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.

From San Francisco to Surrey: More lessons on Light Rail and transit planning

The recent article on the Metro 604 website titled “From San Francisco to Surrey: Lessons on Light Rail prompted me to look into San Francisco’s transit situation a bit deeper, as could probably be expected from me as a person concerned on Surrey transit matters.

In San Francisco, California, this is what the transit system looks like:

The region-wide BART subway system has 8 stations within the city, while the commuter CalTrain service has 2 stops in San Francisco. The City’s Municipal Transportation Agency runs the MUNI bus system and Metro LRT within its borders. The MUNI Metro began operation in the 80′s, a modern light rail service replacing former streetcar routes. (Metro 604)

What Hillsdon (writer) wants us to take away from his write-up on the San Francisco transit system, and – particularly – the MUNI Metro LRT, is that:

The San Francisco experience teaches us that LRT is a very efficient transit solution, even for big cities, if we plan the system smarter and with greater flexibility.

And most of this is based on sight, with a few numbers thrown into the mix here and there.

Now, I’m not trying to point fingers at any of the conclusions or numbers in this article here. No one’s misleading anyone. Indeed, 32% of San Francisco residents commute around by transit to work (2011 CLIMATE ACTION STRATEGY for San Francisco’s Transportation System – page 10) – This is even slightly higher than the latest number I can find in Vancouver that describes transit trips within the city. Indeed, the flexibility of LRT in San Francisco has led it to be able to serve multiple purposes fairly well. I think that there’s a certain depth that might have been left out in his takeaway here, however – and that’s why I’m writing in response to this article. I think there are more lessons we can learn on Light Rail in San Francisco.

My nitpicks with the MUNI Metro? 4 topics below:

1. Active transportation in SF vs. Vancouver

San Francisco has a walk-score of 85, which is higher than Vancouver's 78
San Francisco has a walk-score of 85, which is higher than Vancouver’s 78

Let’s take San Francisco versus Vancouver. San Francisco is like Vancouver in several ways, from the climate to the hilly terrain down to the fact that like Vancouver, down to that is largely on a peninsula. For a somewhat similar city with a walk score of 85 – which by far outranks Vancouver’s 78 on the same system (which is the best in Canada) – it surprises me that San Francisco has a lower walking and cycling mode-share at 14.3% of trips.

When walking/cycling and transit are combined, the mode-share for active/sustainable trips beginning and ending in the City of San Francisco is 48.3%. This isn’t any better than the 2006 Vancouver numbers I usually quote (Vancouver Transportation Plan update, which reported a 52% mode-share for walking/cycling/transit trips, against a 48% auto mode-share for the same trip-type). So, I’m not seeing how San Francisco’s flexible use of modern Light Rail technology makes it any more (or less) remarkable. There’s not a lot about Light Rail that makes San Francisco’s transit outshine similar cities for any particular reason.

2. The Muni Metro stops at stop signs.

There are probably not a lot of other light rail transit systems around the world that have to do this, but it does happen on the MUNI Metro. The above is just one of several examples around the city. In this one, the lack of any controlled traffic priority means that a train has to wait until every pedestrian and cyclist crosses – a cause of scheduling delay throughout the system. In this case, the system is no better than a local bus.

The fact about mixed-traffic streetcars and light rail is that they must obey the rules of the road they share, which presents such a service to a lot of weaknesses and drawbacks. It seems like many of San Francisco’s Muni METRO lines (like the K and the N) travel on minor streets, and so they face stop signs and other local-street obstructions, to the nuisance of many commuters that might otherwise be choice riders. Light Rail’s flexibility is nice, but I don’t see how using its flexibility is necessarily “better planning”. With flexibility comes a cost; I see TransLink’s mandate that Light Rail be kept in a dedicated-right-of-way with traffic signal priority investments at all times as a very good thinking, because it ensures that transit is consistent, more reliable, and more competitive as a transportation and mobility option.

In case anyone forgot, with the amount of automobile use growth rate Surrey has been seeing, that is something Surrey is going to need.

3. Light Rail line needs more…. buses?

NX Judah Express

The San Francisco experience teaches us that LRT is a very efficient transit solution, even for big cities, if we plan the system smarter and with greater flexibility.

But, the existence of this bus route throws that claim somewhat out of whack. As a “very efficient transit solution”, Light Rail shouldn’t need to be complemented with an express bus service on the basis that the express bus service adds to the usability of that corridor – but, that’s exactly what’s happening, in at least one situation in San Francisco.

The MUNI route “NX Judah” is an oddity: it’s a peak-hour express standard-length bus service that supplements the local stop portion of the N Judah Light Rail line, then operates non-stop into downtown on mixed-traffic streets. It’s an interesting oddity for me, because while the local portion makes the same local-style stops as light rail, the express portion is actually trying to compete with its subway portion. The NX (detailed paper at CLICK HERE) was introduced in June 2011 as a six-month pilot experiment with express bus service supplements. According to transit schedules (N Judah / NX Judah Express), it runs every 7-8 minutes, alternating the N Judah Light Rail line on the outer end portion of it from 48th Avenue to 19th Avenue and providing a 3-4 minute corridor frequency west of 19th.

It was a resounding success. The NX was voted permanent in December 2011 in merit of its genuine benefits. Get this – MUNI is thinking of doing it with more of their LRT lines (“The apparent success of Muni’s NX-Judah express bus service could offer hope to riders on other crowded streetcar lines.”). There may be a future in which peak-hour express buses are complementing every LRT line in San Francisco.

Above is a video on the NX Judah, which compares it directly against the N Judah Light Rail Line. According to the racers’ stopwatches, which were set to time from trip-start to trip-finish, the NX doesn’t win the race here. At 29 minutes, in this video it was slightly slower than the N-Judah which manages a 26 minute commute to 19th and Judah. As can probably be expected with a mixed-traffic bus, results may vary.

However, other reports generally put the NX as faster than the N – alongside being less stressful to ride on, because the NX adds important capacity. The fact in itself that LRT-like travel time can come so close on a bus that, while express, runs with at-grade mixed-traffic, is pretty amazing.

Why not more trains?

The interesting thing that makes me wonder is why Light Rail service could not have simply been increased on the N Judah. It definitely could use that; the Judah Street corridor is one of the busiest transit corridors in the city, carrying some 38,000 daily transit boardings – though that is still less than Vancouver’s Broadway. The at-grade corridor seems to certainly be capable of handling 3-4 minute frequencies, because the express buses and light rail combined operate at those intervals when their schedules are put side-to-side.

A MUNI Metro train exits the downtown tunnel
A MUNI Metro train exits a tunnel, another one close behind. Photo: Flickr – CC-BY-NC-ND – Frank Chan

I initially suspected that it may be due to the fact that the inner, interlined segments in the MUNI subway are constrained by the very high train frequency of interlining 6 different lines together.

The Market Street Subway, where the six MUNI Metro light rail lines interline under Market Street into downtown San Francisco, is using the same Thales SELTRAC automatic train control system as the Vancouver SkyTrain in its underground portions. In fact, the MUNI Metro pioneered the application of SELTRAC outside of ART technology and linear-induction motor trains, which has since been applied to several other systems worldwide. This was put into service in 1998, after MUNI found that coupling trains from different lines where they converged in order to maintain headways that could be sustained safely by driver-manned operation was infeasible and unreliable. With automatic train control, the shorter trains from the individual lines can be run at the higher frequencies safely.

However, according to this report [LINK HERE], the Market Street Subway (where the 6 MUNI metro lines interline) is not operating at its capacity. It is currently running at a throughput of some 33-37 trains per hour, whereas the design capacity is 50 trains per hour, and the current throughput is lower than averages seen in 2003-2004 (where throughputs reached 40 trains per hour).

Cost

The NX Judah Express pilot implementation was estimated to have an annual cost of $1.8 million, for six months of service. This translates into an annual cost of some $3.6 million.

Whereas expanding N Judah service could have required the purchase of additional light rail vehicles at significant capital cost (whereas it appears that the NX is using repurposed reserve buses from 1993), implementing the NX Judah avoided (or had reduced) capital costs. With that reason, plus having the opportunity to provide a faster service as well as improve capacity, I can see why the NX service has a great business case. The NX provided the same mobility benefit as an N service increase; while, at the same time, it has not cost a lot.

Service disruptions: A Light Rail weakness
An LRT accident in Houston, Texas
An LRT accident in Houston, Texas

What happens when there’s an accident on an LRT line? Well, you could probably expect the obvious. Emergency vehicles are everywhere, and the scene is probably closed to public. But, most importantly, if you were riding transit that day, you would probably be forced off some stations down and forced to board a crowded shuttle bus, because that’s it for Light Rail service through that area.

It appears that another key reason for the addition of the NX over the increase of N service, is the controversial reliability of the N as a light rail transit line at surface-level. Apparently, the N is, for whatever reason, the most disruption-prone Muni Metro line; a reliability issue, which might be a collision or a derailment, happens on average of every 13 days.

I have no idea whether it’s a result of a more clumsy population along the corridor, but it is true that high risk of service disruptions for whatever reason can be a weakness of any Light Rail line. The NX, on the other hand, can simply reroute to avoid these disruptions, in the case of one ever occurring – making it a very valuable backup indeed.

It could be something as simple as a double-parked car, or a vehicle running an intersection where it thinks it has the right of way … Sometimes accidents happen simply from people being stupid.

What the N and NX remind me of

The whole issue of the N and the NX reminds me of this line I once read on the Human Transit website, written by Jarrett Walker, on what could happen if a streetcar line were built along 41st Avenue in Vancouver:

From Human Transit – Is Speed Obsolete?

Let’s imagine 41st Avenue 20 years from now in a Condonian future.  A frequent streetcar does what the buses used to do, but because it stops every 2-3 blocks, and therefore runs slowly, UBC students who need to go long distances across the city have screamed until the transit agency, TransLink, has put back a limited-stop or “B-Line” bus on the same street. (Over the 20 years, TransLink has continued to upgrade its B-Line bus product.  For example, drivers no longer do fare collection, so you can board and alight at any door, making for much faster service. Bus interiors and features are also identical to what you’d find on streetcars, just as they are in many European cities.)

Suddenly, people who’ve bought apartments on 41st Avenue, and paid extra for them because of the rails in the street, start noticing that fast, crowded buses are passing the streetcars.  They love the streetcars when they’re out for pleasure.  But people have jobs and families.  When they need to get to a meeting on which their career depends, or get home to their sick child, they’ll take the fast bus, and the streetcar’s appearance of offering mobility will be revealed for what it is, an appearance.

When a Light Rail/Streetcar service can become less useful as a transportation service than a mixed-traffic express bus that complements it, that’s not a good sign.

4. There’s better transit where people are driving the least.

Better transit mission district

This is from page 6 of the San Francisco Climate Action Strategy study I quoted earlier when I was looking at San Francisco transportation mode-shares. It’s a map.

It’s a map I haven’t seen for many other cities, and it’s a very good map that I think I would like to see more of. Here it is again, overlayed onto a Google Maps representation of San Francisco:

San Francisco Proof

I’ve always been adept at pointing out the many examples of the simple philosophy that “better transit wins better ridership”, and this is an absolutely great example of just that. The rainbow coloured ribbon on this map represents the Bay Area Rapid Transit system‘s 8 subway stations in San Francisco, which connect to the district that has the thinnest red line from downtown. If you zoom into this map (click the image), the slightly thicker and darker outlines represent the MUNI Metro network. While they also provide some limited connections to this area, I think the real highlight here is the BART.

BART provides a high-capacity, rapid, fully grade-separated service that can outpace other service options. It truly competes with superior modes of transportation in terms of convenience and reliability, and – as a result – it gets the popular vote.

Despite that the Mission District is also arguably one of the better places in San Francisco to live if you drive to work (it’s on the I-280 expressway, whereas of the other four districts measured, only one of them is along a limited-access expressway of any sort), fewer people drive from here to downtown than from any other area in San Francisco.

That’s right. Whereas the MUNI Metro is trying to compete against surface streets and losing, the BART is directly competing against an expressway and winning.

The takeaway

Sometimes when other cities are thought to have great examples for other cities, there are certain examples that are not exactly “what you see is what you get”. A great example is the perceived transit-oriented development success in Portland, OR – which might have been more a result of development subsidies from 1996-onwards, than the actual transit. Many of the biggest Light Rail fans in Surrey, including our City Council, are mesmerized by the presence of so much transit-oriented development near the MAX Light Rail system, only to not know about the subsidized reality of it.

It seems it happens to often: we look to other cities for vague examples thinking they could play into our future here, and in d0ing so some vague assumptions are made, some vague take-aways are gotten. It happened when Surrey City Council visited Portland, Oregon… it appears to have happened with Metro604 blogger Paul Hillsdon’s recent visit to San Francisco… and it could happen with a lot more transit gurus.

It’s not that all of this looking for inspiration from other cities holds no value whatsoever. I just think there is really no way that we can properly conclude planning mandates about our own transit system’s future just by looking at other cities and taking from the things we see. Sights might say one thing, but numbers might say another. And, on some occasions, perhaps that might be the other way around.

To end this, here’s a great timelapse compilation of San Francisco. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful, rich, and diverse city indeed: