Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Posts Tagged ‘bus rapid transit

Bus Rapid Transit in the US

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The headline that caught my eye was one of those “no surprise there” moments: “U.S. Lags Behind China, Colombia in Bus Rapid Transit” In fact it probably safe to say that the US lags in nearly every aspect of urban transit – as well as inter city of course where China is rapidly building an intercity High Speed Rail system when states are returning federal funds allocated to them to study HSR! It is also worth noting that the story comes from the New York Times blog “Climate Wire”. So far as I know none of our mainstream media has anything like that. Irritatingly, but in common with most mainstream media web pages, there is a report on line but the NYT does not link to it. And one of the reasons for me posting this story to this blog is that even though I may have some issues with what that report says I think you should read it and have access to the whole thing since it is free and a pdf.  It is worth noting that the report is well annotated and provides an extensive list of sources and references.

The report is produced by The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy – which is genuinely independent. It was founded by Michael Replogle and has “transformed… from a small advocacy nonprofit to a leading international organization with over 60 staff members in offices in Africa, Asia, and Latin America” by its current Executive Director, Walter Hook. I make this point becuase BRT has caught the attention of a number of right wing organizations, such as the Reason Institute: not that they are transit advocates so much as advocates for reducing government spending, and BRT appeals to them. The idea was, after all, born out of poverty. Places like Curitiba and Bogota could not afford rail based rapid transit, but needed to do something both fast and cheap to reduce the impact of rapidly rising car use.

We also need to be aware of what is right and wrong with BRT since our right wing government also likes the idea for most of this region and has talked a lot of it – especially when challenged by its commitment to expanding road networks and especially freeways. By the way, I cannot resist once again asking what on earth is happening to the Highway #99 bus lanes which were largely completed nearly a year ago and still remain out of use.

BRT can be a useful stepping stone as a way of changing a region from low use bus ridership to something more transit oriented. It is not the only way that can happen. And many cities have been working hard to make their systems work better through the use of bus lanes, signal priority and other measures. Both London and Paris are in the process of building massive new rail systems as well, but have been upgrading the bus network at the same time as improving bike lanes and so on. It is as much an attitude of mind as anything else. In London they got serious about central area congestion  and introduced “cordon pricing” – the congestion charge. At the same time, given the length of time it takes to build or improve rail based transit and the fact that the underground and surface systems were at or over capacity at peak times, improving bus service – speed and reliability – was the only way to go. But they did not go for the bells and whistles of BRT but rather a rolling programme of increasing services, buying more buses, and getting those buses through the traffic more effectively.

It is this programmatic effect that I think we need to turn our attention to. The report is worth studying, and it has some really useful sources. But it also betrays its belief in magic bullets because when you check out its BRT checklist (The BRT Standard) you find a number of things there that really have little or nothing to do with better transit service quality.

“Bus lanes in central verge of the road” –

All of the world’s best BRT systems have their dedicated rights-of-way in the center of the road. This is true for streetcars and light-rail systems, and for the same reasons.

The median may well be a good place to fit a new transit right of way into a highway oriented urban area. In much of the United States converting the median and centre lanes of freeways and expressways has been a common theme – for instance much of the Chicago elevated, outside of the loop, is in freeway medians. That does not make for good station locations. When the transit passenger gets off the vehicle, they become pedestrians again. And the last place a pedestrian wants to be is in a freeway median or on the centre of an interchange. These are very difficult locations to get too, and hard to convert into transit oriented development. Stations ought to be in central places not stuck out at the margins. Yes if you are going to do BRT  in a US metropolis, by all means look at converting freeway  and expressway lanes, but recognize that you will have an expensive project to convert such a place into an urban area. In the case of boulevards, I am also unhappy at ideas that suggest medians are good places for people. In Vancouver we are much more concerned about preserving medians for trees than people.

Median King Edward Avenue

Median King Edward Avenue - my photo on flickr

In fairness the report does do a reasonable job of examining “circumstances where central median alignment’s superiority is more debatable”

“Stations occupy former road/median space (not sidewalk space)” – again much depends on location. I agree that sidewalk space should not be lost but a lot can be done through the use of set backs. I am especially interested in what can be done to civilize  suburban streets, where often car parking is used between the back of the sidewalk and the front of the property. Bringing the buildings forward, widening the sidewalk and creating space – not for movement but for sitting and enjoying people watching – is what makes for a good urban space. If there has to be some parking it goes in the back or underneath the building.

“Branding of vehicles and system” – if it makes the bus more identifiable then fine. But it really does very little compared to the things that are really important like increased service frequency. We have had branding here for a while, and it means almost nothing. B Line liveried buses work lots of routes that are not  B Lines. The word “Express” gets used and abused. The B line you get on may or may not be branded. The high floor yellow coaches used for some freeway longer distance services turn up on Community Shuttles. Route #620 (the Ferry connection to Tsawwassen) is usually a low floor artic, not a high floor coach but spends most of its run on the freeway.

“Performance-based contracting for operators” – this is the right wing way. Again, not really to do with passenger experience, although it can be, the reason that it is advocated is as a way of putting pressure on cost reductions. That is not say that it is not a useful device but it does have to be part of the a broader service based philosophy and has little to do with BRT per se. In the birth throes of the former GVTA when contracting out was supposed to be the way of the future, we even looked at adopting a passengers’ charter – something that had been widespread as Britain converted from nationalized industries to competitive private sector provision. It was a passing fantasy that did not survive long. It has to be admitted that increasing passenger numbers have been achieved in Britain, especially on the railways. But that has not lead to any decline in passenger complaints – of which complex (and high priced) fare systems and overcrowding are the greatest.

“Peak-period pricing” – I have no idea why that is important in determining whether or not your system qualifies as BRT (see above) It might be a good idea. We used to have it system wide and people complained about how complicated it was. It now applies all day on weekdays. Incidentally, one thing I do notice when I get on the Canada Line to go downtown is how crowded the platform gets at 18:30 – and that is the time when trains are running into the yard out of service.

“Platform-level boarding” – Many of the South American systems use high floor buses. I think this may have more to do with when they were introduced but it could also be a cost consideration. The stations are more expensive than simple bus stops, but the vehicles are cheaper to build and maintain. They also have flat floors throughout. The problem we have with low floor buses – and is also very noticeable on some newer US tram and LRT systems – is that the low floor area is designed for wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.

Interior Seattle streetcar

Interior Seattle streetcar - my photo on flickr

It is not actually very friendly for many users who are able to walk but have other challenges. There are very few seats in the low floor area, and even fewer eye level grab handles. To get to the seat you have to get through an area where you hope the vehicle does not start moving- and then climb steps to get to a seat. Many more people have limited mobility than use wheelchairs – or strollers come to that. And that is an increasingly important issue as the boomers get older and start experiencing joint pain. You do not have to have been a rugby player to experience arthritis in the knees. (Incidentally, the absence of down escalators on the Canada Line also shows appalling ignorance of this issue.)

I also wonder about the number of items that get scored that are not about BRT but about having a decent transit system. These things need to be considered but again do not really make much of a difference when you do an analysis of BRT versus LRT. I wonder too about a table which has three times the points for cycle integration than pedestrian integration. We are all of us pedestrians most of the time: only a few of us are cyclists some of the time.

It is also very clear from the table that Vancouver has never had BRT – and I will be very surprised if anything that is introduced in this region using buses  scores very highly on this table.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 28, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Posted in transit

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Life in the bus lane

with 2 comments

CNN has a story today about Jaime Lerner – they called it “Transit guru: My life in the bus lane” which, as usual, sounds like a young sub-editor trying to get noticed, not an accurate summary of the story. I suggest you look at the accompanying video as well as reading the text, so that you can see why the Curitiba bus lanes are not like anything you will see here – or elsewhere in Canada, come to that.

What I want to emphasize is that the busways (or what the US calls “BRT” Bus Rapid Transit) are really only a small part of the story.

He and his young fellow architects conceived Curitiba’s Master Plan in the mid 1960s, which soon resulted in the bus system as well as pedestrian-only streets, more parks, and later, a unique trash-for-cash recycling program that encouraged people to turn in garbage and reusable materials in exchange for food and other goods.

Curitiba also boasts plentiful parks — there are 51 square meters of green space per person in the city — one of the highest per capita rates on the planet.

“Most of the programs that Jaime Lerner and his team started 30 years ago….have been left alone or neglected.”

The busways are exclusive transit rights of way that were taken away from general purpose traffic on existing wide boulevards. The traffic in the rest of the system has become very congested – so there is both a stick and a carrot to switch modes. We do not do this. When we put in rapid transit – or even HOV, we do the utmost to ensure that traffic capacity on the road system is unaffected. We do this by adding lanes, not converting them, and for our rail based systems, grade separation at huge expense. Lerner’s system was designed to be easy to install and cheap to build. Ottawa is probably the nearest comparable system of busways, but there again it was grade separated, hugely expensive and did not penetrate the core of the city. The buses are left to fight it out with the cars. On the other hand Ottawa also did not force transfers, by pretending that the busway was like a train system, so commuters get a one seat ride from their suburban origins to work in downtown. They have also decided that they need LRT now.

Lerner was trying to change a lot about his society – but when North Americans go to Curitiba they tend to focus on the buses. That’s a shame – and there is much to learn from the experience there about community involvement, empowerment of marginalized people and so on. Not that I claim to be expert in those areas, nor am I going to spend much time on them here. But I do think we need to see this in perspective and note that he is not the Mayor now.

The Provincial government now makes all sorts of promises – as does Translink – about BRT. They are going to be used in Surrey. We can also see that some things have changed here in recent years. For instance, under the present administration actual bus lanes are being built on Highway #99. That is to try and soften the blow of the forced interchange to the Canada Line for people from Delta and South Surrey. Of course, bus lanes had existed for years on this Highway on either side of the Deas Tunnel. They were steadily degraded until they got to 2+ HOV as a sop demanded by then Mayor of Delta Beth Johnson as a condition for signing on to the GVTA. There were no bus lanes on either side of the Oak Street Bridge, where they were sorely needed, and now are only being built on the south side to help buses get in and out of the Bridgeport Road interchange quicker. Not sure the southbound lanes now being completed will actually help much. To work as a queue jumper, there has to be a queue to jump, and south of Oak Street bridge in the afternoons traffic usually moves well until it approaches the ghastly Steveston Highway interchange which should have been rebuilt many years ago. Even the closure of the weigh station has done little to change the daily congestion here. So far as I know, there are no plans to make that any better, any time soon.

Highway #99 at Deas Tunnel

Traffic moving well July 14, 2010 - transit buses merge into #99's traffic here

Lerner’s system has novel bus stations to ensure prepayment of fares and speed loading. If you use low floor buses, elevated station buildings (he used simple plastic tubes) are not needed – and as Broadway Station demonstrates, you just need somewhere for waiting passengers to be marshalled. What is notable is the service frequency. A bus a minute! Now that is something that very few systems even try to emulate. On a rail based system, with signalling, 30 trains per hour (tph) is usually the accepted limit for service frequency, and that is dictated by the ability of people to get on and off the trains. London has shown that if you build platforms on both sides of the train and use one for unloading first then open the doors on the other side for loading, you can get more than 30tph – but they only do that now on the Docklands Light Railway which has other much more significant capacity constraints. For a deep level bored tube, I worked out that it was nearly always going to be a better rate of return on capital to build a new line and stations that try to retrofit existing stations with additional platforms for the same number of tracks.

In Vancouver, Translink tries to sell us the idea that a 15 minute service is “frequent”. Hah!

When bus lanes got discussed here with the City of Vancouver engineers, prior to the #98 B-Line, I got very little from them. Their view ten years ago was that if the bus could keep up with the traffic, that was enough. They were appalled by the idea that a bus might be made  more attractive by giving it an advantage. Now that attitude seems to have changed – at least as far as bikes are concerned. Bike lanes have been made by taking gp lanes on Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir. Somehow buses hung on in Granville Mall too, and will return in September. But when you look at what other cities have been doing for many years in terms of bus priority – and not just for express buses on special routes – we have a long way to go. But do not expect much movement in that direction until Translink can deliver a lot more bus service. Right now they are too heavily indebted and hobbled by payments to P3 projects to contemplate any service expansion anywhere, and will be “re-allocating” bus service (i.e. cutting the service where it is currently least provided).

If, when we do see BRT here, and there is a reduction in car capacity at the same time, as well as a lot of improvement in feeder services to the BRT (which other cities seem to understand too) then we might see a shift in mode. After all, Surrey at 4% transit mode share has a long way to go, so it shouldn’t be hard.  But one reason that I doubt it will happen that way is that there is no thought here that we need to change our way of life very much at all. At least not at any government level – and I include the City of Vancouver in that judgement. They may talk a good line and do more than most, but that does not have to be a lot to be seen as different around here! No politician that I know of is actually willing to get up and say we have to reduce car capacity on out road network. And no one is seriously suggesting that we could increase transit service service to levels that would make that a workable solution – even though that was what happened during the Olympics. If it did happen that would be a legacy I could celebrate: and it is not going to happen.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 13, 2010 at 4:28 pm

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Mobilien in Paris

with 3 comments

My battle with WordPress and video continues. I found a really nice flash video I wanted to embed into a post here. But it won’t. So please click on this link to visit my other blog (which uses Google’s blogger) that likes embedded videos better than WP

Bus Rapid Transit, so called, is cheap. Very cheap indeed by SkyTrain standards. And yes, Malcolm, we know you don’t like it. But I think that one of the best features of the Parisian implementation is that it shows what can be done with existing streets. A bus lane is a much better user of space than a general purpose lane in terms of people moving capacity.

A gp lane can move around 1,000 vehicles per hour which at our average vehicle occupancy is around 1300 people. A bus lane can move  well over 10,000 people per hour – it is simply a matter of bus frequency. The ideal implementation is to use a section of road which has several bus routes so that the combined headways produce a very high frequency service along the exclusive part.

So taking a lane away from cars and dedicating it to the exclusive use of buses, bikes and taxis makes a very powerful statement. This street is a public space. It is not solely for the exclusive enjoyment of those who insist on driving themselves. Far too many transportation decisions in this region are based on not upsetting drivers – for example the Burrard Bridge bike lane proposal, or the long rancorous debate over a short length of Granville Street which is closed to cars. But if we are going to make this region more sustainable, reducing car use has to be high on the agenda. Since traffic expands to fill the space available we must reduce the amount of space that cars are allowed to use – both moving and parked. A steady war of attrition with a target annual reduction (like they did in Copenhagen) is essential. And once that lane is freed up the easiest thing to do is use it for this type of combined service. Note that the lane width is greater than the average traffic lane – which allows bikes and buses to coexist peacefully.

Not getting caught up in traffic is what makes bus service reliable. This allows for better use of the resources to maintain headways and thus make bus journeys much more predictable for users. It also means there is less need to wait at bus stops – an important gain as time waiting is valued much more highly by users than in vehicle time. Would a tram be better? Probably, but it would cost more and take longer to implement. Is this a good first step to take to get more people onto transit? Of course! Is it going to require an act of political courage – yes, unfortunately. But maybe in this region we can start showing the rest of BC what progressive, sustainable policies look like if we elect someone other than the usual small c conservatives who tend to dominate municipal politics. Of course we are still stuck with a provincially stifled regional transportation authority but that could be changed next year.

Or we could just go on voting for more of the same, just as we did nationally.

To be absolutely clear – I do not think BRT is the sole solution to every transit problem. There is no single, one size fits all solution for every problem. BUT solutions that are on the surface – not under or over it – should be looked at first. Solutions which have been shown to work elsehwere should be adopted before any new innovations are considered. (Let others pay for R&D) And solutions which are cheap and adaptable are much better than those which are expensive and very difficult to adapt once adopted. BRT has to be one of a  range of tools, and there are plenty of guides around to show how to determine which tool is appropriate for each set of circumstances. Ideally we should plan ahead and adopt technologies than have the capacity for “scaling”. Rebuilding the Expo line shows the weakness of the current system. It is going to cost a fortune and will get only a small step forward in capacity. Trying to do that on the yet unfinished Canada Line will be even more costly – because it is in tunnel.   But turning the bus lanes on No 3 Road into tram tracks would have been cheap, easy and effective. Just as utilising the Arbutus line – or the old BCER Interurban – would have been a very much lower cost proposition than what we are about to do now. But even if neither was ideal from some perspectives – and almost any project has to make compromises – the Cost Benefit Ratio nearly always works better for low cost projects.

Dead B Line shelter No 3 at Lansdowne

Dead B Line shelter No 3 at Lansdowne

Written by Stephen Rees

October 18, 2008 at 8:58 pm

Posted in transit

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