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Kyle Keahey, Urban Rail Lead, hypes “BRT” as “more affordable…more flexible investment” than rail

20 January 2014
Kyle Keahey promoting "high-capacity transit" route selected by Project Connect, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.

Kyle Keahey promoting “high-capacity transit” route selected by Project Connect, Nov. 2013. Photo: YouTube screengrab.

Perhaps Kyle Keahey, Project Connect’s designated Urban Rail Lead, might better qualify as “Urban Bus Lead”?

It turns out that, for some time, Keahey and his consulting firm HNTB have been blowing the horn of the “back to buses” movement. In HNTB “white papers” (for which he’s listed as a “resource” and apparent co-author), Keahey enthusiastically disparages rail transit and promotes “bus rapid transit” (BRT) as purportedly “Faster to implement, less expensive than rail” and a “more affordable … more flexible investment.”

Title page of Kyle Keahey's 2011 HNTB paper on BRT (PDF version).

Title page of Kyle Keahey’s 2010 HNTB paper on BRT (PDF version).

These arguments are very similar, even in wording, to the attacks on rail transit — especially light rail transit (LRT) — from major rail opponents such as Randal O’Toole and Wendell Cox. See: Rail Public Transport Opponents. It should also be noted that Keahey’s BRT “white papers” aren’t just informational, they’re promotional — hyping the supposed superiority of upgraded bus services over rail transit.

As is typical with so many forays in rail-bashing, the fallacy starts with a sleight-of-hand trick over the basic concept of what, exactly, BRT is. According to Keahey & Co., “BRT” can apply to almost any bus service above an ordinary local operation: “The term bus rapid transit actually covers a broad array of applications, ranging from enhanced bus service on arterial streets to operations on exclusive bus-only roadways and other dedicated rights-of-way….”

In effect, cosmetically enhanced ordinary limited-stop bus service (which might more accurately be called “bus upgraded transit”) is conceptually re-branded as “bus rapid transit”. This verbal legerdemain allows the practitioner to portray visions of relatively rapid buses on exclusive paveways and rapid-transit-style stations while simultaneously touting the much lower costs and faster implementation times of moderately upgraded limited-stop buses, running in mixed general traffic, with cheap bus stops conventionally located at curbside. See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

Capital Metro MetroRapid bus in test operation on North Lamar, Dec. 2010. Photo: L. Henry.

Capital Metro MetroRapid bus in test operation on North Lamar, Dec. 2013. Photo: L. Henry.

Keahey’s bait-and-switch tactics are exemplified in a 2010 HNTB paper, titled A new take on an old standard — The changing image of bus rapid transit, which claims that “For the commuter, BRT is similar to rail in its ability to provide predictable scheduling, clear and simple routing and speed” … and then steps up the attack in a section sub-headed “Faster to implement, less expensive than rail”:

Compared to rail-based systems such as traditional commuter and light rail, BRT can be implemented more rapidly. It often takes just two to four years to implement a BRT line versus the seven to ten or more years it takes to implement a rail transit system. …

In addition to being faster to implement and more affordable, BRT is a more flexible investment. Without having to place rails in the streets or develop infrastructure for overhead power, routes can be moved when traffic or economic development patterns change.

Finally, BRT does not require large capital improvements beyond stations and signage versus the significant capital investment of a fixed-rail system.

Snippet from Kyle Keahey's 2011 HNTB paper promoting BRT over rail transit (webpage version).

Snippet from Kyle Keahey’s 2010 HNTB paper promoting BRT over rail transit (webpage version).

These themes are further elaborated in a more recent (January 2014) HNTB paper, titled How buses are becoming “cool” again, in which Keahey (listed among other HNTB “resource contacts”) mounts a number of arguments for eschewing rail in favor of an upgraded bus-based system, “An affordable alternative to fixed-guideway, rail-based systems” which “combines the flexibility and cost savings of buses with the efficiency, speed, reliability and amenities of a rail system – often without the expense of adding significant infrastructure.”

“By choosing BRT over rail,” claims Keahey’s paper, transit agencies can achieve a number of advantages. Furthermore, “BRT system capital costs are a fraction of the cost of a rail-based system and can be implemented in a fraction of the time.” Thus, “many cash-strapped municipalities will be more likely to seriously consider BRT.”

Snippet from Kyle Keahey's 2014 HNTB paper promoting BRT over rail transit (webpage version).

Snippet from Kyle Keahey’s 2014 HNTB paper promoting BRT over rail transit (webpage version).

These kinds of claims and arguments, long disseminated by rail adversaries claiming “BRT” is “just like rail, but cheaper”, have consistently been exposed as exercises that are dubious at best and generally fraudulent, playing fast and loose with facts.

Buses running in limited-stop and express mode, even with spiffied-up stations, have been around since the 1930s (when General Motors first branded them as “bus rapid transit”). If they’re “as good as rail, but cheaper”, why are so many cities, in the USA, North America, and around the globe, hustling to install new light rail transit (LRT) and other rail transit lines? Here are some issues to consider that are typically ignored by “BRT” promoters:

Actual rapid-transit-style BRT typically has capital costs that equal or exceed those of LRT, and tend to be significantly higher when annualized, with lower bus system lifecycle costs factored in.

Bus operating & maintenance (O&M) costs tend to be higher than those of rail transit. Thus, cities that operate both rail and bus transit have on average lower total costs per passenger-mile than cities operating only buses.

• LRT systems have demonstrated significantly greater success than BRT and “bus upgraded transit” systems in attracting and retaining ridership.

• Electric LRT is not dependent on increasingly expensive petroleum fuels, and produces fewer carbon emissions per passenger-mile than buses.

• LRT continues to have significantly greater influence in attracting transit-oriented development than bus-based alternatives.

• LRT excels in supporting urban livability and a pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly urban environment.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

The following analyses provide data and further information:

Comparative examination of New Start light rail transit, light railway, and bus rapid transit services opened from 2000

Research study: New LRT projects beat BRT

Research: BRT can truly be pricier than LRT

Study: LRT ridership gains are spectacular

Evaluating New Start Transit Program Performance: Comparing Rail And Bus

Rail Transit vs. “Bus Rapid Transit”: Comparative Success and Potential in Attracting Ridership

“Free” buses vs. “expensive” rail?

“Bus Rapid Transit” Analyses and Articles

Energy Efficiency of Light Rail Versus Motor Vehicles

But while all this back-and-forth over BRT vs. LRT certainly is an important debate within the transit industry, let’s conclude by returning to the main focus, and a controversy that raises two critical questions:

• Why has an individual who clearly believes that upgraded bus services are a better alternative to rail transit been selected as Urban Rail Lead and placed in charge of Austin’s major urban rail study?

• Did this disdain for rail, and preference for bus operations, play any role in leading Project Connect’s rail study away from a fair, impartial, and technically accurate evaluation of Guadalupe-Lamar, the city’s overall highest-performing and best travel corridor?

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