Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An inversion of the usual bus/rail assumptions?

On a thread at discussing the Columbia River Crossing, a controversial project to replace the Interstate Bridge between Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA, there was a rather interesting comment.  Like many of the threads on this subject over at that fine blog, this one turned to one of the key design features being debated: light rail.  The current $4 billion proposal, as well as numerous scaled-down proposals coming from the Portland side, all call for the MAX Yellow Line to be extended across the river into downtown Vancouver.  (The current proposal doesn't have MAX going very far into the Couv, which is far less densely populated--and more politically conservative--than the Oregon side; and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council has selected BRT rather than rail for its future rapid transit backbone).  Many on the Vancouver side, frankly, don't care one whit about light rail and would just as soon that it stay in Oregon (though a recent survey may challenge that assumption).  There's a whole host of other nasty stereotypes and accusations being bandied about by activists on both sides, which I won't repeat here; about the only thing that is agreed on is that the $4 billion proposal, promoted by both states' departments of transportation, is unacceptable.

Commenter Anandakos, a Vancouver resident who is not an anti-transit shill by any means, had this to say:
I'm a 64 year old white guy I/T person who has short hair and showers daily. The middle aged women who are the majority of riders on the Clark County expresses are resentful when I or any other guy like me sits down next to them in an empty seat on the 199 or 105. They only want to sit with other women.
And you expect them to ride down Interstate Avenue with the boom boxes and winos? Get real and get a life! If their express buses are taken away they WILL drive to work.
Anandakos made several other technical arguments concerning MAX service to Vancouver which are not relevant here, go read the thread if you're interested (his comment is the first after the post).

The thing I wanted to highlight is that this is an inversion of the usual state of affairs in bus/rail debates.  Anandakos is positing the existence of a class of choice transit users--in the United States--who are willing to ride a bus line but would abandon transit were it replaced with rail.  Usually, it's assumed that choice riders--and the riders Anandakos describes are choice riders, as they have the option to drive--prefer rail to bus.  Here, it is being claimed that a group of riders prefer the bus.

The 199 and 105 lines which C-Tran (Vancouver's transit agency) runs between Vancouver and Portland, aren't just any busses.  They're express busses which spend the bulk of their time on Interstate 5, not stopping anywhere other than the Portland transit mall and a few transit centers in Vancouver.  Not only that, but they're state-of-the-art Gillig hybrids, with nice interiors more reminiscent of a motor coach--ample amounts of plush seating, personal lights, etc.   The following video, courtesy of punkrawker, demostrates the C-Tran express routes.

Not all busses in C-Tran's fleet are as nice; these vehicles are mainly found on the express routes.

MAX light rail, of course, is MAX.  The Yellow Line generally uses newer trains, but the on-board amenities are spartan, and during rush hour, many of the trains are standing-room only.  MAX generally doesn't get stuck in traffic (which can happen to the express busses), but the trains do stop fairly frequently, whereas the bus runs nonstop between Portland and Vancouver.  In addition, some of the neighborhoods which the Yellow Line passes through (and the C-Tran express pass) by are the sort which some suburban ladies may prefer to avoid.   I pass no judgment myself, of course, and it would be inaccurate to characterize the area as blighted (or worse)--but for those who live on in suburbia because they want to avoid interacting with others of different cultural backgrounds (ahem), a ride on the Yellow Line might be disconcerting.  Like it or not, for many commuters, not having to mingle with those they consider undesirable is a key driver of their transport mode choice.

At any rate, if Anandakos' anecdote is true, it just goes to show that the social acceptability (and perceived safety) of a transit line has to do with many more factors than what sort of wheels are underneath it.  The neighborhoods it calls on, and the amenities offered on board, have as much to do with it--even if one considers that steel wheels can enable a smoother ride than rubber tires on pothole-specked pavement.

[copyedited -- es]


  1. Very similar to a lot of the kerfuffle in Vancouver BC when the Canada Line rapid transit line opened. South of Fraser residents who had previously benefitted from one-seat rides in express coaches from far flung suburbs all the way downtown have now been forced to transfer onto the fairly crowded Canada Line in Richmond, much to their chagrin. The bargain is that supposedly these buses (freed up from having to go all the way into downtown Vancouver) could then be deployed to improve frequencies connecting to the Canada Line.

    That said, I wonder also how the travel time compares; the Canada Line may be a spartan subway, similar in amenity to Interstate MAX, but it really speeds things up compared with rush hour on Granville Street. Because of this advantage, my impression is that threats from former express bus riders to abandon transit probably didn't pan out as much as feared.

    If Interstate MAX doesn't offer travel times that are competitive with the former express bus and the auto alternative, that could be tricky. There's also a major bridge widening and a big mother freeway all the way into downtown Portland to compete with, while Vancouver has the increasingly crowded Massey Tunnel (with bus priority lanes) and surface streets for a long way.

  2. "I want my one seat ride" is a common cry heard whenever a trunk line opens anywhwere; expect to hear it more in Portland in connection with Milwaukie MAX and the LO Streetcar, as these project advance. Over here on the westside, the 57/TV Highway still runs full and frequently, despite being a feeder to westside MAX.

    But as you point out, the Canada Line (a fully grade separated driverless metro running every few minutes during the peak) is a far better alternative than the Yellow Line (surface rail running at 15 minute frequencies that occasionally has to stop at traffic lights)--even ignoring that MAX competes with a freeway whereas the Canada Line competes with surface streets like Granville, Oak, and Cambie.

    A lot depends on what C-Tran does--if it cancels the express runs into Portland, but adds service elsewhere, it may be a good thing: One option of course is to get started on the proposed BRT lines. If, OTOH, C-Tran simply pockets the savings, there may be much grumbling.

    A lot also depends on the quality and frequency of connections--it's a lot better to wait for the bus in your home or your office than it is to be stuck waiting at a transit center somewhere, especially if the "transit center" consists of little more than a shelter, a bench, and a ticket machine.

  3. Consider the fact the the bridge acts as a choke point where demand is rather spread out on the Vancouver side, BRT (or rather bus exclusive lanes) across the bridge (and ideally further towards downtown) may actually be the solution that makes more sense. Interesting.

  4. If done right, that might be a good idea. "Done right" in this context would mean a continuous set of bus-exclusive (or transit-exclusive) lanes running from the bridge down to the transit mall. Getting across the river might be tricky--perhaps the Steel could be closed to vehicle traffic, and road connections improved to the Burnside and Broadway bridges (or perhaps the soon-to-be-streetcar lanes on the Broadway can become transit-exclusive), but given Clark County's apparent preference for BRT, and the fact that the Yellow Line is fairly slow (running in the median of Interstate Avenue, it can't zip along at freeway speeds like the Red, Blue, and Green lines can), this might be a good option.

    Now where one would PUT exclusive bus lanes between the bridge and the Rose Quarter is an interesting question.

    Actually, my preference for the transit lanes is something which can accomodate bus AND rail. Extending MAX into Vancouver isn't a bad idea, especially if one intends the bus lanes in this scenario to have an express stop service between the Couv and the RQ. The Yellow Line can provide local service between North Portland and Vancouver (and function as an alternate route it be necessary), and the transit lanes can provide faster trips between Portland and Vancouver--and might well become continuations of the BRT lines that Clark County wants to build.

  5. Yea, a rail+bus shared lane would be awesome. And since bus/rail already share the same space downtown, I'm assuming that is possible.

  6. I've been there, studying the CTrans operation, and I think this is true, that these bus riders might not ride the light rail.

    The demographics are strikingly different, just as Anandakos notes. I don't respect this attitude at all, but it's real and significant.

    I also think the one-seat ride factor is a much bigger deal than transit planners typically account for.

    What they should do is keep the CTrans buses after the light rail comes and only reduce their frequencies a month or two after the light rail starts when they can see what kind of demand remains. (I submit that operating a full service for a month may very well be cheaper than planning and modeling to plan the service in advance).

  7. I remember before the Los Angeles Metro Blue Line opened in 1990, people that used the express bus (on the Long Beach Freeway) expressed concerns that the light rail trains would be making stops in places like Watts and Compton. "Are the train windows bulletproof?" someone said?

    But, once the train started running, people got used to it, and, within a year, the express bus was history.

    The one seat ride is another matter. Although So. Cal has extensive Metrolink commuter rail service, passengers are (usually) required to transfer to the subway, a bus or a shuttle once downtown. Metrolink has not entirely killed the demand for certain freeway express bus lines, which drop passengers off nearer to their jobs in many cases.

  8. I ride and really appreciate the comfort and speed of the C-Tran 105. I'm happy to pay the extra bucks.

    The trip from Columbia in downtown Vanc to the Portland Transit Mall is 14 minutes in the morning. Yes, it's longer back in the PM but I don't really care. The buses are so comfortable; I doze easily. Whenever, if ever, the CRC is expanded, the return to Vanc will be quicker.

    So far, the CRC documents claim C-Tran will not cancel the Express buses once MAX extends to McLoughlin in Vancouver. I hope that's the case. If my only option becomes the Yellow Line, I'm sure I'll opt for my car again. There's no way I'd ride The White Whale to Vanc.

    Why? Too long. Too slow. Too uncomfortable especially standing in the PM.

    Plus, I dread what plowing LRT through downtown Vanc will do for accessibilty in my town. Plopping LRT on an abandoned rail ROW works, I guess, for the Blue, but ramming it through neighborhoods is bad, bad, bad. Most of Interstate has become a dead zone as a neighborhood. The same will happen in parts of SE Portland when Orange is rammed through.

    I wish TM had built a heavy rail network to service the outlying suburbs like all the more advanced systems back east. Can you imagine LRT being used for the Long Island Railroad?!

    Heavy Rail (not just commuter rail) to/from Longview, Forest Grove, Salem, Hood River.....our children will wish.

  9. The express buses connect people to downtown, lloyd center and pill hill during rush hour. MAX operates all day. The complaints about losing express buses were heard on both the west side and east side when MAX replaced them. It has nothing to do with the type of bus. They are just faster because the route is designed to best serve that one type of trip.

    As for Interstate becoming a dead zone, that just isn't true. In fact, there has been a considerable amount of new development in the short time Max has been in place. New Seasons being the most obvious example. And MAX certainly hasn't made downtown Portland or the Lloyd Center areas "dead zones", nor Hillsboro for that matter. Downtown Vancouver is not exactly a thriving business district now. MAX will no doubt help it.

  10. As Anonymous #2 points out, LRT is all-day service, whereas express bus is frequently only during the peak hours. Which is fine--it's one reason the two services can co-exist.

    The first anonymous notes that the southbound commute on the 105 is generally faster than the northbound commute. Right now, the big bottleneck southbound is approaching the bridge, and since the 105 runs through downtown Vancouver, it bypasses much of the delay, getting on the freeway right before the bridge. Were a new bridge built--even one which wasn't a mega-bridge--it would probably shift the bottleneck south. So an alternate route is important.

    At any rate, express bus is a complimentary service to all-day light rail, not a competing one.

    Regarding longer-distance rail lines to exurbs--the Metro HCT planners looked at this; determining that commuter rail to Salem was probably an excellent idea; and that similar to Newberg or McMinnville a possibility. Commuter rail to other exurbs--including those with existing rail lines, such as Hood river or Rainier, was unlikely to be productive. Washington cities weren't analyzed.

    In the future, if FRA regulations are revised so that passenger trains running on freight lines need no longer be built like tanks and staffed like long-haul freights--such interurban rail may become more likely. But now, even WES isn't cost-effective, and that serves a major employment corridor where the competing freeway is frequently a parking lot.

  11. If we wanted to create a transit service that has comfortingly attractive demographics, C-Tran's express buses are a perfect model: raise the fare and don't let people board using free or discount passes. That's the biggest reason for the different ridership on these buses, I expect.

    It's the same reason ads in iPad/iPhone applications are so valuable -- the only ones who can see them are rich people.

    I wonder what percentage of riders on a typical TriMet vehicle paid full price for their ticket or monthly pass? That'd be an interesting figure.

  12. Price discrimination has long been a staple of long-haul transportation; I'm surprised it isn't found more in local transit. (Of course, in many places, those with a choice won't ride the bus at any price).


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