Bus and Rail Mantras

Bus is cheaper than rail. Paint is cheap. Rail only made sense a hundred years ago when construction costs were lower. Trains have no inherent advantage over buses. It doesn’t cost more to operate a bus than to operate a train. All of those are true in specific sets of circumstances, and Curitiba and Bogota deserve a lot of credit for recognizing that in their case they were true and opting for a good BRT system. Unfortunately, the notion that buses are always cheaper than trains has turned into a mantra that’s applied even far from the original circumstance of BRT.

The advantage of buses is that dedicating lanes to them and installing signal priority are financially cheap, if politically difficult in the face of opposition from drivers. Even physically separating those lanes is essentially cost-free. This advantage disappears completely when it comes to installing new lanes, or paving an existing right-of-way. Hartford is paving over an abandoned railroad at a cost of $37 million per km.

Not to be outdone, New York’s own MTA just proposed to pave about 8.5 km of the Staten Island Railway’s North Shore Branch for $371 million. A light rail alternative was jettisoned because the MTA insisted on continuing the line to the West Shore Plaza, along what is possibly the least developed road in the city.

Another, related mantra is that light rail is cheaper than heavy rail. This contributed to the MTA’s decision not to pursue a Staten Island Railway-compatible solution, which would allow lower capital costs and cheaper maintenance since trains could be maintained together with the existing fleet without modifying the existing yard. As with all mantras, this one has a kernel of truth: it’s much cheaper to build on-street light rail than elevated rail or a subway. As with the BRT mantra, this is not true when the discussion is about what to do in an existing right-of-way.

Worse, because the MTA believed its own hype, it completely missed the point of surface transit. People who believe these mantras about bus, light rail, and heavy rail can easily miss the advantage of on-street running wherever the streets are more central than the railroad rights-of-way. The North Shore Branch hugs the shore for much of the way, halving station radius. The most developed corridor is Forest Avenue, hosting the S48, the third busiest bus in the borough and the busiest in the same area and orientation as the line in question. (The busiest in the borough, the S53, crosses the bridge to connect the North Shore to the subway in Brooklyn.) Of the three other east-west routes in the North Shore, the one that the North Shore Branch parallels the most closely, the S40, has the lowest ridership. It would be both vastly cheaper and better for bus riders to have dedicated bus lanes on Forest, or possibly Castleton, which hosts the S46.

In cities that did not develop around mainline rail corridors but rather around major streets, the only reason to use mainline rail corridors for urban transit is that reactivating them for rail can be done at much lower cost than building on-street light rail. New York is for historical reasons such a city: Staten Island development follows Forest and Castleton rather than the North Shore Branch, and for similar reasons Park Avenue in Manhattan and the Bronx is a relatively unimportant commercial corridor.

Now, these mainline corridors have great use for regional transit. Queens Boulevard can’t be easily used for train service to Long Island, and Lexington Avenue can’t be easily used for train service to Westchester. Staten Island has great potential for regional transit – but only if it’s electrified rail going through a tunnel to Manhattan. It’s expensive, but it’s what it takes to be time-competitive with the ferry and with buses to the subway. A more competent agency than the MTA would keep planning and designing such high-cost, high-benefit projects, to be built in the future if funding materializes; such plans could also be used to concretely argue for more funding from the state and from Congress.

Instead, the MTA is spending more money than most light rail lines cost, to make such a mainline connection from the North Shore to Manhattan impossible in the future. The best scenario in such a situation is that the busway would have to be railstituted, for a few hundred million dollars – an embarrassing reminder of the busway folly, but still a much smaller sum than the cost of the tunnel. The worst scenario is that like on Los Angeles’s Orange Line, the need to keep buses operating during construction would make it impossible to replace them with trains.

There aren’t a lot of lose-lose (or win-win) situations with transportation, even if we ignore driver convenience, but this is one of them. It’s a fiscal disaster relative to predicted ridership and the operating costs of buses, it makes future transit expansion in the borough more difficult, and it follows a marginal route. All this is so that the MTA can say it’s finally making use of an abandoned right-of-way.


  1. Eric

    “Another, related mantra is that light rail is cheaper than heavy rail. … this is not true when the discussion is about what to do in an existing right-of-way.”

    Presumably by “light rail” you mean shorter trains, which do not require an entirely separated ROW due to traffic conflicts. If the ROW is not entirely separated, light rail is much cheaper because the ROW does not have to be (re)built. If the ROW is entirely separated, light rail is still cheaper unless passenger demand justifies longer trains at a high frequency (rarely the case in North America). The only case where heavy rail is cheaper than light rail is when an existing heavy rail route can be extended along an entirely separated ROW, and the complications of managing two different rail systems with a transfer point are avoided. In Staten Island, that particular case can only be achieved by building a new undersea tunnel, which may be worthwhile but is certainly not cheap.

    I agree with the rest of your post.

    • Alon Levy

      It’s not even a matter of train length – the MTA runs two-car subway trains on the Franklin Avenue Shuttle and three- to four-car trains on the 42nd Street Shuttle. The MTA simply didn’t consider running the same kind of cars on the North Shore Branch, at whatever length. The public documents don’t make this entirely clear, but most likely the light rail alternative was for regular LRVs.

      • Eric

        Heavy rail can accommodate short trains, if desired, but light rail cannot accommodate long trains. The typical train length (as well as the electrification method and platform height – anon256) are strongly linked to the type of ROW.

        • BruceMcF

          The length constraint for the dedicated-corridor type of trams often referred to in the US as “light rail” is to be platform length constraints rather than imposed by the corridor through which it runs. Trams operating in mixed traffic are, of course, thereby constrained in length, but that kind of tram system is normally called a “streetcar” in the US rather than “light rail”.

          • Eric

            Most US “light rail” systems have at least some street running or at-grade street crossing.

          • BruceMcF

            Many US heavy rail systems have some level crossings. Street running constrains the length of the cars, so limits them to the “light passenger load per vehicle” segment, level crossings do not necessarily do so.

    • Anon256

      By “light rail” I would interpret vehicles designed to permit street-running, typically with overhead electrification and low platforms. “Heavy rail” here means anything using subway rolling stock, regardless of train length.

      “The only case where heavy rail is cheaper than light rail is when an existing heavy rail route can be extended along an entirely separated ROW, and the complications of managing two different rail systems with a transfer point are avoided.” That is exactly the case in Staten Island; the existing Staten Island Railway could be expanded along the North Shore, sharing the same rolling stock and same terminal at St George.

      • BruceMcF

        “Light rail” is often taken to mean as distinct from “streetcars”, vehicles designed to permit street-running, but of course to confuse matters some may refer to “light rail” as a broad general category including both what is most often called light rail transit, as well as streetcars and rapid streetcars.

        I’m not sure in which sense Alon is using the term.

        • Alon Levy

          I’m using it in the sense the MTA is using it. The existing ROW is mostly grade-separated; the MTA’s light rail alternative would’ve run LRVs on the ROW and then cut to South Avenue to run to the Teleport and West Shore Plaza. It bundled a high-performing existing-ROW segment and a low-performing on-street segment.

          • BruceMcF

            So it would have had to be some form of rapid streetcar under the MTA proposal. Is it that it would not have needed to be a streetcar if it didn’t go to West Shore Plaza, or that it could have run on a more effective street alignment instead?

          • Alon Levy

            It’s the former. To get to West Shore Plaza by heavy rail is possible, but it has to be on an active freight alignment or on new ROW alongside South Avenue; both are possible, but not the best. However, there’s no real need to serve West Shore Plaza in the first place – it’s out of the way, there are more important malls in Staten Island to serve by transit, most bus service on the North Shore doesn’t serve it, and it’s literally the least developed corridor in the city.

          • Adirondacker12800

            …Rego Park was farmland 90 years ago.
            shit happens when you bring transit to an area.

          • Alon Levy

            90 years ago, Queens doubled its population each decade. Today, Staten Island’s increasing its population 10% per decade.

          • Adirondacker12800

            90 years ago someone who was interested in a newly built house in the green leafy suburbs could get something quite nice in Rego Park.

    • BruceMcF

      Light Rail is just US-speak for trams, and under US regulation normally require a rail right of way that is entirely separated from the heavy rail network. Trams that run mixed with traffic would be called streetcars, but even the trams not running in streetcar mode commonly referred to as “Light Rail” can be more easily placed in dedicated right of way along a road.

      How many individual “Light Rail” trams can be operated as a single train is typically dictated by platform length, not by corridor requirements, though if a system expected the patronage to justify very long platforms, it would normally be better build as a mass transit heavy rail system.

      It is “streetcar” trams that are more often limited in length in order to allow them to run mixed in traffic, though of course streetcars that operate in dedicated lanes on the street are able to offer more appealing trip speeds.

      • Matthew

        Even on dedicated ROW, LRV trains can’t be any longer than the minimum distance between grade crossings, if they are expected to obey normal traffic signals.

        This is why the “C” branch on Boston’s Green line doesn’t support 3-car trains.

        • Zmapper

          Or the train could block through traffic in adjacent intersections while unloading, which is what the Sacramento Light Rail does.

        • BruceMcF

          Although streetcars are normally expected to obey normal traffic signals, LRT is often not expected to do so, and relies instead on rail crossing gates.

          • Matthew

            Well in Boston, LRT is expected to obey normal traffic signals. It’s true that the whole “Light Rail” definition is kind of vague. We consider it a 70’s rebranding of streetcars and trolleys, e.g. the Boeing “LRV” debacle. But I’ve also seen it implemented with crossing gates (e.g. VTA) which I think is going overboard.

          • BruceMcF

            The 1970’s / 1980’s concept of light rail was very much a modernized notion of a streetcar ~ basically a 1970’s version of a modern tram. As I recall, it was often illustrated with pictures of a light rail train running through the countryside along a greenway light rail corridor.

            But as “light rail” lines have been developed, there seems to have been substantial feature creep and a lot of what they are calling “light rail” today something far more ambitious than that 1970’s concept of a light rail vehicle with capital and operating costs pared to the bone.

            Part of the dynamic is that while a rail vehicle that can run on the street is clearly a “light” form of rail vehicle, its clear that your talking about a street-running rail vehicles if you call it a streetcar if it is an all street-running alignment, or a rapid streetcar if it is a mix of street running and dedicated corridor. The bigger light rail vehicles that can’t run on the street doesn’t have any other name in the modern American lexicon, so they have to be called light rail. So there’s a tendency for lots of people to assume that “light rail” means, “as opposed to streetcars”, as well as, “as opposed to heavy rail”.

          • Matthew

            I suppose I tend to think of “light rail” as vehicles that are capable of having the braking characteristics of a bus, or better. So they can react dynamically and be driven without signals with sufficient visibility.

            Technically, you can have any rail vehicle be “street running.” Here in Boston they used to have freight trains under the Atlantic Avenue “el” in the “street.” I got to see an Amtrak train gliding through Jack London Square in Oakland last time I was there, not long after driving down the tracks myself.

          • BruceMcF

            The 1994 American Public Transport Association defined “Rail, Light” as “An electric railway with a ‘light volume’ traffic capacity compared to heavy rail. Light rail may use shared or exclusive rights-of-way, high or low platform loading and multi-car trains or single cars. Also know as a ‘streetcar’, ‘trolley car’, or ‘tramway’.” (p. 23)

            Click to access Transit_Glossary_1994.pdf

            They similarly define “rail, heavy” in terms of a ‘heavy volume’ of traffic.

            As far as running without signals, I’ve heard second hand that the old hands on the Melbourne Tram system told the new guys was, “just don’t hit the red lights of the tram in front of you.”

          • Alon Levy

            It’s unclear from the documents and the reports I’ve read what the MTA thought when it talked about light versus heavy rail. But some of the comments they made, e.g. about the Clifton Yard, suggest that the difference is about whether they’d run the same rolling stock that runs on the subway and SIR, or LRVs like those that run on the HBLR.

          • BruceMcF

            That makes sense ~ “a line with heavy rail vehicles” and “a line with light rail vehicles”. With crush capacity of 180+ per tram, if the HBLR vehicles can be coupled together and a long platform system was put in place, that could be a “heavy rail” system under the APTA definition, but it would still be made up of infrastructure designed for a “light rail” system, and visa versa if subway cars were used with platforms sized for two to four car trains.

      • Max Wyss

        FWIW, there are sometimes legal restrictions for “light rail” train lengths. Germany, for example, has the limit set to 75 m, IIRC. That translates to three single-articulated vehicles, about 25 m long.

  2. Zmapper

    One cost that is often ignored in these bus v rail debates is the cost of the depot. Buses can use existing depots that are reasonably close to the line, while a railroad has to have the depot right on the line.

    • BruceMcF

      If its a through running corridor, a depot right on the line at the “outer” end of the corridor is often easier to arrange than space in an existing bus depot already operating at capacity in a build up downtown area.

    • Alon Levy

      There already is a depot, in Clifton, on the existing SIR route. The LRT option would’ve modified it slightly to accommodate the new kind of vehicle.

    • mulad

      Sort of, but if you’ve got more than just a couple of deviations away from the main route, service slows down dramatically. In the Twin Cities region, we’ve got lots of suburban transit centers which are built adjacent to highways — they work alright as termini, but I get dizzy thinking about how some buses try and run through a series of them.

      A fairly egregious example right now is the Cedar Grove station for the Cedar Avenue BRT line (State Highway 77 is known as Cedar Avenue). It’s located half a mile from the nearest diamond interchange, so northbound buses add more than 1 mile of unnecessary distance to their trips and southbound buses add more than 1.5 miles due to backtracking. This station is only a couple of years old at the moment, and is in an intermediate stage of development (it’ll get some on-highway platforms eventually), but shows how a stop that looks like it’s close can actually be pretty far away.

      • BruceMcF

        Yes, but if the bus is coming from or going to the depot, then its either at the beginning or the end of its route. There’s no need to place the depot where you place the stops.

  3. Nikko P

    I don’t understand how BRT on the Orange Line in LA necessarily precludes LRT later on. Could you explain your line of reasoning?

    Also, would you argue that the cost of constructing LA’s green line as a heavy rail line would be roughly the same as its current LRT configuration because of its complete grade seperation?

    • Anon256

      LA’s Green Line is a heavy rail line for all intents and purposes. The cost would have been about the same if they’d used third rail electrification and subway-style “heavy rail” rolling stock instead. That said, it’s fortunate that it was built to be compatible with light rail vehicles as it will be connected to the partially street-running Crenshaw light rail line in the future.

  4. Nathanael

    I have to agree that this proposal from the MTA is asinine.

    They had multiple alternatives, all of which were extensions of existing lines. Extend SIRT along the North Shore. Extend HBLR across the Bayonne Bridge and along the North Shore.

    Or they could build on-street bus lanes using paint.

    Instead, they propose to spend as much money as it takes to restore rail, in order to provide substantially worse service for a generation.

    I think this is asphalt fetishism. It can’t last; peak oil will take care of it sooner rather than later. In the meantime, we have to kill these proposals dead before they waste hundreds of millions on them.

    • Anon256

      More than asphalt fetishism, I’d attribute it to a desire to spend as much on construction as possible (thereby providing as many jobs and as much political patronage as possible, and bringing in as many FTA capital dollars as possible). They eliminated both of the sensible alternatives you mention very early on, insisting that both the busway and “light rail” alternatives include a mixed-traffic western line to nowhere to inflate capital costs as much as possible.

      Don’t be too complacent about peak oil vindicating the need for well-engineered transit. It might greatly increase the cost of bus and car transport, but New York has already demonstrated willingness to pay for vastly overpriced infrastructure, and find ways to run up the cost of rail to match. On the other hand technological advances might mean peak oil doesn’t make much difference, and this proposal would be only slightly improved by battery-electric buses.

      • BruceMcF

        Whether or not it undermines asphalt fetishism as a general habit of though, since asphalt itself is a petroleum product, it could undermine the fetishism of asphalt in particular. However, given a US public policy suicidally willing to aggressively pursue the refining of Canadian tar sands in our move toward scraping the bottom of the petroleum bucket in terms of lowest EROI with highest GHG impacts, the asphalt cut might actually rise over the next decade, moderating the increase in asphalt prices.

        • Nathanael

          I thought what you thought, but I was surprised to find that asphalt prices were already going up. It turns out asphalt is now competing with fuels — what used to go for asphalt is apparently being reprocessed into other oils — and that’s going to drive asphalt prices up FAST and HARD.

          In ten years, I predict most paving will be with concrete or brick. Hell, they might go ahead and build concrete busways anyway, but the asphalt fetishism will die.

          • BruceMcF

            If they are paving in concrete and brick, they may as well pave in pavers that sit over light rail tracks. Though we cycle commuters will miss asphalt when its gone: I’ve cycled on brick cobblestone, on concrete streets, and on crushed limestone, and while the crush limestone is not as fast as the concrete, its a nicer ride and better traction than cobblestones in the wet. Concrete streets seem to get battered as badly as asphalt when heavy trucks drive over them, but instead of potholes you get these long cracks that can grab your tire and send you into facing traffic if you are not watching out.

  5. kantor (@kantor57)

    As an European it always amazes me that a country of great technological sophistication like the U.S. of A., may revert to such a medieval way of thinking. I mean, BRTs is an outdated technology, suited only for third world countries with low labor cost; whenever tried outside those countries is either an unmitigated disaster or else in the process of being railstituted.
    The only exception I know is the one in that little dutch town whose name escapes me; but first the dutch can pull almost anything, given the terrain and their transit culture, and second that system was built together with the settlement, which makes a lot of difference.
    In Europe we do not have generally BRTs bur, more cheaply, bus lanes; and that is the real cheap alternative but implies something that is really unfathomable in the states, i.e. subtracting space to cars.
    But apparently Americans are in total love with infrastructure and this love is getting them down a big hole. The argument is simple: if you think it is worth spending a lot of money in a transit infrastructure, than you should expect a substantial ridership. And if you expect such a ridership then it makes way more sense building something on rails (call it any way you want) just like any other nation in the world does.
    If the expected ridership is not great, then there is no need for a BRT; just paint a couple of lanes with a different color and spend some money in synchronizing the red lights. But paving over a rail ROW to make a busway is probably the stupidest thing one can do; and the most useless too.

      • kantor (@kantor57)

        yeah, thanks…
        the Almere system is the only “real” BRT I know in Europe (and Jarrett at Human Transit is drooling all over it :)); it works fine I suppose, as long as Almere remains a small town and the cost of repaving the corridor every couple of years does not get too high (which will happen eventually). But the dutch are practical people; I bet that Almere will have a streetcar system within ten years.

        PS. There are some “guided” bus lanes in England (thanks to Maggie Thatcher and her right wing craziness I suppose) but they are simply laughable.

    • BruceMcF

      Painting lanes different colors? That’s BRT! Its just not the kind of BRT that best serves the interests that are driving a mode-warrior version of BRT in the first place.

      You’re looking at this all wrong. Once you grasp that the purpose of transportation demand is to generate demand for oil and demand for road construction, it all makes much more sense. Then at the lower levels of density ~ where a painted-lane BRT corridor to allow outlying routes to run together and run through faster than automobile traffic ~ at those levels of density BRT is BAD. That kind of BRT would threaten to reduce consumption of gasoline and to reduce the need for new road construction.

      However, at higher levels of density where there’s no helping having buses running through the area at more than nuisance levels ~ and density levels at which a transport-service perspective would say that its time to decide which type of rail systems meet the needs of which kinds of passengers ~ why there, getting the buses off the road entirely, while at the same time occupying a corridor which could otherwise be used for a light or heavy rail corridor is good for oil demand and good for demand for road construction, because it maintains the greatest possible number of people in their cars.

      The best BRT could well consist of taking streetcars that plod along running mixed with traffic (which are all the fashion), and painting THEIR lanes, banning the cars and only allowing Express buses to use the lanes. If the streetcars are the ultra-low floor variety, the streetcar platforms can provide the BRT service with as close to level boarding as you can expect from a bus (not as good as the streetcar will do, but better than a regular bus). Running outside of the streetcar corridor, the buses would be an advertisement for how much better it would be if the streetcar corridor was extended in that direction.

    • Matthew

      You’re right that we’re stuck in a backwards world when it comes to transit.

      The one thing I would like to say in favor of bus lanes is that they have the option of being “open” in other words: buses can leave the lanes to “normal” streets or enter the lanes from “normal” streets, and therefore branch out into less busy areas without requiring a transfer.

      I don’t really find that to be terribly compelling, but it is a legitimate argument.

      • BruceMcF

        That works equally well for the buses whether or not there is a track in the pavement. So while it may be an argument in favor of bus lanes, its not an argument regarding bus lanes vs streetcar lanes.

        If financing was line up so that cost to own was more critical than cost to buy, then if this corridor really urgently required the capacity to run buses through and then out into mixed traffic, it would be built as a paved light rail corridor sufficiently wide for the buses through. The extra cost up-front cost of making it a paved light rail corridor is easily cover by the savings down the track of not having to interfere with the busway while work proceeds to add the light rail to the corridor.

        • Matthew

          Oh, I was thinking of the choice between pure busway vs having rails at all. Pittsburgh was, I believe, the first city here to start paving old railroad ROWs as busways. They did preserve the tracks in one busway though, and use it for light rail as well.

          Another advantage of the busway is that it can be used by emergency road vehicles. I saw a few ambulances go by the last time I rode on one of their busways.

          • Nathanael

            Pittsburgh’s busways were a serious mistake and are probably going to have to be converted back to rail, if Pittsburgh ever has any money again.

          • Matthew

            I don’t know, they do take advantage of the “open” running quite a bit. But they may not even have a transit system shortly, the way things are going over there…

          • BruceMcF

            They are caught up in the “Federal government gives capital grants, not operating subsidies” dogma, with the Federal government ruling out the use of highway tolls for transit operating subsidies. With the Federal government the level that can deficit spend in the face of private wealth holders net saving and placing a depressionary drag on the economy, the no Federal operating subsidies dogma places a squeeze on states that have to run a pro-cyclical balanced budget, cutting spending in the face of depressionary conditions. The “no operating subsidies” is a workable dogma when the economy is at full employment or less, but in depressed conditions, the Federal government should to up transit operating budgets to make up for purely cyclical operating revenue shortfalls.

          • BruceMcF

            @Nathanial ~ a lightrail / busway upgrade would be less disruptive than simply abandoning the busway system. Or, if a Connie Mae financing system was in place, battery-trolleybuses.

          • Nathanael

            One of the problems is that Pittsburgh paved over a rail corridor which is likely to be needed for fast intercity rail to Philadelphia. They’re going to need to convert that back to rail sooner or later.

          • Nathanael

            I’ll be more specific about Pittsburgh.
            (1) The West Busway is just fine.
            (2) The South Busway is essentially redundant with the light rail.
            (3) The East Busway is the one which is sitting on the intercity rail passenger tracks and needs to be removed.

        • Alon Levy

          It depends on what kind of ROW this is. If it’s on-street light rail, then it’s easy to let buses and emergency vehicles to use it. If it’s a legacy rail ROW then it’s another matter, but this raises the question of why you’re spending all this money on paving a corridor for buses when the buses could just as well use a parallel street. In Staten Island’s case, it’d be Forest or Castleton for buses and then the ROW for rail.

          • BruceMcF

            “If it’s a legacy rail ROW then it’s another matter, but this raises the question of why you’re spending all this money on paving a corridor for buses when the buses could just as well use a parallel street.”

            As to why, see further above: just as the express rationale for a cycleway that makes cycling more dangerous than cycling in mixed traffic does not hold together, but the actual safety of the cyclist doesn’t matter when the actual rationale is to get the cyclists out of the way of motorists unused to fulfilling their obligation to share the public right of way …

            … if the express rationale of the busway does not hold together, it could be that the actual rationale is to get the damn buses away from bothering motorists.

            On the busway in question, not only is the “if” intentional ~ the implication that the following is to verified, not taken for granted ~ but so is the subjunctive phrasing: “IF this corridor really urgently required the capacity to run buses through and then out into mixed traffic …”

            The rationale for using a particular rail corridor would be the same as the rationale for using a particular boulevard: because it makes for an effective and appealing express route.

          • Alon Levy

            I doubt the rationale is anything except “Here’s an ROW, let’s use it for something!” They’re not planning on changing the buses that go east-west on the North Shore today, because those buses serve different alignments. It wasn’t even about getting buses out of drivers’ way: in local planning meetings, residents expressed a desire for rail on the ROW, not for buses.

  6. Zmapper

    To me, with all the problems transit has in the US outside, separate ROW is overrated. Just yesterday, the federal government signed an agreement with my city, Fort Collins, to construct a new busway one block west of the main street. That sounds fine, until you realize that service stops running at 7 pm and doesn’t run at all on Sundays! Most routes in the system are hourly, and the system overall has been close to zero-growth since 2000, even though the population has increased by at least 20,000 people.

    Why couldn’t they just use the money to run more buses? Surely taking the existing 20 minute headway 1-College and running it every 10 minutes and until Midnight would provide most of the benefit without much cost.

    The problem lies in how projects are funded in the US; capital costs are payed for 80% by the federal government, while cities are on their own to cover operating costs. Now, if someones goal is to grow the Federal government then they might support having the feds cover operating costs as well. But in reality, the Federal government is broke, and all that does is create yet another bureaucracy with more red tape and forms to fill.

    I see the 18.4 cent gas tax we are sending up to Washington, and wonder why the hell Washington has to even get involved at all! We send our tax up to them, they spend it on other things, and then we have to fight based on how many favored politicians we elect just to get back a few pennies. Not only do we get back pennies of what we put in, it comes back with plenty of red tape and bureaucratic nonsense.

    In Canada, the Federal Government stays out of transportation for the most part. There is no country-wide gas tax, because transportation is left to the provinces and cities. What they have to show for it is a 10% NATIONWIDE transit modal share, decent transit in smaller cities, frequent transit to every part of the larger Metropolitan areas, and overall financial resiliency. What bus routes where you live run every 3 minutes at 3pm, let alone 3 am! You don’t get such amazingly good service by spending all your money pouring concrete, you get it by giving your customers what they want, which is service.

    Many cities and transit agencies think that good service means that a separate bus way must be involved, that a 20 minute light rail service in a private ROW is preferable to a 5 minute bus service in mixed traffic. When the federal government is willing to pay for you to build a shiny light rail when in reality all you need is more buses, this is how you end up with projects like the San Jose light rail. In their case, demand only exists for a one-car train every 30 minutes off peak. Such misuse of scarce resources is a product of a broken transportation funding system.

    • Nathanael

      In Ithaca, we don’t need separate busways, and we don’t even need more buses, what we need is vehicles which have the acceleration and power necessary to go up the hills at full speed, rather than at a crawl.

      In other words, we need electric trolleybuses or trams. Nobody’s noticed this yet.

  7. BBnet3000

    Technology should never be applied based on a mantra. It should be evaluated on a case by case basis, including compatability with what transit is already in place (such as the advantage of using SIR or SIR-like trains).

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