Yes, Fast Buses Really Can Trump Rail

Annie Weinstock of ITDP responds to a Next City column that took issue with a report on the cost effectiveness of bus rapid transit.

Cleveland’s HealthLine bus rapid transit service. Credit: Matt Johnson on Flickr

A September post by Next City’s infrastructure columnist, Stephen Smith, challenges but misunderstands the findings of a new report, “More Development for Your Transit Dollar,” from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. In fact, Smith misses the point of the report’s conclusion when he quotes, “the type of mass transit providing the best bang for the buck is bus rapid transit.”

“That is,” Smith writes, “bus service that acts like rail is better than rail.”

First, ITDP is very careful to differentiate between bus rapid transit (BRT) and bus service. The BRT Standard provides a very concise, industry-endorsed definition of what constitutes BRT and what does not. These definitions are often blurred when politicians and policymakers attempt to lump slow-moving buses with BRT.

In the report, we document many of the most important characteristics to high-quality transit service, and which The BRT Standard recognizes as essential. These include off-board fare collection, at-level boarding and exclusive right of way — elements no more typical of rail-based systems than they are of BRT systems.

The metric we use for transit quality is based on The BRT Standard, and we find that Portland’s Blue Line light rail service and Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT are both “silver-standard,” hence of equivalent quality. We found several other light rail transit (LRT) and BRT projects to be “bronze” standard, hence assessing them to be of equivalent quality. We further demonstrate this point with some comparative performance indicators such as speed and ridership, and find no indication that either LRT or BRT is inherently superior.

Second, our report points out that the characteristics making for the best transit are not, in fact, those more commonly found in rail systems. The best BRT systems, for example, have both local and express services benefitting from exclusive lanes. Few LRT systems can operate both limited and local services on the same line, since one rail car cannot easily pass another without adding new tracks.

BRT can also offer services that leave the high-quality infrastructure on the trunk corridor to enter into mixed traffic in less dense neighborhoods, offering a one-seat ride to a lot more destinations than rail systems can provide. We might just as well call high-quality LRT “rail that acts like BRT.”

Third, the primary conclusion of our report — that shrewd government intervention is the main determinant of successful transit-oriented development — is listed as one of the main conclusions in a bullet point of the executive summary and not, as Smith writes, “buried in the report.”

Smith writes that the question of “Which ‘government interventions’… are most effective is a question that goes unanswered.” However, the report spends all of Chapter 3 detailing the types of intervention that have mattered in different contexts, and it provides more detail in the two case studies in Chapter 6.

Finally, the most curious bit about Smith’s post is that he agrees with the report’s findings about the cost effectiveness of BRT relative to LRT, yet dismisses the importance of these findings because the U.S. has, in his words, a “third world-like transit cost structure.” He posits that the U.S. has higher capital costs than Europe, but it also has the higher labor costs of a developed country. He seems to indicate that this somehow diminishes the significance of our central finding: Because BRT costs less than LRT in the U.S., and yet has similar TOD impacts in similar contexts, BRT is thus more cost effective than LRT in the U.S. at leveraging transit-oriented development. We are unsure of how, even if there were some truth to this argument, this would have any bearing on our findings.

Smith bypasses this conclusion — writing, “we still have very little insight into the development potential of rail and buses” — and seems to dismiss the data we presented and the report’s conclusions by claiming it is the result of “advocacy.”

ITDP has taken great care to present data as accurately and objectively as possible. Some of our findings were surprising and difficult to interpret. We are fully transparent about the degree of statistical certainty associated with the correlations we identified. While the number of systems analyzed was too few, and the number of variables too many, for the results to be subjected to a meaningful regression analysis, we could still draw conclusions from the data we had.

We believe that in many cases, BRT is a more cost effective form of mass transit than light rail. Perhaps this makes us advocates for BRT. However, the data we presented is reasonably accurate, and as such we believe the findings will be usable to policymakers, researchers and advocates alike — and that the results will benefit all of us who live in the urban environment.

Annie Weinstock is the U.S. and Africa country director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

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Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationlight railhealthcarebus rapid transittransit-oriented development

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