Think Tanks, Binary Thinking, and “Bus vs Rail”

The Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at the University of South Florida is under fire in Florida’s legislature.  State senator Mike Fasano (R), who chairs the committee overseeing spending by the state Department of Transportation, proposes to cut off funding to the transportation think tank.  From the St. Petersburg Times article, it sounds as though Fasano is just looking to cut spending generally, by citing projects that supposedly make CUTR’s work look arcane and unimportant:

Fasano reviewed a list of grants DOT awarded CUTR since 2001. He
specifically questioned $600,000 the center received in grants to
advise the DOT on drug abuse and $75,000 to study the state’s Road
Ranger program.

But the reporter, Michael Van Sickler, also weighs in with an analysis of statements by various CUTR principals about rail transit.  Van Sickler focuses in particular on CUTR’s role as the host of the National Bus Rapid Transit institute, the largest US institute devoted to the study of BRT.  Seeking a simple conflict storyline, he tries to make this a contest between rail people (good) and bus people (bad), and this binary structure is not just misleading, it’s boring.

As you probably know by now, I’m neither a rail advocate nor a bus advocate.  I’m an advocate of abundant access for the purpose of creating more sustainable cities, cities where real, expansive freedom is possible without a car.  I think that abstract debates about whether rail is better than buses in general, everywhere, are pointless.  Either rail or bus can be better depending on the circumstances, so an effective transit plan is one that evaluates that choice separately for each corridor, picks what works best there, and thus constructs an integrated citywide system where rail and bus work together.

Many activists and advocates really do believe that “rail vs. bus”
is the most important question in transit, and can be quite passionate
in defending their favored mode in the abstract.  (And if you think all
these passionate activists are on the rail side, go talk to the Bus Riders Union
in Los Angeles.)  These advocates will often assume that a statement
that doesn’t support their view is really advocacy for the other side.
If you’ve ever listened to the political discourse inside a country at
war, you can think of other examples of this (“our way” vs “the
terrorists,” “freedom” vs “socialism,” etc.).  Free thought, by
contrast, has the right to say that a certain binary opposition is a
false choice, or a wrong framing of the question, and insists on the
right to refuse to take sides in such an opposition.

Such free thought is hard to encourage inside a hot debate about a
particular transit project, because of course those debates are already
binary: Build this project or not?   That’s why academic research is an
important intellectual space.  It’s also why I write this blog.

Think tanks have a really important position in these debates.  Good academic research on transit technology questions should be providing analysis about the pros and cons of various technologies, not to pick one as an abstract winner but rather to explain the kinds of situations in which each is appropriate.   CUTR does this, but because a major piece of their transit research happens in their National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, they are easily accused of bias toward that mode.  Still, two defenses of the Institute readily spring to mind:

  • It’s understandable that when a particular technology idea is newly emerging or re-emerging, as
    BRT was in the US a decade ago, some energy has to go into developing
    the idea to the point where it can be fairly judged against other
    options.  I would like to say that BRT is past that point, but the US
    still doesn’t have a single example of BRT done to a fully
    rapid-transit scale and quality, which is why I have to keep talking
    about Brisbane.
  • You can also argue that it’s reasonable to have a research function devoted to researching and even promoting Bus Rapid Transit because there’s no shortage of equally promotional research about rail transit.

Meanwhile, academics are only human, and do sometimes say unfortunate things:

In this job, [CUTR founder Gary] Brosch lobbied for grant money, often sounding more like a BRT advocate than the impartial expert CUTR held him out to be.

“BRT is an idea whose time has come,” said Brosch in 2003 testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. “Fast, convenient, and frequent service are what transit users want, and BRT systems provide all of these factors in a very cost-effective manner.”

Now semiretired, the former CUTR director acknowledges favoring BRT over rail.

“I personally became hugely enthused with (BRT),” Brosch said. “Rail is, you know, rail is rail. It didn’t excite me as a new transportation technology.”

That last statement is especially unfortunate, because it makes Brosch sound not just like a BRT advocate but someone who embraced BRT as a matter of fashion, for the thrill of the novelty itself.  The tension between thinking and promoting exists in every think tank.  Almost every think tank leans a bit too far toward promoting at some point.  But I hope CUTR takes up the challenge to look for ways to bolster its neutrality, because there’s not nearly enough academic research on transit issues, and we need every brain we can get.

11 Responses to Think Tanks, Binary Thinking, and “Bus vs Rail”

  1. anonymouse December 5, 2009 at 4:26 pm #

    I think the problem with BRT (as with other things like Maglev and monorail) is that it’s been largely imposed from the outside. Rather than a transit agency looking to improve their existing bus service, or to build a new high capacity mode, it’s something that’s imposed from outside by politicians or federal bureaucrats. The objective becomes not to find which mode is best for a given corridor, but rather to find a corridor where BRT might be an appropriate mode. It’s a solution looking for a problem, and that I think is why people resent the notion.
    As for the Bus Riders’ Union, their advocacy has more to do with keeping bus drivers and Eric Mann employed and less to do with providing efficient mobility to those who need it most.

  2. rhywun December 5, 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    I’m as sick of the “bus vs. rail” argument as anyone could be, and frankly I think it’s partially responsible for holding back reasonable improvements that could be made, especially in the United States. Here in NYC, we’re finally beginning to make tentative improvements to bus transit, with limited BRT-ish experiments. Why wasn’t this started decades ago?

  3. Cap'n Transit December 5, 2009 at 8:38 pm #

    I’m sorry, I read the article several times and I just don’t see it. The vast majority of the article documents various anti-rail and pro-car arguments the CUTR has made. A relatively small section discusses the pro-BRT positions. It doesn’t portray Polzin, Mierzejewski and Brosch as pro-bus, but as anti-rail, and casts legitimate doubts about whether they are really pro-transit at all.
    Jarrett, you know me; I hate false dichotomies and I argue passionately in favor of bus improvements. I honestly don’t see a false dichotomy here.

  4. EngineerScotty December 5, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    I don’t know much abut CUTR–my comments below should not be read as commentary on them specifically. I don’t want to rehash bus/rail in this thread.
    But Jarrett’s line, “The tension between thinking and promoting exists in every think tank. Almost every think tank leans a bit too far toward promoting at some point”, is unfortunately a bit too charitable in many cases. A plurality of “think tanks” (in the US at least) are little more than political operations, whose “research” consists of nothing more than propaganda dressed as scholarship. Some of them are blatantly ridiculous (the Tobacco Institute, which produces reams of research claiming that cigarettes have no discernible health effects, is a notorious example), but many of them go to great lengths to appear legit.
    * Follow the money. Who funds the research? If its NSF or similar, a good sign. If it’s a corporation with a vested interest in an issue, caveat lector–but it least the potential conflicts of interest are disclosed. If the think tank refuses to divulge their funding sources, or are funded by a “foundation” on which it’s difficult to get information (which may be a shell to hide the true source), watch out.
    * How and where are their results published? Do they receive peer review? Do the researchers have a good reputation with professionals in the field? Or is their work marketed towards lay public administrators and elected officials (as opposed to transit pros), many of whom might not have sufficient domain expertise to recognize a snow job?
    * Does the data presented in a paper support the conclusions? Real scientists try not to overstate the impact of their research–they simply present the results, and leave it to others to decide the impact. Political operatives will draw broad and often grandiose inferences from limited data.
    * Who do the researchers collaborate with? If a think tank collaborates with (or is resident at) a major uni, that’s a good sign; universities are generally good at doing diligence and spotting shills.
    Good think tanks can produce research that is on par (quality-wise) with the best universities, and in many cases complement the academy quite will. Unfortunately, there are lots of bad ones out there…

  5. Michael D. Setty December 6, 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    Here are two usefule links:
    On page 7 of the first document, there is a chart showing the estimated “break even” on bus vs. rail operating costs, stated in provided “places per hour.” When translated into daily patronage (as opposed to “places per hour”), this comes out around 1,200-1,800 passengers per hour, since I don’t know of any transit system in the U.S. or Europe that runs consistently using 100% of available capacity, even at the “peak of the peak.”
    Also keep in mind that transit vehicle manufacturers as a rule tend to overstate practical capacity; both bus and rail suppliers are guilty of this.
    The second link is Demery and my analysis of various reports from around the work about the estimated minimum transit traffic density where rail can be justified compared to bus. This number is consistently about 5,000 daily passenger miles per two-way route mile (pm/rm) per day, or 10,000-15,000 daily riders, the exact number depending on average trip length,e.g., if 10,000 passengers travel an average 50% of the length of a line, then the 5,000 pm/rm threshold is met.

  6. Michael D. Setty December 6, 2009 at 12:56 pm #

    Oops. 2nd Link is actually:
    More information on actual passenger loads vs. claimed vehicle capacity:

  7. M1EK December 7, 2009 at 11:25 am #

    ” but the US still doesn’t have a single example of BRT done to a fully rapid-transit scale and quality”
    Well, at this point it might be reasonable to ask if BRT will EVER be done that way here. After all, it’s certainly possible that, like the high schoolers always say about communism when they first explore government in school, it’s a good theory but impossible to put into practice in the real world.
    I can be swayed WRT Brisbane, but bringing up Curitiba (a city of desperately poor people by US standards where the government exercised land-use and condemnation powers that made Robert Moses seem tame) has got to stop at some point. Show me a BRT success in a city where parking isn’t that expensive and gas isn’t that expensive, please, and then I’ll believe you that it can be as good as rail (which, unlike bus of any sort, HAS beaten the car in the US in some cases).

  8. Placemaking Institute December 9, 2009 at 9:09 am #

    I’m glad that I’ve come across this site. I’ve always viewed BRT as a bait-and-switch tactic that bifurcates pro-transit advocates but as the facts change my mind changes…Mexico City seems quite enamored with it; maybe that’s because they’ve got such extensive LRT:

  9. Dan Wentzel December 9, 2009 at 11:46 am #

    “but the US still doesn’t have a single example of BRT done to a fully rapid-transit scale and quality”
    Well, good luck finding a major city-region willing to be the model BRT area if that means giving up any likelihood of rail-later.

  10. Placemaking Institute December 12, 2009 at 1:20 pm #

    For what it’s worth, right now San Antonio is trying to be a city that achieves both in the near future:

  11. cph December 13, 2009 at 10:53 am #

    Isn’t LA’s “Orange Line” in the ballpark? (Its problem is that the buses are overcrowded, and the capacity of a light rail might actually be welcomed at this point….)