Friday, June 15, 2012

BRT or streetcar? The choice is about more than just the transit system

There's a lot of debate in transit circles about whether to invest in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or modern streetcars. For high-capacity systems in big cities, BRT costs less to install, but streetcars cost less to operate (the longer trains carry more people per driver and the drivers are 75% of the operating cost). As a result, so far BRT has been more popular in the developing world, where capital is scarce and labor is cheap; wealthier industrialized countries with union wages have preferred the higher up-front costs of a rail system that saves money over the long run.

Bus Rapid Transit in Bogotá, Colombia and modern streetcar in Strasbourg, France.

But the choice is not just between two different transit systems.

Buses and streetcars have very different impacts on the streets in which they operate. Our choice has profound implications for the character of the street--for how attractive it is to people to shop or go out to dinner there, to invest in property or start a business or raise a family there. 

There's a big difference between a line of diesel buses and a long electric streetcar. 

I'm excited that the city of Chicago is investing in upgrading to faster bus service on Western and Ashland: buses that are now stuck in car traffic are going to get a lane of their own. Someday maybe they’ll upgrade further to the "gold standard" of Bus Rapid Transit by investing (a lot) in special buses with multiple doors, raised curbs for level boarding, and big stations for pre-payment. Maybe someday they’ll even spring for hybrid electric buses, which cost three times as much but don’t foul the air as badly as the old-fashioned diesel buses we’ve got today.

The Bus Rapid Transit "gold standard," and what it looks like when it really works.

I hope this really works and a lot of people switch from driving and taxis to riding the bus. If it does really work, this could evolve into a pretty high capacity transit system. If it really works, those buses will be lined up end to end like in Curitiba or Bogotá or Brisbane. That’s fine with me, because I’m not planning on strolling around to shop on Western Avenue, or riding my bike there, or having dinner there at a sidewalk café.

I can’t imagine ever doing any of those things next to a line of buses.

When we upgrade to a high-capacity transit system on the shopping street in my neighborhood, I hope we go with electric streetcars: clean, quiet, and safe.

Good place for BRT.

Good place for streetcars.

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