Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bus-rapid transit is a "subway on the street"

A few weeks ago, Robert Sullivan of New York Magazine published a feature article about the resuscitation of bussing in Manhattan as a viable--and sometimes preferred--form of transportation, when it's offered within a bus-rapid transit (BRT) system. It's a really interesting look at BRT from someone in a city which had largely ignored it until today, and Sullivan's perspective makes for a good read.

The article discusses how buses, building on some serious technological and service upgrades over the past decade or so, including rear-door boarding, traffic signal prioritization, reserved bus lanes, and--perhaps eventually--GPS tracking systems to alert riders when their bus is coming, have become a popularly accepted way to commute. Many of those features might sound like old news in Ottawa, where the Transitway was launched almost 30 years ago, but they're not as well-known in cities like New York, where rapid transit has focussed largely on improving subway systems.

From the NY Mag article:
In fact, the city’s urban-planning activists are almost all singing buses. “They’re the smartest possible transit investment there is right now,” says Noah Budnick, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives.


“The bottom line is buses are back, and people are waking up to the fact that they’ve never really been out of the picture here in New York,” says [Department of Transportation] commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who has been talking buses since her days in the private sector. We [New York] already have the largest fleet in North America—6,250 buses covering 900 square miles of territory, much of it in neighborhoods underserved by the subway system.
That last sentence, though, is telling. BRT systems have a huge number of advantages, first and foremost their flexibility--buses can go on just about any paved roadway, while trains are restricted to their tracks--but also their low up-front costs, in terms of bus acquisition and transit system construction. But there is a point where BRT reaches its carrying capacity, and at that point the more expensive, but more reliable, predictable, long-term cost-effective, and--most importantly--higher-capacity system. And Ottawa, according to city staff, has reached that point.

With Ottawa moving towards light-rail, including a subway downtown, it's important to note that there won't be an abandonment of BRT in the process. Ottawa's BRT system remains one of, if not the, best on the continent in terms of its infrastructure, and the design of the LRT line seems to be one to complement it, rather than to replace it. Which is a nice idea, of course, but time will tell how well that theory translates into reality.


WJM said...

BRT is only a "subway on the street" if the bus routes using the dedicated ROW use that ROW only, with limited stops, without jumping in from, or jumping off into, mixed traffic.

The Transitway is not a "subway on the street". It could be, but for a whole host of reasons, mainly political, it isn't.

And that's why it is failing, miserably.

Unknown said...

You may have heard of Curitiba’s BRT.

I’m sure there’s a way to improve our current bus system. But because of the uncertainty that peak-oil may bring over the next decades, I think we should move away from an oil-based system in any case. We’ll probably have oil crises like the one in the 70’s, and eventually we’ll have a permanent one. So it’ll be more difficult and more costly to run buses and keep the pavement in usable condition. I hear more and more of towns in the US de-paving roads to reduce the large cost of maintaining them. More people won’t be able to afford cars too, so the demand for transit will increase. I think rail and trams are the way to go, and of course good land use policy that allows for complete neighbourhoods, so that we reduce the need of commuting in the first place.

Matt Fisher said...

Yeah. The BRT proponents always say Curitiba is the one. In my letter to the editor of the Citizen this January, I mentioned that Curitiba is planning a subway to replace BRT:
Needless to say, both Ottawa and Curitiba are invoked liberally by BRT proponents. There is also the TransMilenio BRT in Bogota, Colombia, which is very similar to BRT in Curitiba. I disagree with BRT proponents' assertions that BRT is a "surface subway".

Matt Fisher said...

Oh, I left out that Curitiba has triple the population of Ottawa. But rail opponents say "We don't have the population for light rail". (That was the same excuse for the Transitway over LRT - true, electrified LRT like Calgary's C-Train.)

Incidentially, Calgary had a population of only 500,000 when the C-Train opened. Why is population size such a barrier to rail in Ottawa if cities in France of a smaller size, i.e. Strasbourg or Montpellier, can operate trams?

ajlounyinjurylaw said...

Build it and they will come.