Why not rail?


When faced with the costs and logistics of rail, planners and city officials increasingly seem to favor Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a trend likely to continue through the current recession.  But even with the many persuasive arguments for BRT, the nagging question remains:  why not rail?

To be successful, a rapid transit system needs to be comprehensive.   Either a city is going to invest in comprehensive BRT (like Brisbane or Bogota),  a comprehensive rail network (like Toronto, New York, or European metropolitan rail systems), or a mix of rail and BRT.   The halfway approach doesn't do the job. 

The limited experiments with BRT in the United States have so far amounted to "light rail lite":   single corridor bus lines that attempt to mimic light rail.  Transportation experts Alan Hoffman and Alasdair Cain argue that significant infrastructure investments - in the form of separated guideways called ‘Quickways' - are needed before American cities can achieve the ridership and efficiency of the world's best BRT.  

Similarly, light rail ridership suffers because established networks do not yet cover enough ground.   In southern California, the Los Angeles Metro and the San Diego Trolley do not reach most residential neighborhoods, tourist destinations or satellite cities, let alone suburban job centers.  (The good news is that these systems are expanding, albeit slowly).  Rail stops can also be located in disconnected, unwalkable areas. 

If a city is serious about mass transit, it will require substantial capital and a fairly bold vision to implement either BRT or rail (light rail or the uber-expensive heavy rail subway).  The most persuasive argument for Bus Rapid Transit is that it can be established more quickly and at lower cost.  BRT can also use existing automobile infrastructure like wide roads and freeways.  Furthermore, because buses are more flexible than fixed rail, they can leave the busway to access out-of-the way housing developments and office parks.   In other words, BRT better serves sprawl, which after all is what shapes most American metropolitan areas. 

Still, for riders, skepticism about BRT persists.  Will it be as sleek and comfortable as a train?  Can one read on a bus, even a modern one?  Is the experience a vast improvement over a bumpy city bus? Will it be slowed by car traffic?  Given the infrastructure required for true BRT, why not simply pursue rail?  Elevated busways can look a lot like freeways – how will they affect neighborhoods?

If a modern rail system seems impossible, Toronto presents a good case for investment in higher quality rail, even if that means diverting funds from other modes (i.e., roads and highways).   The city opened its first subway in 1954, added two more lines, integrated subways with retained streetcar lines, and more recently supplemented with above-ground light rail.   It is not a coincidence that subways were expanded as several freeway projects were canceled.

So, transit riders and planners, for your city would you choose rail, BRT or a combination of both?  

Diana DeRubertis is an environmental writer focusing on the urban planning field.




I support reinvestment in rail, especially existing rail infrastructure. The start-up costs of restoring our rail infrastructure are apparently much higher than running a fleet of transit buses. However, we do need to make real reinvestment in rail a priority for the short and long term. There will be many social, economic and environmental benefits of doing so.

The experience of train riding is better in two ways- few bumps to aggravate your back and no exhaust to inhale.

BRT Vs. Light Rail

"skepticism about BRT persists. Will it be as sleek and comfortable as a train? Can one read on a bus, even a modern one? Is the experience a vast improvement over a bumpy city bus? Will it be slowed by car traffic? Given the infrastructure required for true BRT, why not simply pursue rail?"

The definition of BRT is fuzzy. I believe it originally included dedicated bus lanes, as in Curitiba, but many cities since them have claimed to build BRT even though they have not included the dedicated bus lanes.

We are having a debate about it in Berkeley now, and we use the term BRT to mean a system with dedicated bus lanes.

Even with the expense of dedicated lanes, BRT costs only about one-third as much as light rail: our Berkeley/Oakland/San Leandro project is $235 million for BRT and would be about $750 million for light rail.

BRT gets about 80% as much increased ridership as light rail for one-third the price, so it is a far more cost-effective way to increase ridership.

However, I agree that BRT gets only 80% as much increased ridership as light rail because the ride is less comfortable: it is bumpy and you can't read, as you say.

If money were not an issue, I would rather see us building light rail, to provide more comfortable, higher quality public transportation.

As long as money is tight, I expect more BRT than light rail to be built. BRT with dedicated lanes should be designed so that it can be upgraded to light rail if more money becomes available.

Of course, I hope the next revision of federal TEA funding provides enough money to fund light-rail. For now, I am working for BRT.

Charles Siegel

BRT done right is more cost-efficient

Good examples of BRT in the US are few and far between. We need to build it, and build it well. It will help people get over their pre-conceived notions of buses. Buses can be great. And it is much better to have BRT than to have no transit at all. Given the current fiscal crisis, most municipalities and MPOs will be struggling to maintain their existing transit (if any) and will not be able to afford costly light-rail, nor do they have the density to support light rail.

Perth, Australia, has shown that Rail and Bus can be BFF ...

... instead of locking the main trunk corridor into the less energy efficient and higher maintenance cost "asphalt trains" system ...

... use the more energy efficient and lower maintenance cost steel wheel and steel rail for the high frequency, high capacity trunk line service, build the stations for convenient bus/train transfers, and run the end of bus routes past the train station, with the bus route and ticketing integrated with the train system.

Of course, the bus is one of several ways to access the rail line - walking, cycling, park and ride, kiss and ride - but the buses are a vital part of the mix for ensuring pedestrian access for a much wider radius than walking alone can provide.

Even in Curitiba, where they did BRT right, taking a substantial share of the existing street right of way entirely away from automobile use, and in a country where the labor/capital cost ratio is tilted further toward labor intensive technologies than in the US, they are working toward adding trunk rail lines to improve their transport system.

The "lower cost" of BRT is normally based on either discounting that understates the steady-state cost of maintaining dedicated asphalt busways, or else a stovepipe cost analysis, that ignores the cost of wear and tear on the public right of way because the bus operating authority is not required to pay for that cost.

But if we are aiming for an ecologically strongly sustainable transport system, we need to look at the full material impacts and need to consider the relative steady state costs of the transport capacity.

Rail or BRT

Both-Kansas City,MO
LRT-O.K. City
LRT-Northwest Arkansas
BRT-Hot Springs,AR
Both-Colorado Springs,CO
BRT-Grand Junction,CO
BRT-Cape Girardeau,MO
BRT-Jefferson City,MO

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