Management & Operations

Settling the score between light rail and buses

Posted on June 1, 2001

While there haven't been any fisticuffs over the issue, the debate over buses vs. light rail transit (LRT) continues to be a lively one. Both sides have excellent points to make: LRT is expensive and rigid and seldom brings in the expected ridership levels; buses may be cheaper and more flexible, but they are polluting and can even add to the congestion they're supposed to be easing. But, like any real-life situation, there are more than just the two sides. All of the experts tapped for this article were far more interested in talking about public transportation as a whole than which of the two modes is better. "There's really a host of issues," said Dr. Steve Polzin, director of public transit research for the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Polzin is also on the board of directors of Hartline, Tampa's transit operating authority. "Obviously, like any mode, there's a right time and place." "It depends on where the needs are in terms of comparing light rail with a bus-based system," said Dr. John C. Falcocchio, professor of transportation planning at Polytechnic University in New York City. "They serve, I suppose, the same needs, but they may not have the same attributes." The consensus among advocates of LRT seems to be that there are benefits to LRT beyond mere ridership, such as increased development along rail corridors, less pollution and even, as Polzin put it, "neighbor city envy," where cities feel they won't be considered world class unless they have rail. "A lot of markets don't have the demand to fill up trains," Polzin said. "The argument then turns to do we need the quality of service or do we need the physical presence that's capable of influencing development?" As long as planners are realistic about ridership levels, Polzin sees the above two goals as legitimate. "There's no point in trying to reconfigure a city," said Dr. James Moore, associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California and associate director of the National Center for Metropolitan Transportation Research. Moore believes that modern cities are far too decentralized for rail service to be cost-effective. If anything, he questions having public transportation at all, but cites two main rationales for having public transit, which he says are in contradiction to each other. One is ensuring a minimum level of mobility for everybody. The second is attracting riders out of their automobiles. "The agencies sometimes get themselves into a ball trying to do both," Moore said. The bottom line, however, according to Folcocchio and Polzin, is that agencies need to genuinely look at their needs, and consider systems that are not one or the other, but both.

- Anne Louise Bannon

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