After a preliminary reading of the Greater Boston BRT Study Group 2015 Report on “bus rapid transit,” I have prepared the following comments on three of its assertions. They should raise several flags for long range transportation planners.
First - Capacity:
BRT is not capable of providing the level of capacity needed to increase transit ridership. Only rail can do so. It is misleading to affirm otherwise. A simple example taken from MBTA sources demonstrates the point. The Huntington Avenue Green Line service (the E-line) runs at 5-minute headways during rush hour. The line uses two-car trains with a total carrying capacity of 353 people per train. (MBTA Arborway Study, 1999) This means that during one-hour, the carrying capacity of the line is 4,236 people. If BRT were the transit mode along Huntington Avenue, a bus would have to arrive every 1¼ minutes to equal the carrying capacity of the Green Line. This is because each 60’ articulated bus has a maximum carrying capacity of only 88 passengers. (MBTA Arborway Study, 1999) If a BRT system running at 5-minute intervals were the operational mode on Huntington Avenue, the carrying capacity would total only 1,056 for BRT compared to the 4,236 rail.
|Vehicle Mode||One-Hour Capacity at|
Relate these facts to a BRT system to Lynn instead of a Blue Line extension or BRT to Hyde Park in place of an Orange Line extension and you can see an even more stark result. BRT capacity cannot compete with rail capacity.
Second - Cost:
While short term construction costs for BRT can be lower than light rail or streetcar, long term operational costs for BRT will be much higher. In planning for the future, operational costs are key. From the previous discussion consider the costs in terms of transit driver salaries. Two-car trains that can carry 4,236 riders at 5-minutes intervals over a 60-minute time period require paying 24 drivers. To attain the same capacity per hour using BRT would require running 48 buses and paying 48 drivers to operate them. That’s twice the annual salaries to achieve the same capacity as light rail. BRT would result in a significant increase in long-term costs for the MBTA.
Another operational cost factor is vehicle life. The US Department of Transportation estimates the average life-span of a bus is 12 years before a major overhaul or retirement of the bus is required. It estimates the average life-span of a rail vehicle to be 25 years. Roughly speaking this means that a BRT system would have to buy 2.1 buses for every 1 streetcar during a 25-year period. To give an example, the MBTA purchased 192 Neoplan buses in 2004/2005. These buses are now under contract for a major overhaul—after only 10 years. In 1986, the MBTA purchased 50 Type 7 streetcars. These cars are now under contract to be overhauled—after 29 years of service. In practice, therefore, the life span of a BRT bus is only about 1/3 that of a streetcar. For this reason, BRT operational costs are significantly higher in the long-run than might otherwise appear at first blush. BRT is no long-term bargain.
Third - Routing of Service:
The Study Group proposal promotes the idea that running BRT through downtown locations is advantageous. See, for example, the proposal to run BRT from Haymarket to Dudley. In the 1890s, Boston built a subway system because it learned that running transit vehicles in downtown traffic was a bad transit choice. Speaking to this specific issue, Vuchan Vuchic , the UPS Foundation Professor of Transportation Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, in a letter to Mass DEP in 2001, wrote:
Extending buses into downtown would represent a major deterioration of transit service: instead of offering reliable and fast travel in fully controlled tunnels, independent of street traffic, transit service would become strongly affected by, as well as a major contributor to street traffic congestion.This is a lesson Boston learned once; we should not have to relearn it.
During the last 10 to 15 years, many cities in the United States have decided to build or expand light rail and streetcar systems. BRT projects, which were the preferred choice of the Bush administration, have given way to the Obama administration’s conviction that the best investment for cities in the long run is light rail. Major light rail and streetcar projects are underway in Atlanta GA, Charlotte NC, Houston TX, Kansas City, Minneapolis MN, Phoenix AZ, Seattle WA, and Washington DC, to name a few. While there might be some short-term savings with BRT over light rail, there is no cheap solution for the long-term. Boston transit has lived hand to mouth for too long. BRT is not what it seems.
Finally, I noted that among those Study Group members invited to travel to Mexico City by the Barr Foundation, there was not one community activist who supports light rail while there was at least one traveler who is hostile to it. Neither Wig Zamore from Somerville, nor Bob Terrell from Roxbury, nor Michael Reiskind or Tobias Johnson from Jamaica Plain was included. I believe that their presence and insights would have raised the questions similar to what I raised above.
Franklyn P. Salimbene, Board Member
Arborway Committee for Public Transit, Inc.