All of my fellow transit enthusiasts — Felix Salmon, Matt Yglesias, among others — have touted Robert Sullivan’s excellent new piece on bus rapid transit in New York city. One of the virtues of Sullivan’s article is that he doesn’t endlessly rehash the experience of Curitiba, the Brazilian city that pioneered the concept. I think it’s fair to say that Matt sees BRT as a decent substitute for fixed rail transportation, his first love.
I tend to think of BRT as a superior alternative, and not just because it’s much cheaper, though that certainly helps in an age of high and rising tax burdens. The case is made very clearly in this passage:
In a way, the bad economy has helped the bus argument. Talk to any transit advocate, and he’ll tell you that buses offer the best return on transit investment—especially in New York, where the Pratt Center estimates that building a forward-looking bus line could cost 200 times less than a subway line.
“If you think about how it costs $4.3 billion to build three stops on the Second Avenue subway line and $2 billion for a one-stop extension of the 7 train, buses are the only direction Walder can go in,” says Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, an organization mostly seen advocating for subway improvements. In fact, the city’s urban-planning activists are almost all singing buses. “They’re the smartest possible transit investment there is right now,” says Noah Budnick, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives.
In any city, commuting patterns will respond to shifts in the preferences and needs of citizens. New York hasn’t experienced the breakneck growth of Sunbelt cities or the urban colossi of the developing world, yet the past decade has seen some neighborhoods rise and others fall. Moreover, we’ve seen a spike in reverse commuting as employment opportunities in suburban areas have expanded. Fixed rail transportation isn’t well suited to many of these new commuting patterns, even in a fairly dense and centralized city like New York. This is one reason why there’s so much for the point-to-point flexibility offered by jitney vans and other irregular forms of folk mass transit.
The strength of BRT is its “rail-iness” — a well-designed dedicated bus lane can essentially eliminate congestion. Yet there’s no need to tunnel underground, an expensive proposition in a densely populated and affluent city. So if a once-dead neighborhood zooms to life and if new commuting patterns emerge, you can accommodate them.
This is one key reason why automobile-friendly transportation thinkers like Randal O’Toole, the bane of many transit enthusiasts, are fans of BRT. Indeed, one can argue, as environmentalist George Monbiot — an advocate of very extreme measures to reduce carbon emissions, few of which I’d endorse — that coach transportation is a potentially superior alternative for most intercity transportation on environmental grounds. Monbiot’s concern is that truly high-speed rail tends to perform less well than coaches in terms of carbon output, but there’s plenty of disagreement about this.
Bottom line: buses are good.