California Transportation Professor Makes the Case for BRT over Rail

Transit funding can be a contentious issue. While most transportation planners favor a local bus network as the backbone of a metro area’s transportation system, they are divided on whether higher volume corridors should be served by rail or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). While many regions have extensive transit plans, there is only a finite amount of funding available. Additionally, transit systems in most U.S. cities consume a sizable percentage of cities’ transportation budgets but move only a small percentage of residents. In many regions politics, economics and regional infighting further complicate the situation.

In an interview I conducted with UCLA Professor of Urban Planning Dr. Brian Taylor, we discussed the cost, effectiveness, and politics of BRT versus rail in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has utilized heavy-rail, light-rail, BRT, express bus, and local bus. The many transit technologies make the city a good case study.

While Los Angeles is often considered a car-oriented metropolis with poor transit, this is not an accurate description. Los Angeles has a higher population density than any city in the U.S. including New York City. Los Angeles has the second lowest number of expressway miles per capita of any U.S. metro area. And it has one of the top ten transit systems in the country. In many ways Los Angeles is more similar to San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Seattle than Atlanta or Houston.

In general Professor Taylor favors BRT over rail. Constructing a BRT line is much more cost effective than constructing a rail line. The savings allows more money to be spent on operating and maintenance costs that are often underfunded.

Also interesting is Dr. Taylor’s study on the politics of transit:

Major capital projects are sexy ribbon-cutting events that also attract media attention. However, from a media standpoint increasing service quality or reducing headways are non-events. Elected leaders are often more concerned with building political capital than with implementing the most cost effective transit service and new rail service raises political capital. Taxpayers see a tangible product from their tax dollars, even if it is often not the best use of those tax-dollars.

Below is a sample of the interview. The full interview is available here.

Baruch Feigenbaum, Reason Foundation: Do you support Rail or BRT for high volume corridors? What are some of the reasons?

Professor Brian Taylor, Chair UCLA Department of Urban Planning: Typically, I favor BRT over rail. My goal is to provide the best overall transit service. BRT projects are much cheaper to build than rail projects. As a result more funding is available for maintenance and operations (O&M). O&M is not sexy and many transit operators neglect it. No matter how attractive the train is, if the service breaks down and the train suffers major delays people are not going to use it. Well-designed BRT can be just as successful as rail. Ridership numbers in comparable BRT and rail corridors are very similar. Finally, BRT is a better compliment to local bus. From an O&M standpoint there are cost efficiencies with operating one type of transit. There are fewer efficiencies in a combined rail and bus operation. Since a local bus system is the backbone of any transit network, other transit service should complement local service, not the other way around. Economic development and other considerations are important, but they are not my primary focus. The most cost-effective transportation service is express buses because they move large amounts of people quickly and cheaply from one place to another.

Feigenbaum: Discuss the speed advantages of BRT compared to traditional bus.

Taylor: When L.A. started new BRT service, the BRT speeds averaged about 12 miles per hour or 50 percent higher than the local bus speeds. While 12 miles per hour does not sound fast, it is similar to the average operating speeds of rail lines. Metro, the local transit operator, was stunned with the large ridership increase from local bus to BRT.

Feigenbaum: Transit suffers from risk and uncertainty issues. Discuss how BRT and technology can help reduce these issues.

Taylor: As you mentioned transit suffers from risk and uncertainty issues. For example, one disadvantage compared to automobiles, bicycling or walking is the lack of user control. In most transportation modes, the user controls where and when they go. New technologies can give the rider more control. Intelligent Transportation (IT) systems such as Next Bus that detail when the next vehicle will be arriving are major advantages. With this technology, if one misses a bus and has ten minutes to wait he can grab a cup of coffee and come back outside knowing he will not miss his ride. Without technology people are left guessing about wait times. Because of this uncertainty they may vow to take transit less often. Either way the system has one more dissatisfied customer. BRT has another major advantage over rail. Because of its high costs the rail frequency is often 15 minutes or more outside peak periods. This is a long wait. With BRT, the frequency of service on some lines is 4 minutes or less. If you miss one bus, another is coming not far behind.

Read the entire interview here:

Baruch Feigenbaum is Assistant Director of Transportation Policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. Feigenbaum has a diverse background researching and implementing transportation issues including revenue and finance, public-private partnerships, highways, transit, high-speed rail, ports, intelligent transportation systems, land use, and local policymaking.