Bus rapid transit is good but it's not rail

Opponents of rail transit tend to talk up the advantages of bus rapid transit. But are they even serious about promoting fast buses?

Crosscut archive image.

Snohomish County's Swift bus.

Opponents of rail transit tend to talk up the advantages of bus rapid transit. But are they even serious about promoting fast buses?

In a recent Crosscut article, Ted Van Dyk unintentionally illustrates the problem with many arguments that bus rapid transit (BRT) can do it all. He refers to the organizing of an effort to put a light-rail line between the Unitversity District and Ballard as occurring:

Less than a month after voters soundly rejected a $60-per-vehicle tab fee to pay in large part to plan a new streetcar system …

Light rail involves huge capital and operating costs and many years of construction and will carry passengers between only a few fixed-point stations. Bus or bus rapid-transit will take more passengers to more destinations for far less money, without the lengthy construction period.

In less than 600 words, Mr. Van Dyk goes from rejoicing over the defeat of a measure in which Seattle would have spent almost three times more on BRT-type improvements as rail, to whining that bus rapid transit is much more effective than trains.

Rail advocates have few greater allies than friends of BRT like these. Except for some HOV freeway expresses, in any actual user’s experience buses are slow and unreliable. By refusing to support even halting moves towards making buses better, they fatally tarnish the bus brand.

Bus/rail arguments, at least for commenters at the Seattle Transit Blog, often turn into some sort of engineering throughput exercise. And it’s true that aside from smoothness of ride and capacity (that’s not to say that capacity doesn’t matter!), you can theoretically do just as much with a bus in a tunnel or on a busway as with a train in a similar environment, and possibly do it a bit cheaper. It’s a lot cheaper if you already have the bus lane, which is generally not the case in the densest areas.

But these arguments always fall down in that they’re comparing a theoretical bus to an actual train proposal. To the casual voter, bus service means indeterminate frequency and span, being stuck in traffic, and unreliable service. Trains around the world are the opposite of these, and the brand sticks. I don’t think the Seattle Transit Blog's commitment to making the bus more BRT-like can seriously be in doubt, but it’s a hard political road, and the Ted Van Dyks of the world aren’t helping.

Local experience supports that perception of buses. During implementation of both Swift in Snohomish County and RapidRide in King County, Community Transit and King County had fiscal crises. They could have cut service elsewhere to preserve the salient features of their BRT lines, but for better or worse they chose not to do so. So we have a Swift line with no Sunday service (and 12-minute daytime headways next year) and RapidRide lines with lots of on-board payment, lots of stops because there’s no local route, and headways as long as 30 minutes. (And I like RapidRide and Swift! But they’re not Link.)

Meanwhile, ST has had similar budget problems, but Central Link is still running as frequently as ever. They’ve had to cut the scope of lines and cut bus service, but (aside from real-time information, apparently) they haven’t cut the quality features of Link we’ve come to expect. Maybe that’s the culture of the agency, maybe it’s something about marginal costs of rail features, or maybe it’s the spotlight that comes with a multibillion dollar capital project. In any case, it’s why I’m glad there’s a rail line running through my neighborhood instead of a BRT one.

This article originally appeared in a slightly different version on the Seattle Transit Blog. Reprinted with permission.


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