Home Buses The not-so-lofty goals of tomorrow’s transportation

The not-so-lofty goals of tomorrow’s transportation

by Benjamin Kabak

As we survey the New York City transportation landscape, nothing very big is happening. The MTA has its so-called megaprojects churning as the Second Ave. Subway, 7 line extension and East Side Access Project all inch toward completion dates later this decade, but there is nothing in the works that will reshape or revolutionize transit in the area. Instead, we have clogged roads in desperate need of repair, traffic that needs mitigating and a subway system that needs significant investment.

Meanwhile, the Transportation of the Future is on the minds of a few folks lately, and the topics are less than exciting. In a multi-story package last week, The Wall Street Journal delved into Tomorrow’s Transportation and determined that monorails and, uh, buses are the future of transportation. Pardon me if neither of those modalities make me jump for joy. The price tags may be more alluring that deep-bore subway construction; the offerings may be greener than massive road expansion plans; but somewhere along the way, we forgot to think big.

The Journal’s article about buses focuses on tried-and-true BRT with pre-board fare payment, dedicated lanes and the works. It’s not really about the sub-par BRT imitation New York is laying down because our transit policy folks are brow-beaten by a bunch of NIMBYs. It is full of the typical over-the-top love of bus lanes as the article calls BRT a “modern transit system that combines the flexibility of buses with the speed, comfort and reliability of rail.”

The article reads as something out of the Walter Hook Manual for BRT, and a recent release from the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy sounds familiar themes. BRT, says the release, “combines the flexibility of buses with the speed and priority of light rail, but at a fraction of the cost of rail.”

There is no denying that bus rapid transit is the popular modality these days. “BRT projects can be put in place quickly, and integrate well with other transportation modes, from subways to cycling and walking, while fitting today’s often constrained budgets,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, said. “Now more than ever it is important to find creative solutions to provide affordable transportation options that meet the needs of our communities and residents and keep our economy moving forward.”

And yet, BRT can’t approximate rail. For a BRT lane to deliver the capacity a subway can — and particularly in New York — the operator would have to run something on the order of 40 buses an hour. BRT may be cheaper than building out a subway line or light rail, but you get what you pay for. As Yonah Freemark noted, there’s nothing wrong with that.

In dispensing with the Rail vs. BRT fight, Freemark noted that the two modalities should not be pitted against each other. Rather, they should be used in concert to form a better overall transit network experience. He writes:

The real divisions between bus and rail are political: For those who would fight for improved transit systems in their cities, the truth is that rail projects do certainly have more appeal among members of the public. Thus a billion-dollar rail project may be easier to stomach for a taxpaying and voting member of the citizenry than a quarter-billion BRT line. While the former is qualitatively different than what most car drivers are used to, the latter mode is too easily lumped in with the city bus, which car users have already paid to avoid.

Better transit can come in many forms, but in a country in which the vast majority of people have no contact with public transportation this side of Disney World, making the argument for investments in more buses is difficult, to say the least. BRT is just not sexy until you’ve experienced it. Which is why the considerable success of BRT in South America has not convinced many U.S. cities to abandon their ambitions for more rail.

Articles like those in the Journal and the Globe and Mail, despite their positive assessments of the potential for BRT, nonetheless reinforce the sense that BRT is inferior to rail by putting the two in contrast to one another, rather than focusing on the relative benefits of each. By continuously describing BRT as an economical way to get something like light rail, all that comes across is that it’s cheap.

What do we do then in an area in which our politicians aren’t willing to do anything for any form of transportation? City officials haven’t stood up for their modified Select Bus Service — or BRT Lite — plans, and rail expansion is a non-starter because of the price tags. The status quo can’t keep up with demand under or above ground. So let’s just throw everything out and start building monorails instead. If it works in China and Mumbai, it can work here, right?

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Boris May 31, 2011 - 12:49 am

We need to look no further than Washington, D.C. and its suburbs to see what we need to do. Somehow, the area has made great strides in transit-oriented development even though its densest parts are about as dense as Park Slope.

It takes a lot: acknowledging that there is a problem; political will; money; consensus (of the well-educated elite, no less). And it is such a beautiful thing, because it gives people more residential and transportation choices without “Manhattanizing” the city.

The real breakthrough would come if politicians start to understand the link between transit and land use. Then we’d be able to ring more out of our existing transportation options without major capital investments (although we’d need better and more frequent service). And once the link is made, and the need for better transit understood, then the money will appear.

Tsuyoshi May 31, 2011 - 11:39 am

Yes. I have been surprised by the low density that exists in most New York suburbs with rail service. The rails are there, but frequent service would be absurd because the ridership isn’t there.

Cap'n Transit May 31, 2011 - 1:11 am

As I wrote on Yonah’s blog, it’s the “BRT” advocates who insist on comparing buses to trains. Rail advocates are usually pretty supportive of bus improvements in general.

I argued that the comparison is inherent in the whole concept of “BRT.” It is a bus line designed as a substitute for a rail line. It usually makes more sense to roll out the improvements in an area or systemwide than on individual lines. The choice to do them on individual lines is a political choice designed to divide the support for rail expansion.

Kai B May 31, 2011 - 1:24 am

I have yet to understand the benefits of monorails over dual-railed vehicles, besides fulfilling some 1960s fantasy.

Same holds true for this country’s obsession with Maglevs (1990s fantasy). Really? Out of the 50 or so at least somewhat-serious proposals worldwide in the last 20 years only one has been built for commercial service and the benefits are minor over convention high-speed rail (pushed to higher and higher speeds). Even China is done with it!

It almost seems like or crazy fantasies are stopping us from building anything. This hold true for both urban rapid transit and national/regional rail.

pete May 31, 2011 - 10:22 am

It is a 1960s fetish. Its was all the pols and lobbyists who are in their 50s grew up watching the Jetsons. A monorail is just an overpriced proprietary “El”.

John-2 May 31, 2011 - 8:16 am

The other thing to remember is why New York City become focused on subways in the first place — aside from the greater capacity, the goal was to create a system as shielded from the elements as possible, to increase reliability under bad weather situations.

The nightmare with the A train stuck between Howard Beach and Aqueduct during the post-Christmas snowstorm is an extreme example of the problem with surface and/or elevated transportation in bad weather, but it’s a reminder that even in conditions that make walking or driving miserable, New Yorkers expect that if they can get to the subway, it will be running. A BRT can’t escape the forces of nature any more than your average driver coming into the city on the LIE or the Jersey Turnpike can.

tacony palmyra May 31, 2011 - 10:58 am

If only the MTA ran the trains with that mentality. I’ll be waiting for an hour for that A train to travel within Manhattan because it’s stuck out at Howard Beach, and if it does come it’ll be running local because they’re storing snow-busting equipment on the express tracks!

BUT I wonder, all the cities in extreme climates that get heavy snow seem to be able to handle their surface transit. Hokkaido gets incredible amounts of snow and it has a functioning surface rail system. What do they do that we can’t?

Bolwerk May 31, 2011 - 11:21 am


Larry Littlefield May 31, 2011 - 9:36 am

Monorails? We won’t be able to afford monorails!

The future of transportation is telecommuting, bicycles and carpooling. Because that doesn’t require money, other than the IT investment required for telecommuting, and IT investment happens to be the only kind this country has done for 30 years.

SEAN May 31, 2011 - 11:02 am

http://www.lightrailnow.org did an expose on L. A.’s orange line BRT. What was discovered was despite the rather high useage levels, several opperational problems arose.

. The ROW was too narrow. If a bus broke down, you couldn’t get around it.
2. Some stations were at intersections that didn’t allow for proper safe crossing to & from ajacent neighborhoods. At least one intersection was a five way, sort of what you would see near the Atlantic Av/ Pacific St station.
3. Busses often got trapped going through the Warner Center area do to the extreme congestion on the streets, makeing schedules irelivent plus busses would often get bunched do to the traffic.

Kid Twist May 31, 2011 - 11:29 am

Hey, if monorails are good enough for Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook …

Seriously, though. Monorails? Really? They belong in Disneyland, not in real cities.

pete May 31, 2011 - 12:27 pm


Only way to describe the problem.

Bolwerk May 31, 2011 - 11:54 am

Something “revolutionary” and relatively cheap would be a long-term surface LRT plan. No grade separation required. It might be a little more expensive than BRT in the short term, but it’s cheaper in the long run – especially after those first 12 years are up. Speeds don’t need to be that much worse than below-ground heavy rail, and vehicle lengths could allow much of the capacity. The other “price” (arguably a benefit) is the loss of 2+ lanes of traffic – so the vehicles actually move.

Just like every other mode, it must be remembered that deep-bore or even cut & cover subways have disadvantages, even after the high prices, and are silly in some contexts. Walking 1-4 stories underground is not exactly easy, and makes little sense for a short trip.

And what’s this about 40 buses/hour to match the capacity for a subway service? If a BMT line is running at 20 TPM and with 8 cars/train, that’s capacity equivalent to well more than 160 BRT buses. Probably more, considering practically speaking a BRT vehicle is unlikely to have a the capacity of an R160 car.

Max S. (WilletsPoint-SheaStadium) May 31, 2011 - 12:18 pm

I would agree – I think Light-Rail surface grade transportation (with traffic light priority) is the way to go. If there were light-rails running in the left lanes of the big boulevards (Woodhaven Blvd, Pelham Parkway, Kings Highway, etc) with platforms in the middle connecting out of reach neighborhoods to subways and commuter rail, that would be a great expansion of rail service to under-served already existing communities.

pete May 31, 2011 - 12:31 pm

LRT will be just as slow as any bus because of traffic. What advantage would it have over BRT other than shiny rails for passengers to look at while waiting for it?

BBnet3000 May 31, 2011 - 12:42 pm

Those shiny rails are smoothing the ride for passengers and reducing resistance, improving the energy efficiency of the vehicle.

Also LRT can have higher capacity than buses, which is a huge labor cost saver.

Bolwerk May 31, 2011 - 12:59 pm

Once you ignore the lower operating costs, lower capital costs, higher capacity, potential for cleaner energy sources, smoother ride, and higher acceleration? I guess there aren’t really any advantages! Quite obviously it would be absolutely impossible to separate LRT from other traffic, since it wasn’t invented in the USA!

AlexB May 31, 2011 - 12:45 pm

New York City is not going to give up enough street space to ever have a great and/or comprehensive BRT system in this city. A handful of city streets and suburban arterials have enough width to accommodate exclusive lanes, and those should be explored. To really make the system work, they would still have to be combined with expensive new river crossings. Until BRT becomes bigger than a few routes that barely leave their own boroughs, it’s not going to be a game changer.

Take a look at a genuine big city transit expansion project over at Transport Politic. Paris is building a huge transit network for its suburbs. We need the Triboro line!!! Tramways that connect to regional rail stops!!! Subway extensions in the suburbs!!!

Bolwerk May 31, 2011 - 1:14 pm

I don’t think that’s so. It’s the routes between outer boroughs that have the most potential, and the obvious place to start is the Queens-Brooklyn land border.

Alon Levy May 31, 2011 - 3:23 pm

The new river crossings could be cheap, using the existing bridges. A light rail line on QB going over the Queensboro Bridge could be very successful, and so could a line using the Brooklyn Bridge.

Kai B May 31, 2011 - 8:10 pm

While we’re on the topic of band-aids, don’t forget the ferry service starting next month:

paulb June 2, 2011 - 7:39 am

Those places, like Paris, that are doing all this innovation in transportation. I wonder if they have a more, uh, “designed” environment in terms of where people live, too. Being some agency and trying to figure out strategies for growing light rail or BRT or subway, it can’t be any fun when you have no idea what the next big neighborhood is going to be, who might be living where or in what sort of building, what kinds of jobs they’ll have or where they’ll need to go. You can’t improvise a subway, but neighborhood development–it seems like that’s just a seat-of-the-pants thing.

prb June 2, 2011 - 3:27 pm

I literally just got back from Japan and while there rode a dozen variety of high-speed and local trains, monorails, busses, subways and even cable car ropeways and not only are they all fast efficient, clean and very comfortable, but theres a culture of rail fandom prevalent in the society in general. The Shinkansen has a cult of personality all its own. But even 186mph is not enough, as the Japanese Govt just declared a few days ago work will begin on a Tokyo to Osaka maglev train in 2014 cutting the 323 mile route to under an hour. I get back to NYC and just sigh.


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