Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Development Oriented Transit

I read Streetsblog New York's piece on BRT yesterday, and thought about mentioning some arguments in opposition to BRT, but held off.

Good decision, it turns out, since The Overhead Wire can be counted on to make the case against BRT far more passionately than I can. That post and the comments it generated are definitely worth a read, but one remark in particular struck me:

Regions that build BRT will always be car cities. If you want to truly transform regions, we're going to have to think bigger. -The Overhead Wire
BRT works well in some places because it's a rapid transit system built for auto-centric development patterns. It's rapid, but not particularly high-capacity, so it can cover large distances for cheap in places where surface real-estate is cheap, destinations are far apart, and there's not enough travel demand for something more robust. This makes it a less than clear-cut choice for Manhattan or even SF.

BRT can also reinforce these factors, keeping land cheap (or rather not increasing its value) and not attracting trip-generating development (like housing, jobs and shops) along its route. For cities eyeing transit as a catalyst for smart development patterns, BRT is not the obvious choice.

But I want to tease out a point from the pro-BRT crowd that I think we ought to run with. Even in places where BRT is not the ideal piece of transit infrastructure, it can be worth doing on an interim basis while we wait for a truly high-capacity solution to be planned/funded/built.

To that end, BRT ought to be super cheap - the cost of paint and signal re-timing - and it should be clearly understood to be a half-step. If BRT construction takes a huge dent out of any potential funding for a high-capacity transit line, making it harder to build that ultimate goal, then it's counterproductive. Similarly, if BRT takes away most of the political impetus for a more robust transit solution, making it harder to build the political will to undertake a major project, then it is counterproductive.

For these reasons, I think BRT on Geary and Van Ness is the wrong decision. The cost of those projects is approaching the cost of rail, as is the planning and construction timeline. And once those fancy lanes are in, it will be decades before we touch those streets again. Which is too bad.

But if the BOS and the MTA decide all of a sudden to follow the City Charter which says "Decisions regarding the use of limited public street and sidewalk space shall encourage the use of public rights of way by pedestrians, bicyclists, and public transit," they could make great improvements by adopting some of the features of BRT along our existing bus routes.

Green: "Transit Preferential Streets"

Take a lane away from cars on the busiest bus routes. Remove parking if you need to. Don't spend millions rebuilding the road, just mark it 'Bus Only' and ticket the hell out of drivers who violate the lane. You'll see the improvement in trip times and reliability immediately. But if that's not enough then give ever bus signal priority over cars.

If ridership along these improved lines increases, we can talk about building something more permanent to supplement it and generate even higher ridership. But let's not spend as much as a new light rail line to do it.


Jarrett at said...

No argument about your application of BRT-lite treatments to other major corridors.

But your dismissal of BRT, and that of the Overhead Wire, seems too reliant on the limited US experience, where BRT has tended to be implemented near the lower end of its quality and capacity range.

Eventually the US will need to broaden its view to learn from both best-practice first world cities like Brisbane and Ottawa, as well as best-practice advanced-third-world examples like Bogota and Curitiba.

That Ottawa and Curitiba are now planning conversions to rail is evidence of the success of BRT at driving urbanisation and transit dependence, not its failure.

Pedestrianist said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jarrett, I love your blog.

It's apples-to-oranges to compare the world's best, or some perfect hypothetical BRT line to a poorly-executed Muni light rail line. In reality, we end up looking at poorly-done BRT systems in the US because that's what we're likely to get.

I agree that there are lessons to learn from successful BRT applications, but we should be honest about the limits to reapplying those lessons here.

SF doesn't have a network of highway medians in which it can build a BRT network. The plans we do have cost nearly as much as rail would and are taking just as long to plan and build. If cost and time savings are two major reasons to choose BRT over rail, then they do not apply in SF's case.

My main point - one on which I hope we can all largely agree - is that those cheapest and most beneficial characteristics of BRT ought to be implemented on as many bus lines as possible.

When BRT is advertised as a stepping stone to a high capacity transit line, it should be built that way - with as little money and time invested in creating the interim step, and as much benefit coming out of that step.

My 2¢

Nathan said...

I think the situation with more full-on BRT (i.e. dedicated lanes and stations) is more complex than you present it. But I don't want to engage that endless, almost theological argument, here.

I just want to note that Los Angeles has a variety of BRT treatments--a separated busway (Orange Line, being extended), lanes on a freeway (El Monte Busway) and on-street running Rapid bus lines. There are something like 22 of those at last count.

What they haven't yet been able to do is get the city to give up a lane for buses. LA's densities are generally lower than San Francisco's, but comparable to or higher than Oakland and Berkeley's. They do of course have rail lines they are extending. But it's a pretty interesting experiment in what you can do with buses in a multicentric environment.

Pedestrianist said...

"What they haven't yet been able to do is get the city to give up a lane for buses"

In theory, San Francisco already has a number of bus-only lanes - down Market, Geary Street, etc. But they are never enforced, and so I'd say SF hasn't really been able to give up a lane for buses either :-/