The Federal Transit Administration’s 2017 New Starts report recommends funding for 22 different bus-rapid transit projects in cities ranging from Lansing to New York. Many of these projects propose to convert existing street lanes to dedicated bus lanes, which the Antiplanner thinks is usually a waste. In particular, the Antiplanner has criticized such proposals in Albuquerque and Indianapolis.
Now a new report from a surprising source confirms the Antiplanner’s conclusions about Albuquerque’s proposal and provides a model that skeptical citizens can use in other cities. The report is by Gregory Rowangould, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of New Mexico whose research focuses on sustainable transportation. Rowangould formerly worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and is a strong transit advocate. However, like the Antiplanner, he is very skeptical of Albuquerque’s proposal to convert two of the four-to-six lanes of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue to dedicated bus lanes.
In order to be eligible for federal funds for the project, the city hired Parsons Brinckerhoff to do a traffic study and HDR to do a travel demand analysis. The city’s grant application reported to the FTA that the proposed project would relieve congestion, significantly increase transit ridership, and in particular help low-income people. Rowangould’s review of the traffic and travel demand analyses found, however, that the opposite would be true: the project would severely increase congestion, it would do little for transit ridership, but it would especially hurt low-income transit riders.
The Antiplanner’s recent visit to Turkey allowed me to observe the Istanbul Metrobus. Buses from several different routes use two dedicated lanes in the median of a freeway for parts of their journeys. The forty-five bus stops on the 31-mile route have overhead walkways allowing patrons to cross the freeways.
An Istanbul Metrobus pulls out of a station.
Most buses are articulated and can comfortably carry at least 100 people. Buses operate as frequently as every 14 seconds in each direction; that’s more than 250 buses per hour. While they operate “only” every two minutes after 1 am, over the course of a 24-hour day, they still manage to run buses an average every 28 seconds over parts of the route. Each bus stop is long enough to serve at least four buses at a time.
A new report published by Indiana Policy Review critiques the use of dedicated bus lanes and battery-powered buses in a proposed Indianapolis bus-rapid transit line (if this link is password-protected, the password is 3544). As described in the FTA’s annual New Starts/Small Starts report, the proposed Red Line would cost $96 million to start and $6 million per year to operate, but the report says nothing about how many riders the line would carry.
The critique of the plan points out that the county transit agency, IndyGo, plans to run buses on the dedicated bus lanes no more frequently than every five minutes, which means they would be empty more than 90 percent of the time. The auto and truck traffic they would displace would have carried far more people than the buses are projected to carry.
According to IndyGo, that projection is a little less than 11,000 riders per day, or about 4,200 more than currently take buses in the corridor. This large increase is projected due to the buses’ faster speeds, but those speeds will only average about 18 mph, compared with 13 mph with existing service. Since the Red Line buses won’t stop as frequently as ordinary buses, it is possible that they would average nearly 18 mph even without dedicated lanes, but IndyGo failed to consider that alternative.
When the Antiplanner published data about the Federal Transit Administration’s 2017 New Starts recommendations a few days ago, I assumed that projects that had no projections of future transit riders were still in the early planning stages. That may have been true for some, but at least for some there are no projections because the FTA doesn’t care how many people will ride the new transit lines that it funds.
When Congress created the New Starts program in 1991, it specified that funded projects must be cost-effective at improving transit and mobility. Initially, the FTA asked transit agencies to estimate the cost per new transit rider attracted by the projects. Later, it asked that they estimate the cost of saving travelers one hour of time through faster transit and congestion relief.
The Obama administration, however, discarded all of those measures and instead wrote a cost-effectiveness rule that essentially said, if you can measure the cost, your project is cost-effective. The FTA New Starts grant application form still requires agencies to calculate the cost per hour of time saved.
San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority–a perennial contender for the title of the nation’s worst-managed transit agency–is building a bus-rapid transit line, and it is proving as much of a disaster as some of its light-rail lines. It was supposed to open two months ago, but now appears that it won’t open until 2017. Torn-up streets are damaging businesses along the route, and VTA is having to pay them compensation, making the project far more expensive than expected.
The problems have gotten so bad that the chair of VTA’s board, Perry Woodward, has written a highly defensive op ed not to apologize to taxpayers but to argue that the damage done by this project to the local neighborhood has been more than made up for by all the good things VTA has done in the last twenty years.
What good things? Santa Clara County taxpayers voted to tax themselves to relieve congestion by building more roads, and they proved that you can, after all, build your way out of congestion: congestion levels declined for several years despite a rapid increase in local jobs. But then the county made the mistake of merging its congestion management authority with its transit agency, and pretty soon the transit agency stole all the congestion relief money to fund its expensive projects. The result has been some of the nation’s emptiest light-rail trains (an average of 18 passengers per car vs. a national average of 24) and rapidly rising congestion.
A group called the Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) strongly supports bus-rapid transit, saying that “BRT systems can be built in a fraction of the time of light rail, and BRT can cost 30 times less to construct and 3 times less to operate.”
ITDP’s proposal for “Gold Standard” bus-rapid transit in Boston. Click image to download the 17.7-MB report.
In major urban areas, the organization promotes what it called “Gold Standard” BRT, which means dedicated bus lanes designed to minimize conflict with other traffic, off-board fare collection, and platform-level loading and unloading. ITDP argues that such BRT can move far more people than light rail and nearly as many as the most crowded heavy-rail lines. “BRT also has the added ability . . . to offer a mix of local, limited, and express services, and to save time by eliminating inconvenient transfers.”
In an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal, the Antiplanner argues that transit agencies in medium-sized cities such as Albuquerque should experiment with “bus-rapid transit lite”–meaning increasing bus frequencies, reducing the number of stops so as to speed schedules, and prepayment of fares to speed loading of passengers. But dedicating traffic lanes to buses and giving them signal priority will harm far more people than it will benefit and shouldn’t be done.
Click image for a larger view of this Albuquerque rapid ride articulated bus. Wikimedia Commons photo by PerryPlanet.
The op-ed also mentions that the large, articulated buses often used for bus-rapid transit may be the wrong choice. In fact, these buses are about the least cost-effective, in terms of dollars per seat, of any buses available. They take a huge amount of space on the street, are difficult to maneuver, and slow to accelerate. Transit agencies that think they have enough demand to justify large buses such as these should consider instead running smaller buses more frequently. Transit riders are known to be frequency sensitive, but they aren’t particularly sensitive to the size of the vehicle they ride in.
To great fanfare, the DC Silver Line opened from Tysons Center to East Falls Church, Virginia. Although the news reports mentioned the cost–nearly $47,000 per foot or more than $3,900 per inch–a lot of other things were left unsaid.
The Silver Line will displace trains on the Orange and Blue lines, which are already being used at capacity. Click for a larger view.
Facts such as:
- The transit agency that will operate it, WMATA, wanted an affordable bus-rapid transit line;
- The cost doubled after the decision was made to build it;
- Silver Line trains will displace Orange and Blue line trains that are now running full;
- WMATA can’t afford to maintain the system it has, much less one that is even bigger;
Los Angeles transit officials are eagerly contemplating the opportunity to spend money converting the Orange bus-rapid transit line into a light-rail line. To promote this idea, they are letting people know that light rail will be faster, more comfortable, and operate more frequently (so riders will be less likely to have to stand) than buses.
These lanes are exclusively dedicated to buses, but transit agency officials say they need to replace them with light rail because there is no room to run more than one bus every eight minutes.
Of course, all of these things are wrong. The current bus line averages 26 mph, about 4 mph faster than the average light-rail line. Buses can be just as comfortable as light rail, and when vehicles are full, a higher percentage of bus riders get to sit down (about two-thirds as opposed to less than half). As for frequencies, the current schedule of the Orange line calls for one bus every eight minutes at rush hour. Since the road is closed to all other traffic, somehow I think they could squeeze a few more in if they wanted to.
Wired magazine freaks out because the Tennessee senate supposedly passed a “mind-boggling ban on bus-rapid transit.” AutoblogGreen blames the legislation on the left’s favorite whipping boys, the Koch brothers because it was supported by Americans for Prosperity, a tax-watchdog group that has received funding from the Kochs.
Not only would Nashville’s bus-rapid transit consume up to three lanes of traffic and be given priority at traffic signals, the design of stations in the middle of a major arterial will create hazards for pedestrians.
In fact, the senate did not pass a bill to ban bus-rapid transit; it passed a bill to limit the dedication of existing lanes to buses. There is no reason why buses need their own dedicated lanes, at least in a mid-sized city such as Nashville. Kansas City has shown that bus-rapid transit in shared lanes can work perfectly well and attract as much as a 50 percent increase in riders.