Sunday, March 19, 2006

Rail vs. bus transit service for the city vs. the suburbs

Christof has an excellent post on Houston's newest HOV extension on 59, but my favorite part is when he explains why express bus is better for suburban commuter service and rail is better for local city service (especially his concise concluding paragraph).

These buses don’t do any good, though, for the people who live in the neighborhoods along this freeway. The closest park-and-ride is at Hillcroft, and the buses don’t stop in Neartown or Montrose or serve the University of St. Thomas or the Menil. That’s why METRO is studying light rail here — not as a replacement for the suburban service, but as a complement to it, serving a different travel need.

I’ve heard the suggestion made that METRO should simply run light rail on the HOV lane to avoid disrupting neighborhoods. That would be easier than rebuilding Richmond. But it’s wrongheaded on every other count. Suburban commuters — the ones using the HOV lane now — would have a longer trip if they had to transfer to rail. And the inner neighborhoods wouldn’t be served at all.

If you want to build a suburban commuter service, you want park-and-ride lots, high speeds, and few stops. That’s what we’ll have in a few months. If you want to serve the city, you want stations in walkable neighborhoods with good pedestrian access, spaced closer to serve more people. That’s the next task.


At 9:27 AM, March 20, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...

The only quibble I have with this is that rail really is never the better transit solution. BRT is far more cost-effective and provides comparable service to rail (despite CTC's assertions, BRT's costs are nowhere near those of light rail). BRT also isn't as inflexible, so you don't have to worry about development patterns changing twenty years down the road. Thus it is better for both city and suburbs.

I know that I always harp on that point, but it often seems lost. The assumption that rail must have some unique qualities that justify its application in the inner city is simply wrong.

At 10:48 AM, March 20, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, I am glad to see you and Christof making this point. Suburban-to-urban-core commuter service is NOT the same as local urban transit connectivity. We should look for opportunities for the two systems to "touch" however, so that they work fairly seamlessly together, something our current commuter services (park and ride) and light rail line fail to do. It's a shame because METRO's park and ride service is truly excellent and a huge benefit to Downtown.

The LRT / BRT lines will also enable the commuter service to better access non-Downtown urban core employment centers (Uptown, Greenway, TMC) if good connections can be made - without seriously compromising LRT / BRT's urban service functions. Transfers are required, but their hassle is minimized if both services (the park and ride and the urban service) are high frequency (avg. headways 7 minutes or less) and access points are adjacent - you can get off the commuter bus and walk across the platform to catch the light rail, for example.

Regarding LRT vs. BRT, I think a more significant difference is fixed guideway vs. no guideway. Both LRT and BRT (as defined by METRO, basically LRT using rubber-tired independently powered vehicles) are fixed guideway, which is far more expensive than a "no guideway" system. I think fixed guideway systems can and should have a role in urban core transit in Houston, with the current plan as a start. I know many disagree, however, preferring that we implement nothing more than a "regular bus on the street," maybe with a little higher frequency service than we have now. I don't think the latter solution is enough to ensure a reasonable quality of life as urban densification continues.

I apologize again for another excessively long comment!

At 11:39 AM, March 20, 2006, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Regarding LRT vs. BRT, I think a more significant difference is fixed guideway vs. no guideway. Both LRT and BRT (as defined by METRO, basically LRT using rubber-tired independently powered vehicles) are fixed guideway, which is far more expensive than a "no guideway" system.

Remember, though -- just because you have a fixed guideway doesn't mean you have universal right-of-way. The streetcars of old (and those that still exist in New Orleans) did not have right-of-way over traffic even when they had fixed guideways. They would stop at stoplights, yield at intersections where somebody was turning left in the median, and so forth. Unless you have right-of-way, the speed of rail isn't that much faster than buses.

So I think the real issue isn't fixed-guideways versus no guideways, because you could conceivably give MIRT devices (that switch lights to green) to all Metro bus drivers, and get better speeds than if you simply set up fixed guideways and let buses wait like any ordinary vehicle. However, this raises issues of traffic light syncronization (virtually impossible when transit always has right of way) and overall speed (automobile traffic slows down due to significantly longer light times where transit operates). Hence there are always trade-offs. The trade offs are easier to stomache, though, if you go with the least-cost alternative, or just spend enough to elevate guideways and eliminate the issue entirely.

At 11:27 AM, March 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I commute from Cypress to Uptown and the slow down on PostOak is not because the bus is waiting at a red light. It is because it is waiting behind 50+ cars at the light. Zipping down the middle of Post Oak in a dedicated lane would take a lot of time off the trip from/to the NW Trans center.

At 9:09 AM, April 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They have got it half right. A lightrail is better for both, the city and the suburbs. Bus based service cannot compete because it is not as reliable and could be delayed by other traffic. A ligt rail beats buses and even cars when it is well designed. The tracks should be separated from other road traffic in the downtown areas wherever possible. Especially in congested areas like the downtown. A light rail track should never be laid on a freeway corridor. The good effects of the light rail and the bad effects of the freeway will add up to zero.

A well desingned light rail runs throught the downtown and surrounding ares on separated tracks. The light rail should not be equipped wiht a MIRT device but a far more advanced system in which the light rail will get the green at the same time as the car traffic going to the same direction. If the rail will not make it with the regular green, the green will be extended for the light rail to get throught. If the light rail comes at a moment that extension would be too long, it is either given a separate green or the next green is moved to a bit earlier location. The light rail will not get the green if it is ahead of schedulle. This is widely in use in Europe and it has been researched to speed up both the light rail and the car traffic. The later as a result of there being no need to show green for the tracks when there is no light rail car aproaching.

In the suburbs the line should not end at a park and ride lot, but branch out to the streets of the suburbs. There is no need to keep the light rail separated from other traffic. It can share the road and act just like the other vehicles with the exeption of getting a green light at every signal.


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