Yes, We Can Learn From The Developing World; or, Keeping an Open Mind About BRT
A Transmilenio bus rolls smoothly into Bogota. Photo by adrimcm.

A Transmilenio bus rolls smoothly into Bogota. Photo by adrimcm.

I hate to do another round on BRT with The Overhead Wire, but I can’t help myself. It’s an important discussion, particularly with BRT gaining momentum in D.C.

The latest discussion started with Streetsblog making what seems like a very modest claim. Ben Fried argued that the latest delay in the Second Avenue Subway construction timeline makes BRT seem more attractive, writing that: “Eight years is a long time to ask people to wait, especially when a viable alternative like physically separated Bus Rapid Transit can be provided much sooner, at much less expense.”

The Overhead Wire did not agree. He begins by writing that:

Streetsblog is at it again with BRT. When do we get a streetfilm on Berlin or London’s or Tokyo’s or Hong Kong’s or Moscow’s or Paris’ or Helsinki’s or (name amazing world city with a subway here) Underground? Probably never because we only take good ideas from third world countries. (insert joke about becoming one here)”

The bulk of the substance of his argument comes in this section:

“Then how about talking about these issues:

Paying union wages for 30 second headways
Fumes that come from the buses because they won’t electrify
Using more oil for IC engines
Roadway damage that will occur along the way
Replacing those buses every 12 years or sooner
Crowding that is acceptable in Curitba and Bogota
Speeding buses and pedestrians
Bus traffic sewers on the streets
Actually taking lanes from drivers when you can’t even get road pricing

You want less people to ride transit? Then build inferior transit. In all actuality though, this country needs more Metro Subways. You know, the kinds of things they have in first world countries on the European continent.”

Ryan Avent came for the assist, arguing that not investing in rail is ignoring rail’s history of success in generating investment. Avent’s point is well-taken, though I don’t think he addresses why permanent bus stations and other features of full BRT don’t fix the problem. There is good research showing the capacity of BRT to stimulate development.

The Overhead Wire’s comments, though, need addressing. I think that The Overhead Wire’s commenters do a good job of making two important points: that there is no sinister BRT agenda and that the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good (that latter point is the most important one, I’d say). An anonymous commenter also does a good round of point-by-point critiques.

I want to start at the level of detail and then move to a broader critique of this argument. First, the environmental effects of bus versus rail, whether in fumes or oil, depend on both the bus and the power source. It’s far from clear that hybrid buses are less clean than coal power plants, and a number of studies have shown BRT to be cleaner than LRT (and others have not, the point is that this is neither settled nor conclusive).

Second, The Overhead Wire is trying to have it both ways with the 30-second headways and the crowding. He knows perfectly well that the number of people on each bus goes down as the number of buses goes up. At the point where you have 30 second headways between 60-foot articulated buses, there will not be crowding. Now I don’t expect to see 30 second headways. But honesty would be nice. It’s things like this that make The Overhead Wire seem so dogmatic about it.

Third, the comments about buses and pedestrians or “bus traffic sewers” reflect what I think is actually going on here. These comments, to my eye, are a way of associating buses with cars. There’s a famous image that shows the amount of space it takes to move the same number of people by car, bus, or bike:

Yes, you will still need crosswalks and a proper pedestrian infrastructure. But BRT obviously makes streets more, not less, pedestrian friendly as compared to using the same lanes for cars. Also, the “bus traffic sewer” line is just ugly. It’s exactly as persuasive as an anti-streetcar advocate talking about “rail traffic sewers;” it’s content-free.

But the thing that really rankles me, that made me need to respond, is the attitude that The Overhead Wire takes towards the developing world. To dismiss innovation that happens in the third world as only good for the third world and innovations that happen in Europe as the only ones worthy of American consideration is problematic at best. Is it so hard to imagine that Brazil and Colombia may have made an innovation that the developed world did not?

To claim that “For a fraction of the cost you get a fraction of the ridership and a fraction of the service” or “you get what you pay for” is to argue that there is no innovation in BRT at all, that it is merely one more step on a linear function of quality that ends at subways. That is plainly false. Bogota and Curitiba have figured out how to get more bang per transit buck and we should be not only willing but excited to learn from them. That doesn’t mean that BRT is always the answer; that would be crazy. But the dismissal of BRT as cheap and Third World is offensive.

On the merits, NYC should put in BRT if it thinks it can’t get the subway quickly enough or if it thinks Albany is going to get in the way, but should have a subway if they can pull off now what they’ve been trying to do for 70 years. Here in D.C., I’d say something similar. Where we can have new subways lines that are integrated with the Metro heavy rail network at something even approaching cost-effectiveness (not the FTA version!), that should be the goal, but in the absence of that full-investment BRT is often going to be an attractive solution.

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