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December 16, 2011

BRT sees success, while rail suffers assault

by Nicole Schlosser - Also by this author

It appears that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is going to save the transportation budget in two cities that recently completed studies concluding that this transit option would be cheaper and cover more distance. 

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Gov. Rick Snyder and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood scrapped the city's $528 million light rail project and instead chose a regional BRT system, saying economics was the primary factor. Nashville, Tenn., found that a BRT system will cost half as much to build as streetcars, but still draw the same number of riders.

This news wasn’t too surprising. Every year for our April issue, when I ask transit systems across the U.S. and Canada about their BRT project plans and why they chose them over other transit options, nearly all of them say it was cheaper than light rail.

However, with last week ‘s announcement that “high-speed rail is dead in America” in Slate.com, and a recent poll that showed 59% of Californians surveyed would not vote for the state’s high-speed rail project if given another opportunity, it seems like there’s an assault on rail right now that may be in part guiding these decisions. Is this just about money? Is rail becoming outmoded? What do you think?

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "Make the season for giving last all year long," here.

Nicole Schlosser

Senior Editor


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  • Steve Ly[ December 16th, 2011 @ 1:29pm ]

    The collapse of support for the California HSR project has nothing to do with an "assault on rail" and everything to do with a budget-busting project whose cost estimates have tripled before construction has even began. Furthermore, independent analysis have shown that ridership forecasts are suspect. Basically, the CHSRA lied to California voters in 2008 in order to get them to approve the sale of bonds to help fund it. Rail advocates should oppose stupid projects such as this one to avoid hurting the cause of rail overall.

  • R Benjamin[ December 16th, 2011 @ 1:58pm ]

    The driving force, I agree, in BRT vs Rail is economics. Yet I find that a lot of politics is also involved in this determination. Many Republicans, for example, are claiming that they are trying to save taxpayers money, but I don't believe the politicians are looking at everyone. Many of the BRT's are using green technology which is most definitely an attention grabber, but in communites where capacity and high congestion will be an issue, can the BRT's handle them? Although, infrastructure is costly for many rail projects, LRT's & Inter-city Rail should not be put aside so easily. In many societies today, rail service is still a strong transportation need (consider Europe or Japan for example).

  • Magdi[ December 16th, 2011 @ 5:28pm ]

    Rail ks the answer when gas or desiel will sky rockt. We have tostart somewhere. Light railand street cars are valid solution that will go side by side with bus interconnectivity. We need to wake up tothis fact before it is too late.

  • Louis Rugani[ December 18th, 2011 @ 4:28am ]

    One needs only to review the National City Lines scandals to grasp how rail projects are targeted by politics. Sure, bus rapid transit looks good on paper but comes up short compared to rail in attracting passengers. Then there's the short 10/15-year lifespan of buses to consider, and wintertime hazards, the maintenance costs of pavement, the heavy commitment in real-estate acquisitions to build BRT, the labor commitments to carry given numbers of passengers - and at the end, all you really have to show is just another bus line.

  • Dave S[ December 19th, 2011 @ 4:35am ]

    The upfront capital costs to build Bus Rapid Transit can be cheaper than Light Rail, depending on what is included in the BRT system and how it is designed. What is often overlooked are the long-term operating costs. If the area has high enough ridership, light rail usually will win out in the long term as being the more cost effective option. Probably the most expensive capital component in most light rail systems is the overhead catenary (traction power) system. However electricity costs are far more stable and less expensive than diesel costs, and over the life of the system, the savings in energy costs often pay for the cost of the catenary system. The most significant ongoing cost to most transit agencies is labor. Light rail wins in this category as well in areas where there is sufficient ridership. One light rail vehicle can carry as many passengers as 2 busses. A three car light rail train can carry as many passengers as 6 busses – all using only one operator instead of 6 operators. Even with maintenance of way personnel added in, light rail systems usually require less personnel to operate per passenger than BRT systems. Studies also clearly show that on a given route, BRT only attracts 80% of the ridership that a LRT system would in the same corridor, with LRT usually providing faster and more reliable service. As for vehicle costs, Light Rail vehicles are more expensive than busses, however they generally have a 30 year service life, whereas you would have to buy more busses to carry the same amount of passengers, with busses usually having a service life of 10 to 15 years. Studies have also shown that LRT attracts more Transit Oriented Development than BRT systems. Finally, BRT systems do not have the capacity that a LRT system can provide, eventually the most heavily used BRT systems often look to upgrade to rail as bus bunching and overcrowding occurs as demand exceeds capacity. The bottom line is that if a city or agency has a short term vision and is

  • Jan van Eck[ December 19th, 2011 @ 10:11pm ]

    While catenary wires substantially increase rail costs, this could be overcome by technology. For example, it is entirely feasible to install a flywheel in a streetcar, to be re-charged at each stop from a very short length of overhead contacts. The trolley comes into the stop, the contact strips slide into a fixed overhead Receiver, the flywheel spins up while the passengers alight and board, and the trolley then slides out wire-less to the next stop. this is nothing new: the Oerlikon Electrogyro Company did a similar system in Bern - in 1903. Ran just fine.

  • Carl[ December 22th, 2011 @ 12:18pm ]

    BRT comes out cheaper because it's a lower quality, lower capacity solution. There are almost always significant compromises in the right of way. At the low end of the spectrum it's just rebranded buses operating on city streets in mixed traffic. BRT becomes the excuse to invest less in transit infrastructure. Many corridors don't warrant rail - the demand isn't sufficient to justify the investment. But if a corridor warrants rail, then BRT is a bad compromise - leading to poorer quality and lower ridership.

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