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Transit


Tennessee's BRT feud shows even modest projects face opposition

Often when a new city proposes its first rail line, opponents who don't like spending money on transit call for BRT instead. So it's tempting to think cities might have an easier time implementing new transit lines if they simply planned BRT from the start. Unfortunately, BRT often faces the exact same opposition.


Two projects that have faced major opposition, the Nashville BRT (left) and Cincinnati streetcar (right). Images from the cities of Nashville and Cincinnati.

Nashville is the latest city to face strong opposition to its first BRT project, called the Amp. The Tennessee state legislature recently passed a bill blocking the line.

The debate mirrors one going on a few hundred miles north, in Cincinnati. There, opponents tried to kill that city's first streetcar line. The state government even tried to block it.

Both Nashville and Cincinnati are among America's most car-dependent and least transit-accessible large cities. Nashville's entire regional transit agency only carries about 31,000 passengers per day. Cincinnati's carries about 58,000.

For comparison, Montgomery County's Ride-On bus carries 87,000, never mind WMATA.

In places like Nashville and Cincinnati, authorities have ignored transit for so long that any attempt to take it seriously is inherently controversial, regardless of the mode.

Arguments may fixate on rails, dedicated lanes, or overhead wires, but for at least some opponents those issues seem to be simply vehicles for larger ideological opposition.

That may sometimes be true even in places with stronger transit cultures. Arlington's streetcar and Montgomery's BRT network are both controversial themselves. Both have plenty of detractors who say the plans are unaffordable or would get in the way of cars.

Ultimately there are many reasons a city hoping to improve transit might choose BRT or rail. The two modes are both useful, and smart cities use them both based on the specific needs of the location.

But either way, expect similar tropes from opposition. It's inescapable.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Streetcars are more flexible about capacity

Streetcars and buses have different strengths and weaknesses, and are better at accomplishing different goals. Flexibility is often touted as a major strength of buses. Although buses are legitimately more nimble in some ways, when it comes to flexibility of capacity, it's streetcars that have the edge.


Image from the American Public Transportation Association.

It's true that buses have tremendous routing flexibility. Since buses can operate on any normal traffic lane, routes can be reconfigured on a whim and individual buses are free to move around obstacles. These are real benefits, and sometimes they mean that a route is best off using buses.

At the same time, streetcars are customizable for high-capacity service in ways that aren't available for buses.

Streetcars can be longer

In simplest terms, streetcars can be longer than buses. Since streetcars run on tracks, there is no danger of jackknifing. Likewise, since streetcars are powered by overhead wire, there's not a single engine distributing power. Thus there's no physical limit to their length.

For example, streetcar manufacturer CAF offers its Urbos model in options ranging from 60 feet long up to 141 feet long. Bombardier's similar Flexity model comes in any length from 69 feet up to 148 feet.

Portland's famous streetcar is a relatively diminutive 65 feet long, but longer vehicles are beginning to show up in North America. Cincinnati is using a 77 foot long Urbos for its future line, and the first 78 foot long Siemens S70s have already been delivered to Atlanta. In Toronto, 99 foot long Flexities will soon ply the continent's largest streetcar network.


99' long Toronto streetcar. Image by Bombardier.

And that's just single streetcar vehicles. Streetcars can also be coupled into trains of multiple cars, so transit agencies that own shorter vehicles can still get the benefits of extra length without needing new railcars.

Agencies that want to run longer trains do have to provide longer stations, but since streetcar stations are typically simple, that's relatively easy to accomplish.

Ultimately the limiting factor on streetcar length is the size of city blocks. Streetcars can't typically be longer than one city block, lest they block traffic on perpendicular streets. But city blocks are usually hundreds of feet long, so streetcars can still be much longer than buses.

Streetcars can have diverse interiors

Even compared to buses of exactly the same length, streetcars can support a higher passenger capacity. Since gliding along rails is so much more smooth than rumbling along asphalt, and since there's no need for huge wheel wells, it's more practical for streetcars to have a lot of open space that maximizes standing capacity.


Interior of one of DC's streetcars. Photo by BeyondDC.

The 3 streetcars that DC has in storage use this strategy. They're 65 feet long, but they have much more capacity than a 60 foot long articulated bus because of the open floor plan. The trade off, of course, is that they have fewer seats, but only streetcars practically offer the choice.

What kind of flexibility is more important?

Faced with the choice of operational flexibility or capacity flexibility, which one rules?

It depends on the needs of the corridor and the goals of the transit line. Sometimes buses are the correct answer, and other times it's streetcars.

Sometimes it might make sense to use both on the same corridor. For example, streetcars capable of providing very high capacity might serve most passengers along a line, while buses capable of skipping around traffic might serve longer express trips on the same road.

There are 157 WMATA bus routes in the District of Columbia alone, with hundreds more WMATA and non-WMATA routes around the region. The majority of them are probably better served with buses, but some of them are undoubtedly better fits for streetcars.

The key for decision makers is to embrace the differences inherent to each mode, and decide accordingly.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


"BRT creep" makes bus rapid transit inferior to rail

Can the US make Bus Rapid Transit work as well as Latin America? Tanya Snyder asks that question in GGW and Streetsblog.


Curitiba BRT station. Photo by whl.travel

BRT systems in places like Bogota and Curitiba have narrowed the gap between bus and rail, producing BRT lines nearly as good as subways. If they produce such great BRT, why should American BRT be considered the little sister of rail?

The answer is something I call "BRT creep". Putting aside the inherent differences between bus and rail, one of the big problems with BRT is that it's too easy to strip down. There are too many corners you can cut that save a lot of money and only degrade service a little bit.

You put your BRT in HOV lanes or regular travel lanes instead of dedicated lanes, or you build "stops" rather than more luxurious "stations", or you leave out pre-pay, or you don't give buses signal priority, or you don't give your BRT unique branding, or whatever. There are a thousand corners like that you can cut that individually may or may not hurt too much, but collectively add up to the difference between BRT and a regular bus.

In the US, BRT creep is a big problem. Generally speaking the main reason American cities opt to build BRT instead of rail is to cut a corner and make it less expensive. Once you've adopted that view of your transit systemthat cutting corners to save money is OKit's too easy to keep going and cut a lot of other corners as well. Once you've made the decision to cheap out and go with BRT rather than rail, then your priorities are clear and the temptation to cheap out in other ways is too strong to pass up.

It happens all the time. The four leading examples of recently-built BRT in the United States are in Boston, Cleveland, Eugene, and Los Angeles. Boston's Silver Line BRT was built with curbside bus lanes like the one on 7th Street in DC, and is perpetually stuck behind car traffic using the lane illegally. Cleveland's Euclid Avenue BRT spends half its time stopped at red lights because it doesn't include signal preemption.

Eugene's EmX BRT doesn't even have its own lane for much of its route. LA's San Fernando Valley Orange Line BRT is probably this country's most successful "rail like" bus line, but even it was forced to repave its running way after barely a year of operation because the originally-constructed running way was substandard. So far, every example of BRT built in the United States has cut at least one extremely damaging corner.

And then there's Northern Virginia, where the HOV lanes on I-395 and I-95 that the state wants to convert to HOT lanes were originally built as a bus-only facility. Here, we built a pretty good busway and have spent the years since opening it up to more and more use by cars.

And why not? After all, if your goal is to substitute a less expensive but less effective alternate mode, why should anyone be surprised when you make the same sort of substitution when it comes to details of running way engineering or signalization?

If BRT is just a way to avoid spending a lot on transit so more can go to highways, why be surprised when BRT lanes are converted to car lanes? If decision makers were actually interested in spending the money to produce a transit line as good as rail, well, why not build rail?

I don't mean to suggest that BRT alone suffers from these problems, or that it's useless. Certainly rail projects can suffer from creeping cost reductions as well, and certainly good busesincluding rapid onesshould be a part of every major transit system.

Still, as long as US planners think of BRT as a cheap replacement for rail, then the US will be very unlikely to ever produce BRT that is actually rail-like (as much as it can be anyway), because that mindset inherently undervalues many of the specific features that are needed to produce a high-quality transit line, regardless of mode.

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