density&diversity: LRT vs BRT

The PiPress’s article about LRT down University yesterday ended by pointing toward the debate between LRT and BRT. While they’re only one letter different, the debate really comes down to how much (and why) people like trains more than buses, and to what extent that makes for a more succesful city transit system and boosts city development.

A few weeks ago, a Strib piece by Laurie Blake tackled just this question:

This preference for rail largely explains why the Hiawatha ridership is exceeding projections. Preconstruction predictions did not factor in positive attitudes toward the train. The Hiawatha ridership is 65 percent higher than predicted. In October, an estimated 742,000 riders used the line.

Rail's smooth ride and consistent schedule make it appealing to riders who would not consider the bus. The permanence of the track and the frequency of service make it easy to use without knowing a schedule.

"Now we have real numbers from observed behavior," Diaz said. "About 40 percent of the riders are people who were not using the bus. That is a huge amount."

Officials have spent more than a year correcting the metro area's forecasting methods to better reflect rail's appeal. This change could be important for ridership predictions on a proposed central corridor rail line along University Avenue linking St. Paul and Minneapolis.

An upcoming environmental impact statement will compare the pros and cons of a rail line with bus rapid transit. Ridership will be central to that comparison and a key part of the choice between rail or bus, Diaz said.

My take on a recent report (not available online) by New Urban News, is that "Bus Rapid Transit," while better than “Bus Slow-as-Molasses Transit,” is just another name for a good bus system. Such systems are being planned in many cities, though right now a real BRT exists only in Boston. To put it another way, “BRT” means fancy buses, with such things as:

  • new buses that require no step-up
  • dedicated bus lanes
  • special bus stops with LED signs that tell you the time until the next bus
  • timed stoplights

All these things add up to much better bus service, and a cosmpolitan progressive city should invest in exactly these sorts of things if it want to have an attractive mass transit system. The truth is that the TC, no matter how many rail lines it builds, will always have a bus-dependent transit system, and people ought to be embracing BRT ideas with open arms.

However, Light Rail must also be a big part of the long-term answer. Sure it’s more expensive, but as an investment, it pays for itself by encouraging development all along its route. The same New Urban News article that talks about BRT benefits, mentions this:

Nearly everyone New Urban News spoke with agreed that developers are less excited by bus systems than by rail transit. The permanence of a rail line encourages developers to make long-term investments along it. Also, despite the introduction of quiter, clean-buring engines on the latest generation of BRT buses, the public’s preferred mode of mass transit is trains. This August, community groups in Boston forced the MVTO to postpone plans for constructing an $800 million, one-mile bus tunnel fo rthe final leg of the Silver Line; they wanted it to be light rail.

Shelly Poticha, president of Reconnecting America, said some streetcar projects have been “only modestly more expensive” to build than BRT and have done better at generating mixed-use development.

According to the Strib article, LRT has between a 25% to 40% advantage over buses in adding new riders, not to mention any extra boost in development monet. The Twin Cities, one of the weathiest, fastest-growing urban areas in the country, should be talking about both LRT and BRT. University Avenue is the perfect place for a train – both wide enough, and desperate for development money – and and we should be looking at changing some of the other well-travelled bus routes into “Rapid Transit” corridors – by adding quieter buses, improved bus stops, and right-of-way improvements.


Driver2165 said...

We do have a BRT line, minus the arrival signs (but hey, our train doesn't even have those). It's the campus connecter between the Minneapolis and St Paul campuses of the university. Metro uses it for the state fair, but that's it right now. BRT is really horrible for urban planning. It looks like a gigantic unused highway. The only thing uglier than a gigantic highway is a gigantic unused highway. (or replace highway with parking lot, depending on what conversation i'm having)

The article missed a reason. Everytime I ask one of my friends why they don't take the bus, It's almost always a fear of getting yelled at by the driver for not understanding something.

Wm said...

I've only seen the bus driver yell at anybody one time. It was at the U, in Dinkytown, and some post-party student tried to get on without paying. "Please, it's cold and we just wanna go a few blocks," and the bus driver was like, "Get your stinky butt off the bus," referring to the cigarette in the student's hand.

She shut the door on him, and spent the next two minutes ranting about smoke.

That's the only time. Every other bus driver is really nice, for the most part.

Driver2165 said...

heh yeah i hear that. but for some reason people are still afraid of getting yelled at, and i guess a uniformed large bearded guy is a prime candidate.