Does the History of a Technology Matter?


Mater Hill busway station, Brisbane

Ben Ross has a nice long read in Dissent about the history of Bus Rapid Transit, noting all the ways it’s succeeded, failed, and been co-opted by various non-transit agendas.  He’s especially interested in the way various petroleum-and-asphalt interest groups have supported BRT as an alternative to rail for reasons that probably don’t have much to do with their love of great public transit.  All this is worth reading and knowing about.

But what, exactly, should we do with this history?  Practically everything that breaks through into the public discourse has private public relations money behind it, and that money always has different goals than you and your city do.  That’s why you should always lean into the wind when reading tech media.  But just as it’s wrong to fall for everything you read in corporate press releases, it’s also wrong to reflexively fall against them.  (Cynicism, remember, is consent.)

Galileo paid the bills, in part, by helping the military aim cannonballs correctly.  Does that mean pacifists should resist his insight that Jupiter has moons?

So while I loved Ross’s tour of the history, I reject his dismissive conclusion:

Buses will always be an essential part of public transit. Upgrading them serves urbanism, the environment, and social equity. But a better bus is not a train, and bus rapid transit promoters lead astray when they pretend otherwise. At its worst, BRT can be a Trojan horse for highway building. Even at its best, it is a technocratic solution to a fundamentally political problem.

The term technocratic is really loaded here.  Given the new “revolt against experts” trend in our politics, we urgently need to recognize  hard-earned expertise and to distinguish it from elite selfishness, but technocrat is a slur designed to confuse the two.


RBWH busway station, Brisbane

There are some great bus rapid transit systems out there, and not just in the developing world.  The mixed motives that underlie BRT advocacy don’t tell us anything about where BRT makes sense, any more than the mixed motives behind rail advocacy do.

A light reading of history can help you recognize the prejudices that may lay behind advocacy on all sides.  But then you have to set that aside, and think for yourself.


29 Responses to Does the History of a Technology Matter?

  1. Rob July 4, 2016 at 6:44 pm #

    Thanks for this. I get agitated and angry when I read this sort of stuff, so I appreciate your even-tempered response.

    There seems to be a world view whose foundation is that car-dependence and suburbs occurred because of a conspiracy to manipulate public opinion and suppress the opposing threat of streetcars. In fact people were enamored of cars because they found tremendous value in personal mobility, and in suburbs because they opened the door to making large family living spaces affordable. Meanwhile, by the 1940s streetcar systems were mostly in terrible shape. The property developers who built most of the streetcar systems lost interest once their property was sold, and municipal regulators kept fares too low to maintain and preserve them. They were in bad shape *before* the war, and had to keep groaning along under huge ridership strain until WWII was over.

    My view: I don’t think you can change auto-dependence if you don’t understand the value people place in personal mobility. They’re not using their car because someone duped them into it, just like we aren’t all using smart phones today because of those clever people who create ads for Apple. We use things because of the value they provide. Auto dependence isn’t something you defeat through advertising or cultural war; you win by providing a compelling and rational alternative that meets customers’ needs.

    Some old wisdom should prevail – form should follow function, and cost-effectiveness should drive investment decisions. Sometimes that will lead to a rail decision, sometimes not. We should build what is required to deliver desired outcomes, and only that much, because people have other important uses for their money, like frequent transit bus today or providing for their increasingly uncertain futures. And we should hold our decision-makers accountable to tell us what outcomes they’re aiming for other than an expensive new rail system that will.

    • Peter Laws July 6, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

      “[Street railways] were in bad shape *before* the war, and had to keep groaning along under huge ridership strain until WWII was over.”

      Long before. Most were in trouble by the 1920s. WW1-related inflation that seemed to provoke street railway strikes in many places did nothing to make the public love them. Passenger-miles and revenues and ridership all peaked in something like 1923. Interurbans exploded on the scene about 1900 and were largely gone within 15-20 years because what little ridership they had left for private automobiles as soon as those devices were affordable … and Mr Ford worked very hard and successfully to make sure they were affordable.

      The more I read about the big “conspiracy”, the more I see GM salesmen (with GMAC financing behind them) offering the private transit systems that limped into WW2 a way to replace their rolling stock *and* shed their expensive track and electric systems. If you were a private transit operator and GM shows up with brand new buses that didn’t need track and ran on cheap fuel (that only had to be put in at the end of the shift) *and* that you could afford on their easy terms, you’d be insane not to take them up on it. Not to mention having a fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders.

      Also, too …. I don’t know how many of their “old looks” GM built (or their Yellow Coach designs earlier), but they built *way* over 40,000 New Looks from 1959 into the 1980s. There were barely 5000 PCC streetcars.

      It would be fun — fun enough to make a movie, even! — if it were a big conspiracy but it was just capitalism.

      • Nathanael July 21, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

        The free road funding (from taxes) and lack of separate right-of-way for streetcars, plus taxes *on* streetcars, did in the public trasnportation system.

  2. p July 4, 2016 at 9:37 pm #

    Another piece about ‘privatisation’. Why does everything have to be government/collective property?

    It sounds like the activist class has a big hang-up about private property, property ownership and view profiting as immoral / criminal. They also have a ‘size’ issue, in that anything that is larger than a boutique cottage operation is automatically evil the moment it grows larger than the ‘acceptable’ size, incorporates itself, or starts operating outside one country.

    I thought the object here was getting goods and services to the people. Clearly, I was wrong.

    • Kyle B. July 5, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

      I can only speak for the Mexico City context when building their first BRT line, but the author’s perspective aside, anger over conversion of the [privatized] bus system to BRT was not related to privatization itself, as the previous system was also privately run. Instead, it was anger that the existing service providers, after years of providing substandard and often dangerous service, were allowed to negotiate the terms of the conversion of their concessions into shares in a even more lucrative private operating company.

      This was a political solution to a political problem, the problem being the desire of government not to pay directly for better transit service.

      Concessions are the time-bound right to operate a service on a particular route, awarded by the government to a private operator. Arguably, revoking that right, or refusing to renew it, would have been justified in this case. Instead, to avoid conflict with its transit providers, i.e. a strike or work stoppage that would have paralyzed the city, the government of Mexico City negotiated even more favorable terms for the concession owners, involving compensating them for junking their minibuses and making them shareholders in a new government-backed BRT operating company.

      It is my understanding that this political template is what EMBARQ and others have spread, much more than the BRT technology, per se.

  3. p July 4, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

    The bus photo in this post is a bus from Brisbane and the South East Busway. Brisbane’s busway currently works well, however the overall network needs to be updated, badly.

    I mention this as although I know this post was talking about the history of technology in a general sense, there is also a city-specific sense. The choice (history) of what technology was chosen in a particular city does constrain the choice of future options. Path-dependance is what people call it.

    The transit agency, TransLink, has found that around 60% of Brisbane’s peak hour busway buses are at 50% capacity or below during peak hours. It, therefore proposed a sweeping bus reform in 2013 that was rebuffed by residents after a political scare campaign by local councillors, who collectively have an interest in retaining the bus network operations.

    Rather than engage in bus reforms, the Lord Mayor of Brisbane has instead proposed to replace the core section of the Brisbane Busway network with a rubber-tyre metro. This is similar to the conversion of the Ottawa busway core to Light Rail. The main motivation seems to have been a council election in which the Lord Mayor wanted to outdo his opponent, who had promised a Light Rail line from one end of the city to the other.

    The interesting thing is that mayor’s metro would appear to reduce capacity, as the vehicles he proposed to use would only hold 300 persons. If we accept 40 trains an hour as the limit of a modern signalling system, then the capacity becomes:

    40 trains / hour x 300 persons/train = 12 000 passengers/hour, which is the same or below the current busway.

    The Lord Mayor is thus proposing to replace one technology at $1.54 billion dollar cost, with another, for ZERO increase in capacity.

    The local transit users group has developed their own new bus network proposal, which can be found here

    Brisbane City Council Propose $1.54 Billion Brisbane Metro

  4. Dexter Wong July 5, 2016 at 7:03 pm #

    I think that the co-opting by oil and road-building interests have led to the best US BRT systems (Cleveland, Eugene, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh) having only Bronze rating on the recognized international scale. Most systems being touted as BRT don’t even rank on that scale and some are barely better than ordinary bus service.

  5. Neil July 6, 2016 at 8:57 am #

    Trains (though generally not “subways”) can just as easily appear to appease the car lobby, by running a rail right of way up a street that was previously not a freeway and then turning the street into a freeway.

    Maybe it was the car lobby that got it built that way. Or maybe it was just the best cost/benefit ratio for the given project in the city, as judged by planners and politicians at the time. Nothing’s perfect, and not everything is a conspiracy theory either…

  6. Begoni July 6, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    The author does make EMBARQ and ITDP sound somewhat sinister. I found his history fascinating, but I would add that there are additional reasons why BRT makes sense for developing countries. In developing countries, labor is cheap, and capital is expensive. Developing countries also have local materials and expertise for building cement and asphalt, but don’t always have local materials and expertise for building rail. So it’s natural that developing countries would choose a technology such as BRT which relies heavily on labor (drivers) and can be built with local materials and expertise (with the exception of the BRT buses, which might need to be imported). Choosing a technology such as rail would–at least in latin america–require a foreign company to actually invest money in a new factory where the rail cars could actually be built, and would require either new companies to build the rail or would require expensive importation of the rail.

    In the US, labor is expensive and capital is “cheap” because the Federal government subsidizes capital for transportation projects at 80%. So I would actually argue that these conditions in the US have led mid-sized cities to build MORE rail projects than they should have. Local politicians and advocates actually seem more excited about expensive “transit toy” streetcars for wealthy people to ride around a downtown than they are about actually providing a transit service that will be useful to most transit users.

  7. david vartanoff July 6, 2016 at 11:20 am #

    I would change Ross’s conclusion to say that BRT is often the inadequate response to the need for high quality transit . While sufficient in low density Eugene, it fails on Second Ave in NYC and on Wilshire in LA where thankfully the subway is back on the horizon. The picture accompanying his article showed many buses waiting to plartorm where a single train could have accommodated the crowd more comfortably. I use buses daily, as rail in the East Bay is skeletal despite being a decent walk from my door.

    • Tim G August 4, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

      Hi David,

      To put a bit of context – I live in Brisbane, where the pictures were taken. The congestion at the station comes from BRT popularity and poor route planning, not limitations of the system. Most bus routes in Brisbane travel to the city centre, and around half of them do so via that particular BRT line. It’s totally unnecessary and leads to a lot of half-empty buses clogging up stations during peak times.

      Converting to rail would be an expenisve way to fix a problem with a cheaper solution. And it would almost certainly have unintended bad consequences.

      The real problem here is the ostensible unwillingness of the local population (fueled and supported by council) to split trips. Which would apply to train travel too. If you know of a technological solution to recalcitrant local governments I’d be happy to hear it 🙂

      All the best,


  8. Transit Riding Transit Planner July 6, 2016 at 11:34 am #

    I first learned about BRT in 2004. I read that in Curitiba, Brazil there was a bus system that was built to provide the exact same riding experience as an urban/metro subway system, except with buses. The characteristics that made this possible were running in a separate right-of-way, pre-payment of fares, level boarding, all-door boarding, and pre-empting the stoplights so the bus NEVER gets a red light.

    On a 2005 visit to Rio de Janeiro I made sure to take the bus over to Curitiba and check it out. Sure enough, it worked as advertised.

    I was excited, upon returning to the US, to learn that LA Metro was building a “BRT” line in the San Fernando Valley. On my next trip to LA I made sure to ride it. The experience was underwhelming. It stopped at most of the stoplights, and while the Curitiba buses ran down the middle of streets lined with high-rise buildings, this bus ran in an abandoned freight rail right-of-way, lined by the backsides of warehouses.

    Since then, BRT in the US has been a downhill experience for me. Each new announcement of a “BRT” line moves further away from the original definition, which is a bus that operates exactly like a metro rail line. Basically, any time an agency enhances a bus line in any way they now slap “BRT” on it.

    California law (Section 65088.1) actually defines BRT as a bus system that includes any four of ten possible characteristics. There are literally 5,040 different possible ways for a bus line to be “BRT” according to the state of California.

    Any new announcement of “BRT,” especially in North America, just gets a yawn from me now. The term “dedicated lane” is more likely to catch my attention, but even then the devil is in the details.

  9. Rob July 6, 2016 at 10:14 pm #

    So it’s one thing to say that BRT is an inferior technology and another altogether to recognize that BRT systems in the US have been half-hearted. Politicians are clearly willing to spend more freely on rail than bus, and are more inclined to make tough decisions about right of way and surrounding land uses. That’s not a technology issue, it’s a political one.

    At the other extreme, we in Seattle have already committed between $30-35B on rail (including debt service on a $17.5B capital investment) and are now considering a further $54B ballot measure (plus more debt service). Is there a point where the political strength of rail to get built with less compromise competes with the need for local bus frequency, sidewalks, education and social services? It seems like there should be some balance that allows us to achieve desired outcomes without breaking the bank to do it.

    I think BRT is the right long-term solution for long distance directional transit and a transition strategy for good transit corridors that aren’t yet intense enough for rail. There are places and situations where it’s the right thing to do, not a compromise. I’d go so far as to say that almost every transit technology has a best use and the art is putting each where it will perform best. A one-size always fits all solution will waste a lot of money and provide inferior service all things considered – that’s why analysis and expertise is still needed to balance politics.

    • David July 8, 2016 at 9:27 am #

      Woah!!! That is a lot of money for a city the size of Seattle. I’ve also heard ridership is very low on the rail lines in Seattle. I’d be curious for more incite.

      • Rob July 8, 2016 at 8:52 pm #

        Ridership will pick up as they extend the system, and in fact I worry ridership will at some point overwhelm light rail technology with its maximum 4-car trains. I don’t think low ridership will be an issue, since parallel express bus services will be curtailed.

        I add debt service when I add up costs, but ballot measures and public communications tend not to. The $17.5B cost for currently funded light rail is still a high number. I compare it to Portland, which has spent closer to $2.3B for its more urban network of 4 rail lines (which would be closer to $3B if adjusted for inflation), and roughly 75% of which was federally funded. Yes it’s a lot of money, but when the cost gets this high people start zoning out. What’s a few more billions between friends?

      • Nathanael July 21, 2016 at 9:12 pm #

        Rail ridership in Seattle exploded when they finally managed to get from downtown to the university just this year (the original line didn’t go to the crucial University location).

  10. Alex Bailey July 7, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

    While I don’t agree with Ross’ conclusion on what constitutes BRT “at best,” I think that characterizing technocrat as a slur in this context mischaracterizes Ross’ claim. In the preceding paragraph to the one quoted Ross writes: “When BRT promotion steers activists away from rail, it undercuts political organizing.” Combined with the statement that: “No bus line has inspired anything like…the long grassroots struggles for new light rail lines in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.,” Ross’ implies that even when BRT is theoretically the socially optimal policy, as determined by smart technocrats, it detracts much needed political will power to push for needed fundamental changes in how Americans allocate transportation resources. Technocrats might push for a BRT line believing that it will produce 80% of the benefit at 20% of the cost, but in doing so they risk the proposal getting watered down to the point where the BRT is worse than a counter factual rail line. Moreover, Ross argues that proposing rail lines gets people excited and politically engaged in promoting public transit, a key building block towards reaching a more equitable and efficient allocation of transportation resources beyond just the particular corridor at hand. Of course technocrats can understand these political aspects of policy as well, but Ross’ is using technocrat in the more limited sense of the term that is largely apolitical.

    Having said that, I am not convinced that legitimate BRT advocacy actually undermines rail advocacy, especially given that many American cities simply don’t have the density to justify rail anywhere. I also think the at “best” part ignores that BRT really can be an order of magnitude better than rail on a per dollar basis in certain instances. Converting freeway lanes into HOT or HOV lanes with assurance that the toll/minimum occupancy rate will be high enough to ensure that buses can run at 60mph would be extremely valuable in certain heavily trafficked corridors. More importantly, this type of BRT could be implemented tomorrow at the cost of repainting some signs, in stark contrast to waiting 15+ years to build rail at billions of dollars of cost. In this way, BRT can be the superior policy on the order of billions of dollars. At that scale of difference the phrase “a technocratic solution to a fundamentally political problem,” understates the upside of BRT.

    • ararar July 9, 2016 at 5:25 am #

      isn’t your proposal more of a substitute for suburban railways connecting commuter communities, rather than urban tramways?

      • Alex Bailey July 9, 2016 at 8:13 am #

        Yes, but at least in the U.S. context on which my comment was focused running light rail or heavy “metro” rail along existing freeway corridors is a substantial portion of new rail investment. For example, Seattle and Denver light rail and the DC silver line all have substantial freeway based segments towards distant suburbs. Given the suburban nature of US metro areas, general discussions of the merits of BRT verse rail in the US inherently cover suburban contexts and not just denser urban ones.

    • Nathanael July 21, 2016 at 9:11 pm #

      Los Angeles has an instructive comparison when it comes to freeway running: The Harbor Transitway (formerly a BRT, now opened up to general purpose traffic) vs. the Blue Line (same corridor) and Green Line (also a freeway median), each of which are more popular.

      This is enough to make me more than skeptical of BRT. Lower ridership, higher odds of being converted to general purpose traffic. Other cases show that BRT is generally more expensive than LRT. What’s to like?

  11. Rick Robinson July 9, 2016 at 5:31 pm #

    BRT suffers from a more subtle problem – most US implementations, even good ones, fall far short of what most people regard as ‘rapid transit’. In popular usage the term basically implies a metro line, fast and reliable because it runs on its own private speedway, free of all other traffic.

    While BRT can be built to full metro standards, usually it is not, so it sounds like false advertising – even though it may deliver a service that transit professionals (but not the general public) would define as rapid transit.

    I have learned from this blog that much less costly infrastructure improvements, such as bus lanes, can do a world of good. Unfortunately, selling these as ‘rapid transit’ is misleading to the public. As a comparison point, light rail is not sold as ‘rapid transit’ – the very name modestly implies something a bit less than metro standard transit.

    ‘Rapid bus’ would be a better term, evoking the rapid idea without connoting a metro line, but it now seems to have its own distinct meaning, a ‘less than BRT’ level of infrastructure improvement.

    • Eric July 11, 2016 at 4:36 am #

      Don’t worry, most Americans already hear “BRT” and think “a bus with a new coat of paint, and new super-artistic less-functional bus stops”.

  12. Ian Graham July 12, 2016 at 9:25 pm #

    In follow-up to Jarrett’s question “…what do we do with this history?…”: With a concept as malleable as BRT, applied in varying ways around the planet, over more than half a century, there are bound to be:
    a) a range of motivations, from noble to not-so-noble;
    b) variable technical implementation and operational performance (competent, to less-so);
    c) a range of economic factors, including level of funding (public and/or private), fare pricing, level of population affluence, subsidies;
    d) population distribution and land use;
    e) etc.

    Thus, it is not surprising that the results (and opinions of the results) vary, and that there are diverse opinions as to whether the technology was chosen in good faith and with good (if not always perfect) assessment and reasoning; or whether there was unfair or malevolent collusion or conspiracy. With human nature, there is probably some of everything. And even if there is recognition (at least within the transit planning profession, hopefully) that there are roles for both bus and rail, there will be wide divergence of opinion on where that overlap is. Unlike particle physics, transit planning is still rather soft and squishy, requiring a good deal of judgement that can be difficult or impossible to prove to be “right” or “wrong”, even after the fact.

    Where there is blatant corruption or breach of trust, then it is appropriate in a democracy to bring such corporations, governments, and individuals, to account, through the courts if necessary, both for redress, and some deterrence to future malfeasance. But personal and professional judgments vary, so it isn’t always easy to prove whether recommendations represented deliberate sabotage, or a honestly held opinion. As noted in one of the other replies, many of the street railway systems in the 1940’s and 50’s were in pretty bad shape, without sufficient capital or public support to renovate; thus the National City Lines conversions to bus may have prevented total public transit collapse in some cities. And I think it likely to be a similar story for more recent BRT applications, especially in countries with weaker economies, where modern high-performance rail would be very much more expensive and difficult to maintain. As the old adage goes, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. So if planners or governments have a “one size fits all” fixation on BRT, then then there risk that it will push out an alternative (e.g., some form of rail) that may have a clear overall advantage in some situations. Thus, some very good rail networks were dismembered in the rails-to-rubber stampede last century. And some more recent BRT projects probably created or perpetuated a hostile urban environment (a freeway structure and barrier in everything but name), when rail or a less intrusive bus operation would have been better.

    There have also been rail projects which have flopped because of poor judgment in their urban context. So we need to be a bit dispassionate about why and how an historical decision was made, and focus on the results; looking backwards in time to learn how and why projections did or didn’t end up on or near target. And if it was nearly a toss-up (either technology could have been equally justified), then it is not worth fighting the past, but to look to future decisions.

    I will suggest that the lesson of BRT history should be kept in mind when thinking about the future of Uber and autonomous cars. These are evolutions which can’t be stopped, but can and should be watched, anticipated, guided, and regulated in an appropriate way for the overall public good. Some people expect that autonomous cars will “solve” the public transportation problem; which of course they can’t (and have the potential to make some situations worse). So if an urban planner or policy-maker gets a fixation on Uber or autonomous cars, then watch out! There will be potential for good and bad implementations. But that’s for another post.

  13. Wanderer July 14, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

    From what I can tell, many recent American transportation construction projects in all modes (certainly including highways) have been promoted by contractors and building trades unions. But I don’t think that de-legitimizes the good projects. Some of these projects have been good, others not so much.

  14. Colonial Van Lines July 19, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    Ride sharing economy teaches us a lesson about how to best use technology to enhance the economy. UBER & LYFT are getting taking advantage of the fact that regulations were behind the tech advancements of the decade. While long distance transportation to and from our cities is a income generator for some cities, some other still struggle to capitalize on long distance movers.

    Instead of focusing on the past, shouldn’t we look into how to use technology to improve things? It looks to me that whether we embrace it or not, technology will drive our future. Take the taxi drivers who denigrated UBER and lyft for example. Now their medallion has devalued because of mainstream usage of GPS, smart phone, and some software.

  15. Jack Whisner July 20, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    Both LRT and BRT can provide a continuum of characteristics (e.g., speed, capacity, reliability) depending on the degree of grade separation, capital, and frequency they are provided. Cities and agencies making the choice between them and other options should not engage in faith-based planning, but instead break them down to their least common denominators. They could attempt to maximize transit ridership subject to the constraints of budget and rights of way. It is similar to apples and oranges; in public policy, they are always compared by breaking them down to cost, weight, nutrition, appearance. Both LRT and BRT can be done poorly or well. The big advantage of LRT over BRT is that one operator can run a multi-car train. But the Latin American cities have shown they can provide Metro levels of capacity with bus, so there is a large overlap. The network analysis could consider the opportunity cost of funds needed to provide very high capacity; they could be used to fund service frequency or other capital projects. One could aim for the Goldilocks level of capacity. The concept of placing HCT alignments in freeway corridors implies that their stations will be in the freeway envelope and have less development potential, and at interchanges, have more traffic in the way of local bus service.

  16. Nathanael July 21, 2016 at 9:08 pm #

    Your mode-specific love for buses ignores some points which you usually understand:
    (1) buses get caught in private car traffic
    (2) if you build busways, they cost more than metro lines. Every time.

    Brisbane is improving their metro rail.

    I’m all for using red paint to create busways on existing asphalt, but if you can’t do that, BRT always ends up being a more expensive, inferior quality substitute for rail. What’s to like about spending more to get less?

    • RossB July 22, 2016 at 3:34 pm #

      1) So do trains.
      2) Nonsense. Try running a train up a steep hill.

      You are also ignoring busways that are not closed. Consider a bus that travels at less than optimum speed (20 MPH instead of 25 MPH) and then enters a busway, where it travels at the same speed as a rail line. In many instances, that is simply a more cost effective system and more effective overall than a subway. Either you run the rail on the surface — which, in many instances is not possible (again, hills) — or you force people to transfer. If you run on the surface, you gain nothing as far as speed. Transfers of this nature (everyone off the bus, everyone on the train) have a time penalty, that simply wouldn’t exist if the bus kept going. It really is a case of picking the right tool for the job, instead of thinking that rail is the answer to every public transportation problem.

  17. RossB July 22, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

    I really look forward to the author’s article where he details all the mistakes made with light rail in this country, and the big money behind them 🙂

    Anyway, great article Jarrett. I completely agree. There will always be people with hidden agendas when it comes to big projects, as well as ideologues. There will also be people who think that a certain mode is always best, regardless of the situation. Take all of this with a grain of salt. Sometimes they have a good point, sometimes not.

    I seriously doubt that anyone would ever sell a car to someone and say it is the best vehicle that you could ever buy, regardless of use. Tow a trailer? Compete in a Formula One race? Drive an abandoned gravel road? Then this car is for you.

    That would be absurd. The same is true when it comes to rail versus bus. Each have their advantages, and it really depends on the situation. Rail is great because (as mentioned above) you can carry way more people per vehicle. In many cases, you can also leverage existing rail infrastructure (this is especially true of so called commuter rail). But that is it, really. That is the main advantage, and yet despite only those advantages, it still makes sense in many instances (like New York City and Vancouver BC).

    But not all of them. Buses have the advantage of being able to leverage existing infrastructure as well. They can also go up steep hills. Quite often this means a much more affordable system. Or, better yet, a system that provides better service for the same amount of money. This usually involves open BRT. Run the buses as regular buses on the bulk of the route, but where it really matters — where congestion is the worst, and surface improvements would prove very expensive — build busways. Brisbane is an excellent example of this.

    Something jumped out at me in the article. “Buses work poorly in tunnels, where drivers can’t see around curves and exhaust fumes disperse slowly. “. Except you can run buses on wire, and Seattle has done that (in the tunnel) for a very long time. Now they run hybrid buses. Not a big deal.

    Anyway, the big problem BRT has is with the term BRT. It has become meaningless. I wonder how excited people would be for light rail if every streetcar system was called “light rail”. It is rail, and it certainly isn’t heavy, so by one measure, it is definitely “light rail”. But people have learned to differentiate between the two, even if the definitions are rather arbitrary. People associate light rail with grade separation, which means speed, and people like speed.

    But that doesn’t mean it is well designed. This country is full of fast light rail lines that play a very small part in transit, because they are designed more to placate those who want light rail, as opposed to adding value. Generally speaking, rail will only be really popular in the very urban areas, which means that rail will only make sense there. Without the population density to support the bigger vehicles, they run less often, and the capital costs are very hard to justify. It seems like every article about the subject likes to talk about “BRT Creep”, but few talk about “light rail creep”, which is just as (if not more) frustrating. Build things out of order, skip stations, skip obvious connections, and you have a system that doesn’t work as well. I see my city — Seattle — going down that road in a hurry.

Leave a Reply