino operational by mid 2015.
VTA also plans BRT for San Carlos / Stevens Creek from downtown San Jose, past Valley Fair, Santana Row and the Apple campus to De Anza College in Cupertino. 3 miles of this proposed 8.6 mile corridor will be a median busway, with the remainder mixed flow. This is along the existing VTA 23 line. VTA 23 currently takes nearly an hour to travel those 8 miles during morning and evening commute times; VTA hopes to shave this to 40 minutes with BRT.
Cupertino has some of the most desirable family housing in the South Bay. Since the state and county are already spending about a bajillion dollars on the Stevens Creek / I-280 / I-880 project next to Valley Fair, it seems this would have been a good opportunity to invest in light rail down this corridor instead.
Your thoughts? For a given highly traveled corridor, would you be in favor of something like BRT or light rail?