Monday, April 16, 2012

The Rail vs. BRT Discussion Isn’t New; Cities Have Been Debating It for Years, and Honolulu Will, Too

Rail compares favorably to other travel modes in emissions output.
With two mayoral candidates supporting the Honolulu rail project and a third vowing to kill it and build a bus rapid transit system instead, Oahu residents are in for a debate on the merits of the two transportation modes, whether they like it not.

Everybody with access to a computer is a potential “researcher.” Cliff Slater’s website asserted yesterday that buses are more fuel efficient than trains. We can always count on the leader of the rail opposition to parse anti-rail information for maximum effect.

A few quick observations about Mr. Slater’s post that anyone could make: The average congestion-plagued commuter on Oahu is more concerned with traffic than fuel efficiency, which smoke-screens the obvious: Buses are part of the congestion problem.

By using existing roadways for any part of a trip, let alone a substantial part, buses both cause and suffer from ever-growing congestion. That’s the wart on BRT’s nose. Elevated rail will avoid that congestion completely.

Another thing: By looking backwards at the experience of rail systems that were built decades ago, Mr. Slater ignores entirely the more efficient operating characteristics of Honolulu’s brand-new Ansaldo trains. Like car efficiency improvements since 1970, rail transit efficiency has improved, too.

Rail vs. BRT
Mr. Slater is good at slicing and dicing statistics to make any number of anti-rail arguments, but as long as he’s brought up the BRT vs. rail issue, let’s examine a comparison that probably resonates louder for Oahu residents than fuel efficiency – pollution.

The Federal Transit Administration published Public Transportation’s Role in Responding to Climate Change two years ago and includes the graph reproduced at the top of today’s post.

The document’s main message was that private automobile pollution is much more than public transit vehicles, but there was more. According to the FTA report, all forms of rail transit – heavy, light, commuter – produce far less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than bus transit.

The New York Times’ Green blog on energy and the environment headlined a post three years ago Fast Buses vs. Light Rail: You Decide. The comments below the column are a kind of “crowd sourcing” that’s a good deal more “civilized” that what you read below the Star-Advertiser’s rail-related stories, and it’s full of insights Oahu residents by and large don’t have from personal experience.

Writing from a pro-rail perspective as we are, the comments look more pro-rail than pro-BRT. Here are a few of them:

“We need BOTH light rail and bus rapid transit. (Note: the City already operates bus routes that qualify as BRT.) It’s obvious from other cities that a system of only bus rapid transit can work, but even they are overburdened on certain corridors where subway and light rail could work better.” – KSK

“Besides the fact that BRT systems generally turn out not to be that rapid and can quickly run into capacity problems, not to mention energy efficiency, the big problem is that most transit riders will do whatever they can to avoid riding a bus…. (BRT) stops slow service down more than anything else. Buses have limited doors and hence large loading times. Rail systems have higher capacity as the vehicles can run in multiples or 2 or 3 and lower costs as only one driver is needed. – Mike B (Note: Honolulu rail’s trains will have no drivers.)

“Build (rail) and they will come. Maybe a lot of families could use it to commute in to work and instead of having two cars, just have one to share when they need to get around the suburbs.” – Arivera (Note: The American Public Transit Association says Honolulu two-car families who do that can save $11,573 annually at current costs.)

“…a well designed BRT system can be effective, but too often the expensive features needed to make BRT work are dropped or poorly implemented, resulting in just another bus line. With light rail, you always get the quality transportation you paid for.” – Arnold Reinhold

“What are the comparisons in vehicle maintenance timeframe and costs between the two per mile traveled? What are the comparisons in fuel usage and costs between the two types of systems per mile/person carried? What are the comparisons in longevity and maintenance of bus lanes vs. light rail track? My initial guess is that light rail is significantly lower in real costs in all these categories, making up any initial savings quickly.” – Michael Mills

That’s the kind of insight you find among people who’ve been living with and experiencing both rail and bus travel over the years. Yes, some of those who commented had good things to say about BRT, especially on the cost issue.

Here on space-constricted Oahu, however, congestion has grown to truly maddening levels on one of the most congested road networks in the country. Ask the average commuter what he or she thinks, you’ll likely hear that avoiding congestion with rail is a higher priority than building a cheaper but far less-effective BRT system.


Anonymous said...

Slater's claim to The Bus being more efficient than rail is based on his extrapolation of energy per pax mile consumed by The Bus using known ridership numbers which for Honolulu is way above average. Then he compares this figure to an average on rail to make his claim. The usual apples to oranges comparison because if we use the known ridership numbers on The Bus, we can safely use at least the same ridership levels for our rail to extrapolate the energy per pax mile on our rail and no doubt will that show up being much better than the rail average as well.

Doug Carlson said...

Thanks for making that excellent point, Anonymous. Drop on in anytime!