A couple of days ago I was reading through the comment of an interesting post on “The Transport Politic” blog about Los Angeles, the same post which inspired my post of a couple of days ago about how Auckland’s relatively dispersed employment patterns (which actually may not be as dispersed as we thought) doesn’t mean that public transport can’t work here – as is slowly being shown in Los Angeles. But anyway, reading through the comments thread I came across this one, which criticises the spending on rail/light-rail lines instead of expanding the bus network:
LACMTA is already proposing MASSIVE cuts in the county’s bus system in order to pay for the operating of the recent extensions of the Gold Line and future Expo Line. The Gold Line, which connects some of the densest areas in the region, has an operating subsidy of around 25 dollars per passenger per trip. The majority of the well-used bus lines in the system have subsidies of under 3 dollars. If the mayor continues with this plan, more service cuts will follow in order to pay to finance and pay interest off the federal loans. Are a few poorly planed light rail and subway lines, whose planners seemed to disregard actual travel patterns in the region, worth decimating a bus system that serves hundreds of thousands of transit dependent riders?
Alternatively, Los Angeles could first build a word class BRT system with dedicated bus lanes on surface streets. The $13.7 billion in local funding from Measure R would more than pay for the construction of numerous high end BRT routes with full service amenities, dedicated lanes, and signal priority. These projects could be combined with streetscaping efforts and other improvements to give the BRT system more staying power. Freeway lanes, especially existing HOV lanes, could be converted into Bus Only Lanes or HOT lanes (this might be a better alternative if tolls were used to fund bus operations) and used for long distance express routes. The BRT and Freeway Express Routes could use double articulated buses that increase capacity without increasing the number of bus drivers. With the system in place, Los Angeles would have a world class bus system that both serves all of its transit dependent ridership and provides an alternative for driving. Once this system was in place, LA Metro planners could then reevaluate which corridors really need rail lines and build accordingly.
Now I certainly understand and would agree with a critique of transport spending on flashy projects at the cost of a series of more minor upgrades that may actually benefit more people for a lower cost. But that thing that annoys me with this kind of argument is the whole “let’s build bus stuff first, and once we’re done with that let’s have a think about rail.” You hear similar arguments being put forward in Auckland, but they generally go along the lines of “let’s finish the motorway network first and then we’ll think about public transport.” Both arguments completely miss the point, because they get stuck obsessing over the particular technology used to shift people around.
Cars, buses, trams, trains and whatever other technology out there that helps transport people around should be viewed as simply different ways to transport the population. In different circumstances, different technologies will be most suitable. In smaller towns and cities around New Zealand, chances are that the car is the most efficient and effective technology for transport – and public transport will mainly be there for social reasons so those who don’t drive can still get around. Within larger cities, chances are you will end up with different corridors where different public transport technologies are most suitable. My bus route is unlikely to ever justify being upgraded to a train or tram route – unless something really crazy happens to fuel prices. In the same respect, nobody would ever think that you could close the London Underground or the New York subway, and replace them with bus-lanes. In cities like Paris you have buses, trams, metro trains, the RER system and commuter trains all working together to create a world-class public transport system.
Putting aside private vehicles for the moment, it is quite amazing to see the debates that are had in transport circles about buses versus trams or busways versus commuter rail. Somewhat bizarrely, it Los Angeles the “Bus Riders Union” – the pro-bus group that the author of the above comment seems to belong to (or support), actually campaigned against”Measure R“, the increase in sales tax that will fund Los Angeles’s public transport expansion programme over the next 30 years because most of that money was being spent on rail. So basically you had a public transport advocacy group campaigning against the most important pro public transport measure in 50 years, simply because it was going to a different technology than what they supported. Thank goodness their efforts failed.
In my view, we really need to put aside the enormous focus we often have on what the technology used will be. In some circumstances, a particular corridor will be best served by rail, in some areas it will be by bus and in some areas by tram. I don’t buy arguments along the lines of “let’s not build any tram lines, we can’t even get buses or trains right yet” because once again it misses the point of providing the technology that most suits the corridor. I really do think that Dominion Road corridor is highly suitable for a tram – along with Tamaki Drive. Similarly, I think State Highway 16 is well suited for a busway, but that a Rapid Transit line out to Botany/Flat Bush should be rail. Each corridor has different circumstances, different needs and therefore different technologies are most suitable.
This obsession with splitting the different transport technologies is also a huge factor in why we have ended up with such an unbalanced transport system. NZTA, who have tonnes of money from petrol taxes, cannot fund new railway projects with this money. Furthermore, even within the money that NZTA does distribute to different types of transport activities, their funds are split by technology or road type. Some goes to public transport infrastructure, some goes to local roads, and masses goes to state highways. Then different projects of that same type compete with each other to access that particular funding pool. To me, this is completely back-to-front. I think that all projects of all types should compete against each other, and just as we should choose the best public transport technology according to the attributes and requirements of that corridor, we should choose to fund different types of transport projects according to what is needed most and what will bring the greatest benefits.
It just seems inefficient to do it any other way.