Struggling to pay for light rail? Try it without the rails

Wed, 2016-02-24 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Are you contemplating an extension to your transit system? Then I'm pleading with you to consider bus rapid transit before you make your final decision. Notice I didn't ask you to choose it necessarily. Just to consider it. Why? Because I've seen what a success it has been in various places around the world. In addition to the advantages listed below, it also offers great flexibility. It's much easier to change a bus route than to lay new tracks for light rail. It isn't the right choice for every city, but it does deserve your consideration. — Jesse Berst 

Between rapidly swelling populations and a new generation that doesn’t want to drive, there’s more pressure on cities to deliver robust transit systems. Light rail is often one of the first options that comes up, but what if your budget or infrastructure is especially limited?

Some cities are experimenting with bus rapid transit — effectively light rail without the rails — and it’s winning support from commuters and taxpayers alike. Hampton Roads, Virginia, is one of the latest to look at rapid ride bus routes. It’s launching an 18-month study that you may want to follow.

Why bus rapid transit?
While dedicated tracks certainly help light rail cars speed to their destination, it turns out that the rails themselves are a huge benefit, they are not the only factor at work.

The coaches used with bus rapid transit aren’t typical buses. They tend to have wider — and more — doors, allowing more people to board more quickly at one time.

Their bus stops are more like train stations. People buy tickets before they board, eliminating delays during the boarding process. It’s even better if the stations are elevated so that people don’t have to climb up into the bus.

They run on schedules that are more like light rail services. They may run as often as every 10 minutes during peak times and make relatively few stops on the way.

And even though they don’t run on rails, they still should have their own lane, preferably separated from the main roadway. Some cities allow the buses to sail through traffic lights, but the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy finds it's even more important that traffic planners ensure that drivers won't be cutting in front of or turning in front of the buses.

There are success stories
While Hampton Roads evaluates whether bus rapid transit is right for it, the concept has worked in other cities for years. Los Angeles is one of the key success stories, launching its bus rapid transit service in 2000. Travel times were cut by nearly a third, attracting more people to mass transit. Ridership quickly jumped 40% — and a third of those new riders had never used mass transit before. Since then, the city dramatically expanded its network.

Bogotá, a city of 8 million people, doesn't have a single subway. It moves 2.4 million passengers each day, largely through the success of its bus rapid transit system. The path to the service wasn't easy — people had a poor opinion of transit and private bus operators worried it would put them out of business — but it has cut travel times by a third, boosted property values by 20%, created jobs and added to tax revenues.

But others find the debate should not merely be buses versus trains. Cities should carefully consider the right tool for the job and the buses are not a full replacement for light rail. Istanbul, Turkey, launched its bus rapid transit system in 2007. While its ridership has been phenomenal, many believe a light rail system would have been able to move more people faster. A study found planners spent so much time debating the merits of buses and trains that they overlooked some key planning decisions that would have made either system more effective.

Winning fans
Support for the Hampton Roads study is mostly positive from community members. Comments to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper call it a “practical and right-sized approach” that neighboring cities are wrong to ignore.

Money is often the biggest factor. According to a National Transportation Database analysis of 15 American cities that have both light rail and bus rapid transit, the bus-based service, on average, costs only about half as much to run.

There are some cities, like Salt Lake City, were the costs are very close, but there are others, like Dallas and Los Angeles, where light rail costs three to four times as much. No one solution is right for everyone, but for cities where the bus rapid transit works, it can boost transit service at a fraction of the cost.

More stories …
Report: Bus Rapid Transit systems poised for growth
Bus Rapid Transit: Planning and Executing a Successful System