Friday, September 11, 2009

The BRU Model

The Bus Riders' Union released a report in April about "The BRU Model" of transit- their argument that bus service benefits riders more than rail service. Somehow it made it on to the Metro Librarian's blog today. Now, let me first state that, while they're undoubtedly valuable and tenacious allies, and their victory on Metro's Consent Decree was nothing short of monumental, the BRU annoys me. The idea that building rail corridors and articulated buses is racist is an exaggeration at best. I got to reading their report, though, and something immediately jumped out at me.

This isn't the BRU Model. It's the Toronto Model.

The Toronto Transit Commission runs a system of three subway lines, one elevated rail line, 11 streetcars (in the traditional sense, like Muni's Metro) and 160 bus lines. Now, I've never ridden the TTC (never been to Toronto, but if somebody wants to buy me a ticket...), but I've seen several reports on Canadian transit from the late 80's and early 90's that cite it as an excellent example of a properly-run grid system. On most major lines, headways are no more than 10 minutes, allowing riders to transfer between these lines easily. When ridership warrants, lines are converted to rail. The whole system is designed to run with frequent headways to minimize transfer time and provide convenient travel options for riders. This is what the BRU proposes for Los Angeles- bus routes be re-programmed to run frequently
This is a great model to use, if you want to build a grid transit system like Metro and TTC have constructed (as have Muni and OCTA, by the way- Muni does it well)*. However, it's the rest of the report that brings up that typical BRU-annoying-me feeling. They point out the cost of rail infrastructure (quoting, BTW, $150m/mile for surface LRT, a very highball estimate- but, to be fair, I quoted a pretty lowball estimate in my Magnolia Streetcar post), but they fail to point out the considerable cost of bus infrastructure. Once a rail line is constructed, the operating costs of that line drop dramatically. Buses need gassed up every morning, and typically wear out much faster than a rail vehicle. The lifetime of a transit bus is on the order of a decade (according to FTA), while Metrolink runs cars that have seen over 30 years of use (Comet cars, originally from NJ Transit, now owned by Utah's FrontRunner) every single day and sees few problems. New York's subway also runs many aged trains, the oldest being the R42 series built in late 1969-early 1970.

This bus-rail duality is, however, unnecessary. Both modes have advantages- buses can cast a wide net, bringing passengers from every corner of the city to nearly every other corner, while rail has the advantage of separate right-of-way, low operating costs and a factor of prestige that encourages dense development. The BRU proposes that transportation funding be shifted from the current balance- 80/20 in favour of roads- to one that favours transit by the same amount. Assuming that we would not see a commensurate reduction in overall transportation funding, the amount of money available for transit projects in this scenario would not call for inter-modal rivalry. As I already pointed out, the cost of one small widening project in San Bernardino is nearly 10 times RTA's annual budget- that's capital and operations. If a substantial portion of highway funding were to be dumped into public transit, we would not need to choose between rail and buses- we could have both, every 10 minutes, everywhere. And probably for free.

(UPDATE: I've now actually been to Toronto, and it really does work exactly like this. Quick transfers between routes running along every major street.)

*(In case you were wondering, RTA's system is not a grid system. It's a hub-and-spoke system, and there is a Canadian model for that, too- it's the Vancouver model. I've actually ridden on Vancouver's TransLink, and perhaps I'll discuss it soon. Omnitrans in the East Valley is also a hub-and-spoke system... Omni in the West Valley, I think, tries to be both and succeeds at neither.)

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