Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bus Rapid Transit through Light Rail

A full spectrum of options
Recent Developments in Public Transportation, Topic 1 part 1
Los Angeles Metro Orange Line BRT vehicle

Questions for Southeast Michigan

As Southeast Michigan begins to implement rapid transit in 2014, the enabling legislation has specified a system using "rolling rapid transit", as defined in the Act. This raises a number of questions:
  • What exactly is "rolling rapid transit"?
  • What types of "rolling rapid transit" systems are available?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of each type?
  • Do systems with more aspects of light rail attract more private investment to their corridors?
In September 2013, I spent eleven days in France investigating transit systems in ten cities to try to answer these and other questions. But the first two questions are answered in the legislation that enabled the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to come into being. Let's take a look there first, so we know what we're talking about.
Michigan Public Act 387 of 2012
124.542 Definitions.
Sec. 2. As used in this act:

(o) "Public transportation system" means a system for providing public transportation in the form of light rail, rolling rapid transit, or other modes of public transportation and public transportation facilities to individuals.

(r) "Rolling rapid transit system" means bus services that may combine the technology of intelligent transportation systems, traffic signal priority, cleaner and quieter vehicles, rapid and convenient fare collection, and integration with land use policy. Rolling rapid transit may include, but is not limited to, all of the following:
(i) Exclusive rights-of-way.
(ii) Rapid boarding and alighting.
(iii) Integration with other modes of transportation
Los Angeles Foothills Transit. Articulated bus,
same model used by Orange Line, but not used as BRT

Though Sec. (2)(o) includes rail transit, for political reasons rail was made especially difficult to approve:
124.546, Sec. 6 (3) …
(b) A board shall provide in its bylaws that the following actions require the unanimous approval of all voting members of the board:
(i) A determination to acquire, construct, operate, or maintain any form of rail passenger service within a public transit region.

Is this “Rolling Rapid Transit”?

I discovered that, like many aspects of law, there are a number of fuzzy, undefined areas. Among other terms, “Bus” is not defined precisely. When a law does not define a term, an authoritative dictionary definition is generally used. Here is Webster’s Online Dictionary’s definition:
“1. a :  a large motor vehicle designed to carry passengers usually along a fixed route according to a schedule There is actually quite a spectrum of vehicles that fit this definition, from purely rubber-tired, free-steering “buses” to “light rail” vehicles with steel wheels rolling on steel rails.

What, then, is BRT?

Four features differentiate BRT from other types of city bus service – three alluded to in PA 357 Sec. (2)(r):

  • Dedicated lanes
  • Signal priority
  • Stations rather than stops
  • Pay before your board

Also BRT vehicles are usually larger than local transit buses (having two or three articulated sections). Many have wider doors, doors on both sides, or doors that match the height of station platforms. Most have internal combustion engines; a few use electric power from dual overhead wires (the trolleybus system).
Dedicated lanes for Los Angeles Orange Line.
Built on an abandoned railroad right of way.

A Full Spectrum

Between bus rapid transit and light rail, it turns out there's a full spectrum of choices. We'll look at two ways of classifying these systems - by how they are routed and relate to other traffic, and by how they are guided.

Here's an overview of how bus systems relate to other traffic:

  • Arterial Rapid Transit (ART)
    Similar to BRT, but does not have dedicated lanes
    Fewer stops than local transit buses
    Los Angeles Metro Rapid,
    an example of Arterial Rapid Transit

  • Express Bus: urban
    Follows the same general route as a local bus
    Does not stop at all stops in certain areas
    Does not have dedicated lanes
  • Express Bus: commuter
    Takes people from suburb to center city
    Usually has a significant portion of the route on a thruway
    No specifically dedicated lanes, though they often use HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes
  • BRT “lite”
    Has some features of BRT, but is missing others
    May have BRT features in some places, but not in all.
Los Angeles Metro Rapid bus
This could also be seen as "BRT Lite"

Now about how they're guided

There are a couple of reasons to provide automatic guidance systems for transit vehicles...
  • Docking: this is when the vehicle comes in to a station. The idea is to make it really easy for people to get on and off. To achieve this, the floor of the vehicle and the station platform should be at the same level and very close together - but not touching. This makes it much faster for people to get on and off, and anyone with a wheeled vehicle (wheel chair, stroller, or just baggage) won't have to worry about gaps or steps. It all adds up to getting everybody where they're going more quickly and smoothly.
  • Safe navigation: it's very tricky for a driver to steer a large vehicle through narrow, twisting lanes. It can be done more safely and rapidly if the vehicle is guided by a mechanical or computerized system. If a transit system is to have dedicated lanes, it makes sense to make them as small as possible, to leave as much room as we can for other traffic.
Conventional BRT, which best fits the definition of “rolling rapid transit” given in Public Act (PA) 387, runs on rubber tires and is steered by an operator. Many BRT installations have docking guidance, and some have safe navigation guidance as well.
Los Angeles Metro Silver Line vehicle.
This is BRT that runs on restricted thruway lanes.
It is steered manually by the operator.

If BRT is one end of a spectrum, the other end is Light Rail Transit (LRT), which runs on steel wheels and is steered by steel rails and switches rather than by an operator. The rails serve as a full-time automatic guidance system for both docking and safe navigation.

In between BRT and LRT lie four variants:
  • Vehicles on rubber tires guided by contact with a roadside rail or curb part or all of the time
  • Vehicles on rubber tires guided by optical or magnetic technology part or all of the time
  • Vehicles that run on rubber tires and can be steered by a central steel rail part or all of the time
  • Vehicles on rubber tires that are steered exclusively by a central steel rail
Over the next few blog entries I will be taking a look at each of these four variants. In the first of these we'll see what's available in curb guided guided systems.
Los Angeles El Monte Station
Serves several LA Metro and Foothills Transit bus routes
This is the western terminus of the Silver Line

To learn more:


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