Dissent of the Week I: Bus vs Rail in “This Country”

From reader M1EK:

I continue, like many it seems, to be amazed at how often you feel the need to tell us we’re wrong about bus vs. rail in this country. Perhaps the fact that you need to keep telling us is itself telling?

I guess it depends on your view of international examples.  Assuming the reference to “this country” means the USA, well, US culture is especially prone to exceptionalism, which we could define as a stubborn disinterest in innovations and experience from outside one’s borders.  For example, the US is the only country where people often comment on international blogs without making clear that they’re talking about the US, a violation of the comment policy but in this case, an instructive one.

My own belief is that countries with similar economic situations should be eager to learn from one another, so when I encounter an interesting difference between how bus-rail issues are presented in the US and how they’re treated in Europe, I think it’s useful to point that out.

By now I hope it’s clear to regular readers that I am not an advocate for any transit technology.  Rather I am interested in improving people’s mobility via transit, and tend to be interested in whatever tools (not just technologies but systems of branding and styles of operation) that seem to do that best.  My point in this post, for example, was that buses are good for some kinds of mobility and trams are good for others, and that the Paris transit agency appears to see all its customers as deserving the same quality of infrastructure and amenity, regardless of whether they’re on a bus or a tram.

37 Responses to Dissent of the Week I: Bus vs Rail in “This Country”

  1. M1EK July 21, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    But we don’t have similar economic situations at all. Europeans face far higher fuel taxes; far higher parking rates; far higher licensing fees; etc. – the variable cost of driving in those countries is extraordinarily high, so low-quality (but cheaper) public transport can naturally compete far better even in an apples-to-apples comparison of urban forms (i.e. similarly dense cities). This doesn’t even get into the fact that the average European commuter is a bit less wealthy to boot.

  2. M1EK July 21, 2010 at 10:01 am #

    And apologies for the ‘violation’, but given the subject of your post I would think it easy to determine which country I was talking about, right?
    Thanks for the call-out as well. Appreciate the effort to engage.

  3. EngineerScotty July 21, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    One reason I think that bus is starting to get more and more looks in the US, even in markets where busses have been regarded as transportation-of-last-resort, is because in the past decade, rail construction costs in the US have skyrocketed. Far more so than construction costs of other types of public works. This seems to be a US-specific phenomenon.
    Why this is, I have no idea. It could be that the political dynamics needed to build rail transit leads to projects larded with pork (far fewer political dealmaking seems to be necessary to build roads); it could be a shortage of design/construction expertise in rail coupled with increased demand; it could be distortions related to federal funding practices, I don’t know.
    But some people, beyond the lets-make-it-cheap-as-we-can-because-I-won’t-ever-use-it crowd, are starting to re-examine busses and busways.

  4. Alan Kandel July 21, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    In the U.S., the unemployment rate is purportedly 10 percent. In Fresno, Calif., where I live, the unemployment rate is around 16.9 percent.
    According to the American Public Transportation Association, roughly 36,000 jobs are created for every $1 billion of public transit investment. That’s considerable.
    It seems to me, compared to bus-based projects, rail-based projects are far more attractive as far as their being able to bring higher numbers of jobs to given projects is concerned. What I would like to know is how effective both are at helping to reinvigorate local economies where such projects are in the works.

  5. EngineerScotty July 21, 2010 at 11:16 am #

    One question:
    Are those permanent jobs, or construction jobs involved in building the transit–jobs which go away when the line is complete? Obviously, a temporary job is better than none, and a transit project which receives a significant amount of Federal funding represents an injection of capital into a region. And of course, the end result of transit investment is new infrastructure, so it’s not the equivalent of paying one guy to dig ditches and paying another guy to fill them back in.
    But arguing for transit investment from a stimulus perspective is like calling a Snickers bar a health food. It will keep you alive, and give you a jolt of energy; but it ain’t the basis for a healthy economy (or lifestyle). Transit needs to be justified on the public good that it does, not on the number of hardhats it employs. The fact that in the US, transit is frequently peddled as a form of stimulus implies that there is still a lot of work to do to elevate its perception. Construction of highways and sewers doesn’t need to justify itself in this manner; yet a significant part of the population views transit as a boondoggle, not a boon.

  6. Alon Levy July 21, 2010 at 11:37 am #

    M1EK, it’s not true that Europeans face higher parking rates. The parking rates I see in garages in the French Riviera are on the order of 2 Euros for the first hour and 20 cents for every subsequent half hour (I think). Similarly, in Tel Aviv, it’s hard to find parking, but once you find it, it’s often free and in other cases inexpensive.

  7. Leo Petr July 21, 2010 at 12:58 pm #

    As a reader, I have to say that even though you may not have any financial interest in the matter, you like BRT systems a lot, and you are not particularly fond of mixed-traffic streetcars.

  8. M1EK July 21, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    Alon, in every apples-to-apples comparison I’ve seen (similarly dense and/or populated cities), European parking rates have beaten those of the corresponding US cities. Having never been to the French Riviera, I don’t know which US cities would be most comparable, though.
    “Hard to find” is part of the expense of parking of course. If it’s subsidized/artificially cheap but overwhelmed with demand, it might as well be expensive in currency terms.

  9. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 21, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    Leo.  No.  Transit in mixed traffic is much less reliable than transit on an exclusive lane or trackway. Speed and reliability are really fundamental features of transit mobility and usefulness, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with the bus-rail distinction. 
    Bus Rapid Transit in a proper exclusive lane is way more fast and reliable than mixed traffic streetcars, just as rail on an exclusive trackway is way more fast and reliable than buses in traffic.  Speed and reliability are simply not related to the bus-rail choice.  They are about how much you need to stop and what can get in your way.
    All I do is point that out, over and over as needed.

  10. Christopher July 21, 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    M1EK – since the post you commented on made international comparisons it seems fair to expect you to identify which country “this country” is.
    My interpretation of Jarrett’s repeated theme is that different transport modes should be used where they are most appropriate. Since many American cities are spending a fortune putting high capacity rail vehicles on slow congested inner-city routes; suggesting that the USA is getting it wrong seems more evidence of insight than preferential bias.
    Chris, England.

  11. Peter Smith July 21, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    I find the condescending tone of this post to be off-putting, if not surprising. Also, I find the ‘exceptionalism’ charge dubious at best.
    As far as the bus cheerleading goes, I just let them have at it. I sure wouldn’t want that job.
    The ‘this country’ charge is lame, as is the corresponding statute in the ‘comment rulebook’ or whatever you call it. The post talked only about New York City. Using ‘this country’ is the most appropriate/least ambiguous terminology, though it is, apparently, illegal terminology.
    Regarding stimulus — stimulus is stimulus whether you use it to dig and refill ditches, whether you use it to build highways, trains, buses, or crack pipes, or even if you just drop it out of helicopters where the huddled masses can spend it on exceptional American food fare.

  12. Wad July 21, 2010 at 11:58 pm #

    In the U.S., “exceptional” in educational parlance is a euphemism for retarded.

  13. M1EK July 22, 2010 at 6:50 am #

    Jarrett, you protest too much. In the exceptional USA, train-like buses in busways almost always devolve into differently-painted buses in sort-of-but-not-really busways in a way that light rail systems don’t seem to be doing (or, at least, not as often). This is a critical difference to those of us who really want the speed and reliability – pretending that the actual way supposed BRT has been actually delivered doesn’t matter is akin to the high-school debate specialists who used to insist that communism was still a great idea that was just coincidentally poorly applied everywhere it was tried.

  14. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 22, 2010 at 8:46 am #

    M1EK.  I have never said, and would never say, that " pretending that the actual way supposed BRT has been actually delivered
    doesn't matter."  I think I've said exactly the opposite in various ways over and over:  If you care about speed and reliability, you need to care about issues like exclusive lane or track, degree of signal preemption, time impacts of the fare system etc etc.  In fact, from a mobility standpoint, in most applications, those things are a lot more important than whether the thing is on rails or tires. 

  15. Dan78 July 22, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Hello Jarrett,
    While not anti-bus, I have to agree with M1EK, “BRT” in the U.S. is generally a joke. Real BRT has its own roads and distinct stations–not just ‘stops’ (think Curitiba). Preferably, it’s also grade separated.
    Painting an old bus with a new paint scheme and calling it BRT no more makes it so than me putting on a bicorne hat and calling myself Napoleon makes it so.
    Even when we get actual BRT, I can’t help but feel it’s just an excuse to build more highways, almost like it’s set up to fail: http://jaxpolitics.wordpress.com/2009/06/09/brt-failing-in-miami/
    I’m pro-rail because I feel it’s the mass transit mode that most metropolitan areas of the U.S. are lacking. Building rail networks is an investment in the future in a way the purchasing a bus fleet and running them on existing roads is not.

  16. M1EK July 22, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    Jarrett, again, my point is that if you claim BRT is as good as rail despite the fact that in the USA, BRT is inevitably delivered as much worse than rail, you should expect to be viewed with skepticism when you claim to be mode-agnostic. We all live in the world of practice, not theory.

  17. Alon Levy July 22, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    M1EK, rail in the US is inevitably delivered as much worse than modern non-US rail, too. Timetable adherence is poor; LRT is slow and commuter rail insanely expensive to operate; intermodal connections are weak; transfers are often painful; upzoning near stations rarely happens and almost never happens right.
    I happen to think that LRT works better than BRT in first-world settings. But there’s a difference between saying “American transit construction is incompetent but LRT less so than BRT” and saying “BRT is watered down in the US and transfer-free LRT is the solution.”

  18. Wad July 22, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    The problem with BRT, specifically in the U.S., is that the name has become debased to the point of meaninglessness.
    It’s the fault of both the transit systems and the FTA and other grant-making bodies.
    It was a marriage made of Jerry Springer guests.
    The FTA sexed up the flexibility aspect of BRT, and BRT was so flexible that transit systems can write their own application as though it were a game of Mad Libs.
    Then of course there are the transit systems themselves. Since U.S. transit systems are reduced to pauperdom, the standard operating procedure is to develop a need around the grant money available. All transit systems wanted this grant money, so they all invented a need for BRT.
    So you have both an FTA with money but very low standards, and a large and growing pool of desperate, co-dependent transit systems.
    The ambivalence to BRT is understandable. The concept of BRT was to build a transit system that was equivalent to the rail experience without having to build rail. Not only that, but BRT was supposed to be better because the capital outlays are less, it could be expanded to serve more transit riders, and allow it to be adapted to local operating environments.
    What really happened was that transit systems went for the lowest common denominator and hoping for the best result. Now you have transit systems and the FTA giving riders limited-stop or express bus service, then repeating mantra-like that this is just like a rail service.

  19. anonymous July 22, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    Can anyone understand why are you talking about the subject matter that way?
    It’s so confusing that so many arguments made no sense about whether bus-based or railway-based public transport is viable in major urban areas of various countries around the world.
    It is even frustrated for ordinary people who are concerned about the aspect of an issue surrounding the quality – and cost – of various forms of public transport, and I believe the wrong-headded views of ideologues limit the choices among us.
    Now, please settle down and explain as clearly as possible to stop waste time on fighting over this conondrum. Tell the truth please.
    Thank you.

  20. anonymous July 23, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    Hmm.. what is wrong right now? I think it is wrongheaded these days when someone has little focus on the transportation sector. How sad. How sad.

  21. M1EK July 23, 2010 at 6:08 am #

    My last response to Alon’s comment was censored, and I have no idea why.
    Transfer-free LRT, unlike BRT, has in fact gotten drivers out of their cars in the USA in large numbers in cities where there AREN’T currently a large number of transit-dependent (by choice or not) commuters. So, yes, I do agree that “BRT is watered down in the US and transfer-free LRT is the solution”.

  22. Chris Stefan July 23, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    BRT doesn’t have to be poorly implemented in the US. Three decent examples I can think of are EMX in Eugene, OR; Swift in Snohomish County, WA just outside of Seattle, WA; and the Orange Line in Los Angeles, CA. They have all of the elements of properly implemented BRT including exclusive lanes, signal preemption, frequent service, and off-board payment. Swift in particular focused on reducing station dwell times as much as possible.
    As for ROW EMX uses a special lane built in a wide median, Swift uses BAT lanes (Business access And Transit, cars are allowed into the lane to make turns), and the Orange Line uses a former RR ROW. The case with Swift is particularly interesting as it is a case of “paint is cheap” and something that might be implemented on any number of multi-lane roads.
    In the end I think Eugene and Snohomish County ended up with good transit service scaled appropriately for the local transit demand. On the other hand the issue with the Orange Line is the demand was enough to justify some form of rail but BRT was built instead.

  23. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 23, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    For the record I haven't edited any comments on this thread.

  24. anonymouse July 23, 2010 at 10:13 am #

    The Orange Line example also highlights another issue: that BRT can be more successful in combination with rail. The Orange Line does as well as it does only because it ends at the Red Line subway, where almost all Orange Line riders transfer. If LA had a BRT-only system, the Orange Line would not get nearly as many riders as it does.

  25. Alon Levy July 23, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    LRT has gotten a few drivers out of their cars. The highest-mode share LRT-based transit system in the US, Portland, has a transit mode share of 6%. In Canada, there are multiple zero-rail cities close to 10%; LRT-based Calgary and Skytrain-based Vancouver are both at 16% and rising. And far from anti-transfer, Calgary presumes many people will take the bus to C-Train, and accordingly restructures bus service to function as a train feeder and limits the availability of park-and-rides.
    The transfer issue comes from a not-invented-here attitude among American planners. Because zero-wait timed transfers are exceedingly rare in the US, they don’t know what they’re missing, so they think every transfer has to be onerous and ridership-busting.
    Your communism analogy is therefore wrong: there are plenty of real-world examples of high-ridership bus service and transfer-based rail service. What you’re saying is more analogous to the annoying Republican argument that because the American welfare system in the US is humiliating and fosters dependence, all welfare is humiliating and fosters dependence. Usually, the response to the arguments that there are better-run welfare systems in Europe is similar to yours as well: “America is special.”

  26. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 23, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    Alon.  My experience is that timed transfer is quite common, even routine, in smaller free-standing cities, say under 100,000.  Many suburban agencies do their best but have trouble because of traffic congestion.  Timed transfer is also routine in many US cities as a way of organizing late night services. 

  27. Scott July 23, 2010 at 6:32 pm #

    Wow, so much has been said.
    I don’t understand where this all came from. I have do not recall Jerrett claiming anything was a silver bullet – although after reading some posts I imagined he did only to have that proven wrong later. Rather, I believe he tries to point out the strengths and weaknesses of different systems. And I think he made it clear that the larger/denser the region served, the more types of transit will be needed because of the variety of trip types. So BRT can happen where it should (how did BRT even come up?).
    Anyway, @ Jarrett. Random though: it would be cool for readers to be able to create a micro profile that would contain basic info such as location.
    Scott, Chicago

  28. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 23, 2010 at 7:51 pm #

    Scott. Thanks for your comment. As soon as someone offers me a salary and a blogging platform and a couple of technical assistants, I’ll act on that suggestion!

  29. jack horner July 25, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    All comment to the effect that mode X is better than mode Y generally/in principle, is just lazy. It’s horses for courses according in the circumstances of the case.
    Technical points (cost vs *potential* service quality) should be clearly distinguished from the confrouding behavioural/political issues (eg ‘BRT is more at risk than LRT of being dumbed down during the detailed planning’) If the latter is the real concern, you must decide whether to fight the dumbing down of BRT (if it would otherwise be more suitable), or to support LRT as avoiding the problem.

  30. M1EK July 26, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    Jack, that frames it pretty well – I’d go further:
    The ceiling for BRT is obviously lower than for LRT; and BRT is far more at risk of being delivered dumbed-down than is LRT. And that holds for every country, by the way.
    Alon, using Canada as an example when I pretty clearly mentioned the US is a bit off. The record in the USA over the last couple of decades is so overwhelmingly in favor of LRT as opposed to BRT/BetterBus that it’s difficult to imagine why anybody would feel the need to mention them in the same sentence. And using metro-area statistics while ignoring overall trends is foolish too – Portland’s transit share held steady or grew at a time when the baseline shrunk (transit share for the whole country continued to drop).

  31. Alon Levy July 26, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    On the contrary, Canada would be a good example of the superiority of LRT; I’m not aware of any first-world BRT that’s as cheap to construct as the C-Train. But my point here is that your “America is special” argument shouldn’t be taken as an abstract first principle; it’s a direct consequence of exceptionally poor planning in the US, which has debased both LRT and BRT.
    The example of Canada (or for that matter Australia) shows that partially American governance leads to partially American results. A more American country, such as the US, has worse transit. A less American country, such as Germany, has better transit. It’s not a coincidence. (Nor is it a first principle, either: it comes from specific political traditions common to American capitalism.)

  32. M1EK July 27, 2010 at 5:53 am #

    Alon, that’s practically the opposite of American exceptionalism on display there – and not particularly helpful. There are differences between the economies and built environments even at the US-Canada level which can explain much of the results even without going into transit planning.

  33. wanderer July 27, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    There are lots of reasons why US transit agencies don’t do timed transfers. One is that it results in longer, more expensive travel times. To allow for potential congestion, you’ve got to build in extra time for the bus to get to the transfer point.
    There’s also got to be space for all the buses to arrive at once. That may sound trivial, but in the Bay Area BART has often tried to reduce, not expand the size of transit centers at its stations. Also, BART often doesn’t regard bus to bus transfers at a BART station as beneficial to it, they see it as poaching on space they could use for other things (mostly private car parking). I don’t think this is the only place this happens.
    Nonetheless, there are agencies which do timed transfers. Timed transfers are only so helpful, they reduce/almost eliminate the wait time for the second bus, but not for the often infrequent first bus. I see them as typically making the best of a bad, low frequency, low density suburban situation

  34. Alon Levy July 27, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    M1EK, you won’t find much difference in built environment if you try to compare Calgary with any US peer city. Now, Calgary may be exceptional, but the rest of Canada isn’t doing too poorly, not by US standards.
    What I’m saying about American governance isn’t a general “It’s the culture” statement. That would be stupid. The problem with any exceptionalist statement, in any direction, is that it doesn’t go toward explaining what exactly is different, and what causes those differences. What I’d tell you about American governance is not such a generic attack; I can cite specifics of how the way US politics works makes transit less effective.
    (One example: the ideological polarization ensures that plans rarely survive party changes. This makes it difficult to rely on long-term planning, which is crucial for good transit. Another example: the competitive nature of US-style lobbying, which is globally unique, gives unions an incentive to grab as much money as they can and yield nothing. This raises operating costs. In both examples, the US should be contrasted with consensus democracies, where long-range planning can be stable and where unions negotiate all together, obviating the “The other guys got a bigger raise” excuse for striking. This is what I mean by “partially American governance” – Canada and Australia have some but not all of those infrastructure-unfriendly features of American politics.)

  35. M1EK July 28, 2010 at 8:38 am #

    Alon, I was giving Canada the BETTER ‘built environment’, by the way; and there’s significant economic differences as well (slightly lower incomes; moderately higher driving costs).
    The rest of your comment is true – but less relevant than you think. Houston managed to get the highest or 2nd highest (depending on the timeframe) light rail ridership per mile in the country fairly recently – at fairly low cost. Seattle spent a ton of money and did comparatively poorly; the US is like the blind man describing the elephant in a lot of ways.

  36. Alon Levy July 28, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    Yes, and Houston also managed the lower per-rider cost of any US light rail line. I’m not saying all US transit lines suck; I’m saying that on average, US transit lines perform much worse than non-US ones.
    The slightly lower income bit apply to just some parts of Canada. In Alberta, which is making the biggest strides on transit, the incomes are actually higher than in the US, thanks to an oil boom. Before the recession, unskilled retail workers could get $17/hour plus signing bonuses in Calgary. Nor does Alberta have a built environment significantly different from that of the US Sunbelt.

  37. M1EK July 29, 2010 at 6:17 am #

    Yeah, but my impression from outside is that the transit infrastructure in Alberta is as bad or worse than the US Sunbelt too (this is mainly due to the sunny reports from a glibertarian tool I’ve tangled with in the past, so take with a grain of salt).