The “Only rail creates development” myth

I wrote this segment as a part of the recent article I did commenting on the new study for Light Rail in Surrey. The quote from the study that caught my eye and may perhaps catch the eyes of others invested in transit planning, is this prominent suggestion that…

Unlike Rapid Bus or SkyTrain alternatives, the LRT will have a permanent physical presence in their exclusive rights-of-way and yet be at a human scale and have a gentle footprint in keeping with the lower density portions of the lines. (Surrey LRT study)

Notice how the author attempts to justify the Light Rail technology aspect in this way, by suggesting that the “permanent” presence of rail-based transit (i.e. visible rails on the street) has a positive implication on image from riders and developers, that isn’t achieved with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

(SkyTrain is the existing, fully grade-separated, driverless rapid transit system in Metro Vancouver)

Myth 1: Bus Rapid Transit has no “permanence”

This notion that BRT can have no “permanence” and doesn’t attract economic development is has been challenged by transportation professionals.

Investing in enhancing bus service instead of physical rails on the street is not a failure to create “permanence”. After all, rapid transit improvements are justified in the first place because the demand for the transit on that corridor is already quite high without it.

According to a new report released by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, BRT systems in North America are outperforming LRT in terms of how much development is generated per transit investment dollar. While the study found an LRT line in Portland had generated the most development, when this was divided per dollar of transit investment, the LRT line actually generated 31 times less development, than the system that led the per-dollar development measure: a BRT system in Cleveland.

“Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development (T.O.D.) investment than Light Rail Transit or streetcars.”

(Institute for Transportation & Development Policy)

According to the study, the top predictors in T.O.D. outcomes are not related to the choice of technology; they are:

  1. Strong government support for redevelopment
  2. Real estate market conditions
  3. Usefulness of transit services – speed, frequency, reliability

Clearly, when the outcomes are given similar marketing and promotion, developers don’t actually care if the system uses rails or not.

Here in Canada, York Regional Transit in Ontario, with its “VIVANext” program to implement city-wide BRT, is helping to challenge the popular notion that only rail systems can reinvigorate communities. The video shows vibrant urban communities growing around future BRT stations.

Myth #2: Light Rail creates “permanence”

Light Rail is praised by supporters for creating the idea of “permanence” – which has to do with the presence of physical tracks in the streets. The suggestion is supposed to be something along the lines of, “we invested rails in this corridor so that it will never disappear.”

This is a very dangerous myth – and one of the reasons this is dangerous is because of the untold implication, wherein going straight to a Light Rail system results in other parts of the transit system lose transit service, as a means of coping with the associated costs.

Perhaps the best example of this is the downtown streetcar system in Portland, Oregon. The reveled streetcar had vibrant beginnings in its promise to provide a clean, high-quality service every 10 minutes, promoting and connecting new developments in the downtown core.

Its big-ticket issue, however, lies in the fact that it was not planned around actually improving mobility. The resulting service was not significantly more useful than existing city buses, and was often slower than walking or cycling. It was easily and frequently disrupted by accidents, poorly parked cars, and a host of other issues.


Above video: Portland Streetcar gets stuck due to a poorly parked vehicle, in what would be a minor and avoidable adjustment for a bus.

The costs that the streetcar saddled the city with didn’t help the major funding shortages affecting region-wide transit in the late 2000s, resulting in massive service cuts and cancellations throughout the region. It was so bad that in 2009, the regional operator was forced to abolish its entire 15-minute frequent transit network due to lack of funds.

Throughout its history, the streetcar has also received service cutbacks – which arguably challenge the notion that rail has “permanence”. The streetcar has never once operated at the initially promised frequencies of 10 minutes. The cutbacks were initially to the point where you would have to wait as long for a streetcar in the supposedly-vibrant city centre, as you would for a bus in a lower-density part of Surrey.

The streetcar’s ridership is so low that only 6% of the streetcar’s operating costs comes from farebox recovery. 94% of operating costs must be subsidized, and the subsidy is so heavy that it has City Auditors concerned that the streetcar is taking away from other basic services.

“We remain concerned about how projects like Portland Streetcar displace other transportation services,” referring to street maintenance.
City audit questions management of Portland Streetcar – Apr 2014

What is clear about the Portland streetcar example is that the ‘rails’ in the transit lines haven’t made any meaningful difference. They have added so little value, which ends up coming out negative against the funding issues that affected transit service throughout the region.

When the streetcars are unable to run due to an accident or some issue, the replacement shuttle buses are providing essentially the same service as the streetcars. It has had some people thinking whether Portland could follow examples here in Vancouver and in Seattle, launching a well-branded, electric trolley-bus service could have been more suitable for not just the streetcar routes, but other bus routes throughout the city as well.

A stopped TransLink articulated low-floor electric trolley. Buses like these were paid for by the additional revenue raised through low-risk bonds.
TransLink operates several articulated trolley buses here in Vancouver.

Bridging the gap between BRT and LRT

Recently, consultant Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog (which as you’ll notice, I’ve already referenced a few times in this write-up) mentioned that when naturally low-performing local and suburban bus services are excluded from the picture, frequent bus service is nearly as cost-efficient as LRT (in terms of the cost for every rider on the end-service).

Many advocates of LRT would rather have you look at the bus vs LRT operating costs per rider, as they apply to the entire transit system. This creates misleading attitudes surrounding buses, because the numbers include the local and suburban bus services that are naturally poor-performing (and on top of that, will likely never be replaced/justified by an LRT, ever).

This chart says two remarkable things: Firstly, that frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance. Secondly, that the spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.
This chart says two remarkable things: Firstly, that frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance. Secondly, that the spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.

The numbers above demonstrate that when you give buses the service quality and frequency usually associated with a more expensive LRT investment, they can be nearly as cost-efficient to operate. Likewise, if buses are also given the same amenities that add to comfort, image and sleekness, then they will likely be appreciated as much by the public.

BRT can receive the same “permanence enhancements” as LRT such as branding, way-finding information, landscaping, lighting, and dedicated rights-of-way. Many BRT systems have adopted innovative features that go a long way towards bridging the gap between BRT and LRT.

BRT advocates often cite examples in South America (such as Bogota, Colombia and others) that use BRT so extensively and so innovatively, that it is considered a replacement for heavy rail. I believe there is another worthy example that deserves some serious attention, and it’s within North America:

“Look ma, no hands”! In Eugene, Oregon, the “Emerald Express” BRT system adopted a magnetically-guided automated steering system, allowing the bus to make more precise turns and dock with precision at every BRT station. The revenue service of this guided system was introduced in June 2013 and is now celebrating its 2nd anniversary.

This guided BRT design allows for reduced lane-width requirements. Steering is automated through the electronic guidance, which only requires pavement under the wheel tracks. This provides an opportunity for the inclusion of additional green space between the tracks. The guided bus technique allows for “precision docking” at the stations.

(BRT project brief)

While the buses do need to be specially equipped, they can still run on other roads. This system does not require the extensive infrastructure and costs of previously-developed “guided” BRT systems, and can in fact save costs by allowing a tighter, narrower running right-of-way for rapid buses.

Showcase of Eugene, Oregon's Emerald Express. Taken from automated steering system study linked above.
Showcase of Eugene, Oregon’s Emerald Express right-of-way (from automated steering system study linked above)

It’s time to consider BRT

Where could you go with Bus Rapid Transit? I personally think that a lot of the potential of BRT systems is dismissed not necessarily because of disapproval, but also because the discussion is never really started. You would never be able to travel from King George & 88th and end up in South Surrey or even Coquitlam without transferring, on the currently proposed LRT system. Unfortunately, that’s been pushed out as a key consideration in transit planning here.

The Emerald Express is an excellent example of how current technology can be used to bridge the gap between BRT and LRT. And, on top of the examples showed in Eugene, there are so many other ways to “bridge the gaps”.

At this point, basically every heavily-promoted LRT feature can be replicated with BRT (and likewise, every streetcar feature with buses). Well-designed BRT systems incorporate lements such as: sheltered stations with wait-time displays, off-board payment, seating and other amenities adding comfort and ambiance. Hybrid diesel-electric or electric trolley buses can be used to lower or eliminate carbon emissions – and provide the smoother, non-jerky ride quality of electric vehicles. Plus, double-articulated buses are increasingly being used – giving a little more flexibility in terms of capacity (Light Rail’s current running advantage).

If BRT can gain more traction in this decade, it will pave the way for much better transit in all our cities, because BRT costs a lot less to implement, and has numerous flexibility advantages over Light Rail systems in urban settings. You could build more BRT than an LRT with the same dollar, and extend its reach further by through-running onto other corridors.

In order for this to happen, transit advocates must abandon any and all adherence to the “only rail creates development” myth. The fear-mongering, excuses and nay-saying from pro-LRT activists is becoming a serious setback to the realization of transit potential in our cities.

Concept image of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave. Note the continuation of 3 different services to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities.
My concept of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave in Surrey. Note the continuation of 3 different services to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities. Through-running flexibility is a major BRT advantage that won’t be had by currently-proposed LRT.

Pattullo Problems – 2: Front Street

ALSO SEE: Pattullo Problems – 1: Advocating for Six Lanes

Railway crossing - Front Street, New Westminster
Railway crossing – Front Street, New Westminster

Last year I was working in a building in New Westminster with a window that overlooked the railway crossing at Front Street. There, I witnessed the passing of trains and truck traffic on a daily basis. I still remember wanting to close the window every time I opened it to enjoy the fresh air, because the air smelled like diesel. It just wasn’t something I wanted to breathe, and I kept that window closed as much as I can for the duration of my stay. According to Councillor Bill Harper, Front Street is one of the “most toxic” areas in the Lower Mainland in terms of air quality.

Trucks that use Front Street, as they do regularly with Columbia Street not being suitable for large amounts of trucks, have to contend with these trains, which slowly continue onto the Fraser River Bridge into Surrey. As well, New Westminster residents have to contend with the train whistles, and the air pollution resulting from the stop and go movement. On a transportation basis, it’s not efficient and not predictable to use front street.

This is where a new six-lane Pattullo bridge replacement – which I discussed in a previous blog article and through letters now published in three Burnaby and New Westminster newspapers – can most handily come in.

This summary map shows the highway projects that were proposed with the Gateway Program (along with other recent major road projects in the region). The previously proposed NFPR is highlighted in purple.
This summary map shows the highway projects that were proposed with the Gateway Program (along with other recent major road projects in the region). The previously proposed NFPR is highlighted in purple.

The Front Street corridor was part of a previous highway proposal called the North Fraser Perimeter Road (NFPR), which was part of the regional Gateway Program. However, both New Westminster and TransLink have placed this project on the backburner, perhaps indefinitely. Plans for a new Pattullo Bridge no longer show a connection with Front Street, and the United Boulevard Extension is off the table.

Instead, the City of New Westminster has discussed the potential to revitalize Front Street into a “neighbourhood street” lined with business and mixed-use development, deconstructing it as the current through route for many trucks travelling from the southwest to the northeast.

The revitalized Front Street concept included a car, bike and pedestrian overpass at Sixth Street, connecting with the new Waterfront Park, to eliminate the railway crossing at Eight Street and – along with the elimination of the Front Street crossing and the closure of Front Street as a through route – result in the elimination of all railway crossings in New Westminster, and associated train whistle habits.

Concept: Revitalized Front Street with Sixth Street rail overpass
Concept: Revitalized Front Street with Sixth Street rail overpass

As a proponent of sustainable urban development and a nearby resident just 10 minutes away by SkyTrain in Burnaby, a revitalized Front Street is something I really look forward to. It has the potential to bring increased business, quality of life and tourism to New Westminster, benefitting everyone in the big picture.

Already, new investments into the community like the Waterfront Park have greatly improved the quality of life in New Westminster, and have given people across the region more reasons to come into New Westminster. More than ever, New Westminster is an accessible, vibrant regional centre – and I think that planners and decision makers should be building on that momentum that started with first steps like Plaza 88 at New Westminster Station and the under construction civic centre across the street.

However, the construction of a six-lane Pattullo Bridge with extra capacity to redirect traffic is the only way the City of New Westminster can realistically follow through with this priority.

While the City has discussed redirecting trucks onto alternate parallel corridors like 10th and Royal Avenues, neither are very suitable for trucks. The former is a two-lane, low-capacity corridor for much of its length not suitable for schedule-oriented goods movement. The latter puts trucks through a climb on a very steep hill, which apart from being an issue for truckers themselves, creates noise and pollution for New Westminster residents.

The issues with 10th and Royal were being discussed in detail in New Westminster’s official downtown community plan. However, these discussions seem to have been ignored in more recent viewpoint establishments.

It remains a fact that the South Fraser Perimeter Road (SFPR) with an expanded Pattullo Bridge can fulfill a role that Front Street currently dominates: getting trucks and goods from the South-of-Fraser ports in Delta to Northeast sector ports and industrial centres. A six-lane Pattullo Bridge is the only way to facilitate a direct connection between the SFPR and Columbia Street and totally replace Front Street as well as the heavily congested Queensborough Bridge in this segment with a reliable alternative.

Featured image: The SkyBridge, with the New Westminster Waterfront in the background. From the "Inn at the Quay" website - no copyright specified
Featured image: The SkyBridge, with the New Westminster Waterfront in the background. I think we could we be seeing this view differently with a six-lane Pattullo Bridge in place. From the “Inn at the Quay” website – no copyright specified

I think the City of New Westminster could be taking this into account in having a position on a Pattullo Bridge replacement. Being open to six lanes, the possibilities with Front Street would be endless.

NEXT UP: Pattullo Problems – 3: Queensborough Matters

NEW: Read my letter supporting a six-lane Pattullo Bridge as it appeared on the Royal City Record

Pattullo Bridge needs six lanes – Royal City Record

Dear Editor:

New Westminster’s Jim Lowrie told us that a six-lane Pattullo would cost about twice as much as a four-lane bridge, but the released study reports an entirely different number. Given the actual premium for two extra lanes stands at a more reasonable $200 to $300 million, I am in favour of a six-lane bridge.

Before anyone complains, I think it’s important to establish first what exactly the extra lanes will be for, where will they go, and what are the benefits.

I have heard some complaints about how McBride would become a “six-lane expressway” and overload New Westminster and Burnaby streets with traffic. But TransLink’s concepts from last year’s consultations show that the third lane is intended to split off towards Columbia Street north of the bridge – a road leading away from New Westminster….

[READ MORE – Royal City Record]