Update on Light Rail Alternative

Yesterday I posted on a new bus system Phoenix is implementing but that appears to cost 30x less than the light rail system we just built.  I wrote Randal O'Toole of Cato, also known as "the AntiPlanner," to see what he knew about this system.  Here is what he was wrote back"

Yes, I've written about it a lot. The best system is in Kansas City, where they didn't feel they had to spend $750,000 to make a $300,000 bus look futuristic.

Take a look at my blog, http://ti.org/antiplanner and search for "bus rapid transit" to see some articles on better bus service. Here is the article about Kansas City BRT: http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=102

Here is an article about Eugene's bus-rapid transit, which was a stupid waste of money: http://ti.org/antiplanner/?p=21

The only thing good about it is that it didn't waste as much money as light rail. But that's like saying you'd rather be stabbed in the heart with a three-inch knife than a six-inch one.

The Eugene mess he refers to has the city building a dedicated bus lane, something Phoenix fortunately is not considering, opting for a traffic light transponder approach rather than dedicated lanes to try to hold schedules.  Here is a snippet of what he wrote about Kansas City:

In 2005, Kansas City did a wonderful thing: It started a bus-rapid transit system the way bus-rapid transit ought to be done. The transit agency didn't spend hundreds of millions of dollars building exclusive bus lanes. It didn't buy million-dollar buses just to have a semi-futuristic look.

Instead, it simply began running buses on existing streets on rail schedules. That is, the buses stop only once per mile and the operate three to four times every hour from 4:20 am to 11:20 pm. The greater frequencies and faster buses increased ridership by 25 to 30 percent (see page 11), and most of these new riders were new to transit.

The city built inexpensive but easily identifiable transit stops for the route. The buses were regular buses but were "branded," that is, painted in an easily recognizable style. In short, Kansas City achieved the kind of ridership increases that light rail would achieve for a tiny fraction of the cost.

In other words, the basic idea makes great sense, but spending a million bucks a bus (as Phoenix plans) just to make the bus look like a train is crazy.

All true, but I might be willing to give in on the more expensive busses if thats what it takes to kill this crazy infatuation with steel rails.   In the Phoenix Mesa Link example, they are probably spending $4.5 million too much for the train-like busses, but if that gives public officials the ability to walk past the light rail buffet and save the $800 million extra rail would have cost, I might consider that a good investment.


  1. Max:

    Obviously, this is something new in the US of A, so I give my 2 cents from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In Germany, it is business as usual, that many bus systems have transponders to switch traffic lights (as have most trams). It is the cities idea of "government assets first". I disagree essentially with the idea, but it is not the worst thing.

    Special lanes for busses are also no big news for anyone who has been to Lyon. It is especially aggrivating in European cities, because their streets tend to be narrower, meaning that the bus lane changes a street into a one-way lane and creates bottlenecks, where you really don't want one...
    All in all it slows traffic down and while I can understand the bus lines at night weekends or at rush hour times, because they are really filled than, they make no sense when they run on empty.

    Though, they are still better than tram and light rail services.

  2. Fred Z:

    When I travel to PV or Mazatlan in Mexico I ride buses that are cheap and plentiful. I think they are privately owned because each bus is a different color and heavily personalized by the driver.

    Am I correct that they are privately owned? Has any US city ever tried privately owned buses?

  3. Allen:

    If you've got the time, check out the Central Corridor in MPLS/STPL. They've pushed ahead with LRT even though the BRT alternative cost 3 1/2 times less up front, didn't cost any more to operate and they'd still carry a lot of riders (only @25% less). IIRC the Central Corridor was going to have dedicated bus lanes, fancy stops and even a tunnel at the U of Minnesota.

    The building up the bus service to that sort of thing is a lot more agile. It's not a waterfall approach, build everything up front, and assume it will work. You can beef the service up on the corridor via KC. Then as ridership grows, if it does, you can improve it. Add some bigger stops, some bigger buses, maybe throw in a special lane here or there. Less money spent on interest and more on actual service.