Planning for Public Transportation

The approach to planning public transportation infrastructure is similar in principle to that of highway planning. The same sorts of computer studies done for automotive travel can be done for transit. Then, too, benefit-cost analysis is as applicable to transit as it is to highways and streets.

In recent years the public in large cities and metropolitan areas has generally been more favorably disposed to transit improvements than to the building of new highways. Improving transit tends to decongest the streets by reducing automobile travel. It appeals to environmentalists for reasons of air quality and fuel consumption. Those concerned with urban design often favor transit because it leads to a more compact land-use pattern that is much friendlier to pedestrians. Distances between destinations are shorter, and less land area is given over to streets. Taking a walk in a transit-oriented city like Chicago or Boston and then taking a walk in an automobile-oriented city like Albuquerque or Los Angeles is likely to convince one that there is some truth in this argument.

A major problem with transit, as noted before, is that financially it is far from self-sustaining. It must be heavily subsidized, and most of that subsidy must come from higher levels of government.

In the mid-1970s the long-term decline in transit ridership halted, and a ridership has slowly increased. This reversal was due in large measure to increased federal funding, beginning with the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964.

But congressional support for public transportation is not usually very strong. Behind this lack of enthusiasm is a basic geographical fact. To function adequately, transit requires population densities of at least 2,000 or so persons per square mile. Therefore, a substantial part of the U.S. population, including much of its metropolitan-area population, lives in areas that cannot be adequately served with transit at any conceivable level of public expenditure. Thus many members of Congress do not have constituencies that care much about transit.

At the time of writing a number of municipalities are building or planning light-rail (streetcar) lines. For example, Washington, DC is planning what city officials hope will be a 37-mile system. Light rail is expensive. For one 4.5-mile stretch of the new system construction costs were estimated at somewhat over $20 million per mile. The project is currently mired in controversy over whether the very high costs can be justified by projected ridership and its future is uncertain.

In the past both light-rail and heavy-rail systems have been built on a radial plan to carry suburban workers to downtown jobs. With the increasing decentralization of employment, there has been discussion of building circumferential light rail to carry workers from suburban residences to jobs in suburban subcenters, but as yet there has been little action in this regard. The high cost of construction and the formidable collection and distribution problems noted earlier would make this type of system extremely expensive.

In this writer's view, the future of public transportation probably lies much more with buses than with light rail. The capital costs are generally much lower, and routings can be changed to accommodate changes in the pattern of residential and commercial growth. However, it must be admitted that if a major purpose of the line is to spur either commercial or residential development in the area, the very inflexibility of light rail may be an advantage. When the potential investor sees tracks being put down, he or she knows the line will be there for the foreseeable future.

A relatively recent compromise between light rail and buses is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).14 The bus operates on its own right-of-way, generally with longer spacing, say, a half-mile to a mile between stops, than does an ordinary bus. The stop resembles a railroad stop more than a conventional bus-stop, particularly in that it has boarding from a platform at the same level as the bus floor, rather than the usual step-up from street level with an ordinary bus. This considerably shortens loading times. In some cases the system may be set up to automatically shift traffic lights to green (signal priority) as the bus approaches intersections. In some cases there is a buses- only lane. Capital costs are higher than with conventional bus systems but lower than with light rail. The system has greater flexibility in that the bus can also run on ordinary streets and those routes can be readily adjusted.

BRT systems generally provide travel speeds intermediate between traditional bus and commuter or light rail. For example, Cleveland's Health Line (so named because one end of the line is at the Cleveland Clinic medical complex) does the 9.4-mile trip in 34 minutes, or at 16.6 mph. The conventional bus line it replaced took 46 minutes at about 12.2 mph. The line, which now carries about 375,000 passengers per month, is clearly a success and shows that BRT can, with sufficient time and effort, be retrofitted into an existing urban pattern. In Everret, Washington, a BRT system averages about 22 mph over a 17-mile route. It uses a combination of transit-only and signal priority lanes.

As is the case with light rail, BRT can serve as the spine for transit- oriented development (TOD) discussed in Chapter 10. The overall design of the node places a residential population of several thousand as well as a mix of commercial uses in a pedestrian-friendly street pattern within walking distance, say a quarter of a mile around the stop.

Marketing seems to be a key item in implementing a BRT system. Bus transportation, perhaps because it has generally been associated with poorer customers, has less prestige than rail. Thus BRT developers will try to make the system as distinct from a traditional bus service as possible. This may be done by making their vehicles look as different as possible, by referring to them by another name, say, rapid transit vehicles (RTVs) rather than as buses, by providing distinctive-looking bus shelters, and even using a horn that sounds like a locomotive horn rather than a bus horn. Some of that may sound silly or trivial, but experience indicates that image has a significant effect on ridership.

As promising as it seems, BRT is still in its infancy. As of 2010 it accounted for only one-tenth of 1 percent of all bus travel.

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