San Diego: The Rail-Bus Balance

The Transport Politic has a good overview of the recently announced rapid transit plans for San Diego.  The plan, in short, is to add only one more line to the region’s light rail system, a long northward extension to the huge University of California San Diego (UCSD) campus.   For other corridors in the region, the focus is Bus Rapid Transit.


(Legend:  Black = existing commuter rail.  Thin pink lines = Bus Rapid Transit.  Dashed blue line = proposed LRT extension.  Solid blue, green, orange = Existing light rail.)

I suspect the plan reflects the influence of the locally based Alan Hoffman, an energetic and informed advocate of the Brisbane model of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a model I’ve discussed at length here.  (Hoffman was a key author on a readable 2008 survey of BRT around the developed world, downloadable here, that endorses the Brisbane model for North American cities, including San Diego.)  Brisbane features largely grade-separated busways capable of very high freqeuncy and reliability but also capable of running buses through to many destinations at the outer end of each corridor.  The Brisbane model works well where you have (a) a reasonably dense corridor, extending outward from downtown, where (b) a separated busway is physically feasible but where (c) there is no single overwhelmingly important transit destination at the corridor’s outer end.

By that principle, the San Diego plan looks right to me.  Light rail is to focus on extending to the biggest transit destination in the county outside of downtown, UCSD, and ending there.  A link from downtown to UCSD will have balanced, two-way demand flows all the way to the end of the line, a very good geography for rail transit with its fixed high capacity and attendant fixed infrastructure cost.

But corridors that don’t have a strong outer endpoint will benefit from a pattern in which high frequency runs along the corridor but can branch in several directions as you get further out from the city and demand grows more diffuse.  This is certainly the case with the I-15 and South Bay corridors as sketched.

The Mid-City corridor along Park and El Cajon Blvds., which focuses mostly on inner-city fabric, is more debatable.  It does have a strong outer endpoint, San Diego State University; it also serves San Diego’s great central park, Balboa Park, and the famous San Diego Zoo.  It probably could be light rail, or even some form of streetcar, so bus-based solutions should probably plan for convertibility to rail in the future, as capacity needs dictate.  Note, too, that what’s proposed for Mid-City is “low-end BRT,” similar to the Los Angeles Metro Rapid, where signal priority is the primary means of giving buses an advantage. It’s hard to create exclusive lanes on inner-city streets, especially in the early stages of network development, but Rapid Bus service can be a sensible step in that direction.  By doing what can be done to increase patronage without exclusive lanes, it helps build the argument for exclusive lanes in the future, much as it is has done on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

There may be, as the Transport Politic suggests, some bias against spending too much money in the dense inner city, and/or against short corridors, in the region’s planning politics; some such bias is inevitable in large urban regions where the inner city is a small part of the political picture.  It will be intersting to watch Mid City plans evolve in more detail.  This corridor is already dense, but also likely to see further urban redevelopment, much like the Pearl District in Portland.  If such development can be harmonized with locally oriented Bus Rapid Transit — doing what a streetcar does but on tires, and a bit faster and more reliably — it will be an important data point for similar inner cities across North America.

12 Responses to San Diego: The Rail-Bus Balance

  1. Joseph E April 30, 2010 at 12:22 am #

    The “Mid-City Corridor” is almost the exact route of the current MTS route 15, which features limited stops (every 1/4 to 3/4 mile) outside of Downtown. It’s speed also benefits from a short section along the 163 freeway thru Balboa Park.
    The other heavily-used bus route in the city is the 7, which goes thru Balboa Park along Park Blvd, hitting the main tourist destinations, then turns right along University, and travels thru the center of the densely populated, transit-dependent communities of North Park and City Heights.
    The first part of the proposed Mid-city BRT would follow the route of the 7, until Hillcrest, then would follow the route of the 15 along El Cajon to San Diego State.
    The only big improvements in service would be a better transfer from the 7 and the limited-stop route 10 at Park Blvd, signal priority on El Cajon Blvd (only), and better branding and signs.
    Limited-stop service and signal priority is always a great idea, but without an exclusive right-of-way and proof-of-payment, this is not really BRT, and certainly not a substitute for light rail.
    This community has the most transit ridership in San Diego, and deserves real BRT or LRT on this corridor.

  2. Joseph E April 30, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    I have had trouble finding detailed plans for the I-15 and South Bay BRT corridors. It looks like they will use carpool/HOV lanes on the freeways, with stations next to the freeway. It looks like both routes will be fairly linear, rather than branching or collecting other local bus routes.
    Los Angeles did not have much luck with this kind of BRT along the 110 freeway.
    Perhaps the Otay Mesa border crossing at the end of the South Bay BRT, and the exclusive right-of-way to it from the 805 freeway, will lead to ridership on this route. But the route itself will pass thru exurbans along the 125 freeway.
    The 15 freeway already has express buses operating along it (numbered 210 and 960), with transfer stations at El Cajon Blvd and University Blvd. The Express Lanes project in North County (not shown on Yohan’s map) claims to be adding BRT and has multiple branches in the subrubs, but the buses are planned to be commuter-oriented, so I’m not sure if there will be mid-day and evening frequency. I think of BRT as similar to light rail, not commuter trains or express commuter buses, so this sounds more like a way to get funding for the car lanes rather than a well-thought-out transit system.
    I can’t find any more information about what improvements are planned for bus service along I-15 south of I-8. Perhaps the 210 bus will operate more frequently, or have more stations? Do you have any additional details about the plans?

  3. David in Ottawa April 30, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Umm, Hoffman isn’t “informed”. I can’t speak for his knowledge of any other city, but that report of his is full of nonsense and misinformation when it comes to the section on Ottawa and its BRT Transitway. “Informed” he most certainly is not. At best he’s been led down the proverbial garden path. I could tell you by who, but your past history of censoring me when it comes to letting out inconvenient truths of BRT promotion in Ottawa means I’ll hold back and just let the reader check in the footnotes.
    Hoffman, like all other ill-informed BRT advocates who like to point to Ottawa, notes the high ridership in Ottawa relative to all other similar-sized North American cities and immediately goes on to make the claim that this somehow has something to do with the Transitway. It has an air of plausibility to it, except there’s a major problem with this conclusion: it’s patently false. Per capita ridership in Ottawa has never been higher in the post-streetcar era than in the year *before* construction began on the Transitway in the mid 1980s. Rather amusing, that, isn’t it? Per capita ridership was highest on the eve of a major investment in rapid transit infrastructure. And, as if on cue, it declined every single year while the Transitway system was built-out until bottoming out in the year that the initial system was complete (as if to add to the woes, there was a transit strike that year too). Now I’m not stupid enough to claim that the Transitway caused this decline, but it’s as clear as day that the Transitway has not resulted in any increase in ridership in Ottawa whatsoever. At best the Transitway reduced the severity of the decline. But at least it increased absolute ridership, right, even if per capita ridership fell (due perhaps to a rapidly-growing population)? Well, no. That fell too. It took until 2001 for absolute ridership to get back to the level it had been on the eve of Transitway construction in 1983/84. Even after 15 years, absolute ridership was no better than it had been before the project had started in a city whose population had grown by more than a third. That’s not exactly a success and certainly not one one would expect to see promoted as such – yet people of Hoffman’s ilk continue to ignore the facts and promote Ottawa’s “success”.
    Our high ridership is due to other factors, but it seems that a falsehood repeated often enough by pro-BRT shills will be believed.
    Another such falsehood is capacity. For donkeys’ years the ‘10,000 pphpd’ has been repeated far and wide by then-current and now-former OC Transpo types, starting in around 1990, as a realized throughput. At that point Ottawa was already down 5 million annual rides (about 6%) against where it had been in 1983/84. Now here’s the funny thing: in 2003 the new City of Ottawa carried out a massive transit study and in that study they listed a bunch of screenlines with peak hour volumes from 2002, at which point we were slightly above where we had been in 1983/84 in absolute annual ridership. And do you want to know what the highest pphpd was in that year at the screenline just outside downtown Ottawa? I know you do:
    That’s right. Not 10,000. Just 7,000. Some 30% less than had been claimed for a dozen years. And that was in a year in which annual rides were at least 6 million (~7%) higher than they had been in the year in which the 10,000 pphpd number first appeared. Just how can this be? It’s not the introduction of peak smoothing in that period, because that was already thought of and implemented in the 1980s.
    Hoffman also makes the usual claim of TOD. With the exception of a few early developments that were co-developed with the Transitway, there haven’t really been any, and most everything since then located anywhere near a Transitway station has essentially faced away from it. The Transitway is almost NEVER shown in private sector real estate/development promotional material for the simple reason that a depressing corridor full of noisy stinky buses is not actually a marketing benefit.
    Hoffman, in a caption, classes one of the early minor Transitway stations as a major one (I guess extravagance just looks major to the ignorant). In a caption of another picture taken at the same station he notes the presence of an access ramp, though curiously ignores the land sterilizing effect of this ramp on what should be some prime TOD real estate.
    He can’t even get facts as basic as station spacing correct: he cites “approximately a mile” as typical but a mile is actually at the upper end of the range for the portion of the system where a transitway actually exists. The typical distance is about a kilometre on the East and West Transitways and less than 800 m on the Southeast Transitway.
    He mentions light rail in Ottawa almost in passing (not mentioning that the O-Train, whose form appears at the top of this page, exceeded ridership expectations by 100%, unlike any BRT project in Ottawa), neglects to mention the fact that the major part of the original system is going to be converted to light rail (even though it was well known when his piece was written) and he even seems to pine for the boondoggle salvation of a bus tunnel downtown. He does however mention that the downtown problem has “spurred questioning of the entire system” (imagine that! a failed system and people question it! how peculiar!) and that there have been “political calls for [the Transitway’s] replacement by light rail” followed by the bracketed claim that “though no published technical studies have demonstrated the cost effectiveness or positive ridership impacts of such a replacement”, which is (1) hardly surprising given the local dominance of the BRT-promotion lobby and (2) absurdly amusing given the hemorrhaging of money that the current BRT system suffers compared to much more efficient rail-based systems like that of Calgary and the complete lack of any substantial ridership gains of the BRT system after 20+ years of existence. It’s hardly surprising that there are “political calls” to replace the bus Transitway with rail, given how miserable a system it is and how disliked it is by the people forced to use it every day.
    Overall, Hoffman’s write-up on Ottawa is full of the usual falsehoods of the BRT promotion industry combined with errors (apparently of his own making) and slanted observations of the planning and political situation. As I said, I can’t speak for his round-ups of any other cities, but given the inaccurate one of the city I do know I can hardly trust the rest of it.
    And as an aside I wish he would give up the “Quickway” naming business. It’s called a “bus transitway”. No one but him knows what a “Quickway” is (apparently always capitalized), but figuring out a “bus transitway” is not too hard.

  4. Chris April 30, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    David seems to avoid discussing the probable outcome of converting Ottawa’s transitways to light rail: many people will drive to work rather than have to transfer in the cold between the rail line and their feeder bus. If transit ridership has not increased, it’s not the transitway’s fault; rather, it is the fault of Ottawa for allowing development to take place in a sprawling fashion without extension of transit to cover it. Certainly Calgary has done a better job of adopting to growth with transit extensions than Ottawa has.

  5. Alon Levy April 30, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

    Chris, people transfer from buses to light rail all the time in Calgary.
    (On the other hand, Ottawa has a higher metro area transit mode share. On the third hand, Calgary’s catching up quickly.)

  6. Nathanael May 3, 2010 at 3:12 am #

    “David seems to avoid discussing the probable outcome of converting Ottawa’s transitways to light rail: many people will drive to work rather than have to transfer in the cold between the rail line and their feeder bus”
    This is why you have enclosed railway stations as transfer points, dontcha know. This is not rocket science.

  7. dejv May 4, 2010 at 4:29 am #

    Brisbane model seems to offer single seat rides at the expense of possible frequency at low-demand areas, because buses with high per-passenger costs are used also in shared section with high enough combined demand to support some mode with lower per passenger costs. With long enough common section, operational savings by using LRT/metro/driverless metro would allow double bus frequency in end areas with the same budget.
    Do I get it right?

  8. Jarrett at May 4, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    @dejv.  Only if the operating cost of a bus were the same as of an LRT/metro, and it's usually much less, with the exception of driverless metro.  Again, the Brisbane model works where outer branches do not justify extreme frequency all day.  For example, several branches may each have 15-minute frequency, and be dense enough to justify that, but these can add up to frequencies of 3-5 minutes in the busway segment, where the intention is for densities to be much higher.

  9. dejv May 4, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    Only if the operating cost of a bus were the same as of an LRT/metro, and it’s usually much less, with the exception of driverless metro.

    What is “much less” in US or Australia? In Brno, Czech Republic, per-km operational costs of tram are 1.33 of bus while tram has capacity like 2.5-3 buses.

  10. EngineerScotty May 4, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    Here in Portland, numbers are similar to Brno.
    The operating cost per hour of a 2-car MAX train (capacity: 350 passengers, cph US$220) is about 2x the operating cost of a 40’bus (60 passengers, cost ~US$96); and the operating cost per hour of a 1-car Streetcar is 1.4x the cost of a bus (US$140), but the capacity is about 150 people, again 2.5x the bus.
    Numbers may be a bit out of date, but are in the ballpark.
    Of course, the operating efficiencies are only borne out if the streetcars run full much of the time–or at least beyond the capacity of a bus. An empty streetcar costs more to run than an empty bus.

  11. dejv May 5, 2010 at 8:05 am #

    Thanks, Jarrett and Scotty. So the deciding factor is if the main market for the rapid portion of the line is along its stations or beyond it. If it is the first case, maximizing frequency along the line should be the goal and busway with 3-5 minutes headways does that fine. OTOH, if the main ridership is from outlying areas, it makes sense to cut frequency to 30m LRVs in 10min headways – that should cut costs on rapid corridor to 1/2-2/3 of buses, possibly allowing to put this money to 10 minutes frequency of connecting buses. That would be a big improvement for me, 10min headway is the maximum when I don’t think about timetables and just go to the stop and wait there for vehicle to show up.
    A minor correction to my previous post – the numbers aren’t actual costs, it’s difference in subsidies of modes. Trams have transported on average 12.6 persons per vehicle-km while buses did 6.9 – 55 % of trams and the system has overall 33 % farebox recovery.

  12. cph September 13, 2010 at 5:49 am #

    [Posted at both Human Transit and Transport Politic]
    While going through some old papers, I found an old MTDB (San Diego) Regional Rail Transit Plan map. I scanned it and mounted a copy at
    It is undated, but would seem to date from 1990 or 1991, according to the lines shown in operation (South and East without Santee)
    Of course now the Old Town and Mission Valley lines have been completed, as has the Santee segment. Missing from any planning (as far as I know) is the Airport/Pt. Loma, Park Blvd, Mission Beach and South Bay segments. As far as I know, there was never a plan to put LRT where, say the #15/115 bus operates
    Notice the proposed extensions to Oceanside and Escondido. These will most likely not be built as Trolley extensions, as they are covered by the Coaster commuter rail and the I-15 carpool lane system, respectively. California HSR will also most likely enter San Diego on the I-15 corridor.