BRT, Rail, and New York City: A Conversation With Walter Hook

transmilenio.jpgBogotá's TransMilenio carries 1.4 million riders per day. This bus- and bike-only transitway operates in the historic city center. Photo: Shreya Gadepalli/ITDP.

New York City made a major public commitment to Bus Rapid Transit in 2006 when, after years of discussion, the MTA and DOT put forward plans for pilot routes in each of the five boroughs. In the meantime, the city's BRT agenda has encountered a few setbacks in Albany and made a partial breakthrough on Fordham Road, with a service that incorporates some nifty bus improvements, but not enough to merit the BRT designation.

Perhaps no one knows the ins and outs of BRT better than Walter Hook (right). As director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Hook has advised cities on four continents about BRT implementation, including Jakarta's seven-corridor network, the first full-fledged BRT system in Asia.

Streetsblog caught up with Hook -- in between trips to Cape Town and Mexico City -- for an email Q&A about why New York City needs Bus Rapid Transit, common misconceptions of BRT in America, and what will make BRT succeed here. This is the first of four installments.

Streetsblog: Is BRT the right mode for New York City at this moment in time? A lot of folks think that BRT is no substitute for light rail or a subway system. How would you pitch the idea of BRT to New Yorkers?

Walter Hook: I was in Philadelphia a few months back, which is a real rail and streetcar-loving town, and I took a lot of heat for suggesting BRT had a place in U.S. cities like New York and Philadelphia, particularly from my friends in the sustainable transportation advocacy community. I understand why a lot of folks in the U.S. see BRT as some sort of marketing trick to pawn off low-quality bus improvements as mass transportation. I think it's because we don't really have a full BRT system in the U.S. Not very many people have been to Bogotá, or Curitiba, or Pereira or Guayaquil to see the best BRT systems. These are not exactly tourist Meccas.

The Second Avenue Subway would be great, it’s needed, it would have higher demand than almost any other metro line in the country. But will it happen?
The U.S. has a BRT program, and it has brought real improvements, and it's using some elements of the Latin American BRT systems, but most of them fall short. There is no quality control or mechanism to protect the ‘BRT’ brand, so some fairly modest bus improvements are calling themselves BRT, not only in the U.S. but all over the world.

New York City already has the most extensive subway network in the U.S., and one of the most extensive in the world. Whatever BRT is built, it will need to fit seamlessly into that network. Some subway lines are extremely crowded -- at capacity despite a very high fare by international standards. The 4, 5, and 6, the L -- these trains are packed.  I don't know why Japanese and Chinese cities can roll out 10 miles of new subway line a year, and the richest city in the world has been trying and failing to build the Second Avenue Subway since the 1960s. But I've lived in this town a long time, and I am skeptical. The optimists are telling us that we will have a Second Avenue Subway between 125th Street and 63rd Street by 2015 and only after we spend $4 to $5 billion. So this means we are probably talking about 2018 or 2020, and $10 billion. The Second Avenue Subway would be great, it’s needed, it would have higher demand than almost any other metro line in the country. At those volumes, metros are often a good investment. But will it happen?

Plus, the MTA needs something like an additional $20 billion just to bring the existing system into a state of good repair. If we only talk rail, that puts any mass transit improvements to my neighborhood -- Brooklyn adjacent to the hole in the ground that may one day be Atlantic Yards -- off the radar for two decades, even though they are talking about introducing Manhattan-level densities into my neighborhood in the next few years.

SB: Couldn't light rail get the job done in many cases?

WH: I don’t see light rail as much of a solution to this problem. Light rail has all the problems of a BRT system with most of the cost of a metro system. Surface light rail in Manhattan -- how much would it cost? The Denver light rail line was estimated to cost from $40 to $75 million per mile, and naturally it’s proving to be like double that. That’s less than the billions per mile the subway would cost. But the best BRT system in the world, Bogotá's TransMilenio, when the complete reconstruction of the entire road into a boulevard with bike lanes and beautiful trees is all included in the price, cost about $20 million a mile. It might cost more than this in the U.S., but all things being equal (high quality of all elements, dedicated transitways, specially configured low-noise, low-emissions vehicles, etc.) it's going to be a whole lot cheaper than LRT.

Very good BRT systems have been built for as little as $8 million a mile. With the same capital budget, we could build more than twice as much proper BRT as light rail, probably 5 to 10 times more, with no loss in the quality of service, the capacity, or the speed. Even counting the contribution to total life cycle costs of operating and maintenance costs, BRT is a bargain, something all New Yorkers love.

The engineering for light rail is more complicated: You need electric conduit, ugly overhead wires, tracks -- not to mention rail yards that are nearly impossible to locate in any dense city. What is the operational advantage? If light rail does not have an exclusive right of way, it is even more stuck in traffic congestion and much more accident prone than local bus services. Capacity? The capacity of a light rail system is no higher than a BRT system. The law of physics pertaining to only one object occupying a given space at one time applies to LRT just as it does to buses. The limitations of block lengths and traffic signals apply to both equally. The capacity of LRT with only two tracks (almost universal) is significantly lower than the many BRT systems that have passing lanes at the stations supporting express services just like on the subway here.

Very good BRT systems have been built for as little as $8 million a mile. With the same capital budget, we could build more than twice as much proper BRT as light rail. BRT is a bargain, something all New Yorkers love.
BRT also has the very distinct advantage that the bus can leave an exclusive busway and enter normal traffic on any road. A light rail line can only go where the tracks are built (and cannot go around an LRT vehicle that is stopped because it just hit a double-parked truck), so network connectivity and reliability are always going to be a bigger issue.

There is one circumstance that I have discovered where light rail might have a higher capacity. If a light rail station has all the same features as a BRT system, including pre-paid boarding from stations with platforms level with the vehicle floor, and there is only one exclusive lane available (no space for a passing lane at the station), so express services are impossible, and the LRT has an ultra-modern signaling system like they have in Zurich, it might be possible to reach capacities of about 20,000 passengers per direction during a single peak hour using LRT, while a BRT with the exact same configuration would only be able to reliably move about 15,000 at a similar speed. But there are almost no corridors in the United States with transit demand above 15,000 at the peak hour per direction that do not currently have a metro or subway line in them, so ultimately, the preference for light rail over a proper BRT system is mostly aesthetics and ignorance of the technical capabilities of a well-planned and implemented BRT system.

mexico_city_BRT_station_1.jpgIn Mexico City, MetroBus has enhanced perceptions of surface transit. Photo: Shreya Gadepalli/ITDP.
Like in many places, people in the U.S. associate buses with people of lower social status. Where there has been significant money available for public transport, it is put into core-commuter focused rail transit lines that usually provide disproportionate benefits to the upper middle classes, while the poor -- who make much higher use of transit for all their travel -- have much less invested in the bus services that they need. Interestingly enough, in Mexico City -- where there is a full featured, real BRT system -- the rich are willing to take the BRT, but they won’t take the metro, which has more crime and is rapidly deteriorating -- the same historic phenomenon as the U.S. but in reverse!

Of course, you can mess up a BRT system, and Boston's Silver Line proved that you could waste almost as much money on BRT as you can on a rail system. Many of the BRT systems we've worked on are nowhere near as good as TransMilenio. For mainly political reasons, the risk of BRT being something far from optimal is pretty big, even here in New York City.

It's important to the world that New York City doesn't just build some low-quality bus improvement and call it BRT. This could really damage the already poor reputation of BRT as a serious mass transit option in the U.S. But what if New York were to hit it out of the park, with something amazing? The rest of the world expects no less from the greatest city in the world.