There are many reasons why Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is appealing. However, the reasons for embracing Light Rail Transit (LRT) might be more compelling.
In “The New Transit Town: Best Practices in Transit-Oriented Development,” Hank Dittmar and Shelley Poticha write:
“The evidence is quite clear that rail transit, all other things being equal, attracts more intense development and increases return on investment. Developers and employers can count on a rail line to be there, and rail has a more positive image than bus. …An analysis by David Wohlwill of the Port Authority of Allegheny County [Pennsylvania] found that fifty-four development projects valued at $302 million had occurred along Pittsburgh’s four busways. The study…did not differentiate between development attracted by the transit line and development that would have occurred anyway. A similar study of the economic impact of the Dallas light-rail system found that ‘Between 1997 and 2001, the mean value of 47 office properties near [Dallas Area Rapid Transit] increased 24.7% compared with an increase of 11.5% for 121 properties not near the stations, giving the DART office buildings a 53% advantage.’”
You get what you pay for
For the money, compared to LRT, BRT for a given distance buys more. In the Phoenix metro area, for example, the 20-mile, 28-station Valley Metro Rail light rail starter system cost a grand total of $1.4 billion. A huge chunk of the money for that endeavor, or $587 million to be exact, came courtesy of Uncle Sam. Had that $1.4 billion been used to create a BRT corridor instead, for the same money, in all likelihood, a longer corridor would have resulted but, apparently, for Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe, light rail was the right mode at the right time at the right price.
For the Phoenix metro area, light rail transit has proven to be a good investment.
Since and even before the Valley Metro Rail system broke ground, as word began to spread of its planned installation, development along the then future corridor began to take root.
In the Dec. 24, ’06 “Light rail spurs rush of private development” article, Arizona Republic reporter Sean Holstege wrote: “Two years before the light rail system opens, private investors are starting to pump more than $1 billion into new developments near the rail stations.
“The investments promise to reshape key corners and neighborhoods along the 20-mile route, an infusion that is typical of light-rail systems but is occurring earlier in the Valley than in other cities.”
Holstege was 100 percent spot on. The system took three years to build and saw its first paying passengers on Dec. 27, ’08. Valley Metro Rail currently enjoys a ridership of approximately 35,000 daily.
Jennifer Steinhauer of the Sept. 19, ’09 New York Times:
“Since 2001, when the tax for the new rail line was approved, there has been about $5 billion in public and private investment – $3.5 billion of it private – around the site of the light rail, the city’s development agency spokesman said.
“In some part thanks to the new system, downtown Phoenix appears to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise economically pummeled city, which like the rest of Arizona has suffered under the crushing slide of the state’s economy,” wrote Steinhauer.
In reality, and as presented in “Light rail brings wave of downtown Phoenix development, many say: Are there implications for Fresno?” on dampfang.com on Sept. 21, ’09, “Phoenix’s downtown saw its revenues rise 13 percent in the first quarter of 2009 alone. This compares to a 16 percent revenue drop for the remainder of the city, according to information revealed by Steinhauer” in the New York Times.
Other LRT advantages
As ridership grows, extra light rail cars can be added to increase the lengths of the individual trains without having to add additional drivers, as would be required for each added bus. What’s more, headways – the time intervals between arrivals of trains at stations – can be shortened or made tighter to accommodate more passengers. In other words, instead of trains arriving every 10 minutes, for example, the time between arrivals can be shortened so that trains arrive say every seven minutes. To its credit, that same practice of shortening headways can also be applied to BRT systems. In either case, more vehicles are required.
Light rail has the distinct advantage over bus rapid transit with regard to its environmental friendliness. Electrically powered light rail trains are themselves environmentally benign, whereas non-electric buses powered by internal combustion engines that are dependent upon fossil fuels to make them go, once again, all things being equal, leave a greater carbon footprint than their rail-based counterparts. This isn’t to say that buses must be internal-combustion-engine-powered absolutely, but using electric buses with the infrastructure needed to carry the overhead electricity supply, can be significant in terms of the added cost to electrify such.