In an interview with Fox 2 News (linked below), Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is quoted as saying, "I don't think we should concentrate all of our efforts on the Woodward light rail. I think we've got to look at this region and do what's best for the region." A Detroit News article, "Light rail backers push Woodward line as bus system proposed", outlines the details and includes interviews with people who back the light rail system.
Does this mean the light rail plan is history? Another ambitious plan for Detroit that falls into oblivion? Possibly. Moneyed backers of the light rail system are reluctant to give it up, so some semblance of the proposed system may yet be built.Either way, now is a good time to look more closely at rapid bus in comparison with light rail. When transportation nerds hear "rapid bus", we think "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT). But I'm not at all convinced that the Detroit plan will actually involve BRT - at least, not at first.
You see, some statements made by Gov. Snyder and his spokespeople a couple of months ago about the low cost of rapid bus, when Snyder announced his plan for Detroit transit, lead me to believe either of two possibilities: they may not understand what is really involved in"Bus Rapid Transit", or they may have used the term "rapid bus"because they envision something simpler and less expensive.
Here's a little table outlining the similarities and differences between Light Rail, true Bus Rapid Transit, and rapid buses:
|Light Rail||Bus Rapid Transit||Rapid Buses|
|Runs on||Rails in separate lanes||Asphalt or concrete in separate lanes||Asphalt or concrete in normal traffic lanes, possibly on a freeway at times|
|In traffic||Usually has the right of way||Usually has the right of way||Runs with traffic, but may have special signals at some intersections|
|Stop spacing||1-2 per mile||1-2 per mile||2-3 per mile|
|Getting on||Station or special platform||Station or special platforms||Bus shelter|
|Paying||Buy ticket before boarding||Buy ticket before boarding||Pay on the bus|
|Initial average cost per mile||$34.8 million||$13.5 million||Much less, but not documented|
|Potential for development||High||Moderate||Low|
Los Angeles provides good examples of all three of these transit modes (see links below). The Blue, Green, and Gold line are light rail; the Orange Line is BRT,and there are 26 rapid bus routes in addition to multiple local bus lines. (The Red and Purple lines are what's known as "heavy-rail"subways.) I've ridden the Blue, Green, Gold, Red, and Orange lines,but not the rapid buses. The Orange Line runs from North Hollywood to Canoga, part of the way in the wide median of Chandler Boulevard, the rest of the way on the old right of way of Southern Pacific Railroad's Burbank Branch; it is being extended to Chatsworth. I rode it in October of 2007 in mid and late afternoon, and found the bus a little bumpy and jerky, but well patronized. (The buses are equipped with TVs, but what do you expect in Hollywood?) During rush hours,the BRT system now operates at capacity due to high ridership, and the LA transit authority is experimenting with ways to increase capacity, such as using longer buses or running buses in "fleets"of two or three.
The LA Transit "Metro Rapid" and similar area services use articulated buses, for the most part,similar to those on the Orange Line (but painted different colors). They stop at bus shelters (not stations) and are built with low floors to make boarding more rapid. Some of the bus shelters are equipped with "next bus arrival" signs. In the City of Los Angeles, traffic signals along their route recognize the buses' presence and change to let them through, but outside the city many of the signals aren't equipped to recognize them, and don't give them precedence. Their speed and passenger-carrying capacity is less than that of light rail or the Orange Line BRT, but greater than that of the local buses.Development incentive is probably the the most important difference for a metropolitan region choosing between light rail, BRT, and rapid bus systems. Light rail systems built recently in several U.S. cities have spurred tremendous investment in developments around the stations. Four to eight dollars of private investment is widely reported for every dollar spent building light rail. Most observers agree that rails in the ground give developers confidence that the service will be around for the long term, and that lots of people will be riding.
BRT figures aren't so easy to come by in this country. The systems I've looked at personally (Los Angeles and Cleveland) don't appear to have attracted much development that wouldn't have happened anyway. However, Enrique Peñalosa,who spearheaded the BRT system in Bogotá, Colombia, points to tremendous development near the BRT corridors of his city. Bogotáhas no other rapid transit in competition with BRT, whereas both LA and Cleveland have rail transportation options, which experience shows to attract development quite reliably.
There is no evidence that I know of to indicate that rapid or express buses stimulate development. Because they have so little fixed infrastructure, there is no assurance for developers that their investment would be safe.
Perhaps in Detroit, with few rapid transit options other than BRT, it would attract some of the development we've been looking for from a light rail system. We can hope - and push for - a true BRT system. But let's not give up on light rail: experience around the country shows light rail is really what attracts private investment to cities.
To learn more:
- myFOXDetroit.com,updated December 14, 2011 at 6:49 PM EST. "WoodwardLight Rail Project Derailed"
- Detroit News December 14, 2011 at 7:47 pm, "Light rail backers push Woodward line as bus system proposed"
- About Enrique Peñalosa in "Sustainable Cities"
- Bus Rapid Transit (Wikipedia)
- Los Angeles transit information: