Monday, February 14, 2011

Peak oil, climate change and buses

Jarrett has a thought-provoking post about the age-old rail versus bus debate. But he buries what I think is the biggest advantage that trains have over buses:
Some variable cost differences. Broadly speaking, bus-based projects that use portions of existing roadway will be much cheaper than building rail for those same segments would be. Beyond that, costs for bus vs. rail projects can be hard to compare. Capital costs for rail include vehicles, while a busway is sometimes run with an existing bus fleet. Certain bus-rail comparisons in certain corridors may turn up significant differences in operating cost that may be valid in that situation, but need to be checked carefully to ensure that they assume the same factors on both sides.
Well, sure it's hard, and we need to be careful. But let's focus on ongoing maintenance and operations. Is there really any disagreement on the fact that train cars last longer than buses, that railroads last longer than asphalt roads, and that maintenance per passenger is cheaper for rail infrastructure, both vehicles and roads? Similarly, is there any disagreement that trains are cheaper to operate per passenger, in terms of energy and personnel?

As I wrote last month, some time in the next century we will get to a point where it will be difficult to build more infrastructure, and the pace of construction will drop precipitously. The infrastructure we have then will be more or less what we will have for the following hundred years. The easier it is to maintain and the less energy it requires to operate, the more energy will be available for other purposes.

This is one of the reasons why I get so frustrated with organizations like the Los Angeles Bus Riders' Union that promote buses over trains. Less extreme but still frustrating are the Pratt Institute and the Straphangers Campaign here in New York, and the Institute for Transportation Development Policy which is based here but operates worldwide. There are a few arguments they make, some more defensible than others.

The most obviously bogus argument is that we should never spend anything on capital; all the money should go to running buses as cheaply as possible. If you take that to its extreme the buses will eventually fall apart, so nobody really believes that we shouldn't spend anything on capital. What remains is to find the right balance between capital and operating costs.

Those who argue that we should be spending less on capital owe us an explanation for why we should do this while the government is not spending less on car infrastructure. After all, it's the relative value of transit that will ultimately drive the mode shifts necessary to accomplish most of our goals, and if we stop investing in transit while others continue to invest in roads, the relative value of transit will decline.

The most defensible argument is that we should be investing in transit expansion, but it should be "BRT" (something better than a regular mixed-traffic local bus, to be eternally negotiated downward) and not rail. These arguments clearly ignore the long-term cost of maintenance and operations.

Suppose we could get a network of exclusive busways in all the corridors of the Commute Plan (for instance, PDF), or for the same price we could get exclusive rail of some kind in six of the eleven corridors (I'm just pulling that number out of my ass). And then we run out of oil, and only the rich can drive. People are left using the transit system that's built. Which would you rather have: the rail one that will last for years, or the roads that will get more and more potholed as the years go on?


George K said...

But what about the corridors that don't have enough ridership to sustain a full-fledged rail line, but can easily sustain a BRT line?

Also, even in the densest of areas, there are still people (elderly, people making short trips, etc), that rely on the bus system.

Alon Levy said...

The basic problem, George, is that in cities like New York, BRT is redundant. There's no point in having a separately branded product: buses should have 100% proof of payment and 100% level boarding, and there should be some physically separated lanes on the busiest and most congested links (bridge and tunnel entryways and exit ramps, 125th, QB, etc.).

George K said...

I don't think POP is going to work on low volume routes. Even on high-volume routes, the cost needed to install and maintain the machines at every local stop would be very high.

I think the system is good the way it is now.

JN said...

Why not a hybrid system? San Francisco's Muni Metro, for example, is entirely proof-of-payment. How you pay, though, depends on where you board. In the tunnel and at high-volume stops elsewhere (where Muni's built a high platform), you pay at vending machines before boarding. At other stops, those with proof of payment can board any door, but those who need to pay for a single ride pay at a bus-like farebox in the first car. I see no reason this couldn't be applied to buses as well. You get the speed of boarding afforded by PoP at busy stops, along with the cost savings of on-board collection at local stops.

EngineerScotty said...

Speaking of "BRT" can do more harm than good. As Alon says, we should provide bus service, and we should provide the necessary capital improvements to make it run well.

Branding it as a separate service, especially when done so as low-cost alternative to rail, is not beneficial.

It shouldn't be a choice. We should have high quality transit of whatever mode is appropriate for a given location.

Alon Levy said...

George, in Singapore the cost of a device at which you tap your smartcard is down to about US$750. Three on every bus would be less than $10 million citywide, as would one at every bus stop. And the bus stops don't even need these, not when the fare is flat.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I agree with Scotty. Why can't we just have the BRT without making a big to do over it. I'd love to have dedicated lanes all over the place. Maybe if it was just common place we'd do it more.

Matt Fisher said...

What about screwing up by paving over rail lines?

Oh, and Cap'n, you should see this from the UK about a planned busway north of London where they're attempting to pave over a rail branch still currently intact:

Needless to say, this is one busway that SHOULD not be built, but probably will anyway, while the needed, long overdue electrification of the Great Western Main Line and Midland Main Line will probably be cancelled. :(

It just goes to show that in the UK (and f**k the privatization of British Rail), they should have electrified a long time ago, as was expected in a 1981 study. I tell ya, having only 1/3 of the UK's railways be electrified is a downer compared to other European countries.

Cap'n Transit said...

George, did you miss the part where I was talking about a likely future where private car travel will be so expensive that only the super-rich will be able to afford it? In that scenario there's no corridor in New York City that wouldn't be able to sustain a rail line.

The elderly and people making short trips can take the trolley, which is still rail. And I'm happy for you if you think the system is good the way it is now, but I don't.

Thanks, Matt, for the information about that awful project.

jazumah said...

When private car travel gets that expensive, the government will heavily restrict it to avoid mass unrest. I am sure that the policy wonks in DC already have a plan for synthetic fuel production. The military is already planning for such beginning in 2015 and they usually start things well before they are needed.

The Bus Riders Union had a valid point. LA was building light rail all over the place and neglecting the bus system. The bus will always be the basic building block of every transit system. New York City Transit does a good job of operating and maintaining their buses such that people aren't scared of riding them. However, rail operating costs continue to eat other cities alive because rail is being used as an economic development tool. Thus, they are destroying the functionality of their bus system in order to prop up rail. The FTA has started to grumble about that.

Electric trolleybuses are usually kept for 40 years. A heavy duty Proterra style electric bus can last that long if built well, but I'm not so sure that the cost tradeoff is worth it. Maintenance is something that is under a tremendous amount of pressure lately.

George K said...


I didn't think of trolleys being able to replace bus lines.

Brandon said...

GeorgeK: why not? Most bus lines replaced a trolley line in the first place.

George K said...

I was thinking that they wouldn't have the ridership for it. Then again, if everybody moves into a denser, more walkable city (and if nobody can afford to drive), that should be less of a problem.

Matt Fisher said...


You're welcome. I hope that the Luton to Dunstable busway is scrapped and rail is restored, preferably electrified.

Unfortunately, in the UK, the same mistake has already been done in Cambridge with a "guided busway" using a perfectly good rail corridor from Cambridge to the nearby town of St. Ives that could link to the busy East Coast Main Line (ECML) linking London and Scotland, and giving Cambridge improved access to the ECML as a result. Instead, the UK government recommended a "cheaper" busway, but the cost ended up being higher than budgeted and has generally been judged in the UK to be a folly.

Besides, back in Luton, the local council has enthusiastically promoted the busway project with zeal. They are saying that it will be a good thing, and in a video circulating somewhere, Luton Councillor (British spelling of "Councillor" used here by me, not American spelling) Roy Davies has been dismissing a supposed "small number of noisy objectors". Yes, he said that.

I've never been to the UK, but I have been reading a lot about rail developments there, since it's the birthplace of the railway, and electrification of rail lines over there are absolutely necessary, in my opinion.

BBnet3000 said...

@Matt Fisher, while I generally support electrification as well, paving over an existing rail line is very stupid precisely because trains need not be electrified. They should definitely look into DMU light rail as a possible alternative as well.

Cap'n Transit said...

Joel, the problem with "synthetic fuel production" is that the energy has to come from somewhere, and it usually takes a lot more energy to synthesize fuel than you get out of it. With peak oil we're simply looking at having a lot less energy to use, and the less energy we spend moving steel around, the more we'll have to move people around.