Saturday, April 02, 2005

High-impact/low-cost Bus Rapid Transit and why Metro hates it

The New York Times has a good article on increasing bus speeds, which improves service and increases ridership at relatively low cost:

"In early May, a group of New York planners will visit Los Angeles to observe a program that has sped up buses there by 22 to 25 percent. The changes include designated bus lanes, straighter routes, easy-to-board low-floor buses, specially marked stations, far fewer stops, the elimination of schedules, and computerized signaling that gives buses priority at intersections. ...

Los Angeles, seen as an innovator in speedier bus transportation, began a bus rapid transit program in 2000 on two lines and 38 miles. By this June, with federal support, the city will have 28 such lines on 450 miles. The system costs $200,000 a mile, compared with $30 million to $50 million a mile to build light rail and $200 million to $300 million for a new subway, said Rex Gephart, the director of regional transit planning in Los Angeles."

If it's effective for LA, it should be great for Houston. I believe Metro is working on a few of these elements, but it would be nice to see them put more effort into these types of basic improvements rather than a narrow focus on the new light rail lines. Then maybe overall system ridership would actually increase from year to year rather than the steady decreases we've been seeing.

A great application of BRT would be special express buses (maybe in a distinct color) that run along the future rail routes with the same stops and frequency as the rail lines will have. This would build the ridership habit in those corridors and maybe even encourage some of the transit-oriented development to happen earlier. The cynical side of me says this will never happen though, because the next question out of peoples' mouths would be "if the BRT is working so well, then why are we spending $40m a mile to change it to light rail?" It's actually a pretty good question, and the answer is that high-end, high-density, mixed-use, transit-oriented developers won't commit or build based on a bus route. But Metro can never say that publicly, because their official mission is to move people cost effectively, not spur land development. It's what just about everybody that supports rail wants, but nobody can say, which certainly made for a bizarre "Metro Solutions" 2003 election campaign.

The sad fact is that Metro has a strong incentive to make bus-riding as absolutely miserable as possible to build political support for rail, which is an awfully unfortunate situation if you're poor and transit-dependent. If Metro doesn't watch out, they may end up with a bus riders union like LA (article). At the very least, it would be nice to see a high-profile "Bus Riders Advocate" appointed outside of the Metro bureaucracy that would hold them accountable for improvements to bus service. A more radical but potentially very interesting solution would be to essentially take bus service away from Metro and privatize it: Metro would offer a simple subsidy per passenger-mile, and private companies would set routes and schedules to compete for riders. It could be tricky to implement, but has the potential of radically improved service, performance, and system ridership - with the added bonus of leaving Metro with a clear, simple, unconflicted focus on rail.


At 9:45 PM, April 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are quite right that METRO should show a strong dual focus on both BRT and LRT. Phoenix is a good example of a city whose transit agency is doing just that. LA too, as you mentioned. While we do a solid job with high speed buses in our HOV lanes, we are way behind the curve in developing high speed BRT for our city streets. (Of course though we are leaders in HOV-variety BRT, we remain unimaginative with that at many levels. Sounds like a future topic...)

I don't think either the proposed north or southeast corridors lend themselves well to BRT. I do however think that a possible BRT corridor would be Long Point/Old Katy/Washington Avenue into downtown, and then out into the east end, possibly ending at Hobby. That would track the Harrisburg corridor as well as the future Washington Avenue corridor (and then some). Another possible winner would be Richmond Avenue (which parallels and hopefully replaces the Westpark corridor).

With regards to ridership, between 1994 and 2003 (the last year of data on the METRO web site), METRO transit ridership increased from about 84M boardings to about 94M boardings. There was a 3-year peak of 101M boardings for the years 1999, 2000, and 2001. The subsequent dip for 2002 and 2003 could be related to the economy. However, I believe you've mischaracterized METRO ridership by implying that they don't show increases from year to year, because they certainly have.

I don't agree that METRO has an incentive for its bus service to be as miserable as possible to build support for light rail. Bad publicity regarding a METRO bus route does not generate support for light rail. In fact, it could hurt support for light rail in that the public perception becomes that METRO is not capable and competent to do their jobs. Honestly, I think the latest rail referendum would have done a lot better if METRO had a better reputation, because time and again polls indicate a much broader level of support for light rail in Houston than what is reflected in vote tallies. That difference is partially explained in my opinion by peoples' negative feelings about METRO.

At 6:46 PM, April 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The main problem with BRT is labor cost, but it's not the only one. You might be able to squeeze 85 people into a three-axle bus, but you can pay one light rail operator to move up to 400 people at a time. Do the numbers. Houston METRO carries about 300,000 riders per weekday. The light rail line carries 32,500, almost 11% of the total. There's about 1,000 transit operators working at rush hour. Of that, about 14 of them are light rail operators. So, 1.4% of the operators carry almost 11% the total riders in Houston.

To carry that many riders by bus, and no Houston bus line comes even remotely close to light rail's impressive ridership total, you'd practically have to double the number of vehicles and drivers on that line.

And that's assuming that you could maintain the speed of light rail by substituting buses on a line that runs through some of the most congested traffic in town, the Medical Center. One of the obstacles is that, by definition, internal combustion buses accelerate more slowly than electric motors. To get the acceleration rate of light rail for a bus, you'd need to have a prohibitively large engine block. The second obstacle is coordinating buses with the traffic signal system. It is relatively easy for the current system to know exactly where all the light rail cars are on the line. It is an order of magnitude more difficult to do the same with buses. Synchronizing bus movements with traffic signals has been repeatedly tried, and has always ended up as a spectacular, expensive failure.

I've been riding Houston light rail most weekdays to work since last year at this time, and the number of times when I've experienced a late light rail car has been zero. Obviously, that doesn't mean that they are always are on schedule, but the failure rate would have to be pretty low for me to not notice any deviation in a year.

A couple of weeks ago, sitting at a sidealk café, I timed light rail cars for an hour and a half going northbound at Main and Walker downtown. The schedule says they run every six minutes, and they did, within a minute of that. Sometimes it would be seven minutes or five, but most of the time they were spot-on six minutes apart. And, within an hour and a half, there were precisely 15 light rail cars going past. Exactly what the timetable calls for.

I've also ridden buses in Houston since the 1980's, and still complete part of my journey to work via the route 7 Tanglewood limited-stop bus, the balance being light rail. In the past month, I've logged the bus arrival times at Lamar and Main. During the month of March, the 7 has been on time ... exactly once. Every other morning it has been at least 5 minutes late, and it is often 10 minutes late. Buses are less reliable.

Light rail is actually low cost, if a line has the passenger density to justify it. Sure, the cars and line itself cost $324 million. But the depreciation is spread over very long-lived assets. A bus will last Metro maybe 10 years, 15 years at the outside. A light rail car gets depreciated over a period three times as long, between 30 and 40 years. Why do they last so much longer? The problem is that internal combustion engines are pretty self-destructive machines. Electric motors do not operate under the high temperatures and pressures IC engines do. IC engines literally blow themselves apart. Don't believe it? Try to keep your car running every day for 30 years. The light rail track and electric overhead are depreciated over 50 years.

Light rail cars are also cheaper to maintain. An IC engine has more moving parts than an electric motor, so there is more maintenance cost. How often do you have to change the oil on a light rail car? Answer: never, there isn't any oil to change.

Finally, electric rail vehicles have lower energy consumption per passenger mile than buses. It's no mystery. Rail has less surface resistance than rubber tires. And, unlike buses, light rail doesn't have to lug its heavy power plant around. The cost of all energy is guaranteed to go up over the long term. Nothing can stop this from happening. What seems like small differences in the cost of BTU's per passenger mile will be huge differences in the not-too-distant future.

The Bus Riders Union in LA has basically been a device to stop serious transportation development there. The light rail lines and subway in LA far outstrip BRT in ridership.

BRT has been tried over and over again, and has never matched light rail in all the important parameters such as speed, labor cost per passenger mile, maintenance cost per passenger mile, and schedule reliability. The smartest business move Metro could make would be to replace their labor-intensive, heaviest bus lines with light rail. That's exactly what they are doing.


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