One of the weirder recurring intra-urbanist fights is about whether buses or trains are better. This seems like a deeply silly argument to me, akin to angrily taking sides about whether people should eat cereal or spaghetti. That is to say: surely that depends on the time of day, and surely the “best” transportation technology depends on context.
I thought of this again when I read an old post Simon Vallée linked to this morning. (Simon has a great Montreal- and Japan-focused blog that you should read.) Generally, I’m not super interested in wading into these sorts of debates, but I thought his post was particularly useful both inasmuch as it emphasizes the importance of context, and then completely ignores the importance of context in order to draw the conclusion that, obviously, rail is better and anyone who disagrees is wrong wrong wrong.
The crux of Simon’s argument, as I understand it, is that rail doesn’t just provide a superior qualitative experience: in the long run, it actually beats bus rapid transit at its own game. BRT is promoted as a low-cost rapid transit alternative, but because you can fit more people on a train than a bus, you can run fewer vehicles, pay fewer drivers, and actually save money.
Simon provides charts to show how this is true, at least above a certain level of ridership. He doesn’t provide any sources for his cost estimates, so I wouldn’t actually take this as gospel, but he seems to know what he’s talking about, so for the sake of argument let’s assume all these numbers are right. (Actually, looking at them again, they seem to understate US rail costs compared to Alon Levy’s list, and overstate BRT costs, at least compared to Chicago’s projects. But whatever.) In that case, light rail is cheaper than bus rapid transit in the long run for any line with more than about 50,000 daily riders.
So, Simon concludes:
Personally, I find LRTs more promising for the developed world…. 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.
This may be true. The problem, however, is that in practice, the vast majority of US light rail lines are below Simon’s ridership threshold. Of the three dozen cities or so that either have light rail systems, are building one, or are planning one, exactly five have single lines that carry (or are projected to carry) over 50,000 people per weekday. (Those are San Francisco, Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.)
That means that in roughly 80-85% of US bus/rail arguments that are about an actual or potential piece of infrastructure, Simon’s own analysis suggests that he should be in the anti-rail camp. Or, you know, that this whole thing is more complicated than he’s letting on.
* I would point out, also, that Simon’s cost savings come from having “three to six times” fewer vehicles running with light rail than BRT. That saves a bunch of money, sure, but it also means that vehicles come three to six times less often – meaning that a BRT line with buses every 5 minutes becomes a light rail system with trains every 15-30 minutes. And, in fact, many light rail systems in the US run on exactly those kinds of headways. At that point, light rail becomes hugely more of a hassle, since you have to build an extra 10-20 minutes into every trip to make sure you’ll be on time if you have a long wait for a train. Light rail can come more frequently, of course – but then it loses its labor cost savings over BRT.
** In my last nit-pick, I would also point out that Simon doesn’t do any discounting for future costs, which is not how any cost-benefit analysis has ever worked. That is, money in the future counts less than money in the present, not least because money in the present can be invested in things that produce value now. The lower initial costs of BRT are a bigger deal than he allows, I think.
*** Finally, to ruin my opening metaphor, spaghetti is obviously better than cereal, even for breakfast.