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
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
- 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.