Thursday, July 15, 2010

The express vs rapid transit paradox

Whenever it seems that a new rapid transit line opens, especially on which runs on rails; there's a bit of a backlash (and sometimes a big one) from riders whose prior service was curtailed as a result of the new transit line, and who view the new line as inferior in some respect.  A particularly common case of this occurs when an express bus (whether a service explicitly signed as express, or one which acts substantially like one) gets replaced with rapid transit--in many cases, the rapid transit line is less "rapid" end-to-end than the express bus it replaced.  While rapid transit service is generally considered more desirable--for those who utilized the express, having it replaced with rapid transit can be a cheese-moving experience.  Thus, there is often much public agitation to not upgrade--hence the paradox.

In Portland, we saw it when the original MAX line opened in 1986, and numerous Banfield express routes were discontinued (legend has it that one well-known TriMet critic got his start due to this reason).  We saw it again in 1998 when Westside MAX opened--no less august a personality than Tom Hughes, the former mayor of Hillsboro and current candidate for Metro president, has complained that his wife was forced to switch from transit to driving when the MAX line opened and the former Washington County express bus service was canceled.  We didn't see it as much with the Yellow Line (the bus that replaced, the 5/Interstate, isn't an express bus; though Hayden Island commuters were inconvenienced); but we'll be sure to see it if and when the CRC gets built (in whatever form) and MAX gets extended into the Couv.  We didn't see it much with the Green Line; but we're hearing it already with the LO Streetcar and riders of the 35, and I'm sure we'll hear it lots with Milwaukie MAX and riders of the 32 and 33.

Conflict of interests

As mentioned in the lead, most transit planners consider a rapid transit line in a given corridor more valuable than an express service.  (Assuming, of course, that demand is there--white elephant projects that don't attract riders are an exception to this principle).  Rapid transit can potentially serve more people, as it has stops all along the line.  (And given the the service is faster than local, the stops are more valuable and attract more riders than a signpost on the corner).   True rapid transit (running predominantly or completely in its own right of way) is generally more reliable than mixed traffic busses or streetcars.  (Of course, when service on a rapid transit line is disrupted, often the disruption is more severe than what happens to busses caught in traffic; busses can often route around problem).  However, none of this stops express bus riders from voicing discontent--for many riders, the only stops which matter are where they get on and where they get off.

The paradox is a common phenomenon.  As transit needs of a community grow, adding express services to complement local service is a common first step.  Express services serve a specific need well--quickly connecting suburban commuters to job centers during peak hours over distances where local service would take too long.  They generally are found in important transit corridors--the sort of corridors which eventually get converted to rapid transit.  And while a limited-stop rapid transit line provides overall superior service to the community--making transit a more viable choice for many along the corridor in question--for end-to-end commuters it often results in a longer trip.

Rapid transit has other disadvantages over express service for these customers, as well.  True express lines, such as C-Tran's express busses to Portland, often use vehicles in coach configurations, where seats are maximized and standing room minimized or eliminated.  Express services often have a demographic mix that suburban commuters find preferable (i.e., other suburban commuters); many users of express lines find the wider demographic mix present on more comprehensive services to be disconcerting.  (Whether for good reason or for bad).  The lack of stopping and starting and opening and closing of doors can make for a more comfortable ride.

Two halves don't always make a whole

Even replacing a local line with a rapid transit line can raise hackles; particular if the rapid line is shorter than the local it replaces.  Such is the case for the two primary bus routes connecting Portland with Oregon City, a third-ring Portland suburb located 13 miles (22km) south, upstream on the Willamette River.  The 33/McLoughlin plies the eastern shore of the river mostly along OR99E, serving the communities of Milwaukie, Oak Grove, and Gladstone before reaching Oregon City.  The 35/Macadam travles on the opposite shore along OR43, through Lake Oswego, Marylhurst.  (Two other bus routes, the 32/Oatfield and the 34/River Road, also serve the area; neither does the volume of the 33 and 35).  The 35 continues past downtown Portland into North Portland; that segment of the route is not considered in this article.
Of course, none of these Oregon City-bound busses is an express bus.   Both have local service stop patterns, but move quickly, and are able to cover the 13 mile distance in 45-50 minutes, depending on traffic.  And as indicated above, both have rail lines planned for the corridors they serve--but only halfway.  Milwaukie MAX will open in 2015, connecting Portland with Milwaukie; and the LO Transit project is investigating opening a rapid streetcar line between Portland and Milwaukie, possibly opening as early as 2017.  When these lines are opened, the 33 and 35 will be converted to feeders terminating at the Milwaukie and Lake Oswego transit centers, requiring Portland-bound passengers to transfer.  (A few other weekday bus lines, such as the 34 and the 36/South Shore, presently end at the transit centers and require transfers to the 33 and 35 respectively). 

In the case of Milwaukie MAX, the new transit service will undoubtedly be faster than the bus.  The planned line has wide stop spacing (.7 miles, or 1.1km between stops on average).  On the LO side of the river, the Streetcar actually will be slower than the bus presently is, although by not much (Metro estimates that increased traffic on OR43 will vastly slow down any bus service on the highway).  Planners are predicting significant increases in usage on both sides of the river, due to the new lines better attracting riders from neighborhoods along the way--predicting up to 6000 riders/day on the Streetcar, and up to 27,000 riders per day on Milwaukie MAX.  Some of those will be users of existing bus services, but the existing busses do not account for those estimates; they include significant numbers of new riders as well.

So is it worth it?

So is this a good idea?  Experience has shown, over and over, that replacing express service with well-designed rapid transit does produce overall increases in ridership.  Some of this is simply the value of rapid transit; some of this may be due to conversion to rail, especially for communities where it is viewed as a more prestigious service.  (I don't care much about the bus/rail debate, but there is evidence, albeit disputed, that a rail preference exists--I will not attempt to justify it).  Of course, a key word is well-designed; replacing local bus service with poorly designed rapid transit is not likely to have the same benefit.

Turning again to the #33 and #35, a stronger case can be made IMHO for the Milwaukie MAX project.  Cost is a major issue, but the line appears to be designed to supply a high quality of service--and many of the infrastructure enhancements (particularly the Caruthers bridge downtown) are valuable for many other reasons.   In addition, prospects for extending the line to Oregon City are good.  The Lake Oswego line is harder to defend for several reasons--it essentially turns into local-stop service closer to downtown, and the predicted number of additional ridership is fairly low; and the geography on the west side of the river makes further extension of the line south very unlikely.  OTOH, the cost for this project is far lower, given that the right-of-way is already owned by the government, and the design standards of the project are far lower.  Some things could be done to mitigate this, but would require significant operational and possibly cultural changes within TriMet. 

What about bus rapid transit?

One proposal which is often made, when rail-based rapid transit projects are considered:  What about building bus rapid transit instead?   The term "BRT" is often a weasel-word, and can refer to anything from minor infrastructure improvements and a new coat of paint, to fully-segregated busways with special-purpose rolling stock with performance that rivals (and in some ways, exceeds) rail.  Assume for the purposes of this discussion that similar amounts of money are available for BRT as for rail.

In many cases, BRT may be an excellent alternative.  If existing routes simply shift to a busway rather than terminating at a transit center, the need to transfer can be eliminated; and the cumulative effect of numerous bus lines converging on a busway trunk can lead to excellent levels of service on the trunk line.  Busways also have the advantage that it's far easier to implement express service than it is on rail; busways simply need pullouts at stops whereas combined express/local service on a rail line often requires additional tracks.  On the other hand, "open" busway systems, where local busses use the busway for part of their route, may not be as efficient as dedicated (closed) systems with special equipment optimized for rapid transit.  (Hybrid systems are of course possible.)  And if environmental issues are a concern, electric-powered rail is "cleaner" than combustion-powered busses.  (Trolleybusses and other electric busses are an option, but these often require their own infrastructure--infrastructure which Portland lacks.  Power systems used to drive rail are not compatible with trolleybusses, which need more complicated and less-reliable dual-wire catenary systems).

BRT would have been an excellent choice for the Milwaukie MAX line, as the Willamette River "funnels" many bus lines into the McLoughlin corridor.  It also would probably be an excellent choice for Barbur Boulevard, for similar reasons (geography funnels numerous lines into the Barbur corridor from Burlingame to downtown).  On the other hand, BRT was probably not a viable option for Lake Oswego, given the existence of an available rail right-of-way, and limitations on the ability to widen OR43 to accomodate dedicated bus infrastructure.

1 comment:

  1. One of the bennies of Milwaukie MAX is that it connects through SOWA and PSU to serve the entire mall. Right now, more people (200+) board the 35 at the Oregon City transit center than at any other stop. When offered a choice of MAX or streetcar, guess which option most OC riders will choose.

    The loss of OC riders will make it very difficult for West Linn residents to keep the frequent service promised in the streetcar extension alternative analysis when the next cash flow crunch hits TriMet.

    The only way for West Linn can be sure to have frequent service long term is an express bus on the west side like the 99 on Mcloughlin.


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