Thursday, July 31, 2014

Cato's recent hatchet job on LRT

So, the Cato Institute is at it again, this time with a "study" by noted anti-rail activist Randal O'Toole which claims that light rail is a waste of money and that a system of "rapid buses" would offer more speed and better service at a lower cost.

You can find the study here:

I feel a need to point out how wrong it is. So, here goes.

First, here is the schematic system he devised:
O'Toole's rapid bus system
So basically there are two freeways, one north-south, the other east-west. Buses with high frequency would travel along major arterials with one stop per half-mile, then join the freeway (where they have a bus lane) where they would continue without stopping up to the downtown area and drop off people there. I now it's without stopping because he clearly states that buses will travel 60 mph on average on the freeway, which is impossible if buses have to stop at each interchange.

If buses stopped at each interchange, as just stopping and accelerating back again to 60 mph would take a good minute or so, if there was an interchange every mile, the average speed would fall to 30 mph, even more once we account for the lack of stations on the freeway, which would mean bus drivers would have to exit the highway, drop off people, then go back on it.

In the downtown area, regular buses on major streets would distribute people in the CBD.

In comparing to a 4-line LRT, I'm guessing he takes the same city and just says the freeways are the LRTs, something a bit like this:
Supposed 4 LRT line system (could actually be 2 lines, but whatever)
So, now that we have established this, let's get started on his "mistakes".

Mistake 1: The LRT system serves less of the urban area

Wrong. The LRT offers BETTER service of the urban area than his "rapid bus" system. Though LRT are adjacent to less of the city than buses, the LRT system would still include feeder buses which would work the exact same way the buses work in his system, meaning half-mile stops on arterials, taking people to the LRT stations instead of following the freeway. So overall, just as much of the area is covered by the system, with buses filling the gaps. No rail proponent ever argues for dropping buses completely.

So why do I say it is actually better service on the LRT?

Well, let's say I am on point A and want to go to point B that is not in the CBD:

You have no choice but to do this trip: to take a bus into downtown, then another one in the other direction, which is a lot of wasted miles and time.
In an LRT system, as the LRT stops at stations along the way, you can simply get off at the closest station and walk or take a short bus trip to your destination. To illustrate visually what this means, let me show you the "transitshed" of point A, the areas that are acceptably close to point A in transit:
The green zone is the places that people on point A can easily reach, with a rail system

Now this is the same thing but with the "rapid bus system"
The reality is that the express bus system pushed by O'Toole ensures quick trips to the downtown area, but makes the rest of the city nearly unreachable without going through the downtown and making huge detours. This means that the CBD will be dense, but everywhere else will be sprawl because of poor transit access, meanwhile, dense TOD developments can spring up around all stations in the LRT system.

That's the big problem with expresses, they are fast, but not flexible at all. They take you one place only, and if you're not going there, too bad.

Mistake 2:A LRT system has less capacity than a bus system

O'Toole makes the claim that his bus system has a capacity of 140 000 passengers per hour, versus only 36 000 for a 4-line LRT system. This is a classic example of comparing a theoretical maximum (the 140 000 pphd number) for buses and a practical maximum for LRT.

It is true that on a freeway lane, buses' capacity can be sky-high, if buses don't have to stop, they can follow each other closely, get insane frequency of hundreds of buses per hour. However, there's a big if: IF THEY DO NOT STOP. Again, this is a weakness with express buses. The reality is that the capacity of the system is not really comparable, because the trunk isn't really serviced by any bus, but rather has many lines traveling on the same lane that have nothing to do with each other, each line having much lower capacity than the sum of the lines.
Each line here has a capacity of 10 000 pphd, together they would be 20 000 pphd, but the reality is that they don't connect, so the capacities cannot be added together
So in this case, if the blue line has a demand of 13 000 people and the red one of 7 000 people, in practice, the blue line would be significantly overcapacity, the red line would be under capacity. Only 17 000 people will go through in an hour. In practice, on such trunk lines, there will be full buses and half-empty buses.

Meanwhile, a rail line has a real capacity along the line, as every trip takes the same line, it really offers the nominal capacity. Some rail lines do reach their nominal capacity, even go above it. The way rapid rail transit works is much better at maximizing capacity utilization. Especially in off-peak times, a bus system will either have terrible frequencies or buses will be near empty, whereas a rail system can maintain decent frequency (below 10 minutes) with a decent amount of people per vehicle.

Furthermore, he presumed a capacity of 9 000 passengers per hour for LRT, which is not the true maximum capacity of LRT. Theoretically, an LRT line on a grade-separated right-of-way like freeway medians can have trains of 4 cars each with a capacity of 250 passengers at a frequency of 30 trains per hour. That is about 30 000 pphd capacity. Heavy rail lines can have even more, the Yamanote line in Tokyo carries more than 80 000 pphd.

So once we compare theoretical maximum with theoretical maximum, both systems offer the same capacity, more or less.

Mistake 3:The operating costs of the bus system would be less than that of the LRT system

That one is just plain insane. The reality is that rail has an insurmountable advantage in terms of operating cost versus buses for a very simple reason: 30 to 50% of the cost of running transit is sitting behind the steering wheel. So the more people a single driver can carry in his vehicle, the lower the operating costs will be.

Rail transit has a major advantage because as it is on guided railways, it can easily tie up many cars one behind the other and the cars themselves may be longer. All with little to no effect on the quality of the ride. Furthermore, train running also reduces wind drag and steel wheels on rails have less friction than rubber on asphalt or concrete, meaning that trains are more efficient in terms of energy. Of course, if you run empty trains, that advantage is negated, but for near-capacity running, there's not even any debate.

OK, caveat time. If a rail system uses short cars and doesn't put them in trains so it has no more capacity per vehicle than buses, then the operating costs may be higher because of the need to maintain the tracks (looking at you Toronto, the Bombardier Flexity cannot come too soon). Buses scrap roadways horribly, but generally the maintenance of roadways is shared with cars and not directly assumed by the transit operator.

Anyway, that's why OC Transpo in Ottawa spends 3,80$ per passenger to provide service, versus 3,10$ for the STM in Montréal, despite trips being longer in Montréal, and 3,01$ for Calgary Transit. OC Transpo relies on a BRT system with a lot of buses running alongside it, the STM has a subway system instead, Calgary has the C-train LRT.

And that's why Ottawa is converting its BRT into LRT, increasing capacity and lowering operating costs by tens of millions of dollars per year. Transit operators know that O'Toole's claim that buses have lower operating costs is bullshit.

Trains are also more reliable, for instance, the mean distance between breakdown of buses in Calgary Transit's fleet in 2012 is 7 200 km, for LRT cars, it's 72 100 km. They last longer, with an average lifespan of 30 years versus 10-15 for buses.

Mistake 4: ignoring qualitative service differences

Time after time, it is confirmed that people prefer rail's ride to buses. Rail is more comfortable and more pleasant to use, for two well-maintained systems, rail will give the impression of gliding along, while buses will still bounce around.

So even if the capacity is the same quantitatively, as rail-based systems are more likely to draw in more riders, the costs of the system will be spread among more riders and thus be lower than if both systems had the same ridership. And that's what defines an efficient system, the cost per passenger, not the total cost. 

Mistake 5: the issue of the bus terminal

At a capacity of 140 000 passengers per hour, it would mean nearly 1 200 articulated buses coming into downtown every hour during the peak and an equivalent number going out. In general, expresses tend to go to a few terminals. If all this traffic came into one terminal, assuming it may take 2 minutes to unload a bus, it would mean the terminal should have enough places to accommodate at least 40 buses at the same time, just on the arrival deck, even more on the departure side. Do you have any idea how big that would be? The Port Authority Bus terminal in New York has 225 000 passengers per day, which is probably a third of the capacity needed for the bus terminal for this proposal. From Google Maps, it looks like it takes about 10 acres of space, nearly two entire New York City blocks on its own.

Then, there is the issue of getting buses there on local streets, if that number of buses could fit into a free-flowing freeway lane, on a single urban street, that is much less sure.

Oh, you could split up the buses and have different lines ending at different terminals, which would reduce the effective frequency of service for users. The more lines you create with different destinations, the more you reduce the frequency of each line. For the average user, what's the point of having a bus pass every 20 seconds if only one in 10 minutes gets him where he wants to go? The other buses don't exist for him.

Furthermore, there is the problem of proximity. Very few places will be within walking distance of the bus terminus, and transit from it will take place on surface buses traveling at 8-10 mph, greatly limiting the effective range of transit. 

In Montréal, we have a similar rapid bus system on the Champlain bridge (which is supposed to be converted to  LRT one day, though the anti-rail lobby is mounting an offensive against it) and it's considered nearing capacity even though it carries only 20 000 people during the AM peak (all 3 hours of it). It takes people to a downtown bus terminal. But if there was just this bus terminal and that's it, it would be poorly used because it would take an eternity to get a bit further out of the downtown area in buses, as buses around there crawl at 8-12 km/h (5-8 mph) and have low capacity for every line. What allows this terminal to thrive is the subway system which allows all these people to reach their destinations quickly all over the city, at least to the areas connected to the subway, at speeds between 30 and 40 km/h (20 to 26 mph).

Such rapid bus trunks can be useful, but if it is supported by a tightly knit rapid transit system with great capacity and speed. If they are supported only by slow local buses, no matter how frequent, they have a much reduced potential and make only a small part of the downtown area transit-accessible.

I could probably go on, but I think I'm done with this. The point to remember is that the Cato Institute and Randal O'Toole are essentially professional liars for hire. They get paid to dress up in simili-logical reasons why we should all support the policies that make their donors much, much richer. They are not to be trusted.

Why central governments should intervene in zoning

Recently, both Charlie Gardner on Old Urbanist and Brandon Donnelly on Architect This City wrote about zoning and the role of central governments in it. In the United States, and largely in Canada too (except Ontario), zoning and planning is a very local affair, with cities being almost exclusively in charge of it. The basic idea seems to be: "the more local the decision-making, the better it is", even urbanist circles tend to like the idea of local communities being involved and taking charge of their development.

I've already given my interest in the Japanese model where the central government defines allowed zoning practices and described how local dynamics protect zoning changes, but I'd like to return to this point about why, according to democratic principles, central governments are justified to intervene in zoning and planning of cities or at least to establish clear guidelines to limit local control.

How central zoning and local zoning differ

In general, the more centralized the zoning, the more it allows density, development and redevelopment. The more localized it is, the less development it allows. 

Why is that? Because central governments tend to not be really reactive to local concerns but to take a wider point of view. So central governments tend to be more interested in developments that will help the economy and they touch a lot of issues, so local issues are less important for general elections, even if they may have impact in a few ridings or regions.

Local governments are much closer to people and are involved in few things, most power typically resides in central governments. So local elections tend to have few issues and to draw in fewer voters, which makes any issue able to galvanize a motivated minority extremely sensitive to local politicians. Even riling up a few dozen voters can result in an electoral loss. So local politicians walk on eggshells all the time and are extremely careful not to provoke local resentment.

Now, a lot of urbanists and other people hear that and say "Local politicians react better to local concerns? Great! We should decentralize as much as possible to allow communities more power on their own development!".

However, the greater disconnect of central governments isn't necessarily a bug, but a feature. Being responsive to specific demands tend to mean governing in an arbitrary fashion, which destabilizes society and spreads uncertainty. Central governments may be slow to react, but this isn't necessarily bad in all cases. Is it the rule of law if politicians change the laws to their liking every 6 months based on specific applications of it? Central governments are also much more likely to be willing to make the hard decision that is unpopular in the short term, but necessary for society in the long term. Not to say they often do it, but they still do it way more often than local governments.

There is a compromise here between local and central governing.

Local democracy or local tyranny?

Regarding the specific issue of zoning and planning new developments in built out areas, there is a further issue that, in my opinion, necessitates non-local intervention. 

Generally, proponents for local control of zoning and planning tend to explain that as the local community is most affected by developments, they should have their say on it. Fair enough, but are they the only ones affected by developments? No, they are not. The people who would be affected by them go far beyond the local community.

For instance, let's imagine a proposal to build high-density mutli-family apartments near a commercial zone in the middle of a low-density suburb, defined by lots of single-family housing. Now it's true that the coming of dense housing will affect local residents who will see the look of their neighborhood change, and their view may be affected (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse). But they're not the only ones who have some skin in the game. There are a lot of people outside that community who may be looking exactly for this type of housing, apartments near commercial zones, and exactly in that same area. If the development goes through, many people will benefit from them and hurry to buy these apartments, which may be more affordable or better suited to their needs. 

But there is a problem, these people who would benefit from the development aren't currently local residents because the area just doesn't offer them the type of housing that they can afford/desire. Based on the theory of local control of zoning and planning, they have no say in whether or not the development gets through. They are mere spectators with no one speaking up for them and their interests, except maybe the developer (who is not doing this for selfless reasons, but his interests coincide with his future clients').

Democracy is "one man, one vote", but here, all the people who would benefit from the proposal tend to be deprived of their vote because they happen not to live in the area, and the reason they don't live in the area is because the current form of it is not compatible to their needs... but it would be if allowed to develop.

Nice trick, eh? People need to be local residents to have a voice on whether the development gets through, but they can't become local residents unless the development gets through.

That is why I completely support central governments intervening in local issues of zoning and planning, to defend the interests of people who are not currently residing in the area but who are nonetheless impacted by the discussions taking place about a potential project. Giving the right of life and death to local residents alone is, in a way, tyranny of local interests over the interests of society as a whole.

Can't we get local residents to support developments instead?

Many people may agree with my assessment but not with my conclusion, and wish to preserve local control, simply to find ways to make local residents friendlier to developments. Unfortunately, I just don't think there is a plausible solution to that problem.

The issue is that local residents tend to have chosen to live in an area based on how it was back when they moved in. New developments that represent an evolution of the area and some change will rarely get much approval from them. Why would they? New developments tend to build housing and commercial projects for people who are different from them, so they often don't benefit directly from them. Compatible developments are fine, for instance, big box stores at highway interchanges in car-dependent suburbs are perfectly compatible with people's current way of life. But developments to bring in a more urban lifestyle and to offer denser residential areas don't tend to benefit directly to local residents in car-dependent areas.

For instance, if you build condos and people ask what they gain from it, you could say "Well, now you can buy a modern, affordable condo" and they'd reply "What do I care? I already own a house that is bigger and that I need for my family". If you want to build an urban-style main street, you could say "Now, you will be able to shop on your bike or on foot" and most of them would reply "What do I care? I already am able to fulfill all my shopping needs at the power center at a 5-10 minute drive from my house" (that is often shortsighted as they would benefit, but many do not see it at first).

So since local residents often don't benefit directly from more urban developments, they will split up in two groups:
  1. The NIMBY who oppose the development
  2. The people I'd call the WGAF (Who Gives A Fuck?) who don't care either way as they don't feel it affects them in any way
The NIMBY may be a minority, but they will speak up, often vehemently. The disinterested will just not voice their opinions. So the resultant noise will tend to be heavily against new developments, even if the majority would actually be fine with it happening.

You just cannot change that basic dynamic. To get local residents to support the project, you need to convince them that they stand to benefit directly from it. This is much harder than it sounds because, in many cases, they would only benefit by changing their lifestyle, and in other times they just don't really benefit from them at all.

One of the solutions that is sometimes proposed is to get developers to make concessions to local residents and essentially bribe them with goodies. For instance, having to pay to repair sewers and roads in other parts of the community, or building new parks or plazas for all to enjoy. Essentially, they're saying "okay, you don't benefit from the development, but we'll buy you other stuff with the money we get from it, so you'll benefit from it, we promise you".

Personally, I find such "compromise" really bad and even basically unjust. Why should new residents have to shoulder all the costs of providing for new public goods that all will benefit from? These costs will be reflected in the price of housing and make housing less affordable.

We could try to change mentalities and let people be more tolerant of changes and make contesting new developments harder. However, the usual way of changing mentalities to be more tolerant is... to make the NIMBY lose and break their spirit. When they organize, protest and speak loudly, and still lose, they get demotivated and are less likely to find the enthusiasm to organize another protest. And such losses can often only be dealt with central government support.

In conclusion

In order to balance the interests of the local community and the interests of larger society who are silenced when zoning and planning decisions are left to the local level, central governments of some kind should be involved in local planning. This may take many forms, but setting up guidelines from which local authorities cannot deviate that allows for some form of development seems to me the best and easiest way to seek a compromise.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Building housing alone won't necessarily reduce housing prices

The debate on housing affordability is a big one currently, and I've written a lot on it. There are essentially two sides from what I can see: those who believe that the only way to get house prices in urban neighborhoods down is to increase supply, ie build more units, and those who believe that supply has little to do with prices, that allowing more density might end up disturbing the community and destroy neighborhoods as they are, who instead favor rules to keep prices down through rent control and the like.

Much of the debate goes around supply and new constructions. One side says "build more", the other says "building more doesn't help".

Now, overall my sympathies are clearly with the first camp, supply is extremely relevant to prices. However, I think it's important to underline that just allowing new constructions will not be sufficient to lower prices. There is another factor that is just as important: the marginal cost of housing, how expensive is is to add new units.

First, an analogy, the price of oil

First, a simple analogy. Let's take oil and suppose there are two types of oil well available. One has oil that is easy to extract, the costs of doing so actually mean that you can sell the oil from it for 60$ a barrel for a reasonable profit, but the production of the well is limited to 10 000 barrels a day. The other source is actually oil sands, which are much more expensive to produce, to make a profit, you need to sell every barrel at 120$. This well also has a maximum output of 10 000 barrels a day. Now, in reality it is more complex than that, but I'm just illustrating an example.

Okay, so here is what the supply curve would look like:
Supply curve for the oil example
What this means is that below 60$ per barrel, no oil is going to be produced as it would not be profitable. There is no source of oil that could be tapped for such a low price. It's only when people start being willing to pay 60$ per barrel of oil that the first well will be tapped. Now, let's add a demand curve to the graph for an hypothetical demand level.
First case scenario
What this demand curve means is that if the price of oil was 0$, people would be willing to buy 12 000 barrels per day, if the price was 100$, no one would buy any. At 60$, people are willing to buy 5 000 of them. So if the equilibrium is reached, it would mean that the well owner would pump out 5 000 barrels a day and sell them at 60$ a day. If they pump out more, they won't be able to sell them, if they pump less, they will not sell as many as they could and would have shortages. Okay, if they were a monopoly, they could ostensibly do that, but let's presume perfect competition that precludes this idea.

Now let's say that, with time, demand increases, the demand curve moves up, and now, at 60$, people would actually use 13 000 barrels of oil, more than what the first well can provide.
Second case scenario
The problem is that the maximum amount of oil that can be produced for a price of 60$ is 10 000 barrels, and no more. You can increase production, but each barrel would require a price of 120$ to be profitable. So producing oil at that price would bankrupt people. The result is that the equilibrium will be reached at a price of about 90$, for a production of 10 000 barrels of oil. So as demand increases, so will prices, while supply will remain the same.

Once the amount of oil people will buy at 120$ exceeds 10 000 barrels, the second well will be tapped, and then supply will increase. But though supply increases, prices will not go down below 120$. If they threatened to, production at the second well would stop as it would no longer be profitable.
Third case scenario
Here, oil consumption will be 13 000 barrels per day, at 120$ per barrel.

Now, some hypotheticals....

What happens if some new technology allows the exploitation of the second well at lower prices, say 90$ per barrel?
Third case, hypothetical 1
So here, oil becomes cheaper and there is more of it consumed and produced. The amount of oil produced is increased from 13 000 to 17 000 and the price is lowered from 120$ to 90$.

What happens if, on the other hand, in order to reduce oil consumption there is a 30$ levy on all oil barrels produced? A levy that increases cost of oil by 30$, no matter from which well it comes from?
Third case, hypothetical 2
Here, oil becomes more expensive and there is less of it being produced and consumed. Just 10 000 barrels per day at 150$.

Finally, what happens if the environmental consequences of the second well's production are judged too damaging and the exploitation of the well is banned?
Third case, hypothetical 3
Well, here the supply of oil is capped at 10 000 barrels per day. Oil becomes rarer and more expensive, and as demand increases, it will just get more and more expensive all the time and just 10 000 barrels per day will be produced and consumed.

So, back to housing...

Housing works a bit the same way. Of course, the first rule of analogy is that no analogy is ever perfect, oil is oil, but a McMansion isn't a studio apartment. Yet, the lessons from the analogy holds I think.

Instead of oil, suppose that the previous graph was housing, the cheaper oil is like the greenfield developments: when there are plenty of vacant lots which are available to build low-rise wood-framed building. The maximum output of that well is the amount of such housing you can build before you run out of vacant lots to build them on. The second, more expensive well is infill development: tearing down low-density housing and building denser, taller housing instead, which is more expensive because you need to incorporate the cost of the previous housing in the cost of the new housing and the taller you build, in general the more expensive the building is per square foot.

Anyway, if you want to bring down housing prices, it doesn't suffice to allow more construction, you must make sure that this new construction is affordable to build. If the new units are too expensive to build, supply may still increase, but the price may not go down by much, if at all. Housing prices would simply be lower than they would be if you banned that development, but not cheaper overall.

Much of the time, no one is more hated than the developer, and people want to make him pay for daring to change the neighborhood. He will be made to jump through hoops, to make his case before committee after committee, eager to extract concessions out of him, in certain instances, neighborhoods and authorities will demand little less than bribes out of him: for instance, want to buy a condo tower there? Okay, but build us a public park on one part of your land. So the entire neighborhood has a park... paid for by the few people who will have bought one of the new condos.

In fact, this is often portrayed as a "compromise" between the two sides of the supply debates: we're going to allow some more supply, but we're going to control it and demand concessions in exchange.

All of these drive up the price of building new units and makes sure that the only units that developers can build for a profit are luxury units. To go back to the analogy, it's like you just put a huge tax on oil, making it more expensive to extract, the result would be less oil and more expensive oil... just like piling on development costs on new housing results in less housing and more expensive housing.

So if we are serious about housing affordability, I think what is required is:
-More "as-of right" density allowed
-Minimal revisions from planning offices and city planners and an expedited approval process
-Not imposing excessive taxes and charges to developers, only the minimum to pay for the development's direct cost to the community

The harder we make it to build new housing stock, the more expensive and high-end this housing is going to be. As a further consequence, since existing housing has to compete with new housing, the more expensive new housing is, the more expensive existing housing will get.

The case of imposed affordable housing

In certain cities, they have started to demand to developers to build affordable housing that will be most sold at under-market prices in new developments, essentially using the market-rate units' profits to subsidize certain units. That's the kind of idea that do add some cheaper units, but at the cost of creating an imbalance. Since the market-rate units are forced to include as a cost part of the cost of "affordable" units, it means that the cost of building units is even higher. It's not a solution in and of itself, because the higher cost of the market-rate housing will make it too expensive to build except for extremely high luxury units, of which fewer can be built because there is less demand for them.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Urban cycling: how to unlock untapped potential

Cycling is something many urbanists focus upon very much as a way to achieve more sustainable cities, for it has a lot of potential. Bicycles are a mode of transport between walking and cars, in terms of speed, cycling is 3-4 times faster than walking and only 30-50% slower than cars (on urban streets). It requires no fuel, using the strength of the rider to move. It can carry some cargo, like cars, but also necessitates parking spots, just much smaller ones. Finally, unlike transit, bikes are an individual mode of travel, able to do point-to-point travel.

Going just by their speed and travel times compared to cars, bikes ought to be able to take 25 to 50% of current car trips away from cars, at least for local trips (for instance, to the grocery). All that without increasing density or introducing mixed uses, just with cities and suburbs the way they are built now. A shopping mall built in the middle of a suburb with a standard density in residential neighborhoods of 3 000 people per square kilometer (7 500 people per square mile) could have up to 25 000 people living within 10-minute biking distance from it.

Considering all this, why is this great potential almost completely untapped in North America? I would go out on a limb and identify four main factors. Again, if people haven't read the headline, I don't claim to be an expert, I'm just basically thinking aloud here.

Lack of appropriate biking infrastructure

Sorry to the vehicular cycling fans, but vehicular cycling, as in making bikes share roads with cars, is just not for the masses. It may work individually, but not only are most people understandably not keen on it, but I don't think it could support a massive amount of cycling. Vehicular cycling work best when it's rare. Also, to be able to keep up with cars, it is important to be able to go at high speed, which doesn't work well with urban and utilitarian cycling.

Bikes can share the street with cars as long as traffic is low and vehicle speeds are slow, however, if vehicle speeds are high or traffic is heavy, in order to protect cyclists and to incite more people to bike, we need to protect cyclists from traffic so that people may feel safe biking at their own speed.

So all in all, it's important to build a strong biking network with bike lanes and bike paths. But just building them is not sufficient, we must build a smart network that works well for cycling as a valid transport choice, not just as a sport or as a recreational activity.

Here are some examples of bike paths that I think are inappropriate to support mass cycling.

The scenic route
One of Québec's Route Verte cycling ways, this one a 9-km biking path that goes from nowhere to nowhere in the middle of fields
The scenic route is not completely useless, it is just irrelevant to make cycling actually useful. Though offering nice views and a possible tourist attraction, it goes nowhere in particular. The journey, not the destination, is what matters. For transport, reaching the destination is what matters most.

The back route
Portland's bike boulevards are cycling streets where bikes are supposed to be king, however, they are located on almost exclusively residential streets with no destinations directly on the route, making them not that useful, meanwhile, many main arterial streets have no bike facilities

The back route is a cycling path or lane built on a back road or residential street, it sometimes parallels major arterial streets without ever meeting it. Often built as it is the path of least resistance, there is little traffic on the street and it is already a relatively safe place to bike. So building a bike lane there meets little opposition from motorists or residents. In fact, many times the route will have been proposed as an alternative to a more serious proposal of a bike path on a major arterial street, based on the argument that the bike path would have less "impact" there. Well, credit where credit is due, they're right, those paths have few impacts... either on traffic or on bike use. They can be useful for longer distance trips, but at the end of the trip, you have a "last mile" problem, just like transit: how will you travel the last mile if there is no bike facility near to your destination, which is located on a main arterial street with heavy traffic?

The grotesquely inappropriate biking facility
Riverside Drive in Ottawa, 3 lanes of traffic, speed limit of 60 km/h (37 mph)... painted bike lanes on the shoulders
This is a case where they at least had the decency to build a bike facility on a major arterial street, but they should almost not have bothered at all, with just a painted bike lane in a place where traffic and vehicle speed scream for a physically separated bike path, or at least a bike path on the level of the sidewalk, protected with a curb (not much protection but better than nothing). The speed and quantity of vehicles will scare most cyclists away from the lane.

Basic principles of proper bike paths

Here is my understanding of what makes for a proper cycling network. First, it is important to understand how trips are made. Trips have an origin and a destination, the origin is mostly residential, people live in their homes, then have to leave to do certain activities (work, shopping, etc...). Meanwhile, destinations are commerces, offices, factories, restaurants, etc... Most trips are thus residential to commercial or offices, with rarer trips being commercial to commercial or residential to residential. So to be really useful, you need to have bike paths that can take people to "destinations", with varied uses along the way. In most cities, these destinations tend to be grouped around main arterial streets that tend to have a lot of lanes and to favor through traffic.

So bike networks absolutely need to be built on these major commercial thoroughfares, because that is where most trips end up (ignore return trips). Avoiding these major arterials because it's considered too "hard" to find space for bike paths without affecting car traffic is the most common mistake made in building biking networks.

What type of bike facility to build is dependent on what kind of traffic you expect on the street. On narrow local streets with little traffic, no bike facility is actually required. People can easily bike safely at their own pace as they will cross few cars along the way, and the few they do cross will tend to be slow.

Bike lanes are useful on larger streets with little traffic, the bike lanes here serve to narrow the travel lanes and keep the speed of vehicles down. In other words, their main purpose is just traffic-calming, and not actually to protect cyclists. Lane markings tend to be very respected by car drivers, used as they are to follow them on highways and other roads with heavy traffic.

But when you have a lot of traffic, physically separated bike paths are almost required. Having bikes travel between lines of cars and parked cars is extremely stressful and not comfortable at all. Bike paths should ideally (just like sidewalks) have a physical barrier between the curb and themselves. This is not only about protecting people from cars but about creating the impression of an hallway with walls on either side rather than giving the impression to bikes and pedestrians that they are on a ledge on the side of a cliff. Oh, and a green "buffer" in the form of a strip of lawn is almost completely useless for this purpose.
Sidewalk in Sapporo with trees serving as barrier (remember that Japanese sidewalks also double as multi-purpose paths)
Poles, trees and railings to delineate the pedestrian/biking space and the car space, the railing isn't that great because it makes it harder for pedestrians to cross the street midblock, so if used, they should not be linked together like a fence, but isolated with gaps between each

So, if I may sum up:
  • The biking network MUST include biking facilities on major commercial arterial streets
  • It must be easy to understand and ideally be in a grid
  • Bike facilities on wide streets with heavy traffic must be protected bike paths with barriers between cars and bikes
  • Bike lanes must be built on wide streets with little traffic mainly as traffic-calming
  • There is no point in building bike facilities on residential streets with little traffic
From what I can see of the Netherlands, that's the basis of their network, with segregated bike paths on arterials...
Amsterdam arterial road, with segregated bike paths
A commercial street in a smaller Dutch city, again bike paths located on the outer side of parked cars and trees
But merely bike lanes on collector streets with low traffic...
...and no particular marking on traffic-calmed local residential streets

Unsafe/insufficient bike parking

As I pointed out in the beginning, bikes do share a downside with cars, namely the need for parking. They're nowhere near as bad as cars, you can fit maybe 8-10 bikes in one parking stall for a car, but bikes still require parking at destination.
Bike parking garage near Chigasaki station
In the previous parking garage, I estimate the capacity at around 1 000 bikes, yet the station it serves has nearly 56 000 passengers each day, if we assume everyone does 2 trips (1 to the train and 1 trip back), that's nearly 28 000 individuals, so if everyone of them came on bikes, they would need 28 such 4-story bike garages to leave all bikes at the station.

Still, you need to have enough space for bikes, it's not like the space for them is lacking with all the parking lots we have, but we need to provide for more space for them and indicate to people they can  use it.

One of the big problems we have in order to get people to use bikes is the insecurity issue. Every day, bikes are stolen, for thieves, it's a low-risk, low-reward job as quite frankly, cops mostly don't give a damn about it and even if they're caught, the sentences are likely to be light as bikes are not very expensive goods. However, it's still enraging to come back to see a broken lock on the ground and your bike gone, and this discourages the use of bikes for many, especially in urban areas that otherwise would be perfect for biking.

If biking is to become really popular, I think some steps need to be taken to reduce bike thefts, whether it is through offering more secure bike racks or bike garages/parking lots...
Self-locking bike racks in Gotanda, Tokyo
...or by implementing a mandatory bike registration program and cracking down on the sale of secondhand bikes without registration.

Again, in Japan, every bike is registered at the point of sale and every bike comes with a wheel lock that, if it doesn't prevent people from picking up and carrying locked bikes, can identify stolen bikes by the absence of wheel lock or the presence of a broken one.
Wheel lock on Japanese bike
This system allows for particularly easy parking, as the Japanese often do away with bike racks and just park their bikes, locked to themselves on sidewalks or parking lots set aside for them (or places where they're not supposed to leave them).

Small bike parking lot, note that none of them are locked to racks with U-locks or chains

Lack of affordable city bikes

The North American bike market sucks. There, I said it. There is a distinct lack of the kind of city bike that is all the rage in the Netherlands, Denmark, China and Japan (amongst other places). Affordable bikes tend to be mountain bikes with plenty of speeds but devoid of almost any equipment necessary for utilitarian bikes, requiring much time and money to equip a bike for utilitarian use.

What does a city bike require?
Typical Japanese city bike (Dutch and Danish city bikes are similar)
  • Mudguards, to be able to bike in the rain while limiting stains
  • Chainguard, to protect the chain from the weather and to be able to use the bike in whatever clothing you want without the risk of chain grease on legs
  • Comfortable seating position, not hunched over forward (an uncomfortable position nonetheless useful for high speeds)
  • Basket in front to be able to carry small bags and the like
  • Baggage rack at the rear, when the basket doesn't suffice
  • Bike stand
  • Step-through frames
  • Wheel lock
Here is what city bikes do not require:
  • Transmissions with plenty of speeds, 1 to 3 is quite sufficient as bikes shouldn't be used to go very quickly and simpler transmissions are tougher and need less maintenance
  • Sophisticated alloy frames
  • A high price tag (so that if it gets damaged or stolen, it is no big loss and is easily replaced)
BIXIs (same model as CitiBikes) are city bikes in terms of design
The bike choices we have in North America tend to show our popular conception of bikes as mainly sporting recreational tools, not as utilitarian vehicles. Even cheap bikes frequently have 21-speeds, but often lack any equipment, even bike stands are frequently left out.

Some of it may be tied to the lack of biking infrastructure. City bikes are very utilitarian but have poor dynamic characteristics, meaning, they're not fast, aren't comfortable for high speed maneuvers and often have lousy brakes. This makes them very poor for vehicular cycling and to be used alongside cars on fast roads.


The last element is simply people's mentality for bikes. We need to accept bikes as utilitarian vehicles rather than as recreational sports exclusively. People need to start considering taking bikes for trips which they instinctively make by car today, which will be longer to change. But we cannot wait for mentalities to change before setting up the infrastructure that will draw people to bike in North American cities. There is no greater marketing campaign for bikes as a mode of transport than for people stuck in traffic to see people of all walks of life travel pleasantly along on protected bike lanes right besides them.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Myths of the oppressed motorist: freeways and tolls

Freeways are a very crucial matter of transport and urbanism, I've spoken many times about how speed is, I think, the most important factor determining how we spread about urban developments, and about the unbeatable point-to-point speed of freeways. Freeways are extremely disruptive to any city that is burdened with them as they are high-speed, but at the same time, low-capacity. Their high speed makes them highly desirable, their low capacity makes them unable to deal with the demand. A subway track can carry 20 000 people per hour, some like in Tokyo carry up to 80 000 people per hour. A freeway lane carries about 2 000-2 500 people per hour.

Many urbanists have started little less than a war on urban freeways, the "highway to boulevard" movement. Others argue for a mitigating approach if removal is not feasible: tolling.

Tolling on freeways seems like a no-brainer:
  1. The limited access points make it easy to implement
  2. Freeways are extremely expensive, but all the taxes made to fund them result in them being funded by all car drivers (license fees, gas taxes, etc...), whether they use them or not, which makes freeways, for the individual car driver, extremely cheap to use while at the same time, for the government, extremely expensive to build and maintain (perverse incentive)
  3. Since freeways often suffer from congestion, tolling may help keep demand down and avoid the need to build new ones
Yet nothing irks more hardened motorists than any suggestion of tearing down freeways, tolling them or even not building projected freeways.

Note that by freeway I mean the limited access, high-speed, grade-separated roads, in some places. It seems they have different names in every country: freeway, expressway, highway, motorway, etc...

Myth 1: freeways are necessary for economic development

Like all myths, there is a degree of truth in this. freeways between cities do help the economy a lot by helping national and regional transport, even international transport. Freight truck companies are thus likely to want to settle near freeways, as are heavy industries that rely from a regular influx of heavy parts and materials. So, in other words, freeways are very useful for some freight and rapid movement from city to city, that's their major economic contribution. Trains can do the same thing, but trucks have the advantage of being able to go from point-to-point without the need to stop at stations along the way for modal shifts.

So tying in a region together with freeways is justifiable. However, the problem is freeway commuting. Commuting is by far the dominant reason that leads cars on urban and metropolitan freeways, not freight, nor long-distance trips.  And the reality is that this freeway commuting is absolutely economically inefficient, even useless. It allows people to live farther from their jobs, and that just means more waste, wasted gas, wasted land, wasted energy. And since freeways are low-capacity, it leads to congestion because all commuters in a region cannot all use the freeways.

So how many freeways do we actually require for economic efficiency? Well, let's take a region with urban areas in grey:
A region of a country, urban areas in gray, how many freeways are needed?
Here's the answer:
All the efficient freeways for the previous region
Note that no freeway penetrates any urban area, they all go around them, not through them. You have freeways surrounding cities, then branches connecting to other cities. That's all you need, any additional freeways to these are completely pointless on an economic level, wastes of money.

We have examples of this at work, for example in Europe, where many countries were reluctant to bulldoze their historic cities just to run freeways through. Even Germany, the country of the Autobahn, has largely rejected the concept of urban freeways:
Munich, Germany: freeways in orange, none inside the city itself

Kansas City, Missouri: a bit more freeways
But then, what about all these industrial parks and shopping malls that spring up whenever a freeway is built, aren't those proofs of economic developments?

No. They are economic displacement. Almost all suburban industrial parks near freeways are echoes of decaying industrial areas closer to the center of the region, areas that have been abandoned as commuters jammed up roads and made these areas harder to get to, leading industries to move away to ensure more reliable and speedy transport. Likewise, all suburban freeway malls leave in their wake dead strip malls or even older malls who empty out as stores seek better locations to keep up with sprawl.

Myth 2: we must build more freeways to reduce pollution from stop-and-go traffic

This is one we often see when freeways are congested to try to greenwash building new roads. Cars idling in traffic do burn more fuel than if they had free flow all the way, and the concentration of many cars all idling in the same spot does create a greater impression of pollution than if they were all spread around. However, we have to understand induced demand... building new freeways incites a lot of sprawl, increasing travel distances, so what is "saved" by getting rid of congestion is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of fuel you incite people to burn when they start living further and further away from jobs, retail and services.

In fact, one of the things we can notice is that most people tend to define distances in term of travel time, not travel distance, and make their decisions based on that. So someone who wants to spend 30 minutes maximum on commuting will choose a place to live that offers him a 30-minute commute. or less. Whether that 30 minutes is 30 minutes of free-flowing freeway or stop-and-go traffic is irrelevant.

Though fuel economy measured on the distance traveled is much worse in stop-and-go traffic, idling engines, of course, use but a fraction of gas per hour as engines at freeway speeds. A fuel consumption of 8 L/100 km (around 30 mpg) means that the engine is burning 8 liters (around 2 gallons) every hour, meanwhile an idling engine will burn about 1,5 liter of fuel per hour (0,4 gallon per hour), if I go by the estimate that engines burn 0,6 liters per hour per liter of engine displacement (so a 2.4L engine would burn around 1,4 liters per hour). So for a threshold of 30 minutes for the commute, the 30-minute stop-and-go commute will burn up to 5 times less fuel than the 30-minute freeway commute without congestion. Likewise, a 30-minute 30 km/h commute with fuel consumption of 12 L/100 km (around 20 MPG) will burn 1,8 liter of fuel, while a 30-minute 70 km/h commute with fuel consumption of 8 L/100 km will burn 2,8 liters of fuel, more than 50% more.

Myth 3: removing freeways would mean chaos and gridlock

As a traffic engineer I can tell you that freeways do have to be closed once in a while, or bridges (more frequently). Whenever this happens, or a capacity reduction on a major freeway, the first day is terrible and chaotic. The second day is a bit better. After 3 or 4 days, when people have understood that this isn't going to be resolved, people find alternatives to deal with the traffic and adapt their movement patterns. Though the situation is generally a bit worse than prior to the capacity reduction, most of the traffic effectively vanishes from the grid, especially in the long-term, people and development will adapt to the new situation. This adaptation occurs even faster if you have alternatives like transit ready to go.

This isn't merely theoretical, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Seoul have all removed freeways, some of this removal was intentional, some wasn't but resulted from damages from earthquake or from collapse. In all cases, traffic adjusted and life goes on.

Myth 4: roads are public goods that should be free to use (no toll), because everyone benefits from them

First of all, technically, they probably aren't, but I will discount that argument, because what is meant by "public good" is different from the technical term. It is meant simply that they are goods provided by the government, open to all and so can benefit anyone who can use them.

However, that it be true doesn't mean necessarily that it should be free to use. Roads have limited capacity, and though everyone may benefit from them at one point or another, the truth is that not everyone derives the same benefit from them. Why should someone who uses roads a lot not pay more for them than someone who uses them but little?

Let's make an analogy... electricity is in many places still a public good, with public electricity providers still being very common. In many ways, electricity is a public good just like roads. Yet, how would people react if someone proposed to get rid of metering and just charge a flat fee to all people connected to the electricity network? So someone who keeps the Christmas lights on until July and never turns off the lights in his house, with AC on full blast all summer (opening windows when it gets too cold) and the heater on max all winter would pay the same as someone who is careful with electricity and spent thousands to insulate his house better to lower energy consumption. Most people would find the proposal completely stupid and mock it.

Yet, that's basically how it works when roads are free to use. We reward vice and punish virtue. Expressways are a special case as they are extremely expensive and so would deserve tolls on them, since gas taxes are a very poor user fee when some roads are cheap (old, narrow roads in rural areas that follow the terrain's ups and downs and curves) and others are tremendously expensive (elevated or underground expressways). The case of freeways is the most evident, no road is as expensive to build as freeways, but for users, without tolls, no road is cheaper and faster to use than freeways. That's what I call a "perverse incentive", people are personally advantaged to make a choice that is the most expensive one, because the cost is assumed by everyone else.

Let's make another analogy why just charging people a flat fee (license fees) or gas taxes is a bad idea. Take a restaurant that serves hamburger steaks and lobsters (the owner is weird like that). They can sell their hamburger steaks for 10$ and make a profit off of them, or lobster for 30$ to have the same profit margin. Let's say 50% of their customers eat hamburger steaks and 50% eat lobsters. Now let's say that, to make it simpler, the owner decides: instead of charging people 10$ for hamburger steaks and 30$ for lobsters, I'll just charge everyone a flat price of 20$ when they enter the restaurant, then they can choose whichever platter they prefer, after all, 50% take the 10$ meal and 50% take the 30$ meal, so it should be fine. So now, the hamburger steak is insanely expensive at 20$ and the lobster is much cheaper at 20$. What happens? Well, people who want hamburger steaks go elsewhere, people who want lobsters flock the place, suddenly 90% of people take lobsters (some people are with friends and are allergic to seafood), the average cost of the meals should be 28$, but they charge only 20$, they're losing money on every meal, so they have to hike up the price to compensate.

That's what happens when you tax the cheap options to reduce the cost of expensive options, people start opting for what was expensive before and is now just as cheap as alternatives. In the end, everyone ends up paying more because the prices need to rise to compensate.

So though everyone benefits from roads, they don't do it at the same level, it would be fair for those who use them most to pay more for them. The argument against this is a non sequitur, it's not because they're provided by the government and everyone benefits at one degree or another that they necessarily should be free to use.

Myth 5: if freeways were tolled, all goods in stores would be extremely expensive!

Not so. For one thing, just because roads are not tolled doesn't mean that their costs vanish, we just pay for them in other ways. So overall, since tolls simply replace other funding methods, the end result for society is nil.

But even so, let's just consider an example of a reasonable toll to use freeways, 10 cents per kilometer (16 cents per mile) and see how it affects prices if we consider that trucks pay 3 times as much as cars, so 30 cents per kilometer (48 cents per mile). Let's say a beer truck, that carries 900 24-bottle cases of beer, travels 2 000 kilometers (1 300 miles), or half the distance from Los Angeles to New York. The toll for the trip would be 600$, the truck is carrying 21 600 bottles of beers, that's an average of less than 3 cents per bottle, a bit less than 70 cents per case. And this is an extreme example with a very, very long distance trip, and it amounts to less than 3% of the cost.

So that's not extremely expensive at all. It may add a 2-3 percents to costs, but no more than that, and that's not considering the savings from reduced congestion or reduction in gas taxes if they are reduced once there are tolls.

Myth 6: cars are tools of social equality

I actually had someone pull me that argument on me in a debate on parking. The gist of it is that cars allow people to move around wherever there are roads, so they allow the poor as great an ease of movement as the rich and make rich neighborhoods accessible to the poor too.

The absurdity is that he assumed that everyone can afford cars. The problem with cars is that though their operating cost may seem small, they have a huge threshold cost: you must be willing and able to pay thousands to buy a car and maintain it in order to be able to use roads. On the other hand, transit's marginal cost may sometimes seem high, yet it has no threshold cost. If you can pay the ticket, you can use it.

Cars and, before them, carriages have always been tools of socio-economic segregation. The rich who were willing and able to live apart from the "riff raff" in the country have always had manors far from cities (while often maintaining "townhomes"). This was extremely expensive as transport was very expensive back in the day, but cars and carriages allowed it by making transport first less physically demanding, then faster. If the popularization of cars has made this strategy less successful, it says nothing about cars being a tool of social equality, but more about how rich as a society we have become.

Myth 7: if you don't build a freeway to my home, you're treating me like a second class citizen, I have a right to a freeway!

Actually, I had an old high school friend of mine pull that on me recently when I told him I was against the project of converting a road to his new city into a freeway. I don't think I need to explain the ridicule of it, yet this is a common mentality because of the way we have funded roads. Since freeways have no higher cost than any other road and everything is funded by everyone, there is a mentality that spread that since everyone pays for them, everyone should be entitled to them. And, well, that reasoning actually makes some sense... otherwise, you have everyone paying for things that only some people get to benefit from. It does seem unfair. Which again provides an argument for tolling freeways, then it's the people who use them who have to pay for them.

But still, no one forced anyone (in general) to go live where they live, so going to a faraway suburb without freeway connect, then pleading for freeways as if they were your due, is quite galling behavior.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

BRT and LRT: the transit war

One of the most contentious debates currently raging in urbanist circles about transit is the BRT vs LRT debate. BRT stands for Bus Rapid Transit, LRT stands for Light Rail Transit. Both are forms of rapid transit, or maybe better put, semi-rapid transit. Both seek to provide faster, more reliable and higher capacity transit by implementing many features like:

  • Greater distance between stops
As I presented in another article, the speed of a transit line is highly dependent on how often it has to stop, even more so than the maximum speed it can reach, at least in urban situations:

Average speed of a transit line versus the average distance between stops

  • Transit right-of-way
This is often considered the most important feature, the transit vehicles must travel either on a lane where only they have the right to travel and with priority at intersections where other vehicles cross their path, or on a path that they alone are allowed to be on, others can't even cross it (elevated or underground rail for example). The point of it is to reduce the number of times that transit vehicles have to stop or slow down by getting rid of other vehicles from their path, and to allow them to travel at higher speeds, which is mainly useful for subways and commuter rail.
  • Paying before boarding and boarding through all doors
This means that people pay not when the vehicle has arrived, but when arriving at the stop or station. The most well known example of that is the turnstiles at subway stations, but on stops on the street, it can be simply a machine at the stop that prints out a receipt which you must carry with you but do not need to show to the driver, based on an honor system (proof of payment, POP), with severe fines if you're caught on a vehicle without one. This also allows boarding from all doors.

The point is to allow for fast boarding and deboarding, reducing the time spent at stops or stations. This is especially important when you have vehicles with high capacities. Imagine a subway with a capacity of 1 000 passengers who all have to pay when boarding through just one door. That would be insanely slow, and unreliable.

Anyway, all these features aren't dependent on what kind of transit vehicle is involved. Though we generally do it with trains and subways (so-called, Heavy Rail Transit), nothing stops us from doing it with buses too. Which is what Bus Rapid Transit is, bus routes that take on many features of subways in order to provide better service.

Light Rail Transit is the same, except using light rail vehicle instead of heavy rail. This means lighter, shorter cars that can travel on the street, as they are more nimble and can tolerate tighter curves. Something more like streetcars of old than passenger rail.
Sapporo tram, a light rail vehicle (a vintage streetcar behind it)
One car of a Tokaido train, much longer, not segmented and heavier

What is the issue?

The issue is that both LRT and BRT were conceived in recent years as ways to offer an intermediate transit option between slow, low-capacity buses and high-capacity subways. Buses had low initial costs, subways had very high initial costs, and there was little in between. LRT and BRT came up as solutions to fill that gap, for much less than subways, they could offer much better service than local buses.

So when there is a transit corridor that has the ridership to justify better than buses but not high enough to justify subways, LRT and BRT butt heads. Both technologies have their fans.

BRT supporters are especially vicious versus rail transit, some declare rail to be obsolete and completely useless, expensive to build when we already have roads we could appropriate for buses. They claim that BRT can be a dirt cheap method of building rapid transit and could allow us to build much more complete rapid transit systems much faster.

LRT supporters on the other hand recognize that buses have a role to play in transit, but they point out that there is a marked user preference for rail transit as more comfortable, less noisy, less polluting and more predictable in its movements (a boon for pedestrians and cyclists). They also are pretty skeptical of BRT as they claim that BRT is not that much cheaper to build than equivalent LRT lines for significantly inferior qualitative service.

Are there objective differences?

Putting aside qualitative subjects of perceived quality (which greatly advantages LRT), there are a few main factors that differentiate these technologies.

1- Capacity

Capacity of a rapid transit line is very important if you want to have transit-oriented developments along the line. No matter how fast a line is, if it can't carry enough people, it will stunt the growth of the zone it's built in, just like congested highways stunt the growth of suburbs around them. This is a touchy subject because if you look at the numbers only, both seem to deal with the same capacities. However, this isn't quite correct, because these capacities are obtained differently.

Okay, here's how a transit line works for the most part:
Standard transit line
So a vehicle moves down a set path, stops at pre-determined stations or stops (in blue), stops, lets people out and in, then goes to the next station, rinse and repeat. On a rapid transit line, vehicles stop at all stations.

Doing it like this, LRTs have a major advantage over BRTs in that you can attach cars together and obtain trains of vehicles. That means a single driver can carry 500-600 people, maybe even more, since the vehicles are on a guided path, they remain stable as you make each train longer. You can't tie two buses together, as they are not on guided rails, they would jump up and down, move right and left and maybe even cause accidents. The most you can do is use articulated or even biarticulated buses, limited to 120 or 200 passengers.

So in this way of doing things, LRTs win without a doubt as they allow much more capacity per train than buses can provide. The Calgary LRT works this way and provides a capacity of around 15 000 passengers per hour per direction (pphd). With simple buses (not articulated), the highest possible capacity is perhaps around 2 000, supposing a bus every 2 minutes, with articulated buses, the capacity is around 4 000 pphd. With bi-articulated buses, maybe around 7 000 pphd, but bi-articulated buses are rather rare as they become difficult to maneuver around on city streets, not having the safety that rail tracks provide.

How BRTs can provide greater capacity, passing lanes for express buses

But BRTs have an ace in the hole, at least according to their promoters, buses are more flexible, they can change lanes easier and go out on city streets. So in order to provide higher capacities, one trick that some jurisdictions have used, most famously Bogota's Transmilenio, is to have two lanes instead of one and allow buses to pass each other. This allows them to pile many different lines on one another, piling local buses, limited buses and express buses on top of one another.

With just one lane, if a vehicle is delayed or stuck, vehicles behind it cannot go around, but with two lanes, they can. The express lines can also be faster than the lines that stop more often. This has advantages and disadvantages. 

It increases capacity, yes, but it requires much larger infrastructure to do so. LRTs require just about 3 meters per lane (10 feet), as they are on rails, they don't need lanes to be much bigger than vehicles. Buses require wider lanes as they are not on a guided path they can't deviate from, so a strict minimum of 3,3 meters (11 feet) is expected. Plus, you need passing lanes, so you need two lanes, for a total of 6,6 meters minimum per direction, for 2 directions, that's about 14 meters (46 feet), add space for a station between the two directions and you're easily up to 20 meters (nearly 70 feet), which is how wide Bogota's Transmilenio is. The reality is that you just cannot fit the Transmilenio in most cities, not in their urban cores at least, unless you have gigantic streets you can completely give over to the BRT. It's nothing short of a gigantic bus highway.

BRT supporters would say also that it gives buses more flexibility as you can tailor make lines to suit demand. A lot of people from point A go to point B? You can build an express instead of having them stop at every station on the way. You can even take buses off the trunk line and into side streets.

But for users, this "flexibility" manifests as complexity, here is just one part of the system map of ONE trunk line of the Transmilenio in Bogota:
Part of the Transmilenio's map for one trunk line
This is about 20% of the actual map of the trunk line, there are 12 similar documents. Good luck finding your way around as a tourist or even as a resident who has to go somewhere he's never gone before. Try not to take the wrong bus.

Not only that, but as express buses have to merge to the right then merge left when entering and exiting stations, this creates congestion at stations when there are many buses. As a consequence, unlike subways and LRTs which can maintain the same speed even at full capacity, the speed of the Transmilenio falls during peak hours because of station congestion.
A graph I found illustrating average speed versus the number of buses per hour on the Transmilenio
Lastly, this means that even if there is one bus every minute at station, if there are in fact 5 different lines stopping there and you want to take one line specifically, then the effective frequency for the user is 1 bus per 5 minutes, as most buses that stop at the station will be useless to them.

So, in other words, LRT can get more capacity out of a narrow right-of-way, BRT can however leverage its flexibility to obtain similar capacity at a cost of simplicity and requiring a lot of space, which can be hard to find in dense urban areas. So if you can only find the place for two lanes, there is no question that LRT will provide significantly higher capacity all else being equal.

2- Economics: labor vs capital

One major difference between LRT and buses is in their cost structure. Putting rail in and building the electric system to allow LRT to run is more expensive than just painting bus lanes on existing roads (though real BRTs with high capacities may need a concrete road to be built, else they will tear the pavement to shreds quite quickly, a loaded bus being nearly as bad as a truck on roads). How much more expensive? Well, it really depends, in France, they build their modern tramways (LRTs) for as low as 16 million euros/25 million dollars per kilometer (40 million per mile). On the other hand, Gatineau in Québec built a BRT for around 15 million dollars per kilometer (25 million per mile). But it really varies, transit projects vary widely depending on what is included in them, many of them end up having a lot of beautification projects tied to them, ballooning costs.

There is no question that LRT has higher initial capital costs than BRT, vehicles are more expensive, rail is more expensive than reusing roads, electric lines are more expensive than not installing any. If the analysis stopped there, BRT would win without a hitch. But in terms of long-term costs, LRT looks much, much better.

For one, light rail vehicles can last much longer than buses. The average life expectancy of a light rail car is about 40 years, that of a bus, about 15 years. Hiroshima in Japan still ran a couple of streetcars that survived the nuclear bomb in 2010. Vehicles with internal combustion engines and tires just aren't that reliable compared to trains. So though buying the fleet is more expensive at first, as the vehicles last longer, the higher cost over the long term is a wash, maybe an advantage in favor of LRT.

But the main advantage of LRT is labor. As I have said, a single driver in a LRT train can drive around 500-600 passengers and more, meanwhile, a bus driver in an articulated bus (bi-articulated buses are rare in North America) can carry about 120 people. So to carry the same number of people, you need 3 to 6 times less drivers in LRTs than in buses. This isn't negligible, drivers represent about 40% of the cost of running buses in Montréal currently (going by the STM budget). So everything else being equal, LRTs could offer an operating cost per passenger of maybe 30% lower than buses.

So here is a simple example of this dynamic, supposing that:
  • A BRT costs 15 millions per kilometer to build, the operating cost is around 4$ per user
  • A LRT costs 60 millions per kilometer to build, the operating cost is 3$ per user
  • A subway costs 250 millions per kilometer to build, the operating cost is 2$ per user
Here is what the average cost per passenger would look like over 30 years, depending on daily ridership
Cost per passenger according to daily ridership
If you sum up all the spending over the years, you get this:

Total 30-year cost depending on daily ridership
In this thought experiment with rough estimates, BRTs are only cheaper than LRTs until a ridership of around 50 000 people per day, above that, LRTs are cheaper in the long-term, and with very high ridership, subways even become cheapest of all.

So yes, BRTs have lower inital capital costs, but if the cost to run them overwhelms the transit authority's operating budget, they may face cuts to service.

But this experiment is only valid in the developed world, where capital is plentiful and labor is expensive. In the developing world, the opposite is true: they lack capital access but have plenty of cheap labor. So what happens if I adjust costs for the developing world?

Cost per passenger according to daily ridership, developing world

Total 30-year cost depending on daily ridership, developing world
Here, BRTs remain cheaper at much higher riderships and seem like a much better deal, especially since most clients are captive clients who can't protest rough rides too much as they don't own cars to seek refuge in.


Personally, I find LRTs more promising for the developed world, LRTs are a good solution for a high-capital, expensive-labor world, whereas BRTs are more suited to developing countries as they are low-capital, high-labor solutions to transit. The future of full-fledged BRTs in North America isn't promising, at low riderships where they are cheaper than LRTs, the low riderships don't actually justify the investments in BRTs, limited buses with bus lanes could achieve more or less the same quality of service. When ridership increases to the point where investing in BRT would be really better than just limited bus services or BRT-lite (like the SBS in New York), you'd probably be better off investing in LRT anyway, at least in the long-term. 

Turning your back on LRT to build BRT with high expected ridership sounds penny wise and pound foolish. That is what Ottawa has realized, as it had the most complete BRT system north of Mexico for the past 3 decades and is now realizing its mistake and converting it to LRT in its downtown area. A move that is supposed to save the transit operator tens of millions every year in operating costs AND provide higher capacity and speed.

Still, my preference is to HRT. I think that highways have demonstrated that building fast transport links prior to urban development is a winner as infrastructure is cheaper when it is built and it allows the transport link to shape developments successfully. So my ideal would be to build regional rail running on their own rails, not as a mere afterthought on freight rails. These trains could then provide a skeleton for transit-oriented development later on, and most of the lines could be built on the surface. But that's mainly just a dream, inspired by the Japanese mode of development.