It’s impossible to be in transport circles for too long before the good old arguments of ‘buses versus trains’ or ‘BRT versus LRT’ and so forth come along. I suppose that it’s inevitable to end up in such technological debates – as while each technology tends to be best suited for a particular type of job, there’s an enormous level of crossover. For improving Dominion Road’s public transport priority measures, for example, we could focus on better bus lanes or we could look at light-rail. Both options have their pros and cons, there’s not an obvious solution – at least not at first glance.
The debate is also complicated by romanticism to some extent. Trains and trams have a history, or perhaps better put – they have a culture associated with them that buses seem not to have. This may mean that a rail-based solution can sometimes be promoted when buses would do just fine; but the on the other hand evidence seems to show that trains and trams do attract ridership that buses simply don’t attract. So there is a level of attractiveness to rail-based solutions that perhaps cannot be explained through the analysis of numbers.
That said, public transport advocates who are blind to the benefits of buses do themselves no favours by being fixated on technology: buses are cheap, flexible, fast-to-implement and so forth. As I have said on numerous occasions before, if we wanted to do one thing cheaply and quickly to dramatically improve Auckland’s public transport system – the best thing we could do is drastically expand the city’s bus lane network.
But what’s important here is a ‘horses for courses’ approach. In some situations our existing infrastructure, the type of demand along the corridor, the land-use patterns and whatever other relevant factors there are will combine to tell us that buses are the best solution. In other situations they will combine to tell us that rail will work best. There are likely to be further subdivisions too: light-rail or heavy-rail? What level of bus priority do we need? Is demand so low that what we really need is some sort of demand-responsive van system?
A common criticism made by bus advocates is that those promoting rail solutions are only doing so because of the romanticism associated with rail. Bus advocates like Australian David Hensher (who commented on this blog once, though unfortunately he never replied to a few questions I put to him) can sometimes fall into this trap. Mr Hensher puts together excellent critiques of how we cannot continue to have such roads-centric transport policies, and he calls for a balanced approach to PT that focuses on cost-effective improvements and a blind-eye to technology. But then he goes and throw away all that good work by forever focusing on how fantastic bus rapid transit (BRT) is, and slamming any other technology.
For example, in this document even the abstract shows quite clearly his contrary approach:
Right up until the last sentence I could not agree more with what he says. An integrated multi-modal system based around frequency and connectivity – I absolutely agree. And BRT, with feeder buses may well provide what we’re after in some circumstances. It seems to be working pretty well on the North Shore, and I’m supportive of Auckland Transport’s plans to create a busway between Panmure and Botany as part of the AMETI project. In the right situations, BRT will be the solution.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean buses will always be the right technological solution to a transport issue. And this is where Mr Hensher falls into his own trap, decrying others for focusing on a particular technology but then doing so himself. It is a pity actually, because Mr Hensher’s analysis of the need to find cost-effective public transport solutions is very sound. This is outlined in another paper of his:
There is growing support for an attractive alternative means of transportation to the car in cities. If increased public transport capacity is the way to proceed, it is very important that the investment in such systems is made in a rational way. There is a need for sensible selection and funding of technology and consideration of appropriate ways of addressing the problems attributed to the automobile.
I couldn’t agree more. Especially in New Zealand where our central government is focused on building crazy motorways everywhere we will need to make sure that the scraps available for public transport are spent carefully. He also says (from this article again) good things about the need for a multi-modal approach:
Public transport investment is being touted as a key springboard for a sustainable future, especially in large metropolitan areas with growing populations. Public transport, however, is very much multi-modal and should not be seen as a single mode solution as is so often the case with many ideologues. Hence, any commitment to improve public transport has a growing number of options to pursue.
The problem is he then goes on to argue that buses are what you need in pretty much every situation, that rail is too expensive and so on. This from his other article:
There is growing evidence around the world, in origin–destination density contexts similar to the locations proposed for light rail, that a dedicated BRT system (i.e. road infrastructure dedicated exclusively to buses as in Brisbane, Curitiba, Bogota, Pittsburgh, Ottawa etc.) can carry the same number of people as light rail for a typical cost 4–20 times less than a LRT system and 10–100 times less than a heavy rail system (USA General Accounting Office, 2001). It is flexible, it is as permanent as light rail and it can have the image of light rail (rather than the image of boring buses) if planned properly. The USA General Accounting Office (2001) audit of BRT and light rail in six US cities found that the capital cost per mile for LRT compared to BRT in its own lane was 260% more costly. Comparisons with BRT on street or on an HOV lane are not useful and have been excluded. When one also notes BRT’s lower operating costs for both institutional and maintenance reasons, the case is clear.
If one was building a city from scratch and deciding what transport technology would offer the best bang for your buck, then all of what is said above would probably be incredibly important to consider – and chances are you would think very strongly about the credentials of BRT as a ‘system-wide’ solution. However, in the real world that isn’t the case, we have to deal with issues like the following:
- What existing infrastructure do we have and how well utilised is it?
- How much physical space do we have to upgrade this corridor?
- What are the existing land-use patterns and how might they be affected (positive and negatively) by the different technology chosen?
- How do operating costs compare at different demand levels, and in different countries?
If we take the CBD Rail Tunnel project for example, the ability to generate its benefits from bus improvements seems ludicrous. One of the main benefits of the rail tunnel is to unlock the capacity of the existing rail system – enabling it to carry far more people and therefore take pressure off the roading system. Any bus solution that would increase capacity to the CBD would probably increase congestion (not only of buses, but also of cars as many streets would probably need to become bus only) and would only add pressure onto parts of the transport network with no spare capacity.
It’s also underground, reflecting the lack of physical space (but cheaper than a bus tunnel) and supports existing land-use patterns by encouraging the concentration of economic activity in the city centre, and the intensification of suburbs along the rail corridors. Finally, one would imagine that the operating costs of running electric trains that carry up to 1000 passengers with only one driver (here’s hoping) is likely to be lower than carrying those 1000 people on about 15 diesel buses – especially if fuel prices increase further in the future.
Another example where the bus versus train debate often flares up is how to provide rapid transit to Auckland Airport. The current PT situation for the airport largely involves the Air-Bus: which is a reasonably decent bus service that runs along the motorway for much of its trip, before travelling along Mt Eden Road (soon to be Dominion Road as well) on its way to the city. With the opening of the Mangere Bridge duplication project last year, the motorway part of the trip is probably fairly congestion free (at least for now, induced demand will probably eat away at this within the next 2-3 years), with the route along the arterial roads likely to be slowest. This is relevant because there are effectively two “parts” to the airport to city route:
- between the city and Onehunga
- between Onehunga and the Airport
Assuming that we consider it highly important to offer people a one-seat ride between the city and the Airport at a rapid transit quality, that effectively means we either need to find a way of providing a busway, light-rail or heavy-rail line along that whole distance. And here’s where the importance of our existing infrastructure shines through. Anyone got a good idea about how to thread a busway or light-rail line between Onehunga and the city centre? Aside from taking two general traffic lanes away from the southern motorway (not that I would necessarily oppose such an idea) the proposition of an additional RTN between Onehunga and town, duplicating our existing railway line, is not only impractical, it’s also pretty stupid. This tilts the arguments towards rail as the preferred solution for rapid transit to the airport very significantly.
What is clear is that for the majority of American cities — excluding only a few in the Northeast — buses will remain the predominant mode of public transit for most riders, even after major expansions in train networks planned for cities from Charlotte to Phoenix. So even cities that choose to invest in rail projects must also spend on the improvement of their bus lines.
Nor is the difference in costs between rail lines and BRT nearly as great as some would argue. The Journal article quotes Dennis Hinebaugh, head of a transportation center at the University of South Florida, saying “You can build up to 10 BRT lines for the cost of one light-rail line.” That might be true if you’re comparing a train operating entirely in its own right-of-way with a bus running in a lane painted on the street. But a streetcar is probably cheaper than a busway. Just ask Hartford, whose busway project will cost $60 million a mile to build.
One thing that can make bus solutions cheaper is that they’re easier to have short-cuts. If we think about the Northern Busway, it’s really only a true rapid transit corridor for part of its length. It shares a lane with general traffic across the Harbour Bridge, it doesn’t have full priority at intersections in the CBD and between the harbour bridge and once again it shares motorway lanes with general traffic between Constellation and Albany stations. While a railway line would have required a higher standard of alignment geometry and therefore more earthworks, the primary reason the busway is way cheaper than a rail option is due to the short-cuts it has taken.
The Transport Politic’s post also points out the primary situations where rail offers something that a bus solution simply cannot (while also pointing out that these scenarios are relatively rare):
The best argument for rail is that it has the ability to provide massive rush-hour passenger-carrying capacity without destroying the city through which it runs. Whether buried in a subway or operating quietly along in grassy medians, trains can be integrated into the public realm without diminishing the pedestrians-friendly qualities all urbanists should hope to encourage. BRT boosters often argue that their mode of choice can carry a similar number of riders, but neglect to mention that this is only possible when buses arrive every 10 seconds along highway-like four-lane corridors. These are conditions that destroy the walking environment.
Fortunately for American cities looking to invest in new public transportation infrastructure, there are few places that demand the passenger-carrying capacity provided by those freeway-based BRT lines in places like Bogotá. In most metropolitan areas, a two-lane busway inserted on an arterial is perfectly appropriate and sometimes even beneficial for a city. Indeed, as we all know, the story that is too complicated for any mainstream paper to explain is that BRT can mean any number of things. The most rudimentary elements of BRT — the nice buses, the well-articulated stops, the traffic signal priority — are basics we should expect from all of our bus lines. Pushing for their implementation along certain corridors shouldn’t arouse much controversy.
Neither buses, trains nor trams are inherently better than the other. Each technology has an important place in developing a proper public transport system – especially in a city like Auckland. When deciding on our preferred technology cost-effectiveness is obviously going to be a key factor, but cost-effectiveness does not simply mean “which option is cheapest to build?” It also means which option best utilises our existing infrastructure, which option will integrate best with the surrounding environment and which option will make economic sense in the long-run. In some situations that will be a bus, some a train and some a tram.
Anyone who thinks that one particular technology is suitable for all situations – while criticising others for being obsessed with their favoured technology, is really falling for their own trap.