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.

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  1. So true, some Auckland rail fans love to denigrate buses but currently buses offer lower subsidies and if ARTA reaches it’s 2016 targets 80% of PT riders will be on bus, this doesn’t mean we should abandon rail expansion but means those wishing to see greatly reduced buses are dreaming…

    Then there are others who denigrate trams, saying buses are far better due to their lower cost and flexibility, failing to realise the fixed nature of trams CAN be an advantage…

    Every route has different needs and potential ridership and therefore different methods of transport…

  2. @Jeremy Harris. Yes I do find myself sometimes being rather negative about buses. If only because I have had so many bad experiences (taking half an hour to 40 minutes to complete a journey I can walk in less than 50 minutes really annoys me). Buses have a certain flexibility and can change routes if needed to service a new market, but they do struggle with moving large volumes of people quickly. Trams sort of sit in the middle, they can have a dedicated route or they can use roads like a bus. I think using rail to move people off the isthmus; trams around the inner city and the major radial roads and buses for local routes, growing suburbs and special events would be a great target to aim at.

  3. Exactly the point I’m getting at James – that each mode is most suitable for different types of trips. If you look at London I don’t think you would find that many bus trips were particularly long. Often they’re just to link people to the tube stations, or to make shortish trips that aren’t particularly well served by rail.

    There are many bus services in Auckland that probably shouldn’t be bus services. Most of the Howick & Eastern services should be a railway line, because they’re just so long and a bus takes forever to serve them. Same for many Great South Road services, which seem to do little but duplicate the southern line.

    I would almost count the Northern Busway as a railway line, so a lot of the services to the shore are fairly well served by bus.

  4. Agreed. Unfortunately it is so easy to get trapped into the us versus them thinking particularly when ‘they’ seem to hold all the tricks.

  5. Jeremy – You are correct about buses having lower subsidies but the main reason for that is buses are usually for shorter trips. I saw a table that showed the subsidy per passenger per km and it was almost identical with only 1 cent in it, I think it was $0.35 for buses and $0.36 for trains.

  6. The question I have is what will those subsidies per km will look like when the electrics start rolling, considering they are so close now surely it would reduce below that of buses.

  7. Your post seems reaonable at first, but then you generalise opposition to specific transport forms with simplistic arguments (e.g. let’s get the others right before investing elsewhere).

    I oppose trams because of the significant underlying costs involved in establishing and maintaining the system that in many ways (though granted, not all) simply replace what’s already there without adding any benefit (sorta like building a second harbour bridge then demolishing the original one). So in that case, we should be concerned about the technologies employed.

    The OP notes the slowness of buses in Auckland. Perhaps, but this can be addressed through corrective measures in roading design and smart forward planning (bus lanes, boarding/alighting techniques). The solution should be to try this first before diving headlong into another, expensive technology altogether.

    The tram mecca that is Melbourne is usually in people’s minds when thinkg about trams. But they are widely regarded as slow, are unreliable in poor weather (at either extreme), incur significant losses in lost revenue and divert funding from more flexible, revenue-assured techniques of PT. You may disagree with this analysis, but it warrants debate and negates the OP’s argument that the technology should not really be of concern. I’d argue it’s one of the critical concerns in any debate about PT.

  8. Ah but Christopher what you are saying is effectively the same as what I am. Your comment says that trams might be the most suitable technology in some circumstances, but generally buses are superior.

    I don’t dispute that. In some cities there probably are investments being made in light rail/trams along routes more suited to buses, but the opposite is probably true too.

    Trams have their advantages in terms of capacity, ride quality, route legibility and ability to create urban intensification.

    These are significant and real benefits that in some cases will outweigh the extra cost. Of course it is likely we will have 20 bus routes for each tram route, but that doesn’t mean we should write trams off.

  9. Christopher, I think you miss the point a little. In terms of trams the benefit comes from the fact the run on rails, the rails guide the vehicle and support the weight of it across a wider area than is the case with tyres on a road. This means you can run heavier and longer vehicles in a given lane of roadway, or in other words increase the carrying capacity of the same amount of road space. Indeed in most cases there is no need to increase capacity of a corridor beyond what existing buses and good road/bus lanes can reliably provide, but in a few corridors in Auckland where patronage levels are very high upgrading congested bus lanes to tramway may be warranted if further increases in capacity are needed. The prime example of this is Dominion Rd, it started with buses running in general traffic lanes, was enhanced with simple bus lanes and will soon be upgraded with superior buslanes, high quality stops and some off-street sections. This will function very well I assume, but it might be the case that patronage growth requires further upgrades in the capacity and standard of service in the not too distant future. At that point it would be prudent to look at all possible modes or technological innovations. So rather than your analogy of demolishing the harbour bridge to build another in its place, it is perhaps more like fitting the existing bridge with a different system to increase its capacity.

    So the point is not to get hung up on the general merits or problems of a particular technology (as you have with your blanket comment ‘I oppose trams because…’), but to look at what provides the best option for the particular travel patterns of a particular corridor. Generally I am of the opinion that trams would be an expensive waste of time for most public transport routes, however for some they may be the most useful and cost effective mode and indeed in other corridors they might be woefully insufficient.
    The argument is not to go in with preconceived notions about what to put where, but to look at what is most appropriate. So in that regard saying ‘buses on buslanes are the only worthwhile option’ is as much a fallacy as saying ‘trams on tramway are the only worthwhile option’, or for that matter motorways, undergrounds, monorails or whatever.

    What you say about Melbourne’s trams are indeed true, at least in part. As a Melburnian who uses the public transport system daily I agree with your sentiments in regard to some routes, particularly those that simply run on rails set in the road and share the lane with general traffic. These are slow and presumably a fairly inefficient use of funds and might be best run using buses. But on other routes, particularly those where the trams run in the median of a boulevard, they are fast, efficient and well patronised. The point again is to not get hung up on preconceptions of a technology but look at what is most appropriate for a specific application.

    In terms of them “incurring significant losses in revenue and diverting funding from more flexible, revenue-assured techniques of PT”, you are again making the same ‘buses vs trams stupid debate’ fallacy, or at least tarring every application of trams with the same brush and assuming every application of alternatives is superior.

    It is definitely debatable, but there are some tram lines in Melbourne that are very highly utilised at all hours of the day. I would argue that replacing these routes with a bus based system would cost more and ensure a greater loss in revenue, not in the least because you would need two or three buses and drivers to carry the same amount of people as one tram with one driver On other less patronised routes I would agree that buses would be more appropriate, while indeed on some of the busiest tram lines upgrading to heavy rail or metro would also be appropriate.

  10. Guys, that so-called bus riders group in LA will be astroturf. You can safely ignore its logic (though not its effect).

    We get this over here, for example, the Gold Coast Light Rail being undermined by astroturfers, conservative politicians and their small business backers.

    The backing may come from bizos who don’t want to lose parking space to trams – but the conservative pollies are ideologically opposed to public transport, and if trams lead a revival, enough reason alone to be opposed.

    Trams aka Light Rail Vehicles are bad value if ridership per vehicle is less than 50 and if vehicle per hour is less than 10-12. But if you are consistently bettering that, good time to start looking at trams. No bus system is going to uplift 300 people every 5 minutes, and some of the perversions, like Brisbane’s busway system, would not have left much change from the amount a decent LR system.

    And remember bus freaks also cannibalise and misallocate the market at the micro level too. In Melbourne we have hundreds of standard body buses driving around the street empty, with drivers paid on heavy vehicle drivers’ wages and using vast amounts of fuel, when taxis and minivans would have done the trick. Some routes, including my local one, NEVER get more than 10 people aboard. EVER. But the depot will tell you they might as well use a full size bus – they’ve gone and bought a few of the damned things.

    If PT is going to be cost-effective and flexible, then buses need to know their place – between trams and minivans. No more than 40-50 people in an uplift. There’s a famous photo (on my blog if I can be bothered finding the link) of a queue of hundreds of HK buses before the MTR was built). Obviously even the greatest bus nut would have to see the limit.

    Some of the pro-bus astroturfers and ideologists have it as sine qua non that there will never be enough PT users to justify something better than buses – but they do their best to make sure their will never be by keeping demand down through crap systems.

  11. NickR and Admin: Regardless of your position on trams, you are now debating the validity of a PT technology compared to others. I’m not trying to launch another trams vs. everything else debate, I’m just saying that debating the respective PT technologies is entirely valid.

    The OP says… “In my view, we really need to put aside the enormous focus we often have on what the technology used will be.” Yet you have gone on to debate that very point. Because there are very real consequences to adopting alternatives, the debate on which technology is used is valuable and absolutely necessary.

  12. Christopher, of course we will end up debating what technology is most suitable for each corridor. My entire point is that we should first look at the needs of the corridor and then shift on to deciding which technology best meets those needs. What I take issue with are people who write off ever using a particular technology.

    Horses for courses I say.

  13. What I was suggesting was that the various technologies all have valid applications under the circumstances that their particular characteristics are best suited to. Rather than arguing that one mode is superior to the others I am saying they could all be the best depending on the situation.

    So yes in that regard there is definitely need for debate on which mode is the best for specific corridors, for sure. What the admin is suggesting is we get over the general ‘ideological’ debate of buses vs. trams vs. trains, and keep all options on the table.

    Perhaps I misunderstood but your earlier comments suggest that you would like to see trams ruled out of consideration in any case.

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