From the Light Rail Now Folks: Busting “BRT” Mythology – LA’s “Orange Line” Busway – “Just Like Rail, But Cheaper?”

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BRT

It seems the media and local politicians keep referring to Bus Rapid Transit or BRT as a transportation solution for METRO Vancouver’s ‘lesser taxpayers’ in the Fraser Valley, yet very few politicians and media types clearly understand what BRT is, or even how successful it has been in past applications. BRT despite the hype and hoopla, has not had a successful career and its more expensive cousin ‘guided-bus’, has not provided the modal break-through that was anticipated. Yet this is not reported in the media!

Ask the BRT lobby in the Metro area these two questions:

  1. “If BRT is so successful, why has Ottawa, after spending hundred’s of millions of dollars on busways for BRT, instead has now invested in Diesel LRT (TramTrain) and now wanting to build with LRT instead?”
  2. Why, in Adelaide Australia, after building with expensive O-Bahn guided-bus, no more BRT being planned for and transit officials instead building more O-bahn, refurbished an 80 year old tramway and brought it up to light rail standards?

Busting “BRT” Mythology

Light Rail Now Project Team – October 2006

With this commentary, Light Rail Now continues a series we’re calling Busting “BRT” Mythology – a discussion intended to examine claims of so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” by its proponents and to evaluate and contrast these claims with actual experience. This article is the third installment in this series.

Promoters of so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” (“BRT”) have been promulgating a wide range of claims about this mode of bus deployment – mostly on the theme that it’s “rapid transit on rubber tires” and “just like rail transit, but cheaper”. Typically, “BRT” is promoted as a supposedly superior alternative to light rail transit (LRT).

The hype surrounding a proposed “BRT” system in San Bernardino is typical. A spokeswoman for San Bernardino County’s transit agency, Omnitrans, told the Press-Enterprise (30 January 2006) that “The idea is to use rubber-tired vehicles, but operate them much like a light-rail service.” Thus, “You can become more time competitive with the automobile without the additional cost of light rail.”

Los Angeles’s new “Orange Line” busway is perhaps the premier recent example of “BRT” – an approximately 14-mile route, almost entirely on an exclusive former railway alignment except for approximately a half-mile loop in mixed traffic on the western end (serving Warner Center). The line, installed at a cost of $330 million, currently serves 13 stations, linking the western part of the San Fernando Valley with the North Hollywood Red Line rail rapid transit (metro) station. (See map below.) in many respects, the route and infrastructure do resemble those of LRT, with well-defined stations with platforms (except in the mixed-traffic segment), ticket vending machines (TVMs), shelters, and other appurtenances and amenities. Thus, the “Orange Line” represents an excellent case study of how well the claims for “BRT” – especially that it’s “just like rail” – match the reality.
[Map: Transit Rider website]

la-bus-brt-map-orangeline-2006_transit-rider

So, how does the “Orange Line” actually measure up in comparison to LRT and other rail systems? in our article Rail Transit vs. “Bus Rapid Transit”: Comparative Success and Potential in Attracting Ridership, several aspects of the “Orange Line” busway are contrasted with those of LA’s new Gold Line LRT system serving the Pasadena area east of central LA. As the article notes,

because of electric propulsion, better level crossing protection, and other factors, the Gold Line LRT provides an 18% faster schedule speed than the Orange Line “BRT”.

Furthermore, based on the fact that the “Orange Line” operates in a more mature corridor with far greater density, and serves “at least 40% more major activity centers than does the Gold Line”, our analysis concludes that “the Orange Line busway’s ridership is approximately 24% lower than one would expect from a comparable LRT service in the same corridor.”

However, performance statistics and calculations can reveal only so much – and certainly, there are even more deficiencies in “BRT” operations than our previous analysis can address. As usual, “a photo is worth a thousand words” … so selected photos – most of them taken by Light Rail Now Project representatives during a recent visit to LA – may help to illustrate the “Orange Line” facility and pertinent issues associated with it.

The Light Rail Now Project team emphasize that our criticisms are directed at questioning the contention that “BRT” is “just like rail, but cheaper…” – a claim which we regard as unsupportable and misleading. On the whole, LA’s “Orange Line” is an excellent higher-quality transit facility, and a vast improvement over the usual types of bus operations that must continuously contend with private motor vehicle traffic. As we indicate in our article cited above,

Certainly, there is no question that the Orange Line “BRT” is a major transit improvement in the corridor it serves (and, given applicable legal restrictions constraining LACMTA, a busway was effectively the agency’s only option for implementing a high-quality, rapid public transport service in the available former railway alignment).

http://www.lightrailnow.org/facts/fa_brt_2006-10a.htm

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One Response to “From the Light Rail Now Folks: Busting “BRT” Mythology – LA’s “Orange Line” Busway – “Just Like Rail, But Cheaper?””

  1. Matt Young Says:

    The Harris poll they referenced used “local bus service” rather than the BRT equivalent. So survey participants are likely to be confused.

    The complaints about curb drop off have nothing to do with LRT vs BRT, but has to do with lowering the station costs. If anything, the curb drop off reveals the flexibility of BRT.

    Level crossing protection is available to both systems at equivalent cost.

    The authors reference the turn around problem for large multi-car artiulated buses. Turn around exists for old style BRT, the new style BRT are drive by wire and reversible, just like rail. Newer BRT will be in three and four car configurations with lane guidance and bi-directional.

    Yes, building a rail system also gets an opening for electrification. If you are going to lay steel, may as well lay electricity. But large BRT configurations will be diesel electric at one end and electric drive for intermediate cars.

    The pdf article:

    http://www.gobrt.org/BTI_Orange_Line_Jan_23_07.pdf

    is an n admittedly pro-BRT organization gives exactly the opposite story regarding the Orange Line BRT vs the Gold Line LRT, claiming the Orange out performed projections and outperformed LRT. They say the Gold lie is 40% below expectations.

    Some facts from this pro BRT article:

    The Gold lie was built for 2.5 times the cost of the Orange Lie. Operating costs are twice as high, according to the group.

    But the rubberized asphalt for BRT is not performing to spec, they are uncertain what the solutions is. BRT and other semi-automated asphalt transit could use some advance asphalt.

    I think, over all, the two can be made equivalent in function, and that means BRT will win out because it the flexibility it has.

    This is the second time we went through the debate. In the early 30s, during the depression, we tore out thousands of miles of light rail for asphalt, and we want to watch this debate carefully. Ultimately, silicon makes BRT work, and the debate will be intelligent silicon vs steel.

    I appreciate the debate.

    Zweisystem replies: Yet BRT and it’s more expensive cousin guided bus have failed to meet its promoter expectations. In Adelaide, O-Bahn guided bus failed to attract any more customers than non-guided bus routes; Essen’s O-Bahn suffers the same fate; and it Ottawa, after BRT was implemented, the bus system saw an almost 15% drop in ridership in over 10 years of operation. BRT, despite the hype and hoopla has failed to attract the new ridership that new light-rail systems have.

    Guided-bus, which was marketed with great expectations in the late 90’s has almost fizzled and even in the bastions of BRT in South America are crumbling when transportation agencies finally secure funding for light-rail and metro.

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