Light Rail

Canberra: “They Only Refer to Buses”

Transit debates often get stuck because the word we need doesn’t exist.  As longtime readers of this blog will know, I’d really like there to be a word that means “transit vehicle, maybe on rails and maybe on tires” or “clearly a bus right now, but with the possibility of growing rails in the future.”

Local 4 blogBut there isn’t such a word.  So when I’m working in a city where the short-term reality is an all-bus system, and I talk about that system and our short-term plans for it, well, it’s really hard not to use the word bus.  When I want to help people visualize it, it’s hard not to draw a picture of a bus.

When I do, rail advocates assume that means I’m expressing an opposition to rail, or perhaps just pandering to such feelings in my clients.  Here, for example, the latest blast from the head of the main light rail lobby group in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, in a comment on the Canberra news blog RiotACT:

Although Mr Walker proclaims transport mode agnosticism, he is being paid by a pro-bus department … . What do you think would happen to future work for his firm if he came out and said, replace buses with light rail on the rapid route where the demand warrants this modal change.

I have heard the [local government] policy people report on their long term plans based on the ‘Canberra Transport Plan’. They only refer to buses.

Actually, I’m being paid (and modestly) by a department that’s trying to plot a rational course into a sustainable transport future, for a city of 345,000 people who live mostly at low densities with an abundant road network.  The transit system is not yet at a scale or intensity where it needs the capacity that light rail would offer, nor is there much near-term prospect of funding for it.  Light rail could happen, and I certainly don’t oppose it, but as I said over and over in Canberra’s Strategic Plan process, if you wait for light rail, you will miss a lot of other opportunities to improve transit mobility, and to encourage more transit-friendly urban form.

So to improve public transit in Canberra, the government is moving forward with a plan to improve the buses.   Not because they love buses, but because (a) they have buses and (b) they need to move forward.

And so, to talk about that, they need to say the word “bus” a lot, and even draw pictures of buses.  Yes, if your conception of transit begins with an absolute division between a bus world and a rail world, then officials who do that are going to sound to you like bus advocates.

But if you call them that, you’re projecting your scheme onto them.  Not everyone lives in a bus-vs-rail world.  The experts and officials who say bus a lot may well be true bus enthusiasts, but they may also be people like me who just want to get on with the work of developing good transit, and who therefore reach for whatever tool will best do the job at hand.

Dissent of the Week: My Alleged “Bias” Against Rail

I’m relieved to report that commenters who actually saw me give the presentation “A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels” seem to agree that I wasn’t displaying a bias toward or against particular projects, except perhaps for projects that were based on misunderstanding or ignoring some basic geometry.

However, finally I have a comment that attacks me full-on, which gives me yet another opportunity to think about whether I do have a “modal bias.”  It’s from commenter Carl, who I believe saw the presentation in Seattle: Continue Reading →

Streetcars and Spontaneity

The comments on Is Speed Obsolete? — my post on Professor Patrick Condon’s thesis that slow streetcars are better than rapid transit — are a gold mine of perspectives and insights.  I could spin a month of posts out of them.

Let’s start with this one, from Adrian, in response to my claim that slow transit competes more with walking and cycling, while fast
transit competes more with cars.
  Continue Reading →

Illusions of Travel Time in Transit Promotion

Whenever you hear someone cite the travel time of a proposed transit line, your first reaction should always be:  “Yes, but at what frequency?”   Often, that fact is missing from these soundbites.

There’s a nice example in today’s Transport Politic.  Speaking of the proposed Gold Line Foothills extension, which if built will someday extend from Los Angeles to Montclair: Continue Reading →

Streetcars vs Light Rail … Is There a Difference?

UPDATE February 2016:  While this post’s deep dive is valid enough, I would no longer agree with my past self that exclusivity of right of way is secondary in defining the difference between streetcars and light rail.  I no longer agree with this post’s claim that exclusive right of way is more important for longer transit trips than for short ones.  It is always a crucial driver of reliability, and its absence continues to be the defining features of what most Americans call “streetcars” as opposed to light rail.

DSCN0337 Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic proposes a curious definition of the difference between streetcars (trams) and light rail:

The dividing line between what Americans reference as a streetcar and what they call light rail is not nearly as defined as one might assume considering the frequent use of the two terminologies in opposition. According to popular understanding, streetcars share their rights-of-way with automobiles and light rail has its own, reserved right-of-way.

But the truth is that the two modes use very similar vehicles and their corridors frequently fall somewhere between the respective stereotypes of each technology. Even the prototypical U.S. light rail project — the Portland MAX — includes significant track segments downtown in which its corridor is hardly separated from that of the automobiles nearby. And that city’s similarly  pioneering streetcar includes several segments completely separated from the street.

Continue Reading →