Five reasons why BRT may have advantages over rail

Once more into the bus/rail breech, my friends.

In various comments and articles, I’ve enumerated various advantages that bus rapid transit has over equivalent-service rail in some circumstances; this post is simply a collection of these. It doesn’t constitute an endorsement of bus over rail for any specific project or system, hence the word “may” in the title–that analysis needs to be done on a case-by-case basis. And this is a one-sided post; the corresponding advantages that rail has over bus are not listed. Not because they don’t exist or are not important, but simply because I wanted to collect many of the good technical pro-bus arguments in one place. (I’m limiting myself to technical arguments for the most part; sociological or political arguments such as “trains cause gentrification” or “rail is just pork for developers” are not included).

A bit of terminology: This article refers to “Class A”, “Class B”, and “Class C” transitways, which refer to the isolation of the transitway from other traffic. Very roughly:

  • Class A is a grade-separated transitway (or one with absolute crossing priority), such as the various freeway-adjacent sections of MAX, and much of the Blue Line between Beaverton and Hillsboro. There are no examples of class A bus in the Pacific Northwest; North American examples can be found in Ottawa and Pittsburgh.
  • Class B is surface operation in an exclusive right of way where the transit vehicle may need to stop at crossings, such as MAX through downtown, along Interstate and Burnside, and in downtown Hillsboro. Much of the EmX line in Eugene is an example of Class B BRT.
  • Class C is ordinary mixed traffic operation–such as the bulk of TriMet’s bus operations as well as the Portland Streetcar. Generally, plain class C bus is not considered BRT, but a type of bus service that is is commonly referred to as class C+ bus (or by other names such as “rapid bus”)–this refers to mixed traffic bus that enjoys enough enhancements (off-board fare collection, all-door boarding, signal priority, limited stop spacing, prominent stops) that it is a materially better product than local bus. Mixed-traffic streetcar systems can also have signal priority (and be class C+); the Portland Streetcar does not do this however.

A claim was made in a thread at Human Transit that for class A and B operation, rail is almost always preferable; this is a partial rebuttal to that, but the content is important enough to emphasize that it deserves a post of its own.

After the jump…
The reasons
BRT enjoys these advantages over rail:

  • Topology advantages. One thing that BRT does easily but rail cannot do is operate in an “open” configuration–meaning vehicles travel in a transitway for part of their journey, and then filter out into the existing street network without need for any special off-transitway infrastructure. Trains can only run where there are tracks and switches, but busses can mix between a busway and local operation. Open BRT isn’t useful for every situation–it works best in cities with the main transit nodes concentrated in one place and transit demand dispersing outward from there–but many cities do have that transit topology.
    Related to the open busway issue is the capability to handle large number of discrete vehicles. I’ll ignore some of the more extravagant claims concerning high-traffic freeway bus lanes like the Lincoln Tunnel XBL (Exclusive Bus Lane) between Manhattan and New Jersey; the XBL is a special case (there are no stops in the tunnel, after all). But here in Portland, the transit mall is able to handle–easily–180 busses per hour and 10 trains per hour, in each direction. Even if both 5th and 6th streets were dual tracked, and MAX trains limited to a single car-length, I can assure you that the Mall could not handle 180 trains per hour. For a long corridor–say Gateway to downtown–you wouldn’t want to run 180 busses per hour; if you had that much demand over such a distance that’s an obvious candidate for rail. But for highly branching topologies, the high vehicle throughput is a major consideration.
  • Partial operation: The ability of busses to run on ordinary streets has a second set of advantages. It permits easier phasing–agencies building a busway or bus lane can open half of it when it’s done, and have busses run in the completed sections of the busway and on local streets the rest of the way, and then shift additional sections of the route into the busway when it completes. BRT also lets you get around hard parts with mixed traffic operation. Obviously, mixing in a mixed-traffic (class C) section adversely impacts the overall reliability of a route, but it’s a way to utilize existing (expensive) infrastructure such as bridges or tunnels. Rail, OTOH, can only go where there are tracks, and mixed-traffic operations compromises rail far more than it does bus.
  • Costs. For Class C/C+ operation; bus is way cheaper to install–it’s just ordinarily local bus service, possibly with changes to traffic signals and nicer stations. The equivalent rail technology is mixed-traffic streetcar. Streetcar may be better suited to placemaking and land-use transformations, but the performance characteristics of mixed-traffic streetcar are generally the same as ordinary bus service; but streetcar requires installation of tracks. BRT also lets you do class B cheaply–if planners are willing to taking a traffic lane. Class A infrastructure will require major capital construction regardless of mode; a good argument can be made that rail is more suitable for class A operation for this reason (though that isn’t an open-and-shut case; Class A open BRTs like Melbourne are highly effective). But if political will exists, class B bus can be installed as cheaply as class C+. And even if a transit agency does decide to pour concrete–replacing asphalt with a road surface more able to withstand the axle loads of bus–you don’t have to relocate the utilities under the pavement or rebuild the roadbed. Which brings us to…
  • Less prone to catastrophic failure. BRT doesn’t break down as easily or as spectacularly when the line gets blocked or closed. This benefit is most often discussed in the context of streetcars vs local bus (where obstacles along the route are plenty), but even class A and B transit lines are impacted by events such as accidents, breakdowns, power or control failures, and maintenance of the right of way. With a BRT, vehicles can simply navigate around, leaving the transitway if necessary. Rail often requires “bus bridges” to be set up when a line is taken out of commission. Generally, many sections of track–up to the next switch on either side of the incident–will need to be bridged. This happens all the time in Portland–and frequently results in bus runs being cancelled so a bus bridge can be assembled, angering just about everybody, both bus and train riders alike.
  • The ability to pass. BRT makes it far easier to mix express and local services and provide skip-stop service. Busses can simply pull out of the busway for stops; only a little more pavement and real estate is needed to enable passing. The transit mall is a fine example of this capability, using skip-stop operation to achieve a high vehicle throughput.. Adding express tracks or passing sidings greatly complicates the design of a rail line, as switches need to be installed and signals changed for any change in track topology.
72 Comments

72 Responses to Five reasons why BRT may have advantages over rail

  1. John Reinhold
    August 22, 2012 at 8:38 am Link

    I can think of one more – which may or may not be a big deal to some folks.

    Emergency services access.

    A busway of class A is still usable by emergency vehicles such as police, fire, and ambulance. Not to mention other use in *extreme* emergencies – where you may need to move earth moving equipment or rescue equipment, or other types of things.

    A class B facility with bus also applies, and *may* apply for some rail purposes (for example the class B rail facilities in downtown Portland are usable by emergency services because they are just built in normal pavement…

    So class A busways can be beneficial to emergency services.

    Obviously there can be multiple uses – as such as the new Willamette bridge will be accessible by emergency services AND bus/rail.

  2. Jim Lee
    August 22, 2012 at 11:51 am Link

    Hmm…topology…doughnuts versus baseballs…Poincare’s conjecture…

    Many decades ago, whilst riding Shinkansen from Osaka to Yokohama, I was astounded to see Kodama units stopped at secondary stations to accommodate scores of perfectly uniformed school children as my Hitari unit zipped through at 200 km/hr.

    Evidently the excellent folk of Japan are willing and able to structure their affairs, including public transport, to benefit one and all.

  3. Ron Swaren
    August 22, 2012 at 3:50 pm Link

    The new MAN double decker buses in Berlin have 128 passenger capacity.

    And to save on transit money elsewhere I suggest pup tents instead of 100,000 dollar shelters. It worked for Occupy Portland.

  4. Ron Swaren
    August 22, 2012 at 4:41 pm Link

    Very short Video of the New, Berlin Double Decker buses:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1S-cwtdin4
    Longer video:
    CT-Doppelstockbusse 3576 und 3776 auf dem Ringbahn-Ersatzverkehr in Berlin :
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJJmTo9fDLs&feature=related

    “Evidently the excellent folk of Japan are willing and able to structure their affairs, including public transport, to benefit one and all.”

    True, but a more basic point is that transit is now a relatively negligible activity, interspersed around activities —-of the web, the polis, your health, etc. So, it’s no big deal if your ride takes a few minutes longer since you (can) use the time for doing other things, anyway. It’s no longer a factor in the cost of living….especially as compared to when you had to get around by oxcart!

    Therefore demanding that the people spend more money because you expect your ride to be short (that time which you are actually using for other personal reasons) is a very impolite and selfish demand. If the public has option A to get you around, but option B costs one-tenth the amount and you can use your time just as constructively, why not go for option B? And I could say similar things (but not identical) about many other added policies and costs that transit advocates seem to think is critical for successful public transit.

    The bottom line, is that the public would ultimately do better if public transit was solved using a profit model, as oppose to an equity model, thus freeing public money for other transportation needs.

  5. Ron Swaren
    August 22, 2012 at 7:05 pm Link

    Brit. TV news story of the new, futuristic, bright, shiny, red Routemaster bus:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNtg7fwsPiA&feature=related

  6. al m
    August 22, 2012 at 10:08 pm Link

    It’s a no brainier for intra city transit or short distance transit.

    The whole third world, which doesn’t live in luxury, (you know the part that lives on $2/day, where thousands die daily due to malnutrition and disease, but I digress, sorry), is using BRT because its cheaper, CHEAPER, I Know that word doesn’t mean anything in a culture such as ours.

    And its FLEXIBLE, you can MOVE IT, and it keeps going if there is a failure of one of the vehicles.

    And everything else that Scott mentioned.

    But alas, this is AMERICA, not only America, but PORTLAND, ORYGON, where such terms as CREATIVE CLASS actually have meaning.

    So why be cheap about it?
    Lets spend like there is no tomorrow, hell, people make millions off it, and who cares about tomorrow.

  7. Erik H.
    August 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm Link

    Class A infrastructure will require major capital construction regardless of mode

    Still, even “Class A” infrastructure (fully separated busway) is half the cost of LRT – while Los Angeles’ new Silver Line was about $125 million/mile, a comparable light rail line in the same area was more than twice that cost. (Everything in L.A. is expensive.) Rail switches are expensive; building 200 foot LRT platforms are expensive. Most of a 200 foot LRT platform is unused for the most part; a BRT platform can be less than 100 feet long which means less concrete, less real estate, less shelter hardware. Bus pullouts for platforms, passing areas are also much cheaper than building rail sidings. And the amount of underground utility relocation is much lower with BRT than LRT.

    But most importantly is that you don’t need a “Class A” busway for the entire route. Let’s say we want to build BRT from Portland to Sherwood. You don’t need a busway from Tigard to Sherwood, maybe just some queue-jumper lanes to King City, and use the existing travel lanes to Sherwood. That’s tens of millions of dollars in savings over LRT that can be plowed into additional service or additional BRT routes. Likewise, BRT could have been employed Portland to Gateway TC, and diamond lanes on existing, under-capacity roads east to Gresham – a fraction of the cost of LRT. Or BRT Portland to Beaverton, but a diamond lane along TV Highway or Sunset Highway to Hillsboro and then queue-jumper signals west to Forest Grove.

  8. EngineerScotty
    August 23, 2012 at 1:50 pm Link

    Not to argue, Erik, but most of the Silver Line route is decades old (particularly the El Monte busway), and little of it is bus-exclusive. The new parts of the Silver Line route (on the Harbor Freeway) are shared bus/carpool lanes. Shared bus/carpool can actually be a reasonable solution–so long as the carpool threshold is high enough to keep these from becoming congested. The Silver Line is HOV-3, which keeps busway speeds reasonably high (an attempt to permit 2-car carpools was cancelled when the busway became clogged with traffic).

    Most of the rest of your comment seems to be in agreement with the article.

  9. al m
    August 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm Link

    Here’s an interesting take on the BRT issue.

    BRT might be cheap to build, but it’s cheaper to destroy

  10. John D
    August 23, 2012 at 5:25 pm Link

    Actually Erik Class “A” Busways cost equal if not more than light rail. For example the only reason the Orange Line did not cost more in LA was that it did not require grade separations at intersections like a light rail line would have required.

    Also since you bring up the Silver line which is actually two busways stitched together as one line despite having completely different markets. The Harbor Freeway busway is one of the worst transit projects in history carrying somewhere around 5000 passengers a day while a few miles to the east the Blue Line light rail line carries more than 70,000 passengers per day (of course it has a better endpoint in Long Beach).

    Getting back to the Oranage Line, while hailed as a success it has reached capacity limits. If it was a light rail line you could ad just another vehicle but with the busway you also add another driver that brings up the cost.

  11. Ron Swaren
    August 23, 2012 at 6:47 pm Link

    This video from Oporto, Portugal, claims that the new MAN double decker bus carries 146 passengers. Berlins version is only 128, I wonder why the discreprancy?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QE9AM_E-oA&feature=related
    Fun Video showing the view from top level through steep, old world city streets:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYn8gdjaons

  12. al m
    August 23, 2012 at 9:25 pm Link

    I like the double articulated VAN HOOLS!

  13. Ron Swaren
    August 24, 2012 at 9:13 am Link

    Al m, here’s an idea for buses that surpasses LRT. Instead of siting light rail station every 1/2 mile or so, have bus service that ALTERNATES at stops, with short headways.

    Criminy, there’s so many reasons why buses can provide better service than fixed rail; I’m sure that Everett, WA is proving it with their new Double-Tall express service. They’re so efficient you can’t even get a report out of them! ;) I called, and it’s like “What? A report?” but, I think it’s working. There’s something to be said about those blue collar towns! And I guess they pick up folks in Everett—and then just head for downtown Seattle, y’know “sc— everyone else, in between, we got ours.” It works! I don’t know if they secretly serve PBR on the upper level or not…..

    Here in slackerville they plan things to death.

  14. Ron Swaren
    August 24, 2012 at 9:25 am Link

    Al m, here’s an idea for buses that surpasses LRT. Instead of siting light rail station every 1/2 mile or so, have bus service that ALTERNATES at stops, with short headways.

    Criminy, there’s so many reasons why buses can provide better service than fixed rail; I’m sure that Everett, WA is proving it with their new Double-Tall express service. They’re so efficient you can’t even get a report out of them! ;) I called, and it’s like “What? A report?” but, I think it’s working. There’s something to be said about those blue collar towns! And I guess they pick up folks in Everett—and then just head for downtown Seattle, y’know “sc— everyone else, we got ours.” It works! I don’t know if they secretly serve PBR on the upper level or not…..

    Here in slackerville they plan things to death.

    Electric buses, hydrogen buses, hybrid buses, huge tour buses with dining areas, switching routes, express routes, wi-fi, it all works so much better. The only thing is that the roadways have to get unclogged, which is not that big of a deal.

  15. Lenny Anderson
    August 24, 2012 at 5:13 pm Link

    Alternate stops are great unless you want the one that is bypassed.
    Thanks ES for breaking BRT down into A, B, C. In a region that already has LRT, A type BRT would make little sense, as it would save little on construction and cost more to operate with lower capacity vehicles.
    B type BRT has more potential, but I seriously doubt that ODOT is ready to give up a lane on SE Powell or SW Barbur, so all you could hope for is type C. Which ain’t much.
    But what if you ran a decent B type line to Tigard, and then split it as you suggest with one branch going on to King City or Sherwood, another to Kruse Woods and the third to Washington Sq. If you have 10 minute service to Tigard, that would mean that beyond Tigard you would have 30 minute service. Lousy at best. What am I missing here?
    What would Interstate Ave look like with type B? Would the entire street, property line to property line, be rebuilt as was the case with LRT? If not, BRT would be cheaper to build and would look cheaper…not pleasing to those neighborhoods. Old Interstate was a very tired old state highway and needed a makeover badly. Would stations be 1/2 mile apart? probably, so operating time would be the same or maybe slower with big buses. Frequency? To handle the same number of riders in the peaks you would need more trips, which is nice for riders, but adds to operating cost.
    Note that emergency vehicles can operate on the trackway on Interstate between N. Fremont and N. Argyle. Bottom line, would B type BRT attract the riders and the investment that LRT appears to? Would it be part of a realtor’s pitch for a neighborhood? Perception is a good bit of the game when it comes to transit…some folks “Will Not Ride a Bus!” And a last thought, isn’t Ottawa now building LRT? Why’s that? Pittsburg is the only US city with a long history of both BRT & LRT; maybe that is the place to go for some comparisons.

  16. EngineerScotty
    August 24, 2012 at 5:41 pm Link

    Ottawa’s BRT system is interesting. It was well-designed on the periphery, but the downtown transit mall, unlike Portlands, was a single lane in each direction–and could not handle the volume.

    One other technical difference worth mentioning: the effect of weather. Ignoring underground vehicles, trains have advantages over bus in cold weather (which Ottawa gets lots of–this is also a major issue there); it doesn’t take much snow and ice to make the bus unsafe or unpleasant (chained-up busses are SO much fun to ride in, after all). Trains handle snow much better.

    Rail, OTOH, suffers in the heat as catenary sags, tracks warp, and TriMet posts slow orders on 100 degree days–while bus engines are more likely to overheat on hot days, and busses without AC suck, the underlying infrastructure doesn’t fail in the heat as train tracks can do.

  17. Ron Swaren
    August 24, 2012 at 9:02 pm Link

    “Alternate stops are great unless you want the one that is bypassed.”

    You could walk to the apposite one, if you had just missed the bus at your preferred stop. They are alternating.

    ” Frequency? To handle the same number of riders in the peaks you would need more trips, which is nice for riders, but adds to operating cost.”
    Which is why Everett, WA is using 90 passenger DD buses. (And I wonder what Berlin does to cope—they have about 500 double decker buses, Do they get snow there at all???) They also have been shown to be adaptive to slippery conditions because of weight-shifting tech, in the rear axles.

    Lenny, since you work around probably the most mechanically-oriented part of town maybe you should solicit ideas on how to make LRT affordable. 150 million per mile is kind of crazy. When it counts the private RR’s seem to be able to lay track pretty cheap. Plus, the propulsion systems are advancing pretty quickly. A gearhead like you should check out the Greencar congress. Tired of putting the link on here.

  18. al m
    August 24, 2012 at 9:57 pm Link

    I never understood why Trimet got rid of the articulated buses. The only reason they gave was they didnt fit into the stops in the old transit mall, which is a pretty lame excuse.

    Trimet got rid of them because they don’t want people riding the bus!

    They want people to be riding the train.

    I believe that.

    This whole new ‘reconfiguration’ as been created to ‘force’ people onto the train.

    Take a good look at it.

  19. Lenny Anderson
    August 25, 2012 at 8:37 am Link

    Those old Hungarian artics were monsters! belched exhaust, were loud as hell, and tough to manage with Portland’s short blocks and narrow streets. I used to ride the 12 to and from PDX, usually by myself with the Op. Lovely ride.
    But a brand new artic still only carries half or less of a LRT train with one Op, and ops are transit’s “cost center.”
    re LRT cost…remember Interstate Avenue was rebuilt not just in the trackway, or curb to curb, but property line to property line. So the City and the residents of N. Portland got a lot for their dollars. Actually, the local match for the Yellow line was the privately and locally financed Red Line (no fed dollars for that) and initial Streetcar line which was paid for with an LID with no federal money, nor PDC money. So the feds covered all of the $350M cost of MAX to Expo. Note that unlike MLR the Yellow Line had just one structure; MLR has four, including the River bridge. Comparable type A BRT would require the same four structures.

  20. Ron Swaren
    August 25, 2012 at 10:40 am Link

    Lenny,
    While European cities are often cited here as models for Portland mass transit concepts, the scale of their facilities has a huge variety. Sure there are subways in lots of places. And there are also simple wooden platforms with just a few benches a roof and ticket machines. It depends upon where you are—we’re talking about hundreds of cities. I guess a complete analysis would ask if there is better ridership and project payback where they have sunk in large amounts compare to cities where the facilities are relatively primitive. And, what causes the differences. Lots of questions there.

    So far the Interstate MAX is a waste, aside from peak hours there are no more people on it than a normal city bus. However, now that it’s in, perhaps the idea of extending it a bit further to Jantzen beach make sense, when it is combined with other features, such as eliminating the I-5 ramps to JB, too.

    But the big question: Can we come up with a bus that is just as, if not more popular than a LRT. Looking at the latest designs, like London’s. Or the latest technology, like China, it seems we should be able to so it. The next step is the aesthetics, features and “coolness” of it.

    Maybe we need a Peter Max for bus design.

  21. Nick theoldurbanist
    August 25, 2012 at 11:34 am Link

    “So far the Interstate MAX is a waste…”

    >>>> Boy, DO I AGREE with that! Intersate Avenue would have worked well as a Class C BRT; uncouple it from the PCC Sylvania leg, and have signal priority to provide better service than Yellow Line MAX. Maybe articulated buses with 3 and 2 seating, too.

    My point is that the $350,000,000 could have been much better spent elsewhere (third track between Beaverton Central & Willow Creek TC, for instance).

  22. Lenny Anderson
    August 25, 2012 at 8:21 pm Link

    Many residents of N. Portland would beg to differ.
    After the substantial property tax based investment on the west side MAX, it was time to put in the line to the north. When it gets to Vancouver, it will be a very busy line. Now it carries three times what the old 5 carried, the street welcomes all modes, and development continues to come to each station. I’ve never heard of a bus line achieving theses results…much as I love the bus.

  23. al m
    August 26, 2012 at 5:44 pm Link

    A Vancouver line does make sense,the problem is someone will have to pay to operate it and that will come out of current bus operations which in turn ends services that people have come to rely on over the years. (Which btw has always been my main objection.)

    John Laird: Transportation options – A lot has changed since 1995 | The Columbian

  24. Ron Swaren
    August 26, 2012 at 9:19 pm Link

    Touting “a Vancouver line” is disingenuous. I asked Steve Horenstein how much he expected the 1.6 mile spur into Vancouver would accomplish? He replied that it was just a start. Great. So with the main raison d’etre for the CRC being to extend this 1.6 mile spur into Vancouver we have to allocate $4 billion, and then absorb the administrative costs and economic fallout, plus tolls “in perpetuity?”

    Then because it really won’t do much on its own we have to “thread the needle” so to speak and snake light rail several miles across Clark Co and then back to PDX? What does the light rail cross on to get back to PDX? This is just another street fight in the making. And it would take how many years to pull this off? with what guarantee of ridership? And the est cost (likely to at least double before completion) is how many billions? Whereas if they really wanted to they could start express bus service, and also an I-205-PDX express service and have it going in the next year.

    Methinks something is rotten in Denmark.

  25. EngineerScotty
    August 26, 2012 at 11:33 pm Link

    If you think the main purpose of the CRC is light rail, Ron, I’ve got a bridge… you know the rest.

    Yes, I’m aware of the oft-quoted state Supreme Court ruling. Don’t confuse the legal sleight-of-hand the CRC project sponsors are using to cut through some local red tape with the political reality of the project–it’s a highway project, with transit thrown in as a carrot.

  26. Jason Barbour
    August 27, 2012 at 6:40 am Link

    If you think the main purpose of the CRC is light rail, Ron, I’ve got a bridge…
    My real answer:
    So does Third Bridge Now.

    My sarcastic answer:
    (begin sarcasm)
    And I also have tropical ocean beachfront property in Kittitas County, WA, I’m looking to unload.
    (end sarcasm)

  27. Ron Swaren
    August 27, 2012 at 8:21 am Link

    “If you think the main purpose of the CRC is light rail, Ron, I’ve got a bridge… you know the rest.”
    Local signatory agencies: METRO, Tri Met, C’TRAN and SWWRTC—-their main concern is more freeway room or LRT? But I get your point, ES.

    Like my local mechanic explained to me, he had three levels of service:
    1. Answers.
    2. Answers requiring thought.
    3. Correct answers.

  28. David Piper
    August 27, 2012 at 9:47 am Link

    The main agencies funding the CRC are WDOT and ODOT. What do you think their main concerns are?

    Of course TriMet and CTRAN are going to be most concered with the transit element. They’re transit agencies. But they aren’t the ones driving the CRC in the first place.

  29. EngineerScotty
    August 27, 2012 at 9:58 am Link

    Local signatory agencies: METRO, Tri Met, C’TRAN and SWWRTC—-their main concern is more freeway room or LRT?

    Even if we were to assume that Metro and SWRTC were entirely transit-focused agencies, instead of broader-scoped planning agencies, there is little wisdom in simply counting noses.

    But I leave the last word to the late great American poet and songwriter Shel Silverstein:

    My dad gave me one dollar bill
    ‘Cause I’m his smartest son,
    And I swapped it for two shiny quarters
    ‘Cause two is more than one!

    And then I took the quarters
    And traded them to Lou
    For three dimes — I guess he don’t know
    That three is more than two!

    Full poem here.

  30. EngineerScotty
    August 27, 2012 at 10:50 am Link

    A bit ironic that Bloomberg would run that piece, given who the mayor of New York is…

    But yes, there’s lots of waste and abuse in US transportation construction. Where the article errs somewhat is in limiting this observation to mass transit; roadbuilding has plenty of problems of its own.

  31. al m
    August 27, 2012 at 10:52 am Link

    We can just expand that almost every contract that is awarded using tax payer funds!

  32. al m
    August 27, 2012 at 11:07 am Link

    But the point of the article was to contrast practices in the US vs practices in other countries regarding transit installation.

    Of course most of us were already aware of that information but its nice to see the media talk about these things once in a while.

  33. Lenny Anderson
    August 27, 2012 at 12:08 pm Link

    Portland rail projects have been famous for being on time and on or under budget. In NYC it may be otherwise. I remember when I lived in Chicago, 18″ curbs only went down about 12″…a nice little skim off the bottom.

  34. Lenny Anderson
    August 27, 2012 at 12:16 pm Link

    I’d like to hear what the experts here think about the prospects of BRT on Barbur and/or Powell. Can transit get its own lane? If not, then what? C-type BRT, which in my view, does not get you much or the real enchalada?

  35. Douglas K.
    August 27, 2012 at 7:01 pm Link

    If the projected ridership on a given BRT corridor is high enough, how about putting some of these 256-seat buses on it?

  36. Ron Swaren
    August 27, 2012 at 9:17 pm Link

    “Portland rail projects have been famous for being on time and on or under budget. In NYC it may be otherwise. I remember when I lived in Chicago, 18″ curbs only went down about 12″…a nice little skim off the bottom.”

    Which is why the Gresham MAX finished out 25 percent over budget. But I agree that was much better than carving Portland up into 2 mile square chunks with the 1990 Transportation Plan. Which is why I volunteered for Tom Walsh. Who did you say Neil Golds–t was?

    “I’d like to hear what the experts here think about the prospects of BRT on Barbur and/or Powell. Can transit get its own lane? If not, then what? C-type BRT, which in my view, does not get you much or the real enchalada?”

    And what is the reason for considering that? Just because METRO said so? Is that for the new, taco bender population?

  37. Ron Swaren
    August 27, 2012 at 9:30 pm Link

    “We can just expand that almost every contract that is awarded using tax payer funds!”

    Very true!! Thank you. al m, you should run for office. You’re used to sitting on your rear end all day, aren’t you?

  38. Aaron W.
    August 28, 2012 at 7:15 pm Link

    Ron,

    What is “the new, taco bender population”? I’m not familiar with that phrase.

  39. Ron Swaren
    August 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm Link

    Check the urban dictionary

  40. Douglas K.
    August 28, 2012 at 8:31 pm Link

    I did. Every definition listed is some type of racial slur for “Mexican”. If there isn’t a rule against that sort of thing on this site, there should be.

  41. EngineerScotty
    August 28, 2012 at 9:34 pm Link

    Ron,

    Cool it. Any more incivility or language like “taco bender” and you will earn a comment vacation.

  42. Ron Swaren
    August 28, 2012 at 10:06 pm Link

    I think upsetting our civil stability is worse than a slur. Besides, use of the term ‘bagger has been seen on here before. That’s not only a slur its obscene.

    [Moderator: Slurs are not allowed. Period. Drop it. Incidentally, a Google search on all of PortlandTransport for the keywords “teabagger” or “bagger” returns zero results. So you’re wrong about that. The term (despite controversial origins oft-associated with the original 2009 tea party organizers rather than opponents) has either never appeared here or has been moderated out. Just like your slurs should they recur. And you’ve been warned about this sort of behavior before. I would expect you should know better. Further disputes of this policy are not allowed. – Bob R.]

  43. Ron Swaren
    August 29, 2012 at 10:43 pm Link

    wrong search terms I guess.
    May 2, 2009 2:14 PM
    Bob R. Says:

    I wonder how many “teabaggers” oppose the “S.L.U.T.”?

    March 14, 2010 12:22 PM
    Wells Says:

    .. And Psst, Let’s not leave them with the impression that Portland transit activists are either surrealist mud hut dwellers or tea baggers, tea baggists, tea baggerians, tea baggeranados….

  44. Bob R.
    August 30, 2012 at 12:45 am Link

    I’m very glad you found that, Ron.

    Although a search for “teabagger” (in quotes) revealed nothing, a search for the plural did indeed return three results (out of every published comment from the whole entire blog!).

    You didn’t share the link to the original thread from 2009, so for anyone who cares, here it is.

    You’ll note that my entire comment (from which you excerpted) was in response to a commenter who was introducing the acronym “SLUT” to refer to the Seattle Streetcar.

    I responded, in jest, using the term “teabaggers” to point out (perhaps this was lost on you) that using slurs doesn’t win a political argument.

    I’m sorry you didn’t get the point, and I’m sorry you insist on disputing this further. (I’m also sorry you don’t realize that back in 2009 some members of groups that are now referred to as “tea party” had assigned themselves the unfortunately already-claimed designation “teabagger”, but I digress.)

    The Wells comment you posted came from a thread referring to a call for proposals for a streetcar conference, to which you responded with an anti-immigrant rant:

    If the final, essential component to building this new “sustainable” America, is a huge influx of new inhabitants…..I say “Who needs it?”

    Wells was responding to you.

    So your examples only undermine your defense. Pot, kettle, black, and all that.

    So drop it. Get your own blog and you can slur immigrants all you like. Not here.

  45. Erik H.
    August 30, 2012 at 8:14 pm Link

    Portland rail projects have been famous for being on time and on or under budget.

    So, WES cost just $80 million, right? And it opened in September, right?

    Oh…no…it cost $162 million (and several million post-construction costs), and opened at the end of January.

    ANOTHER benefit of BRT is that you can open it incrementally, or start a BRT route and stage it from a regular bus or express bus to BRT over time. With rail (and especially streetcar/light rail) it’s all – or nothing. Although many of the anti-bus folks decry how “buses get stuck in traffic” how much of that is truly an issue in Portland? You can start out by simply installing queue-jumpers or HOV lanes at the chokepoints – that will expedite ALL buses through the area. Enhanced bus stops will improve the rider experience for ALL riders. Those improvements can be done TODAY, RIGHT NOW, if only we had a transit agency interested in providing any semblence of service improvements to the dedicated bus riders who make up the majority of its ridership. Instead – we get excuses about how “nobody rides buses…” and “we need to spend lots and lots of money to build light rail”. Imagine…if some of that money was simply used to improve the existing bus system – you’d have instant ridership growth, with zero additional operating expense, but an immediate cost-per-boarding-ride reduction.

    Actually Erik Class “A” Busways cost equal if not more than light rail. For example the only reason the Orange Line did not cost more in LA was that it did not require grade separations at intersections like a light rail line would have required.

    Sorry – the Orange Line (sorry I referred to the wrong route) still cost half as much per mile than a LRT line built at the same time.

    And…grade separations? I never knew light rail required grade separation…what does MAX do on Interstate Avenue with all those cross streets, or out on Burnside? And I keep hearing about times when runners wearing headphones mysteriously get killed by MAX trains…AT GRADE. If light rail requires grade separation…is MAX not light rail? Or did TriMet get some super-special top secret permission from the feds not to do grade separation?

    Sorry…BRT still is cheaper. Requires fewer utility relocates. Stations have a smaller footprint. No cost of electric overhead, substations, and all of its hardware. Doesn’t require a signalling system that requires a massive CTC desk. Building passing lanes or pullouts is MUCH cheaper and less complex than a railroad siding.

    And in most cases “Class A” BRT is overkill. Just like MAX is massively overbuilt; yet for every 15 minutes in life, it sits idle, doing absolutely nothing. Even WES – it’s wonderful $165 million total cost – the vast majority of the time it’s a wasted asset providing zero benefit to anyone. Yet, one doesn’t need full-blown BRT on Hall Boulevard, just selective improvements in congested areas to speed buses through (i.e. from the Beaverton Library to the Beaverton TC, from the Hall Boulevard Albertson’s to Washington Square, Greenburg at 99W, Durham Road to Bridgeport to Tualatin) – most of the route doesn’t need any improvements other than better bus stops.

  46. EngineerScotty
    August 30, 2012 at 10:06 pm Link

    Erik,

    WES may be the exception that proves the rule–although the projected cost of the project at FEIS was closer to $120M rather than $80M.

    At any rate, I agree that opening incrementally is a benefit of BRT–which is why it was explicitly mentioned in the article in the section labelled “partial implementation”. And indeed, a major purpose of BRT, which is the subject of the article, is to keep busses from being stuck in traffic.

    LRT doesn’t indeed require grade separation–though class A transit (whether bus or rail) requires either that or fully-protected crossings (i.e. the transit vehicle never gets a red light). The LA Orange Line, unfortunately, isn’t class A, as it has to stop at traffic lights in many places. One *legal* advantage rail has over bus (in the US) is that rail projects can demand crossing gates and traffic over priority as a matter of law, but busways cannot–and the road authorities in LA County have refused to give the Orange Line signal priority.

    One other interesting thing about the Orange Line–it runs in an old rail corridor but was built as a busway mainly because a state law, passed at the behest of some anti-transit NIMBYs a few years back, bans light rail (or any surface rail) on that specific corridor.

  47. dave
    August 30, 2012 at 10:21 pm Link

    Anyone remember when Barbur had a bus lane in the 70s and early 80s? Funny how we could be going back to the future. I remember that lane cut a lot of time off the commute.

  48. John D
    August 31, 2012 at 5:46 am Link

    And…grade separations? I never knew light rail required grade separation…what does MAX do on Interstate Avenue with all those cross streets, or out on Burnside?

    Erik,

    I was talking about Los Angeles. The Orange Line would have required certain grade separations if it would have been built for light rail.

    Also please show me a apples to apples comparison of light rail to busway. Feature to feature the same, that is the only way you can say that BRT is indeed cheeper. Plus it may be cheaper on capital cost only because it is not equal, but operating cost is another thing.

  49. Chris I
    August 31, 2012 at 7:25 am Link

    BRT advocates talk a lot about capital costs, and tend to ignore the topic of operating costs…

  50. Douglas K.
    August 31, 2012 at 8:23 am Link

    And once again, I bring up the AutoTram Extra Grand hybrid bus that debuted in Dresden, Germany last week.

    It’s almost a hundred feet long with 256 passenger capacity. That’s about 1.5x the capacity of a MAX 400 series car (or 3/4ths the capacity of a 2-car MAX train). Running one of these buses every ten to fifteen minutes should cost no more for drivers than a light rail line.

    Create a trolley-bus version of this vehicle, and it will need little or no gasoline/diesel fuel. It has a five-mile battery range, so only part of the route would need overhead wire.

    What happens to the O&M disadvantages of BRT if one of these vehicles (or something similar) is used on a corridor that doesn’t quite require the capacity of a two-car MAX train?

  51. John Reinhold
    August 31, 2012 at 10:06 am Link

    “You can start out by simply installing queue-jumpers or HOV lanes at the chokepoints – that will expedite ALL buses through the area. Enhanced bus stops will improve the rider experience for ALL riders. Those improvements can be done TODAY, RIGHT NOW, if only we had a transit agency interested in providing any semblence of service improvements to the dedicated bus riders who make up the majority of its ridership.”

    To be fair – TriMet doesn’t own the roads. So if TriMet wants to do anything like that in general – they need cooperation from the jurisdiction that *does* own the road. So ODOT and PDOT and county governments may be more appropriate blame targets than TriMet. (in this one specific regard).

    TriMet can’t just say “I want my bus to go faster” and simply create a bus lane on a state highway. It takes a lot of inter-agency agreements and policy work.

  52. Chris I
    August 31, 2012 at 10:23 am Link

    Doug,

    The problem with vehicles that large is that they then require the infrastructure to be Class A or Class B at the very least. You can’t operate one of those in mixed traffic on standard street. I would also imagine that it would take quite a lot of work to get those approved by ODOT.

  53. EngineerScotty
    August 31, 2012 at 10:24 am Link

    Douglas,

    The Autotram Extra Grand would be an interesting solution for a dedicated (class A or B) busway. The vehicle is almost certainly not street-legal. I know that double tractor-trailers are longer (113′, typically) but the 70′ busses used on the LA Orange Line are not legal to operate elsewhere.

    John,

    You are correct–and many road authorities are loathe to do anything that slows down cars. I’ve seen reports (from Erik IIRC) that the queue jump signals along Barbur are out of order (or were); which would be a problem that ODOT needs to address.

  54. Nathanael
    August 31, 2012 at 10:55 pm Link

    “And even if a transit agency does decide to pour concrete–replacing asphalt with a road surface more able to withstand the axle loads of bus–you don’t have to relocate the utilities under the pavement or rebuild the roadbed. ”

    Yes you do.

    Or, conversely, you don’t have to relocate utilities and rebuild the roadbed for rail service.

    The sole purpose of the utility relocation is so that you don’t have to shut down the rail/bus line next time you have to make an alteration or repair to the utilities.

    So this supposed advantage is just another example of “it’s only a bus, we don’t give a damn if it has to be shut down for six months to repair a gas main / water main / sewer”. It’s an example of how, if it’s a bus, half-assed is considered fine and disruptions in service are considered normal and acceptable. Whereas if it’s rail, there’s some attempt made to provide decent, reliable service.

    I can’t explain the difference in psychology!

  55. EngineerScotty
    August 31, 2012 at 11:06 pm Link

    Nathanael,

    A bus can detour around utility repair work with minimal disruption in service quality–it’s not a matter of “its OK to shut a bus line down”.

    Trains (more generally, fixed-guideway vehicles) can only run where there are tracks and switches.

  56. Ron Swaren
    September 1, 2012 at 9:14 am Link

    “BRT advocates talk a lot about capital costs, and tend to ignore the topic of operating costs.

    LRT advocates talk a lot about lower operating costs, and tend to ignore the cost to individuals’ time as they get drawn into the length and elaborate planning processes, or the time spent in acquisition of right of way, cost of adverse litigation, impact studies, sifting out different designs of vehicles, choosing “artwork”—actually quite a list of time and money consuming hurdles.

    Altering schedules to produce at least a basic BRT is easier. I point to Everett WA. model because the planning activities, which could involve the public, take place in a geographically small but well populated area where riders are also easier to find. They just get their people and go—and don’t get involved in the protracted, revenue challenging discussions and debates on “equity.” I am having a difficult time even getting a report out of them!

  57. Ron Swaren
    September 1, 2012 at 8:20 pm Link

    [Pointless quip at moderator removed. Apparently you cannot take “no” for an answer. Learn to relax. – Bob R.]

  58. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm Link

    Erik H. Says:

    “Class A infrastructure will require major capital construction regardless of mode

    Still, even “Class A” infrastructure (fully separated busway) is half the cost of LRT”

    No, it’s not. It’s actually more expensive than LRT. Please look up the Pittsbugh and Ottawa examples.

    The “Orange Line” in LA is “class B” infrastructure. So far it’s cost more than a comparable LRT would, largely because the pavement wears out so fast; and it has worse schedule adherence than the LRT because it’s not permitted to have crossing gates at intersections.

  59. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 4:43 pm Link

    “Bus pullouts for platforms, passing areas are also much cheaper than building rail sidings.”

    No, they’re not.

    “And the amount of underground utility relocation is much lower with BRT than LRT.”

    That’s a free choice. The Portland Streetcar didn’t do all that utility relocation. I don’t know why most LRT projects do so much utility relocation. I think it is so that utility work won’t shut down the LRT.

    In contrast, the utility work just shuts down BRT routes (or Portland Streetcar) which were built without utility relocation. Sorry, so sad, no BRT for you today.

    This is another example of something which doesn’t actually have anything to do with bus vs. rail, but has to do with the fact that rail projects tend to be gold-plated and bus projects tend to be done cheaply and junkily.

    Why is that, anyway?

    You’re not going to change the trend for bus projects to be done cheaply and junkily by promoting “BRT”, which has come to mean “buses with slight improvements but not enough to make a difference, for a lot of money”.

  60. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 4:45 pm Link

    Ron Swaren:

    “But the big question: Can we come up with a bus that is just as, if not more popular than a LRT. ”
    No. That is impossible.

    “Looking at the latest designs, like London’s.”
    London has done better than any city in the world at making buses attractive. They are among the most popular buses in the developed world. And people in London *still* prefer rail.

    Cap’n Transit suggests that the core reason is “the lurch”.

    I do think it is a good idea to make buses as attractive as London’s. But that still will be less attractive than passenger rail; deal with the facts.

  61. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 4:52 pm Link

    I will say that the argument that buses can spread out on existing roads is a good one — in some places. Jarrett Walker made a good case for Brisbane. The busways there were ferociously expensive, but at least they were well-used.

    (And the people of Brisbane *still* prefer rail. The privately operated airport train is actually making a *profit*.)

  62. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 4:53 pm Link

    “LRT advocates talk a lot about lower operating costs, and tend to ignore the cost to individuals’ time as they get drawn into the length and elaborate planning processes,”

    This seems to happen in BRT projects too.

    Everett, WA is a nice counterexample, but it hasn’t been replicated even in *Seattle*.

  63. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 4:56 pm Link

    “EngineerScotty Says:

    Nathanael,

    A bus can detour around utility repair work with minimal disruption in service quality–it’s not a matter of “its OK to shut a bus line down”.”

    Simply untrue.

    Most utility work which I’ve seen shuts down a whole lane.

    A train can detour if you’ve built a second track. A bus can detour if you’ve built a second *lane*, which is just as big a deal.

    If you’ve built a one-lane (each way) busway, detours for utility work mean going back into mixed traffic, and you’ve lost the benefits of BRT.

    If you’ve built a two-lane (each way) busway, perhaps you should have priced out a two-track railroad, because *four-lane busways are freaking expensive*

  64. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm Link

    “Rail, OTOH, suffers in the heat as catenary sags, tracks warp, and TriMet posts slow orders on 100 degree days–while bus engines are more likely to overheat on hot days, and busses without AC suck, the underlying infrastructure doesn’t fail in the heat as train tracks can do.”

    Apparently the key for train tracks is what the design temperature is. It’s hard to design train tracks which will handle *both* heat *and* cold (unless you go back to bolted track and oil the connections). This is because rail expands and contracts as the temperature changes, and if it goes outside its design range, you have problems.

    ODOT presumably specfied track designed for colder temperatures. Now, track used in Phoenix is designed for hotter temperatures (and yes, it’ll crack in the cold).

  65. EngineerScotty
    September 13, 2012 at 5:02 pm Link

    Nathanael,

    I seem to recall that LRT requires utility relocation, because the heavier roadbeds needed to support LRT vehicles cannot include things like water and sewer mains–the pipes would be crushed by the loads.

    With streetcar vs bus, you do have a choice.

    With bus, assuming we’re not talking about a class-A busway with minimal places a bus can leave, steering around utility work is easy. With rail, it is not so easy–trains can only go where there are tracks.

    A big problem with many rail systems (including many parts of MAX) is no redundancy (and unidirectional signalling)–any incident on the line necessitates a bus bridge. This is true even if the second track is clear–MAX lines are not bidirectionally signalled, thus MAX trains can generally only turn around at packet tracks and tails. Running backwards on the main tracks is a BIG no-no.

    This is, of course, an issue of the design of MAX, not a fundamental limitation of rail.

  66. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 5:05 pm Link

    Ron Swaren writes:

    “Criminy, there’s so many reasons why buses can provide better service than fixed rail; ”

    The basic one is that “someone else” is paying for the road system, whereas the rail service usually has to pay for its own tracks. (Ever been in a bus on dirt roads? Oh my, it’s an experience, and not a good one.) If we had an extensive network of government-maintained railroads, with branch lines extending everywhere, and the roadways were dirt or private, all the arguments for buses would turn into arguments for rail.

    Now, to be fair, this is actually a *very important* reason. If you can piggyback on someone else’s work, which someone else is paying for, that *is extremely valuable* and *often worth doing*.

  67. EngineerScotty
    September 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm Link

    And even if a lane is shut down, assuming the two lanes of a busway aren’t physically separated, nothing prevents the driver from driving in the opposing lane. Trains can only switch to the other track (assuming signalling permits this) where there is actually a crossing switch.

    And the legal and regulator regime around trains is much stricter than that around busses. This is a political fact, not a technical fact, but ’tis there nonetheless.

  68. EngineerScotty
    September 13, 2012 at 5:11 pm Link

    The basic one is that “someone else” is paying for the road system, whereas the rail service usually has to pay for its own tracks. (Ever been in a bus on dirt roads? Oh my, it’s an experience, and not a good one.) If we had an extensive network of government-maintained railroads, with branch lines extending everywhere, and the roadways were dirt or private, all the arguments for buses would turn into arguments for rail.

    This is very much true.

  69. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm Link

    “Nathanael,

    I seem to recall that LRT requires utility relocation, because the heavier roadbeds needed to support LRT vehicles cannot include things like water and sewer mains–the pipes would be crushed by the loads.”

    I do not believe this. The water and sewer mains have to cross under the LRT in any case, so it can’t be single-point axle loads. And as for overall longitudinal loads, a road full of trucks and buses will give you some pretty huge loads. (A road full of trucks and buses does need a pretty heavy roadbed, too.)

    The streetcars and the LRT are the same damned vehicles, just slightly shorter; the load difference isn’t huge. I could certainly see needing utility relocation for safety reasons if you take a “no trucks allowed” road and converted it to LRT, but not if you took a truck-and-bus thoroughfare.

    I mean, it’s also possible that the utilties are simply typically too close to the surface, so that unless you move them the LRT tracks will end up above street level. The track structure isn’t exceptionally heavy compared to asphalt but it is somewhat *thicker* (more air in there). Given how deep water pipes are (six feet minimum!) I don’t think that’s at all likely though. For sewer pipes, maybe.

    I think what’s happening is that LRT is simply being built to higher standards, more durability, than the corresponding “BRT”. We see this when we watch the pavement wear out on the Orange Line in LA. As usual, you can get a substandard busway for less than a very-well-built railway line!

    I assume you can get a substandard railway line for less than a very-well-built busway, but it doesn’t seem to happen as often! (The San Diego Blue Line is the closest example I can think of of “LRT done on the cheap” with low standards.)

  70. Nathanael
    September 13, 2012 at 5:20 pm Link

    Bluntly, if BRT advocates said “We want to leverage the bazillion-dollar investment into roads which has already been made”, I’d be right there with them.

    That somehow isn’t what the marketing has been, though, and the “BRT” fad has led to some things which would be obviously wrong if that were kept in mind — like paving over former railway lines for “BRT”.

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