Posts Tagged ‘bus rapid transit’

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Baker: What’s behind the switch from urban rail to “BRT”?

24 January 2014
Roger Baker speaks to CAMPO committee, 14 Nov, 2011. Screengrab from YouTube video by Winter Patriot.

Roger Baker speaks to CAMPO committee, 14 Nov, 2011. Screengrab from YouTube video by Winter Patriot.

Under the leadership of Kyle Keahey, designated in early 2013 as Urban Rail Lead, Project Connect’s former “urban rail” planning has morphed into “high-capacity-transit” planning — apparently moving away from urban rail and toward embracing so-called “bus rapid transit” (“BRT”) as its new mode du jour. Represented by Capital Metro’s new MetroRapid bus operation, the newly favored “BRT” is in reality merely a version of ordinary limited-stop bus service modestly upgraded with extra features like traffic signal prioritization, nicer stops, nicer and larger buses with amenities like Wi-Fi … but it’s not rapid transit. (And may even represent an overall degradation of service in the corridor.) See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.
In this commentary, Roger Baker provides a perspective of background and analysis helping explain why Project Connect, the City of Austin, and Capital Metro seem to be now leading Austin’s rail planning way off the rails and not merely into a ditch, but over a cliff.

By Roger Baker

Austin has persistently lacked a strong progressive populist voice, like a crusading newspaper, willing to dig in and take sides against the prevailing business interests. Even though Austin is liberal compared to Texas, we have an unprincipled Democratic mayor willing to make Toronto’s discredited right-wing mayor Rob Ford an honorary citizen, and equally willing to cut sleazy deals with local business interests tied to certain favorite rail alignments and other official projects.

At the top of state politics, we have Gov. Rick Perry’s climate change deniers and transportation cronies running TxDOT, trying to attract cheap-labor jobs, and to maintain profitable suburban sprawl development, which is creating huge budget shortfalls at TxDOT.

The proceeds from land development as usual are disappearing into the Hip Pocket National Bank.

If we had adult supervision and rational enforcement of sound transit planning on the federal level, coming from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA), we might be in good shape. But what mid-level federal officials are willing to lose their jobs by crossing the Republicans who run our state for the benefit of the landed gentry?

Austin is also facing a water crisis, likely even more serious than California’s, since Austin’s water comes from now bone dry West Texas. Our daily paper has admitted that we face a water crisis, but without ever mentioning global warming or climate change.

Given all this, special-interest-oriented light rail planning tends to prevail, and the public doesn’t have easy media access to good analysis of rail corridor alternatives.

A likely reason that Austin transportation planners are now redirecting their focus toward BRT instead of rail, is that the special interests involved have run voter polls and see that an urban rail election (required to approve local bond funding) is likely to fail, and they are hedging their bets. Five years from now maybe average folks will get frustrated enough with Austin’s already severe congestion to be broadly supportive of rail, but for now an election might not succeed. Also, our rail-hating opponents are aligned with the Texas road lobby who want roads to complement the current Austin growth boom.

Our six-county MPO, CAMPO, is doing a $32 billion transportation plan that would put 70% of our year 2040 population growth (supposedly doubled by then) in the five counties ringing Travis County, the county which includes Austin. This is like a prescription for an extreme suburban sprawl land use future, which by its nature is road-dependent low-density development that can’t be served efficiently by transit.

This plan can’t work, but the idea is to get federal approval to channel our shrinking fuel tax revenues toward roads to serve sprawl development, before the shortcomings become apparent.

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City-funded 2008 Downtown Austin Plan explained why urban rail better choice than bus

23 January 2014
Back in 2008, City of Austin hired Roma Design Group as lead consultant to design urban rail starter system plan and promote benefits of light rail over bus services. PPT title page screenshot: L. Henry.

Back in 2008, City of Austin hired Roma Design Group as lead consultant to design urban rail starter system plan and promote benefits of light rail over bus services. PPT title page screenshot: L. Henry.

Are Project Connect, the City of Austin (COA), and Capital Metro all starting to get cold feet over advancing an urban rail project?

The first suggestion of this came a few months back, as Project Connect’s Urban Rail Project (with Kyle Keahey designated the Urban Rail Lead) morphed into a so-called “High-Capacity Transit” project.

Then, more recently, there have been more frequent and persistent hints and hedging statements by local officials and transit planners referring to vague “high-capacity transit” … plus a sudden, more emphatic shift into extolling the bountiful benefits of so-called “bus rapid transit” (“BRT”). And now there are all these sudden cautions from various City and Project Connect personnel that maybe, possibly, urban rail may be off the table for much of the “East Riverside to Highland” route now in official favor.

Particularly significant is the intensified emphasis with which Project Connect’s Urban Rail Lead (should he now be re-designated “High-Capacity Transit Lead”?) Kyle Keahey — and Mayor Lee Leffingwell — have been suddenly brandishing “BRT” (as applied to the rather mundane MetroRapid upgraded-bus service) as an exciting “high-capacity transit” possibility for East Riverside and even the so-called “Highland” route. Along with this, there’s been repeated lecturing to Central Austin neighborhoods along the West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar corridor as to how fortunate they are to have the MetroRapid service.

And of this all in the context of recent revelations that Urban Rail Lead Keahey has, on record, apparently favored “BRT” over rail transit for at least several years. See: Kyle Keahey, Urban Rail Lead, hypes “BRT” as “more affordable…more flexible investment” than rail.

This sudden switch, from the promotion of rail over the past eight years, to disparaging rail and exalting bus transit, stands in stark contrast to arguments repeatedly presented in City-sponsored presentations for most of the past decade. This case for rail per previous policy is exemplified in a 24 July 2008 Austin City council briefing under the Downtown Austin Plan (DAP) delivered by a consultant team under contract to the City, led by ROMA Design Group in a consortium also including LTK Engineering, Kimley-Horn, HDR/WHM, Studio 8, CMR, HR&A, and Group Solutions.

The PPT presentation, titled “Why Rail, and How Can it Work in Austin?” not only explained the background of the DAP and the team’s latest findings, but also addressed the usual questions over why the team were recommending a rail transit system (envisioned as a streetcar at that point) plus how and why it would be superior to simply running bus service.

In the second major section of the presentation, “Why Rail, and How Can it Work in Austin?” this case is made in a slide headed “Passengers prefer rail because of increased comfort and greater capacity.” As you can see in the screenshot below, the ROMA team noted that rail transit has shown a “Proven increase in ridership over bus-only cities”, has influenced the “Most significant decrease in automobile trips and parking”, is associated with a “Reduction in operating cost per passenger”, and is “More sustainable”, and in addition, “Fixed routes influence land use patterns and promote density” and are “Best suited to corridors where destinations are concentrated”.

Screenshot of slide from ROMA team's Austin City Council briefing.

Screenshot of slide from ROMA team’s Austin City Council briefing.

These same arguments, disseminated by City and Project Connect representatives in many community presentations over the intervening years, are now abruptly being discarded as official planners have apparently begun to distance themselves from urban rail.

The ROMA team’s PPT presentation unfortunately is no longer available on the City’s website, but we’ve uploaded it and you can access the full version here:

Why Rail, and How Can it Work in Austin?

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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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Dobbs: “Why are we squandering our best asset?”

22 December 2013
North Lamar traffic (several blocks north of the Triangle). Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor carries heaviest traffic flow of any local Central Austin arterial, serves residential concentration ranking among highest density in Texas, serves 31% of all Austin jobs — yet corridor was "dismembered" by Project Connect and excluded from "Central Corridor" study! Photo: L. Henry.

North Lamar traffic (several blocks north of the Triangle). Guadalupe-Lamar travel corridor carries heaviest traffic flow of any local Central Austin arterial, serves residential concentration ranking among highest density in Texas, serves 31% of all Austin jobs — yet corridor was “dismembered” by Project Connect and excluded from “Central Corridor” study! Photo: L. Henry.

By Dave Dobbs

The following post has been slightly adapted and edited from a letter posted by the author to members of the Central Corridor Advisory Group (CCAG) on December 6th. Later that day, CCAG voted 14-1 to endorse Project Connect’s official “ERC-Highland” recommendation.

Dear CCAG members,

Eighteen months ago The Texas Association for Public Transportation (TAPT) offered a comprehensive urban rail plan to the Transit Working Group and to CAMPO that largely fulfilled most of the goals public officials said they wanted from a phase one project.  During the last two years of TWG meetings, it became clear that phase one urban rail would need to meet a constrained budget between $275 and $400 million locally that aimed at a 50% federal match for a total project cost of $800 million or less that included Mueller.

The most important elements to reach that goal are summarized on page 42 of the Urban Land Institute’s Daniel Rose Fellowship presentation made at Austin City Hall, Friday February 22, 2011.

Excerpt from ULI  presentation.

Excerpt from ULI presentation.

Rather than take a presumptive speculative sketch-planning approach to what might be 17 years from now, somehow somewhere in the city, TAPT’s plan relied on reality, decades and tens of millions of dollars of past rail planning that culminated in the comprehensive detailed 18-month long Federal Transit Administration (FTA) sanctioned and funded 2000 Preliminary Engineering/Environmental Impact Study (PE/EIS) that forecast 37,400 riders on the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor in the year 2025.

Compare that number to Project Connect’s year 2030 forecast of 2.9 million daily [transit] riders in the East Riverside Corridor (ERC).  This is more daily [transit] riders than [in] any US city except New York.  Even the low 2030 ERC forecast of 492,682 riders daily is 17% more daily riders than San Francisco’s 104-mile BART heavy rail system, one of the best rail systems in America.

As Mr. Keahey explained at last Wednesday’s [Dec. 4th] Alliance for Public Transportation meeting, a PE/EIS goes way beyond and is far more detailed than the kind of planning his team is currently engaged in, and as a transit [professional], I concur completely.

2_ARN_aus-urb-map-pop-density-G-L-corridor_ProCon-Mapbookv5

Excerpt from infographic in Project Connect’s Map Book v. 5. Data presented shows Austin’s highest population density clustered around West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar corridor — but this travel corridor was omitted from Project Connect’s study! Green line on Lamar-Guadalupe represents MetroRapid bus route 801, green squares represent MetroRapid stations. In upper left of map, note that MetroRapid route 803 (primarily serving Burnet Rd. corridor) joins Guadalupe at E. 38th St. and shares route with #801 into core area.

The 2000 PE/EIS recognized that most of Austin’s growth has been North and Northwest and that’s likely to continue well into the future because that is where we’ve made most of the regional infrastructure and transportation investments for decades; e.g., IH-35, Loop 1, US 183, US 183A, SH45, etc.  For a host of reasons, future growth will almost surely be more clustered, more village-like with less single-family dwellings on detached lots and it will be located with access to frequent high capacity transit if (and only if) we provide for it.

When I moved here in 1969 the population of Leander was about 300 people, while today it is over 30,000.  Cedar Park, same story. In 1970 it had a population of 125; today Cedar Park is 58,000 plus.  These twin towns combined are only 17% smaller than Round Rock (107,000) and have been growing many times faster.  Bus ridership and MetroRail ridership reflect this reality, and if we want the most “bang for the buck”, we will put our first phase urban rail where the greatest employment is, where the congestion is, and where the people are, and are constrained to use alternatives because, in that corridor, urban rail is a more competitive choice than their automobile.  As former Capital Metro board chairman Lee Walker put it when he led the 2000 rail referendum, “We’ve got a meltdown in the core and we’ve got to fix it.”

Though we lost that election by a half percent, the situation hasn’t changed.  We still have a highly constricted, congested core fed by three main north/south arteries, only one of which is practical and affordable to meaningfully [expand] within the likely funds we can muster at this point in time.  And its name is not “Highland”, it’s North Lamar.  (Highland is a neighborhood bounded by North Lamar, US183, IH35 and Denson Drive and it has endorsed rail on Guadalupe/Lamar.)  Even “sliced and diced”, Project Connect’s own mapbook data shows that Guadalupe/Lamar is the highest density travel corridor in Austin.  Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood, former Austinite with a UT Master’s degree on Austin’s rail history and leading authority on urban rail impacts says, “Rail line(s) extend existing market gravities, but do not create new ones … development corresponds with proximity to major employment. Ultimately, what matters is proximity to employment as to whether denser transit oriented development will happen. The major employment is along Guadalupe Lamar.”  Wood bases his remarks on “Rails to Real Estate Development Patterns along Three New Transit Lines”.

So Guadalupe-Lamar is the bird in our hand, so why strangle it hoping for two birds in the bush 17 years in the future?  Why are we squandering our best asset based on fantasy data derived by misusing a growth model from Portland, a city with the strongest land-use laws in the country?  Reinforcing what we have with a well-designed cost-effective “most bang for the buck” first phase rail line is the only way to provide the driving synergism necessary to build future support for extensions.  As Moody’s recent SH130 credit downgrade so dramatically illustrates, just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come.

And, please, let’s dispense with the fiction that MetroRapid is a substitute for rail, because, in fact. it’s just a nicer bigger bright red replacement for bus 101; no faster unless we tear up the street and install expensive dedicated concrete bus lanes, which is, in fact, the proposed plan, but the Project Connect team doesn’t talk about that unless they are specifically asked. (See “No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…”)

Which brings me back to where I started. Why have those in charge of the process never given TAPT’s urban rail loop plan the same hearing opportunity before decision-makers that, say, Gateway Planning received in the spring of 2012 before the TWG?  We, after all, are the oldest urban rail stakeholders in the city, a Texas non-profit corporation, dedicated to promoting public transit and rail transit since 1973, drafting Austin’s first rail proposals in the early seventies, instrumental in the creation of Capital Metro in the 1980’s, playing a major role in formulating CMTA’s original service plan and whose leaders are widely recognized and known in the rail transit industry.  Lyndon is a former data analyst and planner with Capital Metro and served 4 years as a board member in the early 1990’s.  He was the first person (in 1975) to recognize the value and promote acquisition of the current MetroRail line from Southern Pacific in the mid 1980’s.

Both Lyndon and I have served on the APTA Streetcar Subcommittee for the last seven years and we have spent countless hours researching, riding, evaluating, photographing and writing about and promoting rail transit here and abroad for last 35-40 years.  Our transit professional list-serve is a constant daily source of transportation information from around the world and we know from traffic analysis that our website, www.lightrailnow.org, is heavily used by transit professionals and advocates and is highly regarded for the accuracy of its content, approximately ten thousand pages in size.

So why has this valuable free local resource been neglected for so long by those in charge of the process?  Perhaps the attached image from ROMA’s downtown planning circa 2008 says it all.  Note that Austin’s proposed (Project Connect) urban rail plan, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent since then, has not changed significantly at all.  It’s still Downtown to Mueller past DKR Memorial Stadium and an East Riverside Corridor line. Amazing!  But please note the Mueller-only line is now called “Highland.”

Original urban rail "circulator" system in 2008 map of ROMA consulting team plan, contracted by City of Austin.

Original urban rail “circulator” system in 2008 map of ROMA consulting team plan, contracted by City of Austin.

Attached, is TAPT’s urban rail loop plan in a one-page pdf that you may have seen in a simpler format on our Austin Rail Now blog.  Just like the City’s plan above (Project Connect) our plan was peer-reviewed by transit professionals, people who have actually worked here in Austin on light rail projects in the past.

TAPT proposes "loop" line, with routes on both Guadalupe-Lamar and eastide through converting the MetroRail line to electric light rail — plus a spur to Mueller.

TAPT proposes “loop” line, with routes on both Guadalupe-Lamar and eastside through converting the MetroRail line to electric light rail — plus a spur to Mueller.

Thank you for your service to the community.

Sincerely,

Dave Dobbs

Executive Director, TAPT
Publisher,  LightRailNow!
Texas Association for Public Transportation

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Bus paveways on Guadalupe-Lamar — Project Connect’s “elephant in the room”

17 December 2013
MetroRapid bus, southbound on N. Lamar, nears Koenig Lane during testing on Dec. 10th. By dumping urban rail for this corridor, Project Connect would be free to proceed with plan to install specially paved bus lanes instead of rails. Photo: L. Henry.

MetroRapid bus, southbound on N. Lamar, nears Koenig Lane during testing on Dec. 10th. By dumping urban rail for this corridor, Project Connect would be free to proceed with plan to install specially paved bus lanes instead of rails. Photo: L. Henry.

By Dave Dobbs

The Elephant in the Room within the Project Connect (COA) urban rail plan (first to Mueller via East Campus, etc. and then out the East Riverside Corridor) is the official proposal to build 40% to 50% dedicated bus lanes, roughly 15-18 miles, within the 37-mile MetroRapid system. This $500 million expenditure appears as a near-term (within 10 years) investment, 80% of which would come from the Federal Transit Administration. Lyndon Henry and I have documented this and explained how it might work in an October 18th article entitled No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes….

When I spoke with Project Connect’s Scott Gross about the nature of this a few weeks ago, he said that the dedicated bus lane plan was one that included both right-of-way acquisition and exclusive bus lanes. The math here says that these lanes would be far more extensive than paint-on-paving such as we are about to see on Guadalupe and Lavaca between MLK and Cesar Chavez, 1.4 miles at a cost of $370,000.

Here’s the math …

$500,000,000 ÷ 18 miles = $27.8 million ÷ 2 lanes = $13.9 million per lane-mile

This figure points to a heavy-duty reinforced concrete bus lane in each direction, 18 inches thick, similar to the bus pads at bus stops we see along major bus routes. This would require tearing up the street as severely as a light rail installation would, with all the other utility improvements therein that might be accomplished at the same time.

While my cost-per-lane mile is a simple mathematical one, the result is consistent with what Ben Wear reports for building SH-130, 90 miles from Georgetown to Sequin, for $2.9 billion, or about $8 million a lane-mile. Construction costs in the middle of a very congested street, e.g., South Congress or North Lamar, would be significantly higher than a highway over farmland. That and ROW acquisition costs could easily account for $5.9 million dollars of difference.

These bus lanes, planned in the next decade, would definitely be an obstacle to further FTA investment for 20 to 30 years wherever they are installed. The question we ought to be asking is: What kind of “high capacity transit” do we want on our heaviest-traveled streets?

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No urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar? Then get ready for bus lanes…

18 October 2013
Ottawa's "BRT" Transitway delivers a "conga line" of buses onto urban streets. Photo: Errol McGhion.

Ottawa’s “BRT” Transitway delivers a “conga line” of buses onto urban streets. Photo: Errol McGhion.

by Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry

Which kind of transit — urban rail or buses in special lanes — do you want to see on Guadalupe-Lamar?

Not to decide is to decide.

It’s crucial that Austin’s first urban rail (starter) line be a whopping success. This means it must serve the heart of the city in its heaviest-traffic corridor, with its highest densities and employee and employment concentrations, and its most long-established neighborhoods. The Guadalupe-Lamar corridor offers the ideal alignment for an affordable, cost-effective surface light rail alignment.

It’s also important to understand that if we don’t get light rail transit (LRT) on Guadalupe and North Lamar, we most certainly will get dedicated bus lanes within the next 10 years. A major project to overhaul the corridor by installing infrastructure for battalions of MetroRapid buses is waiting in the wings if urban rail is not implemented. This alternative, not requiring a public vote, would produce a far less efficient, adequate, and attractive system, seriously degrade urban conditions, and result in a less livable environment compared with urban rail.

This package of so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” (“BRT”) projects — whereby MetroRapid buses would enter stretches of dedicated bus lanes, and then merge back and forth, into and out of mixed general traffic — was first raised publicly in a Project Connect/City of Austin Transportation Department presentation made in City Council chambers on 25 May 2012 to the CAMPO Transit Working Group (TWG). Shown below is page 10 of that presentation, with arrows pointing to the relevant information.

Excerpt from Project Connect presentation in May 2012 indicating planned $500 million package for MetroRapid "BRT" facilities, including Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Project Connect.

Excerpt from Project Connect presentation in May 2012 indicating planned $500 million package for MetroRapid “BRT” facilities, including Guadalupe-Lamar. Graphic: Project Connect.

These dedicated lanes will be built with 80% federal money, will not require an election, will be vetted publicly only at art gallery-style “open houses”, and approved by boards and commissions, the Capital Metro Board, and the Austin City Council, and then they will be built, unless we implement urban rail in the Guadalupe-North Lamar corridor. And keep in mind that — unlike the current minimalist MetroRapid project — this level of hefty physical investment in roadway infrastructure will become a de facto obstacle to any future rail project in the corridor.

These dedicated bus lanes are the official plan as things currently stand.

There are numerous drawbacks with premium buses, and even “BRT”, compared with LRT. Just to cite a couple:

• LRT on average is significantly more cost-effective than bus operations.

• Buses don’t attract nearly as much ridership as LRT, but as ridership starts to reach higher volumes, bus traffic and overwhelming “conga lines” of buses cause more problems … plus more queues of riders start to slow operations.

Another bus "conga line" leaving downtown Brisbane, Australia to enter busway.

Brisbane, Australia: More “conga lines” of buses travel on reserved lanes between the city’s downtown and a busway. Photo: James Saunders.

If you would prefer urban rail instead of a major bus lane project in Guadalupe-Lamar, it’s essential to speak up and act. Let neighborhood groups and other community organizations know what official plans have in store for this corridor. Sign petitions being circulated to support urban rail on G-L. Communicate to Project Connect and members of Austin City Council that you want to ride urban rail on Guadalupe-Lamar, running in reserved tracks, not just a souped-up bus service weaving in and out of special lanes.

Houston's MetroRail demonstrates that LRT can attract and carry more passengers faster, more effectitly and safely, more cost-effectively than high-capacity bus operations. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Houston’s MetroRail demonstrates that LRT can attract and carry more passengers faster, more effectively and safely, and more cost-effectively than high-capacity bus operations. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

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Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”

22 September 2013
Capital Metro MetroRapid bus. Photo: CMTA blog.

Capital Metro MetroRapid bus. Photo: CMTA blog.

Capital Metro’s MetroRapid bus project received its $38 million of Federal Transit Administration (FTA) funding through its designation as a “Bus Rapid Transit” project under the FTA’s Small Starts program. But calling a bus operation “rapid transit” that will run predominantly in mixed motor vehicle traffic seems either rather fraudulent, self-deceptive, or a branding effort that has descended to the ridiculous. Yet some local officials, planners, and enthusiasts of the officially promoted downtown-to-Mueller Urban Rail route have been vigorously singing the praises of MetroRapid as a viable and equivalent substitute for light rail transit (LRT) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

Even LRT, which typically runs entirely or predominantly in reserved or exclusive alignments, and (for comparable levels of service) is faster than so-called “BRT”, isn’t called “rapid transit”.

The un-rapid drawbacks of CapMetro’s MetroRapid have been cited by other analyses. For example, Austin American-Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear, in a February 2012 article titled MetroRapid bus service not so rapid, not expected until 2014, noted:

Despite an agency goal of offering time savings of 10 percent, in hopes of attracting more people to buses, the two lines would mostly offer minimal time savings, according to a Capital Metro presentation on the MetroRapid bus system, now scheduled to start operating in 2014.

In one case, a MetroRapid bus running from Howard Lane in North Austin to downtown would make the trip in 47 minutes — the same as an existing limited-stop bus that runs the same route. Trips between South Austin and downtown on that same line would offer time savings of just two to three minutes.

Community public transit activist Mike Dahmus, in a blog entry titled Rapid Bus Ain’t Rapid, 2011 Confirmation, provided schedule evidence from CapMetro’s own website indicating that travel time differentials between the proposed Route 801 service (North Lamar-Guadalupe-South Congress) for atypically long trip lengths were minimal — time savings of 0 to perhaps 3 minutes even for such unusually lengthy trips as journeys between far-flung transit centers.

And in another article titled Rapid [sic] Bus Fact Check: Will It Improve Frequency? Dahmus offered a cogent argument that headways (thus waiting times for passengers) would be increased, not decreased, with MetroRapid service in the Route 801 corridor. Assuming the most likely operating scenario, Dahmus figures the number of scheduled bus trips in an average hour would be reduced from 9 to 8 — i.e., an increase in service headways and concomitant increase in waiting time for passengers.

Wikipedia provides a useful definition/description of Rapid Transit:

A rapid transit system is a public transport system in an urban area with high capacity, high frequency not needing timetables, is fast and is segregated from other traffic…. Operating on an exclusive right of way, rapid transit systems are typically grade separated and located either in underground tunnels (subways) or elevated above street level (elevated transit line). … Modern services on rapid transit systems are provided on designated lines between stations typically using electric multiple units on rail tracks, although some systems use guided rubber tyres, magnetic levitation, or monorail.

Numbered citations were omitted from the quotation above, but the Wikipedia article’s references included:

• “Rapid transit”. Merriam-Webster.
• “Metro”. International Association of Public Transport.
• “Glossary of Transit Terminology”. American Public Transportation Association.
• “Rapid Transit”. Encyclopedia Britannica.

In the USA, the term “rail rapid transit” has a de facto meaning of such an urban electric metro or subway/elevated system, running entirely (with rare exceptions) on its own, exclusive right-of-way, with no grade crossings or other interference with street traffic or pedestrians.

It would seem reasonable that the public, political and civic leaders, and transportation professionals should hold “bus rapid transit” to the same standard. Certainly, “bus rapid transit” should not be applied to bus operations running merely in reserved traffic lanes, or in and out of mixed and reserved or exclusive lanes, etc. — yet these are precisely the kinds of operating applications that FTA, and several major BRT advocacy organizations, have been blithely characterizing as “BRT”.

To call a modestly enhanced bus operation “rapid transit” while denying this designation to a streetcar/light rail operation with much or most of its alignment in exclusive or reserved ROW seems like branding gone haywire — particularly so when the buses depart from the totally exclusive alignment and meander on routes in mixed traffic. Why should a bus coming down the street, waiting in traffic jams, etc., be called “rapid transit”? This would seem to make a mockery of the term.

In effect, the term Bus Rapid Transit is being applied to service/capacity mode configurations that are significantly inferior not just to Rail Rapid Transit but to Light Rail Transit — and that would seem highly misleading, especially to the general public. For these modestly improved bus services, a term such as Bus Premium Transit would appear more accurate and appropriate.

The section below provides a brief photo-summary distinguishing among bona fide rail rapid transit and bus rapid transit, and Bus Premium Transit operations erroneously (and widely) characterized as “BRT”.


♦ This is rail rapid transit (RRT)

Baltimore Metro. Photo: Doug Grotjahn.

Baltimore Metro. Photo: Doug Grotjahn.

Miami MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.

Miami MetroRail. Photo: L. Henry.


♦ This is bus rapid transit (BRT)

Miami-Dade County Busway. Photo: Jon Bell.

Miami-Dade County Busway. Photo: Jon Bell.

Brisbane (Australia) busway. Photo: That Jesus Bloke.

Brisbane (Australia) busway. Photo: That Jesus Bloke.

Boston Waterfront Silver Line. Photo: Massachusetts Government blog.

Boston Waterfront Silver Line. Photo: Massachusetts Government blog.


♦ This is NOT “bus rapid transit”

Los Angeles MetroRapid Route 720. Photo: Sopas EJ.

Los Angeles MetroRapid Route 720. Photo: Sopas EJ.

Kansas City MAX premium bus service (branded as "BRT"). Photo: Metro Jacksonville.

Kansas City MAX premium bus service (branded as “BRT”). Photo: Metro Jacksonville.


Bottom Line: With MetroRapid bus service, Capital Metro does seem to be modestly upgrading current bus service in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor and elsewhere with spiffier station facilities and newer buses — improvements that most bus riders, and probably the public in general, would welcome.

But an acceptable substitute for urban rail … it ain’t.

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MetroRapid bus service should be a precursor to urban rail, not an obstacle!

18 September 2013
View of part of MetroRapid fleet.

View of part of MetroRapid fleet.

Some local officials, favoring the City’s long-preferred Urban Rail plan from downtown through the UT East Campus to the Mueller development site, have been presenting Capital Metro’s MetroRapid juiced-up-bus-service project as a barrier to alternative proposals for implementing urban rail in the Guadalupe-Lamar (G-L) corridor.

As Austin Rail Now will discuss in subsequent analyses, this argument is fatuous and fallacious. Instead, MetroRapid can and should be re-purposed and re-branded as a precursor to urban rail, not a competitor and obstacle.

This concept of MetroRapid as a precursor to rail was first presented in a 27 April 2012 commentary by Lyndon Henry (technical consultant for Light Rail Now) to the Transit Working Group:

Rapid Bus can be a precursor to Urban Rail in Lamar-Guadalupe corridor!

Here are excerpts (adapted for Webpage format) from that commentary that may be useful to the discussion of such a possible role for MetroRapid as a precursor to urban rail (using light rail transit technology) in the G-L corridor:


♦ Useful reference: BRT as a Precursor of LRT? (TRB conference paper, 2009)

Paper presented by Dave Dobbs and [Lyndon Henry] to 2009 Joint International Light Rail Conference sponsored by Transportation Research Board [TRB] provides research and guidelines for BRT as rail precursor:

Cover of TRB conference proceedings.

Cover of TRB conference proceedings.

Title and author lines from published paper.

Title and author lines from published paper.

[Link to proceedings]

http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf

♦ Examples where “BRT” has been precursor to rail – including with FTA approval

Various U.S. examples exist where both technically and policy-wise, a RapidBus or BRT-type system can function as a precursor to rail transit service – and with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approval!

• Dallas – BRT-like express bus service, operated by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) on North Central Expressway, served as a precursor to DART’s LRT extension to Plano.
• Miami – Miami-Dade Busway has been serving as precursor to extensions of MetroRail rapid transit.
• Los Angeles – Wilshire Boulevard MetroRapid service, operated by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), has served as precursor to extension of MTA’s rail rapid transit metro system, a project now under way.
• Seattle – In Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, BRT-type bus service functioned as precursor to Link light rail (now operating jointly with buses – see photos below).

♦ In 2009, Capital Metro’s MetroRapid was envisioned as precursor to rail

As recently as 2009, MetroRapid project was being designed for eventual conversion to light rail:

Excerpt from section of paper.

Excerpt from section of paper.

♦ Conclusion: BRT or RapidBus must be originally designed as light rail precursor!

Paper concludes that best-practices approach to plan for BRT or RapidBus as precursor to rail is to design it for eventual conversion from the start. This means keeping infrastructure investment minimal and designing for modularity (i.e., designing station components, communications, etc. so they can be easily relocated or reconfigured for the rail mode during conversion).

Excerpt from Conclusion of paper.

Excerpt from Conclusion of paper.

If the transit agency can demonstrate that the BRT or RapidBus investment won’t be lost, but can be upgraded into a higher and more effective use (e.g., Urban Rail), FTA has approved such conversion.

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Limitations of RapidBus (and “BRT”)

30 March 2013

brb-bus-busjam4-20080909_james-saunders-1
[Huge bus jam on Brisbane, Australia’s busway illustrates one of the major problems of trying to deploy relatively lower-capacity buses in a rapid transit role. Photo, 2008: James Saunders.]

In a previous posting, we mentioned a commentary prepared by Lyndon Henry for a presentation to the Transit Working Group on 27 January 2012, Urban Light Rail vs. Limitations of RapidBus.

This presentation and commentary addressed the issue of RapidBus (aka “Bus Rapid Transit”) as the City of Austin’s longer-term alternative to rail transit in the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor. The commentary argued that RapidBus (which, it emphasized, is not “rapid transit”) should be considered not a replacement, but a precursor to electric light rail transit (LRT) in the corridor, and indicated a number of considerations for ensuring this:

♦ RapidBus (“MetroRapid”) in Lamar-Guadalupe should be precursor to light rail

Design for conversion to rail — make sure location and design of facilities are compatible
Keep investment minimal — heavy bus facility investment is obstacle to rail conversion
Modular, movable stations — bus and rail station placement and platforms may differ
Plan relocation to serve Mueller and San Jacinto corridor — RapidBus can then become precursor to rail in these alignments

The commentary then focused on the drawbacks of RapidBus (or “BRT”) in comparison with LRT, emphasizing that even these high-quality bus service fail to provide the service and performance capabilities of rail:

♦ Limitations of RapidBus vs. electric light rail

Not “BRT” — RapidBus is not “bus rapid transit” … but even “BRT” would have problems
Lower ridership — nowhere nearly as attractive to public, resulting in much lower ridership
Minimal to no TOD — bus facilities have very little attraction to developers
Less capacity — even articulated buses have much less capacity and can’t be entrained
Lower speed — lower acceleration means slower schedules, more buses needed
Higher unit operating cost — more buses, slower schedules, drivers for every bus = high cost
Street crowding — many more buses (than railcars) mean more vehicles crowding streets
Slower passenger boarding — constricted doors and aisles mean slower boarding/deboarding
Less space — buses provide less space per passenger, thus more crowded conditions
Rougher, less reliable ride — poor ride quality, plus less perceived reliability and safety for public
Problems for ADA passengers — buses (not railcars) have boarding problems and need tiedowns
Petroleum fuel — less efficient and versatile, and more costly than electric propulsion (for rail)
Higher fuel costs — diesel fuel costs will skyrocket as supply dwindles from Peak Oil syndrome
Emissions — unlike electric rail, diesel or gas buses directly emit fumes with GHGs

The original handout, in Word .DOC format, can be accessed via this link: Urban Light Rail vs. Limitations of RapidBus.

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City of Austin’s Urban Rail (and “BRT”) plan

29 March 2013

aus-lrt-brt-rpr-map-proposed-COA-Intial-Rail-M1_dd
[Map: Dave Dobbs. Click to enlarge.]

The map shown above has been rendered by Dave Dobbs from official maps, provided by the City of Austin (COA) and Project Connect, to show (as far as we can infer) what COA planners are proposing for their basic Urban Rail (using LRT) and “bus rapid transit” (BRT) starter system.

The 5.5-mile Urban Rail proposed route (downtown, through the UT East Campus, and Hancock Center into Mueller) is shown as a gold-ochre line with a pattern representing “tracks” in the center of it. The green line represents the proposed “BRT” route intended to serve the Lamar-Guadalupe corridor. The Red Line represents the currently operating MetroRail Red Line route.

This route plan can be compared with the 14.7-mile Alternative Urban Rail plan prepared by Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry — see map in right column. The details of the Alternative Plan are discussed in the previous article: An alternative Urban Rail plan.