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.
Earlier this year I attended the American Planning Association’s national conference in Los Angeles. At the conference, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Professor of Urban Planning and Department Chair Dr. Brian Taylor led an informative transit tour of the region. In this June 2012 interview with Professor Taylor, Los Angeles’ transit situation is discussed in depth. Light-rail, BRT, a transit network and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) are among the topics covered.
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. Constructing a rail line in order to spur Transit Oriented Development (TOD) typically worsens traffic congestion; while new residents use rail for some of their trips, they use roads much more frequently. Finally, because of cost, maintenance, and uniformity issues, BRT is often a better match with local bus service than rail.
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 NextBus 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.
Feigenbaum: Los Angeles has four light-rail lines and two BRT/busway lines. What factors influenced the selection of transit type on a given corridor?
Taylor: There are many factors that affect the type of transit. Los Angeles has tended to use a mix of technologies to create services that will have some level of permanence and are also locally attractive.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.Each of the six Los Angeles lines has a different context. For example, the Blue Line is a rail line similar to the early Interurbans. The line runs mostly in a grade separated urban way. The Green line resulted from a consent decree as a result of the Century Freeway and is completely grade separated. Although the Green Line is light-rail, in some ways it operates as heavy-rail. The Orange Busway was envisioned as a railway with all the preliminary engineering completed for rail. Project supporters visited Brazil that is known for its BRT lines and saw the effectiveness of BRT. This visit plus the opposition to rail by San Fernando Valley corridor residents led to the Orange line’s development as a busway. All of L.A.’s transit lines were envisioned as a method of solving congestion issues.
Feigenbaum: Was cost-benefit analysis or another quantitative analysis used to determine whether to use rail or BRT?
Taylor: There was some quantitative analysis. But the greater concern was political including the strong desire for capital programs. Tax referendums pass when voters understand exactly what they are voting for. This encourages large, flashy capital-intensive projects. Federal transit funding for large metro areas only allows funding to be used for capital projects. This creates an incentive to construct new expensive projects and a disincentive to maintain existing service. Some analysts such as Don Pickrell have examined accepting federal dollars for rail projects and concluded that the tradeoff of onerous regulations makes the federal program not cost-effective. Oftentimes carpool and GPS programs are enormously effective in reducing congestion at much smaller costs. But these projects do not draw media attention. And many transit agencies rely on media attention for public relations
Feigenbaum: Rail advocates often claim that rail is better than bus in stimulating economic development. What has happened in Los Angeles?
Taylor: So far there is no proof that rail has promoted development. There is also no proof that rail is better than bus at promoting such development. What rail often does is move development from one jurisdiction to another. Los Angeles is the densest region in the country. It has the second lowest number of highway miles per capita of any region in the country after Honolulu. However, unlike New York City, which has very high densities in the core and much lower densities in suburban areas, Los Angeles has medium densities throughout. The Los Angeles development pattern makes rail relatively unsuccessful. One reason that many cities including suburban Santa Monica promote rail is because their roads are very congested and the cities see rail as a way to increase development. However, while rail by itself can mitigate congestion, new development makes congestion worse. While some of the new commuters to the area as well as some of the existing commuters will use rail, far more will drive. New development combined with new rail will increase congestion. Whether or not new transit lines in L.A., particularly rail, increase overall development levels is not conclusive. New transit investments are much more effective in low-income areas with transit-dependent riders.
I studied development patterns in San Francisco relating to the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART). In San Francisco, rail transit played a very small role in transit-oriented development. Education and occupation played a much larger role. Most major development in Los Angeles has been concentrated on the wealthier areas. Development has been much less successful in economically depressed areas. But it is in these economically depressed areas that residents are much more likely to use transit. Transit-oriented-development’s (TODs) by themselves are not a major contributor to transit ridership. Income and auto access are much more related to whether someone uses transit. Car ownership is the number one variable in determining commute choice. Demographics are another important factor. Most TOD residents are more highly educated with higher incomes. This demographic group tends to drive more. Unfortunately, these developments often tear down existing housing used by low-income individuals. While residents who move to TOD developments use transit more in these developments than in their previous homes, they use transit less than the displaced residents.
Feigenbaum: Some years ago several community groups sued Metro claiming that the fare increase and bus service reductions were the result of Metro proceeding with a rail capital program. What happened to the lawsuit and what is the frequency and coverage of local bus service?
Taylor: According to the lawsuit while Metro had a shortfall in operations costs, it increased bus fares to continue building expensive new rail capital projects. As a result of the settlement, Metro was ordered to reduce bus fares but was able to continue building new rail lines. The history of bus/rail tension in L.A. is very interesting. When Proposition A (the first rail initiative) passed, one part stipulated a temporary reduction in fares from $0.85 to $0.50. Transit service was overwhelmed; more people rode transit in this period in L.A. than in any other period in history. When Metro increased fares back to $0.85, Metro lost such a large number of riders that they were financially more successful with the lower fare price. The lower bus fare induces demand on buses just as roadway-widening projects induce demand on highways. Low-income riders will take additional trips to the store instead of staying at home or they will take transit instead of walking. For employment, transit-dependent customers have an inelastic demand; when they need to get to work, the price of transit has little effect on their demand. Transit-choice customers are a completely different story. People who have a car do not care about the cost of transit since it does not affect their rate of driving. METRO countered that building rail was the voter’s preference; METRO was simply executing the voter’s preference. This is somewhat misleading since voters were only presented with one choice and had to reject the entire list up or down. (Disclosure: Taylor served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs.)
Feigenbaum: L.A. seems to have good transit coverage compared to other Southern and Western cities. Are there any thoughts to building a transit network?
Taylor: From an Engineering and Planning perspective constructing a network makes lots of sense. But there are other considerations that have prevented this from happening. Planning happens in municipalities; for example, from a city planner’s perspective, when one commuter reaches the city limits, he drops off the map. Most travel in L.A., unlike some other major cities, is local. Most long distance travel involves wealthier individuals who choose to drive. The marginal costs of these trips is very high and they tend to run in the peak period peak direction only. Obviously there are some benefits from providing this service but from a public investment standpoint it is not worthwhile.
Brian Taylor is a University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Professor of Urban Planning and Department Chair. Lewis directs the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies and the Institute of Transportation Studies. Previously, Dr. Taylor was an Assistant Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and an associate Transportation Planner at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, California. Taylor has a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography from U.C.L.A, two Master’s Degrees in Civil and Environmental Engineering and in City and Regional Planning from the University of California Berkeley, and a PhD in Urban Planning from U.C.L.A.
In addition to being active in the American Institute of Certified Planners, the American Planning Association, Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning and the university representative for the Transportation Research Board, Taylor’s research focuses on how society pays for transportation systems and how those systems serve society. Taylor focuses specifically on travel behavior, transportation finance and the link between planning and politics.