|Questions and comments|
Back on Tracks? A renewed LRT v. BRT debate surfaces along Bottineau Boulevard
As early as the 1980s, the long-term transportation plan for Bottineau Boulevard included eventual construction of an LRT line that would stretch from downtown Minneapolis to the northwestern suburbs of Hennepin County. By 2000, however, political reality and fiscal famine had combined to render a Bottineau Boulevard LRT line a much more distant possibility. In response, transit planners, community members, and other partners along the Bottineau Boulevard worked together to develop a vision for the Corridor that included the construction of some form of Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT. BRT seemed to make particularly good sense at the time, given that the County was going to rebuild the road anyway and would be able to integrate dedicated bus lanes into the project. BRT’s lower anticipated capital cost was also attractive because the public’s money and potential good will were already in play with the Hiawatha LRT, which had not broken ground, much less proven its worth in terms of ridership and popularity.
Hiawatha LRT. Photo by Metro Transit.
BRT runs in a dedicated center lane in this rendering
In 2002, a potential Bottineau Boulevard BRT line received a boost when the Legislature authorized a $20 million bonding authorization to support further BRT planning and construction. The roadway design that eventually emerged contemplated that BRT would occupy a dedicated center lane. That proposal lost some of its luster, however, after Hennepin County’s updated traffic forecasts revealed that within 10 to 15 years, the projected volume of cars along Bottineau Boulevard would entirely fill the roadway. Complicating the picture were lingering questions about the feasibility of a median alignment, including the logistics of pedestrian access and snow removal. In response, planners began to pay renewed attention to the possibilities that lie within the BNSF railroad corridor that runs parallel to Bottineau Boulevard along most of its length. Meanwhile, for more than two years following the bonding authorization, access to the $20 million in busway funding was stalled as busway proponents worked to address the state’s Department of Finance position that the funding could not be released unless it purchased a completed busway.
The busway’s latest chapter recently opened when Commissioner Mike Opat began to urge a second look at the decision to pursue BRT at all. Commissioner Opat has suggested that in light of the success of the Hiawatha LRT, changes in the political climate (including Rep. Jim Oberstar’s movement into a lead position with the House Transportation Committee this year), and the potential to negotiate a deal with BNSF over the railroad corridor, the region may be best served by a return to the original plan of pursuing LRT along the Corridor. “Emerging issues, especially the new Target campus in Brooklyn Park and the growing interest in LRT, are causing us to take a fresh look,” says Opat. “We can’t settle for a substandard mode or route when we’re making an investment that should serve generations.”
According to Nacho Diaz, retired senior planning director for Metro Transit, a renewed focus on a possible Bottineau Boulevard LRT line is entirely understandable given the recent progress on other LRT corridors. “Both the North Star Commuter line and the Central Corridor seem to be moving along, and that opens the opportunity for all the potential LRT corridors,” says Diaz. “The Southwest Corridor has many of the conditions to be potentially a very successful LRT line, and it is staking out its ground and has done quite a bit of work to be well-positioned.”
Even a casual inquiry into the relative merits of rail versus BRT quickly uncovers a vigorous and sometimes acrimonious debate between proponents of each mode. Indeed, even their advocacy groups’ domain names suggest something of a shouting match, with the BRT Policy Center’s www.gobrt.org ready to go head-to-head with www.lightrailnow.org. Each side has engaged in some decidedly unrestrained critiques of the other’s preferred transit mode, including its assumptions, its political motivations, and its ultimate desirability. But in many cities, both within and outside the U.S., BRT and LRT exist as complementary systems, each with its own particular role to play. All rhetoric aside, the decision whether to pursue LRT or BRT along the Bottineau Boulevard will require that policymakers weigh several discrete sets of odds involving many of the usual factors: time, money, political will, and the behavior of would-be riders.
Calculating the Costs
By most reports, BRT is generally cheaper to build than LRT, although the cost savings are less in systems that involve construction of a segregated busway, such as proposed within the BNSF railroad corridor. In its September 2001 report comparing BRT and LRT systems in the U.S., for instance, the GAO reported BRT capital costs (adjusted for 2000 dollars) that ranged from a low of $200,000 per mile for an arterial, street-based system, up to $55 million per mile for a dedicated busway system. By contrast, the LRT systems reviewed by the report had capital costs ranging from $12.4 million to $118.8 million per mile.1 If eventual LRT conversion is part of the long-term plan, that also reduces BRT’s ultimate capital cost savings. Also, with added high-end technological bells and whistles such as guided technologies and the like, the total BRT bill rises rapidly.
BRT’s lower cost, especially in its less-luxurious forms, explains its growing importance in cities in the developing world, some of which must build infrastructure out of transit chaos on
extremely limited budgets.
In these countries, BRT is geared toward creating basic transportation support for huge segments of the population, rather than enticing people out of their cars. While circumstances are different in the U.S., the bottom line still drives the discussion. The FTA’s limited ability to fund the many New Start rail projects presently underway may help in part to explain its enthusiastic endorsement of BRT, and underscore the political reality that BRT may offer a practical way to spread federal resources to more cities, while still helping to spur a shift in Americans’ transit choice behavior.2
While the particulars vary widely from system to system, the long-term operating costs for an LRT line are typically less than for BRT. Although buses are generally cheaper than LRT cars, their life span is only half as long, and they cost more to operate for the simple reason that each bus needs its own driver, while a chain of LRT cars can be piloted by a single person. When BRT occupies a segregated busway, has upgraded stations and high-quality buses, and serves a sufficiently dense population, BRT can begin to approach the ridership and service levels of rail transit, at a lesser initial investment. As those levels of ridership rise, however, LRT per-passenger operational costs are typically less than BRT, and the type of “upscale” BRT that will appeal to a broader swath of riders is more expensive to build. Still, at least some evidence suggests that BRT can offer overall cost savings, despite its higher operating costs over all but the lowest range of capacity. On the other hand, for a corridor expected to grow rapidly into the upper reaches of BRT capacity, LRT may end up being cheaper in the long run.3
Rails on Rubber, or Just a Faster Bus?
A BRT service in a segregated busway that uses standard buses and has limited stops can carry up to 5,000 to 8,000 passengers per peak hour. With higher-capacity buses (such as an articulated vehicle that carries 120 passengers), that number rises to 12,000.4 By comparison, a well-designed LRT system can handle more than 30 four-car trains per hour, and can accommodate over 20,000 passengers per peak hour.5 Planners estimate that a Bottineau Boulevard BRT would see 23,000 daily riders by 2025, suggesting that either LRT or BRT would provide sufficient capacity. In 2005, projections showed that employment growth of 38% over the next twenty years, to include 462,000 employees along the Corridor by 2025. Since then, that huge pool of potential future riders has only grown, with Target’s new corporate campus estimated to add as many as 30,000 additional new employees to the area during this timeframe.
Of course, any measure of capacity rings as hollow as an empty bus if ridership never materializes. Although hard figures are hard to come by given the relatively few full-scale BRT systems in U.S. cities, BRT generally fails to attract the “non-transit-dependent” rider at the same scale as LRT. These riders will park and ride to an LRT station, but shun BRT. The pioneering BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil, actually saw a decline in ridership beginning in the 1990s, as the city’s middle class grew significantly, left the buses, and bought lots of cars.6
In the U.S., BRT continues to suffer from the stigmatization of standard buses, which may explain why rail has a better track record at attracting new riders. Absent an exclusive busway, the BRT can be subject to the same congestion, delays, and unpleasantly jarring rides as a regular bus. By contrast, BRT systems such as LA’s Orange Line, which runs in exclusive lanes, claim to achieve something much more like rail transit’s speed and reliability.
The Orange Line bills itself as “rails on rubber tires,” and LA actually classifies the BRT line as part of its rail system, rather than its bus system. Reviews from actual riders--including Brooklyn Park Mayor Steve Lampi--are decidedly mixed. “Commissioner Opat and I recently traveled to LA to ride the Orange Line, and it certainly seemed to me like they have a long way to go before it resembles LRT,” observes Mayor Lampi.
Still, it does appear that the new high-end, BRT buses can be far more comfortable and rail-like than traditional buses. Clean-burning diesel, hybrid technology, composite structures that render buses more suitable for advanced propulsion systems, panoramic windows, and innovate door designs can all result in a much improved quality of ride.
Catalyst for Development
Significantly for the Bottineau Boulevard, BRT so far seems to have less success than LRT as a catalyst for transit-oriented development.7 One simple reason is that Bus Transit-Oriented Development, or BTOD, is still a relatively new field, so that experts are few and far between and leadership has yet to emerge.8 There exist a host of other explanations, beginning with the fact that rail projects tend to take place on a larger scale, so that their associated development occurs at a greater magnitude.9 Rail may also attract more investment because it is perceived as more permanent than a bus system. The “newness” of a rail system can encourage investment in areas undergoing a radical change in land use. 10 High-grade pedestrian access--an important component to successful TOD--is also generally easier to achieve with rail systems.11
Successful BTOD has occurred in cities such as Ottawa, Bogota, and Curitiba, but those examples typically involve development that occurs within a context of integrated planning that is subject to land use controls far stricter than those of a typical American city.12
On the whole, American cities tend to see much lower densities associated with bus transit than do their European and South American counterparts.13
If the goal is to stimulate development at stations along a corridor that has or is poised to see sufficient growth and density, then LRT may be a better choice. BRT tends to be more successful where the lower capital investment makes more sense given a lower level of projected ridership, and where uncoordinated growth has led to low density housing coupled with significant traffic congestion. To put it bluntly, LRT is a better catalyst for growth, while BRT may be a better response to sprawl.
Putting the Bus Before the Train
BRT might also provide a way to build ridership in advance of LRT construction. This rationale fueled the decision by Calgary—a city with a robust and successful LRT system—to build BRT along its own northwest corridor. Paris is another example of a city that is using BRT as a precursor to eventual rail transit, and that city has aggressively pursued a system of high-quality, exclusive right-of-way BRT systems on suburban boulevards. “BRT has successfully served as a precursor in cities such as Calgary and Ottawa, and can be useful in terms of getting something built sooner rather than later, and building ridership for the future,” agrees Nacho Diaz. “Although it hasn’t been terribly visible, the Northstar Commuter bus is a local example of a bus line operating in advance of LRT, and it has been relatively successful at bringing people into the city and promoting the concept of commuter transit in those suburbs that are beyond the reach of the Metro Council.”
Still, Diaz points out that building BRT with the anticipating of a future LRT conversion carries its share of risks. “Once you have made a big investment in bus infrastructure, it may not make sense to convert it,” he says. “It can also be dangerous to pursue an alternative that is a double whammy in terms of capital costs.” The conversion itself can also be logistically difficult, particularly for BRT in a dedicated corridor, as the LRT construction could disrupt service for a year or more.
Of course, whether or not it is deemed an LRT precursor, earlier BRT along the Bottineau Boulevard would bring one clear advantage in terms of reduced emissions sooner rather than later. In the U.S., transportation accounted for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 and are on a dramatic upswing; meanwhile, work trips account for the single greatest number of miles traveled in the U.S.14 At least one researcher has concluded that because BRT can be implemented sooner and at a lower cost and offers just as good or better potential for reducing emissions as does LRT, it is a sound strategy for state and local officials looking to achieve reductions in the near term.15
Not surprisingly, Nacho Diaz cautions that any decision to pursue LRT along the Bottineau Boulevard will necessarily require patience. “If you put all your eggs in the LRT basket, without a contingency plan, then you may see nothing happen for many, many years,” he observes. “Even if everything else was ready to go, it’s difficult to conceive a line being built there in 10 years. Once you throw in the right-of-way availability, funding, and all the other priorities in the region, the wait could become much, much longer.”
End of article
1 “Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise,” General Accounting Office, GAO-01-984 at 4 (Sept. 2001), available online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d01984.pdf (last accessed Jan. 23, 2007). Note that Light Rail Now published a critique of this GAO report’s assumptions and conclusions, available online at http://www.lightrailnow.org/myths/m_brt002.htm (last accessed Jan. 23, 2007).
2 Sislak, Kenneth, “Bus Rapid Transit as a Substitute for Light Rail Transit: A Tale of Two Cities.” A Discussion paper submitted as part of Light Rail: Investment for the Future—8th Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit, sponsored by sponsored by the American Public Transit Association and the Transportation Research Board, Dallas, TX (Nov. 2000), available online at http://tinyurl.com/4o8qu (last accessed March 7, 2007).
3McBrayer, David B. “Light Rail Transit and Other Modes: Blurring the Light Rail Transit-Bus Rapid Transit Boundaries,” at 146-47. Transportation Research Circular E-C058: 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference
(available online at http://tinyurl.com/25fbmy) (last accessed Jan. 24, 2007).
4“A Review of Bus Rapid Transit,” Calgary Transit Planning Report at 1 (March 2002), available online at http://www.calgarytransit.com/html/brt_report.pdf (last accessed Jan. 24 2007).
7See generally, Currie, Graham, “Bus Transit-Oriented Development: Strengths and Weaknesses Relative to Rail,” Journal of Public Transportation, Vol. 9, No. 4 (2006), available online at http://tinyurl.com/yvnsne, (last accessed Jan. 22 2007).
8 Id. at 8.
9 Id. at 4.
10 Id. at 5.
11 Id. at 10.
12Id. at 3.
14Vincent, William, and Jeram, Lisa Callaghan. “The Potential for Bus Rapid Transit to Reduce Transportation-Related CO2 Emissions. Journal of Public Transportation at 220 (2006 BRT Special Edition).
15Id. at 221.