Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): A Good Idea (With Caveats)

As Los Angeles County considers raising the county-wide sales tax by 0.5% to pay for transportation infrastructure, the idea has been floated that a portion of the funds raised should be used to finance Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).  BRT is a rather amorphous concept that means different things to different people.  Generally, it is sold as subway-style transit service on rubber wheels.  The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) lists 5 criteria for BRT, but in essence it boils down to this: bus-only lanes, off-board payment, giving the bus priority at intersections, and bus platforms with level boarding.  The quality of BRT generally depends on the degree to which the line adheres to these criteria.  The Brazilian city of Curitiba does it spectacularly well; the Twin Cities do it less well.

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BRT here in LA: The Orange Line

Los Angeles County itself already has two BRT-style lines: the Orange Line and the Silver Line.  Certain elements of BRT, such as off-board payment and all-door boarding, are currently being piloted on Wilshire Boulevard. San Bernardino County has one BRT line too: the sbX.  The Orange Line meets most of the criteria of BRT.  The Silver Line meets fewer: for instance, it runs through downtown in mixed traffic without signal priority or level boarding.  

LA may be getting two more BRT lines.  The first is planned for Vermont Avenue.  This is an entirely sensible choice.  As Better Institutions notes, the 204 (local) and 754 (rapid) buses running up and down Vermont are the two highest performing bus routes in the entire region.  Incrementally upgrading high-performing bus routes to superior BRT service is a user-oriented and cost-effective approach.  The second planned line will connect North Hollywood with Pasadena via Burbank and Glendale.

The benefits of BRT are potentially tremendous.  Merely by re-striping lanes as “bus-only”, providing them with priority at intersections, and allowing off-board payment and all-door boarding, the speed, reliability (and therefore ridership potential) of high-volume bus routes could be exponentially enhanced at minimal cost.  It therefore seems self-evident that Los Angeles should seek to dedicate a portion of the funds raised under any revenue source to BRT, right?

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Dedicated Bus Lane (in Paris): Exclusive lanes are an essential feature of BRT

Those dedicated lanes aren’t optional.

With BRT, however, there are two important exceptions that prove two important rules.  The first is that bus-only lanes are not merely a desirable amenity of BRT, but are instead indispensable components.  Without bus-only lanes, BRT is a fiction.  Jarrett Walker at Human Transit explains how it is precisely at the choke-points for regular bus routes that dedicated bus lanes are sometimes sacrificed on new BRT lines. Yet the value of reserving space for buses at those choke points is a hard sell:  

The Paradox of Bus Lanes:  “If buses are moving well, and carrying more people than the car lanes, the bus lane looks empty most of the time.  Only a failing or obstructed bus lane looks like it’s full of buses.  That’s why bus lanes are such a hard sell in cities run by motorists who want to do the green thing but still form their impressions from behind the wheel of a car.

– Jarrett Walker

It is not shocking. Road width is tangible and finite (the slender sidewalks of most American cities really cannot be narrowed any further). Choke points involve difficult political choices about how to allocate space, and removing automobile lanes is certain to provoke vocal opposition – particularly in automotive Los Angeles.  The irony of this tradeoff is that bus-only lanes are demonstrably more efficient at moving people: 

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Buses use less space than cars to move more people.

Nevertheless, it cannot be wished-away that the defining element of BRT is also its most politically sensitive feature.  The City of Los Angeles Mobility 2035 Plan does call for bus-only lanes, it’s true.  Yet the danger that these might be watered down is always present.

Is this really about transit? Or is it about rebuilding roads?

The second qualification is that BRT projects nationwide are often roadway-reconstruction projects masquerading as transit projects.  One of the aforementioned BRT lines in the Twin Cities – the “Red Line” – cost $112 million, of which $57 million was dedicated to highway improvements. This phenomenon arises from the failure of our transportation financing model, whereby local governments assume huge liabilities in the form of suburban transportation infrastructure, infinite demand exists (unmitigated by congestion pricing) creating political pressure to expand roadway capacity, yet suburbs lack the revenue to pay for these liabilities themselves.  Strong Towns has made this point for years: municipal governments simply have too many roads to maintain with an insufficient tax base.  The inability of local government to meet these obligations goes some way towards explaining the push for new financing as exemplified by the new ballot proposal in Los Angeles County.  Instead of changing behavior, the idea is to plug the budget gap from some other source. In other words, the danger exists that projects sold to the public as “transit” will use much of their budgets to fix local roads.

BRT in LA is not immune to these two threats.  The bus is the workhorse of the transit system.  It desperately needs improvement.  Protection from the sun at stops would be a good place to start.  Upgrading high-volume routes with the features of BRT is an excellent idea.

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