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The BRT vs. Light Rail Debate Rages On

A recent study by the World Resources Institute for Maryland's upcoming Purple Line project sided with BRT. WorldChanging asks researchers Greg Fuhs and Dario Hidalgo how they came to side with buses.

JL: Although your report shows that BRT will cost about half the amount of a light rail system, other studies show that light rail systems, because they are permanent structures, do more to encourage transit-oriented development. Was TOD a factor in the EMBARQ study? Do you think that BRT can facilitate and encourage dense development at a similar level?

GF: We did not look specifically at the TOD factor in our study. However, one cannot assume that transit-oriented development would be sparked by light rail but not BRT. For example, a recent study by the American Public Transportation Association looking at this issue considers both rail and traditional bus systems (although unfortunately it does not look at BRT specifically), and indicates that both can lead to significant positive land use changes. In any case, there is no reason to assume that LRT has a greater impact on land use than high-quality BRT if the systems provide similar travel times, capacities, and overall quality of service, as would be the case for the Purple Line. Moreover, developers can benefit from the shorter implementation time that BRT projects bring as compared to LRT.

DH: Also, regarding permanence, this is a somewhat relative concept. For example, there were thousands of miles of tram networks in the U.S. by 1940; much of this system was dismantled before 1970 with the rise of the automobile and suburbia. The forces behind development are not limited to the technology of transit vehicles, but also depend on factors such as accessibility, enabling policies, and background economics.

Full Story: Worldchanging Interview: WRI on Bus Rapid Transit v. Light Rail



Cost of Light Rail and BRT

Labor accounts for 80% of the operating costs of buses, and light rail can save on labor costs by stringing together lots of cars into a train with one driver - if you have enough ridership to fill those long trains.

This study says that (on this line) light rail "includes higher annual operation and maintenance costs" than BRT. The interesting question is: what ridership do you need before light rail has lower operating costs?

I would guess that, if you have enough ridership to run trains of three cars or longer, light rail would have significantly lower operating costs, but that is just a guess.

The next question is when the savings in operating costs is great enough to justify the increased capital cost of light rail.

Is there any hard data available about these things?

Charles Siegel

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