Archive | June, 2013

Portland BRT: How open should it be?

Bus Rapid Transit has been getting a lot of attention in the Portland metro area recently. North of the Columbia, C-TRAN has been planning its Fourth Plain BRT project. Here in Oregon, the Powell/Division Transit Project, widely expected to be BRT of some sort, is getting ready to start. (You might be interested in this presentation from TriMet from last year). Higher-end BRT is a strong contender for the Southwest Corridor, and longer term, BRT has been actively discussed for corridors such as Tualatin to Oregon City/Clackamas via I-205, and TV Highway between Hillsboro and Beaverton. And the transit mall, essentially, is a dedicated transitway (though the high stop density and large number of signalized crossings keep it from being rapid), and when the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail project (and the new bridge) opens, there will essentially be a dedicated multimodal transit corridor stretching from OMSI to Union Station.

North of here, King County Metro operates the RapidRide service, and Community Transit operates the Swift BRT service. South of here, the Lane Transit District operates the EmX service in Eugene and Springfield. And in Salt Lake City, the Utah Transit Authority operates a BRT line called…. MAX. (Their light rail is called TRAX, for those who are interested). Yet so far, no BRT system is operating in the Portland metro area–but it appears that will change.

An important decision when considering BRT–especially when considering an expansive system, rather than a single line or two–how open should it be?
Open vs closed BRT

In rough terms, an “open” BRT system is one where service is decoupled from physical infrastructure, and a “closed” one is where there is a high degree of separation between BRT service(s) and POBS (“plain old bus service”). The high-end Brisbane (Australia) BRT system is a canonical example of an open BRT system. Grade-separated busways radiate out from the central business district, with many overlapping bus lines using the busways as a high-speed, high-frequency trunk, and then leave the busways and run on local streets to serve different neighborhoods. Ottawa’s BRT system is also an open BRT. A closed BRT system, on the other hand, more resembles a light-rail line; as dedicated busses (often with distinct branding and livery) travel on dedicated infrastructure over specific corridors, and are distinct from local bus service. EmX is a closed BRT system, as is the LA Orange Line.

Of course, “open” and “closed” is not a binary choice. Busses, fundamentally, are all rubber-tired vehicles designed to run on roads, so there is plenty of opportunity to mix and match. Swift is one example of a “hybrid” system–as several local Community Transit routes overlap with Swift, and are capable of using some of its infrastructure. In general, for a hybrid system, there are two questions to ask:

  • To what extent can “ordinary” busses take advantage of BRT infrastructure?
  • To what extent can “rapid transit” busses venture off the busway and serve neighborhoods via local streets?

Among the attributes to consider are:

  • Right-of-way needs of the vehicles: Are oversized busses used that may have difficulty running on many local streets? Is special guidance equipment, signalling, etc. needed to safely navigate a busway?
  • Platforms and platform compatibility: Are stations high-platform, low-platform, or curb-level? Is precision docking needed, to minimze the gap between platform and bus (and permit rampless boarding of wheelchairs and such)? Are on-board ramps needed? Are opposite-side doors (doors on the left in the US) needed for center platforms? Are separate platforms/stops provided for different types of service?
  • Fare collection/payment: How are fares collected–by the driver, by onboard ticket machines/validators, by ticket machines/validators at the platform, or by fare gates on the platform? Are fares enforced by physical security (gates), checked by drivers or conductors, or randomly checked by fare inspectors?
  • How easy is it for faster services to pass slower services, particularly for limited-stop services to pass local services stopped at stations not served by the faster service?

Hybrid system use cases

There are several specific use cases that are worth considering:

  • Combined rapid and local service: A common characteristic of BRT is wide stop spacing–there’s little point in speeding up bus infrastructure if the bus is to stop every 150m. 400m (about a quarter of a mile) is often specified as a minimum stop spacing, and many BRT systems average a mile or more between stops. While this does not pose a problem for many able-bodied riders–many of whom will happily trade off walking distance for faster, frequent, and more reliable service–it can negatively impact those with mobility impairments, for whom a longer walk is a burden. A common solution is to mix local and BRT service in the same corridor. LA does this with its local (orange) and Metro Rapid (red) busses; this is not difficult to do with mixed-traffic BRT (such as Metro Rapid) or BAT-lane BRT (like Swift). For higher-end BRT, however, mixing local service in can be more problematic. Several local LTD bus routes run alongside EMX on Franklin Boulevard in Eugene–but they serve separate (curbside) stops (and stay in the mixed-traffic mainline) whereas EMX serves BRT-exclusive stops in the median. As many of the EmX stops require left-side boarding, use of LTD’s regular busses on the EmX line simply won’t work.
    I can see this scenario being played out with the proposed Powell/Division line, with the rapid line having infrequent stations and queue jump lanes, and the 9 and 4 being maintained as locals (with lower frequencies) that can also take advantage of the queue jumps, but stop more frequently and may not stop at dedicated BRT stations, depending on if there are platform compatibility issues. Actually, any BRT trunk line is a candidate for a nearby or overlapping local.
  • Branching closed BRT: BRT doesn’t necessarily have to be open to take advantage of trunk/branch topology (one of the things it does that rail cannot do easily)–it just needs to be possible for BRT-specific rolling stock to travel off the busway (possibly with lesser performance). One important attribute to support this is onboard payment, if the bus will be servicing stops that don’t have ticket machines. On-board ticket machines (like Streetcar has) are a good way to do this (though machines at platforms on the BRT trunk should still be provided). Mobile ticketing apps, like TriMet is presently beta-testing, will work. A second important attribute is adequate fare inspection–you don’t want to make everyone file past the driver on a BRT service. (And mobile ticketing will probably require this as well). Many European transit agencies have use proof-of-payment on all their services, there are good reasons TriMet should head in this direction too.
    Branching will likely be important for the Southwest Corridor–simply because the existing bus service has a heavily branched topology, with numerous lines heading south on Barbur/I-5/Corbett and scattering to various destinations in west and southwest portion. Branches to Raleigh Hills/Beaverton, Garden Home/Washington Square/Murrayhill, Tigard/King City, are certainly obvious candidates. In addition, if BRT infrastructure is built between Tigard and Tualatin–might the 76 be converted to BRT as well, with the Tigard/Beaverton section done as an unimproved branch? Upgrading the northern end of the 76/78 to BRT would itself be a worthwhile project, though outside the scope of the SW Corridor.
  • Partial BRT: Another advantage of BRT over rail is that it can far more easily be staged–were a line to Tualatin built in two phases (phase 1 to Tigard, phase 2 to Tualatin), it is entirely possible for the service to continue all the way to Tualatin on surface streets in the interim, and upgrade it to higher-quality infrastructure later. And likewise for an extension to Sherwood. Or it may be the case that funding is only available for a partial line, and a street-running extension becomes a long-term solution. Or possibly “class C+” BRT at the extremities, and higher quality service closer in to town.
  • Express service on BRT. Every time TriMet opens a light-rail line, it tends to cancel redundant bus service–and a particular target of that axe are express bus routes. There are good reasons for TriMet to do this–rapid transit can generally provide similar levels of service for suburban commuters, and express busses are expensive, inefficient, and in some cases, inequitible–but many riders of express bus like the service, and don’t consider LRT to be an adequate replacement, for various reasons (some better than others). Some fraction of these former express riders can usually be counted on to abandon transit and switch to driving (and to complain about it in the press). With BRT, a viable option is to simply run the express lines on the BRT infrastructure, skipping many of the stations along the way. If this is to be done, passing facilities need to be provided, so express busses can pass locals or ordinary BRT servoce. If ordinary busses (or even coach-configured busses, like C-TRAN’s express lines) are used, the stops that they serve need to be compatible (curb-level platforms on the right) even if the ones they skip are not (raised platforms on the left).
    TriMet is planning to upgrade the 94 to all-day service, as part of its 2014 budget; providing an express alternative to the 12 between Tigard and Portland. The 96 and 92 also provide express service in the corridor catchment area (these latter two lines provide service for which there is no local equivalent, an unfortunate circumstance in my opinion). Whether this would be continued were the SW Corridor to be built (would we get three levels of service in the Barbur corridor?) is to be decided, but it is a distinct possibility.

The Best Bicycle Tax: A Street Utility Fee

I suppose it was entirely predictable…

City Club issued its report last week “No Turning Back: A City Club Report on Bicycle Transportation in Portland” – basically concluding that bicycles are now part of the urban transportation fabric and need to be thoroughly integrated into our transportation planning process, with a focus on education and safety.

But the press focused in on just one recommendation: a 4% state-wide excise tax on the sale of new bicycles to help fund education, safety programs, and measurement.

In fact, it took about two seconds for one online publication to put up a poll on whether a 4% tax for bicycle infrastructure was a good idea or not, completely twisting the message.

The Oregonian waited a whole week to oppose the tax, on the grounds that it was asking the whole state to pay for “Portland’s bike challenges”.

But the Oregonian did make an important point: cyclists are not getting a free ride, they pay for the street system as much as drivers do (in fact, most of them are drivers).

So what’s a cycling advocate supposed to think about this? In general we like the report, a lot!

But key activists are NOT rallying to oppose the tax (although we suspect it’s going nowhere fast). If cyclists are going to be taxed, it should be a tax that does not act as a barrier to trying cycling, as a license or registration fee would be. And even if we already have “skin in the game” for funding the street system, it would be helpful to have that abundantly clear to citizens at-large. And safety and education programs are critical and enjoy widespread support among cycling advocates.

But my own preference would be a completely different approach. We are dramatically underfunding our transportation system and that’s going to need to change soon. I’d like the approach to be a street utility fee (paid like a water or sewer bill, based on the trips your property helps generate). The beauty of this approach is that it’s mode-neutral. We ALL pay for the transportation system whether we walk, bike, drive or take transit. What could be fairer than that?

TriMet Does Some Things Very Well

We spend a fair amount of time on this site being critical of TriMet. But fair is fair. They had a significant announcement last week that deserves some attention. The Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail project has generated more than $100M ($110M in fact) in contracts to minority and women-owned subcontractors.

In fact, TriMet’s contracting efforts to so-called “Disadvantaged Business Enterprises” are a model that other major entities (like ODOT) are trying to emulate.

Well done.

Skateboarding Gets Some Respect

Oops… I meant to publish this last week – but you can still catch the online archive.

Skateboarding as Transportation: Findings from Exploratory Research

Speaker: Tessa Walker, MUS Student, PSU

Topic: Skateboarding as Transportation: Findings from Exploratory Research

Tessa Walker is currently completing her thesis on non-motorized transportation and qualitative research methods with supervision from Dr. Jennifer Dill and Dr. David Morgan. For more information on her thesis research please visit the Skate Study PDX website. Tessa has previously worked in town planning in Vermont, sustainability auditing in Massachusetts, and in bicycle and pedestrian transportation research with the Family Activity Study at PSU. She is currently an intern at the public opinion research firm DHM Research, and she will be a 2013-2014 Hatfield Fellow.

When: Friday, May, 31, 12-1 p.m.

Where: PSU Urban Center Building, SW 6th and Mill, Room 204

June 2013 Open Thread

A few tidbits: