On the Merits of Bus Rapid Transit

by Daniel Adel : earthisland.org – excerpt

Light rail might have a certain cool cachet, but buses are the way to go

There has always been something romantic about trains. Think of the passenger rail of a century ago and you likely imagine classy sleeper coaches and fancy dining cars. Even the commuter rail of decades past – streetcars and interurbans – seems to possess a glamorous vibe. Maybe it’s just the fact that everyone dressed better back then, but once upon a time commuters rode in style.
Yet I wonder if our sentimentality for rail is keeping public transit stuck in the past. There seems to be a feeling that buses are “substandard” – second class – when compared to “genteel” rail. This is unfortunate – especially in an age in which mass transit funding is stalled. Our cultural bias for rail over busses is especially counterproductive given that, when we carefully examine the facts, buses are a smarter investment.
Just look at the successes of what’s called Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT…
Given that building a light rail system can cost up to 10 times as much as creating a BRT system, why are American cities still so focused on rail?… (more)

The biases in favor of rail can even be seen in San Francisco, whose public transit is dominated by electrified trolley-buses (thanks mostly to cheap electricity from the Hetch Hetchy Water & Power Project in Yosemite National Park). Transportation policy makers, other city officials, and city residents are in the midst of trying to figure out whether to install BRT services on two of the city’s most heavily used bus lines, on Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue. The 38-Geary and the 47 and 49 lines on Van Ness are notoriously crowded and notoriously slow; with 56,473 daily boardings, the 38-Geary is the busiest bus line on the West Coast. Both lines were supposed to be improved by 2012, but have since been pushed back to 2016 for the Van Ness lines and 2020 for Geary.

Last year transportation officials approved a BRT line for Van Ness. A Geary BRT line remains in the planning phase. But some people continue to insist that, because of its high ridership, San Francisco should instead invest in light rail for the corridor.

Joël Ramos – senior community planner with TransForm, a non-profit that advocates for world-class public transportation and walkable communities in the Bay Area and a board member of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) – argues that BRT is by far the smarter option. Ramos said light rail is something “people are familiar with,” and that there is a certain “sentiment” attached to rail that is not enjoyed by buses. But Ramos told Earth Island Journal that rail proponents have no viable strategy to fund another light rail line. “They need a means to an end,” he said. Ramos said there’s simply no money to build a light rail line – especially with the city already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the Central Subway from South of Market to Chinatown. Ramos stressed that the Geary and Van Ness BRT proposals will provide viable transportation for “tens of thousands” people.

Ramos says that although BRT is looked at as “otherworldly,” once people ride it they love it. Dave Synder, the former transportation director at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), agrees. In a Q&A with the Richmond Blog, he said:

“This technology doesn’t exist anywhere in the Bay Area, so people can’t appreciate how different it’s going to be than the regular bus. Even though it won’t be trains, it will be better than [San Francisco Muni’s] existing surface light rail lines: just as comfortable but more frequent and faster. Where BRT does exist around the world, it’s very popular and beloved. Once we have it, San Franciscans will wonder why we didn’t do it sooner. It’s about time we joined the rest of the world and implemented this new idea to improve transit.”

While Ramos acknowledged that light rail has advantages over BRT in terms of long-term maintenance, he stressed that many people who are in desperate need of relief now are losing out because of the ongoing debate. The persistent clamoring for light rail is one reason why the BRT proposals haven’t been implemented yet. Meanwhile, many commuters remain all-but-stranded… (more)


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