Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bus vs. Rail vs. PRT

It's a shame, but advocates of public transit are divided over modes of transit, and sometimes get into ugly fights about it.

There's not much of a fight between bus and light rail - not that I've seen, anyway. Bus is less expensive, less rigid, and less popular. The user experience on a bus is bumpier and jerkier than on rail. Want to use your laptop? Even when there's space to open it up, the ride is too rough. Riding the Orange Line BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) in North Hollywood CA (October 2007) was just a bit smoother than regular line buses because there were fewer stops and the roadway was relatively new and smooth, but I still wouldn't have wanted to use my laptop. It was far too crowded anyway.

In many areas, bus riding is associated with poverty. That's a shame. Cities like Seattle, where until very recently there was no light rail, have buses filled with strap-hanging entrepreneurs and technocrats. Around here, polite folks don't talk about that association, but it's the elephant in the living room. The stigma can only be overcome by time, I suppose.

Light rail is hands-down more expensive than bus lines. No question. For reasons unfathomable to me, the poverty stigma isn't there. It's a bit smoother if the track is conscientiously maintained, but that's not the main advantage. The big advantage is the value it adds to real estate within a few minutes walk of the stops. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in rail rapid transit, the local economy recovers between $4 and $8. At TRU (Transit Riders United, Detroit) we like to use the figure $6. Why does rail return that kind of money when buses don't? The common sense answer is simple: the route is going to stay in one place.

In other words, lack of flexibility is its big financial advantage.

But the ugly fighting among the transit brethren is between those espousing light rail and those dreaming of PRT (Personal Rapid Transit). I am not sure why the fight is so ugly, because what I've seen of it descends to ad hominem arguments. "You're just in it for the money!" from the PRT people, while light rail folks answer, "Well, you're an ignorant, starry-eyed dreamer!"

Of course there are the non-transit people who get nasty toward anyone who wants to take money away from highways. One particularly vitriolic YouTube piece blames Minneapolis City Council members who want to investigate PRT, for the collapse of the I-35 bridge in July, 2007. Nicely done piece of nonsense, not worth refuting for the benefit of intelligent people.

PRT vs. light rail is worth thinking about a little more. PRT is a great idea that's under development, but untried. It's been described as a "personal monorail" system, or an "automatic taxi". Instead of vehicles holding 40-80 passengers, each vehicle holds 5-6. Instead of a human driver, it's an automated, grade-separated system. Passengers enter their destination, and the vehicle takes them there. You don't have to share a vehicle with anyone if you don't want to.

The main advantages of PRT are its convenience and its appeal as something new. The main disadvantages are that it has never been put into actual day-to-day use (though there are experimental systems) and that it is not intended to carry large numbers of people. PRT advocates like to say, "You never have to wait for a vehicle." Of course that's true until the system reaches saturation. Without everyday use, there are too many unknowns to predict accurately when the saturation point will be reached. Advocates also say that PRT systems are less expensive to build than light rail. I've never seen any hard facts to justify that claim. I sincerely hope it proves true.

Light rail is very much a known quantity. The technology has been perfected over almost 120 years' time. We know its strengths - and its weaknesses. The costs are fairly predictable. They can move a pretty good number of people - less than heavy rail, of course, but more than bus or what PRT claims I've seen.

I really don't want to throw you the cliché that PRT is "they way of the future". What the heck - I just did anyway. But I'd really like to see PRT tried in the USA. It will probably be tried first in Europe or Korea, and that won't carry much weight with Americans because "We're different from them". So we have to do it ourselves. *Sigh* I suppose it's manifest destiny all over again.

Interested in PRT? Here's a link to my "best of PRT" links:
Wikipedia has a nice article with lots of links, too:

Monday, January 7, 2008

University Hills, U. C. Irvine

A couple of years ago, I was privileged to stay with a family in the
University Hills neighborhood of the University of California at

I was impressed by University Hills for a couple of reasons: first,
because it was the University's creative solution to the high cost of
housing in Orange County; and second, because it was such a pleasant
place to live and walk.

The problem faced by the University was that its budget was too
limited to pay faculty members enough to buy homes in the
neighborhood. The solution was to use University land, owned by the
State of California, to design and build housing for the faculty.
Faculty members purchase their own houses, but the state still owns
the land on which they're built. This results in lower home cost
without a lower standard of living.

The houses are compactly built on small plots of land, but they are
very commodious and pleasant, with enough land for a small garden in
front, and a larger one in back.

Of course, in most parts of California you've got to have a car -
no way to get around that. But the designer(s) of University
Hills made automobiles peripheral to the community. In the first
phase, there was a roughly circular road around the community, with a
number of culs-de-sac penetrating the circle for access to the houses.
As the second phase was built, the first loop road was extended to a
second, making a very rough figure eight, again with finger-roads to
provide access to houses. (The third phase seems to have departed from
this pattern.)

Within each of the circles, there are footpaths, gardens, playgrounds,
and sports fields. Most importantly, it is possible to walk to the
main campus through quiet, pleasant, landscaped gardens, crossing at
most two streets. There is a pedestrian overpass crossing busy
Peltason Drive,
serving classroom and dorm buildings.

Take a moment to look at some photos of the houses and walks of
University Hills:

Friday, January 4, 2008

Cost of Living vs. Standard of Living

Here's a thought: in order for America to succeed in the twenty-first
century, we need to reduce our costs. This is partly because of the
rising cost of energy, partly because of the increasing participation
- and competition - of other nations in the world economy. As we
compete with nations whose cost of living is far lower than ours, we
can't afford to throw money away profligately.

This is one of the great challenges America faces as we enter the
twenty-first century: reducing our cost of living without sacrificing
our standard of living.

What is the answer? Reducing our use of energy is a clear necessity,
but I don't believe there is any one best way to do that. If we
look around the world, we can see many examples of people who enjoy
life, live comfortably, and have plenty of options for education,
entertainment, travel, worship, health care, and recreation, all at
lower costs than ours.

Should we try to copy some other nation's living
style? I don't think so. But we can observe the best practices of many
other nations and synthesize them to create our own patterns, our own
solutions, our own models. We can also look within our own country at
examples of lowered cost of living that doesn't reduce standards of

And we can do more than that. We can invent our own patterns. We can
use our "American ingenuity" to find solutions and create models of our

Let's keep that in mind as we plan for the rest of the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, in my next post I'll talk about an example of lowered cost of living that doesn't directly involve reducing energy use...