Monday, December 23, 2013

Bus Rapid Transit: A Smorgasbord of Improvements, Rife with Perils

Aaron McFarling's Blog

BRT looks like the big new public works project headed down the chute for quality assurance control in this City of Champions.

"This is an economic development project," clarifies Port Authority interim CEO Ellen McLean. "It gives us a chance to add amenities in the third biggest corridor in the state," including "significant transit efficiency opportunities."

In addition to the common features of bus rapid transit schemes as distinguished from conventional routes -- differently designed vehicles, dedicated and separated lanes, smart signaling etc. -- proponents of the project in Pittsburgh are intending to provide a host of both economic and infrastructure development benefits along the corridor between Downtown and Oakland.

"Above all we've learned BRT is a vehicle for community vitality as well as mobility," says Court Gould of Sustainable Pittsburgh, an organization which has driven the community input process thus far.

Many of the benefits will be centered around Port Authority stations where riders should be able to get in out of the weather, purchase passes, and receive real-time information on arrivals.

"We're working with UPMC on a model station," says McLean, at or near the corner of Atwood and 5th Ave. "A big thing for developers is the permanence of the stations."

Stations should similarly provide development opportunities in the middle of the route, such as Uptown, but such details are yet to be determined.

Two things hold up the process in terms of providing specifics to examine before a federal grant deadline in October.

First, the Port Authority is waiting on the Peduto administration to arrive, appoint and provide direction to somebody on the project Steering Committee -- which also includes the County, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the Allegheny Conference and Sustainable Pittsburgh.

"Remember, this is a City project technically," says McLean. "The financing will likely be TIF".

In recompense for the public financing, the City is likely to seek infrastructure upgrades beyond even that which will be necessary to operate the bus rapid transit, such as bike lanes -- real, raised up, separated-from-traffic bike lanes, for example.

"And you're also opening up streets for things like water and sewer," suggests McLean, though she clarifies she does not want to get ahead of City determinations.

Second, a preliminary engineering and environmental study is underway and set to come back with information on preferred routes, station locations, streetface design, roadway signaling, noise impacts, historic impacts and potential displacement.

It is still unknown whether BRT buses would be better off heading down Forbes and back on 5th, for example, and those determinations will have long-term effects.

There are a lot of possibilities, and a lot of unknowns that need to be known, before the project can begin to move forward. Once it begins, transformations will likely need to be taken on in stages.

The "New Starts" grants of under $250 million for transportation projects "are enormously competitive," warns McLean. In order to win one Pittsburgh would need to bring "total commitment."


There are a variety of concerns circulating about BRT in the public:

  1. It could distract the Port Authority from restoring service cuts
  2. It could ruin efforts to expand light rail to Oakland
  3. It could make the corridor impractical for automobiles
  4. It could bypass poor communities
  5. It could gentrify poor communities
  6. It could prove not worthwhile in terms of improved service
  7. It could be a Trojan horse for future privatization

Call that a mixed bag.

Creepypasta Wiki
There are differences between operating funds and capital funds, and still others among grant money and TIF proceeds. If an organization like Port Authority is fundamentally so incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, then we may as well resign ourselves to failure in all things.

The argument about light rail is more interesting. It was perhaps most eloquently put by one of Pittsburgh greatest electronic heroes of rationality and justice: that the urge to seek BRT is symptomatic of institutional myopia and a conception of transit as a reaction to, not a driver of, economic development.

"The community has decided they want something now" after so many decades of nothing much at all, states McLean at the Port Authority.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether a completed BRT would ultimately or for all time preclude the pursuit of work on expanding light rail east. It is at least theoretically possible that BRT stations can be spaced where plans for T stations have already been drawn up; or that on that shining day when the T is permitted to grow, that BRT resources can be reprogrammed elsewhere.

Concerns about automobile traffic should be addressed in the study, McLean says, but she does not anticipate it should be an insurmountable obstacle.

"I don't know about you, but right now you ride in the middle three lanes," of automobile traffic in Uptown, she says -- not as much the far left or the far right or left lane.

How about whether the convenience and prosperity is going to bypass the communities BRT, well, passes by?

"People believed that because BRT is coming in, we're not going to operate that local service," affirms McLean. But she denies that is the case. Similarly, the mere presence of the concern about gentrification raises questions about a concern over bypassing communities.

Now, in doing our own research, the Comet heard a surprising number of people simply saying transit service between Oakland and Downtown was already smooth and acceptable. Is it really worthwhile to shave 5 minutes off of a 10 minute trip?

Port Authority spokesperson Jim Ritchie offered a critique of that anecdotal research: we were talking only to transit riders. "There are an equal number of people who don't ride the bus, because it stops at every corner," he argued. This is a way to grow the total ridership.

The argument about sneaky privatization, perhaps the one most terrifying to local Democrats, rests upon the suspicion that by upgrading and making distinct certain high-capacity routes, that must be the first step in marketing them to private interests. It is a hard speculation to address.


Court Gould at Sustainable Pittsburgh advises, "The on-going study process has this optimism driving the interest in ways in which BRT can extend prosperity to all in the downtown-Oakland corridor."

Until we know the specifics of what Pittsburghers may be bringing to the table here -- and given the cornucopia of infrastructural and economic life we may breath into the City center alongside an exciting new transit gateway -- engaged optimism seems like the reasonable posture.

There is a school of thought in activism that if the government is conducting a study of something you do not like, you had better kill the study or else kill the project before the study comes back -- or else the manipulative momentum of a rigged study will be too powerful to reverse.

That strikes the Comet as amusingly close-minded and fearful.

Now is not the time to kill Bus Rapid Transit with fire.

Now is the time to lard up the BRT proposal with all the efficiencies, amenities and pleasantries we can possibly attach to it.

The Comet's prescription now is only that the communities BRT would directly impact be given every opportunity to forge synergistic agreements with the regional stakeholders. It should be a matter of excitement how that boils down in terms of infrastructure, economic and transportation benefits.

Even if it does not come to fruition this cycle, that work should still provide everyone mileage.


  1. Let me add one concern. BRT will require enormous public investment from the City at a time when the City has more pressing priorities.

    Also, it is not that BRT is bad. It is just not the best mode of transit for this corridor. I agree with all of the proposed upgrades to stations, notice, ticketing etc. Let's do them now on the busways and the T.

    I also think you discount the issue with traffic in that corridor especially if PAT is now saying none of the local buses are being removed. The uptown area is primed for growth and most of the new visitors/employees/residents will arrive by car even with a new BRT. We need more lanes for cars and bikes not less.

    1. The City's portion of the investment should be pretty small--the vast majority of the funding should come from a combination of the feds, state, and County. And to the extent the City does make a contribution, it should mostly be in the form of a well-designed TIF, which means it shouldn't be reducing the amount of investment resources otherwise available.

      As I have noted before, there have been two major studies supporting BRT in this corridor: the Eastern Corridor Transit Study and the Nelson/Nygaard TDP study. As I have stressed before and below, one of the reasons it makes sense in this particular case is that the Downtown/Oakland corridor serves as the funnel point for a much broader network of bus routes, which could and should share the improved corridor.

      There is no room for more car lanes in Uptown, and in any event trying to deal with peak capacity concerns in cases like this by adding more car lanes is ultimately doomed to failure, because the peak capacity of car lanes is relatively low and induced demand can quickly exhaust the new capacity.

      Of course there are some people who will be traveling to Uptown who will have no practical alternative to using a car, but the best way to help such people is to get the highest possible percentage of people with alternatives to use those alternatives. In that sense attracting more visitors to higher-capacity modes like bus lanes is going to be far more effective than trying to add more car lanes (which isn't really possible anyway).

    2. I disagree that the city's investment will be small. Under the PAT proposal all of the non-transit infrastructure (streetscape, water and sewer, bike lanes, sidewalks, landscaping etc) is on the city.

    3. Anon 10:24, I asked McLean (yippie ki yay!) whether the New Starts grant would all go for busses and stations (Port Authority stuff) or whether some would go for the other transit improvements (City stuff), and she said it's way too early to say, and even then implied it's more a matter for the politicians.

      If it's not for the City, the mere existence of major work around ambitious plans being done in the corridor, in phases even, ought to make it possible to apply for accessory grants from outfits that fund things like bike infra and green infra… recalling that we have to pay for the sewer infra anyway.

    4. But of course the non-transit stuff really isn't a cost associated with the BRT, but rather is stuff the City might want to do in conjunction with the BRT project because that would be an efficient time to do it. To the extent some of that is optional, the City doesn't necessarily have to do it if it can't get the funding, although again this is the sort of stuff where a well-designed TIF might make a lot of sense.

    5. And another concern, BRT has been a disaster in Cleveland. Despite the awards, it has been a failure. Don't read headlines from when top official meet to brag about who has the best project, go talk to people that live there.

  2. As per the capital budget and operational budget, (as both places hold and relinquish $) .... never forget, .... There is a difference between my wallet and my purse too.

    1. Are there federal and state laws restricting transfers between your wallet and purse?

      Ordinarily I am in the "money is fungible" camp as well, but that isn't as true in cases like this where higher authorities are mandating how funds get spent.

    2. The transfer between purse and wallet is a non issue vs. the transfer from either to the carpetbaggers or contractors or pork feeders.

    3. So I take it then you are agreeing with Bram that (1) is not a serious concern (or a "non issue" to use your phrase).

      As for the misappropriation of capital funds, it certainly can be an issue. Of course that possibility isn't a reason to make no capital investments at all--it is a reason for oversight, transparency, a competent fourth estate, and a mindful public.

  3. As I have suggested before, I think it is important to understand that this project could and should just be the central, shared portion of a transferless system that fans out along many different routes. That in fact is the nature of the "Rapid Bus" proposed in the TDP, and of two of the three possible system designs currently under consideration for this project.

    Understanding that possibility helps address every concern but #5:

    (1) PAT's existing BRT routes are already among its most operating-efficient. If this broadly-defined system helped improve operating efficiency for a good chunk of PAT's current system, it could free up operating subsidies for reallocation to other parts of the system, thereby potentially allowing more service at the least-efficient margins of the system (which in fact is where service got cut when the state cut PAT's operating subsidies). Generally, capital expenditures that improve PAT's operating efficiency are usually going to be a good thing from the perspective of maintaining or restoring service at the margins;

    (2) A future subway between Downtown and Oakland would not render this project redundant, because it could still serve its function as a shared resource for this broader network of routes;

    (3) This is an odd concern to begin with, because bus lanes have so much more peak capacity than car lanes, such that if you can get enough car users to switch to bus users, the remaining car users will have proportionately more, not less, peak capacity to work with. Understanding the system could serve new users not just from Oakland but from a much wider variety of origination points could help get this point across;

    (4) The broadly-defined system could reach out into a variety of poorer communities, including Homewood, Wilkinsburg, and Homestead. Of course the farther out from the core corridor with the most improvements, the more diffuse the development incentives would be, but good branding combined with some cheaper improvements along the entire route (e.g., next-bus signage) could help the incentives stay significant;

    (5) But the flip side of that point is that "gentrification" effects could be more widespread than people might otherwise imagine. How to deal with this problem is a very complicated topic, but I think there are usually better ways to deal with gentrification than trying to oppose transit improvements for poorer neighborhoods;

    (6) Understanding that the benefits of improved service along the corridor could be shared, without transfers, with many thousands more riders originating outside the corridor should help alleviate this concern; and

    (7) Privatization is only really a viable possibility where the private partner can charge a higher fare for access to the system in question. That approach can make sense for something like a commuter rail line, and might (although I actually doubt it) make sense for an Oakland-Downtown BRT system that was really discrete from the rest of PAT's system. But once you conceive of these corridor improvements as a shared resource available for bus routes fanning out way beyond the corridor itself, it really doesn't make sense as a plausible candidate for privatization.

    As an aside, I have been thinking about a bumpersticker version of these rather long and wonky posts. So far the best I have come up with is:

    "It's a funnel, not a tunnel"

    But I am open to suggestions.

  4. Unfortunately the political reality is that development of BRT in this corridor will kill any hope of T expansion to Oakland and east and that is a real shame for Pittsburgh.

    1. I actually think if anything the opposite is the case.

      It is important to understand that there is no way under CURRENT political realities that a subway extension to Oakland would get funded, BRT or no. So one way or another, you have to play a long game if you want to see such a subway happen eventually.

      Notably, this has been an issue for around a century now. The problem has always been that such a project would be very expensive, and it is usually seen as a City-specific project. So it hasn't been possible to assemble a sustained political coalition running up through the County, state, and feds that is willing and able to fund a project like that.

      To finally solve this problem, at least a couple things will have to change.

      First, pro-urban transportation policies will have to become entrenched at every level of government, including the state and feds. Unfortunately that is mostly outside of local control (although if more people in Allegheny County understood and were voting in their own interests on these issues, it would help). But there is reason to believe the tide is turning, and eventually that will happen (if for no other reason than cohort replacement).

      The second thing that needs to happen is the pool of stakeholders in such a project needs to be expanded. That's where a BRT project in this corridor could actually be helpful rather than harmful: to the extent BRT encouraged business and residential development in and around this corridor, particularly in transit-dependent forms, it would increase the stakeholder pool for a future subway project.

      Of course that last argument depends on the assumption that there would be enough increased benefit from the subway to justify the expense of adding it. But if that wasn't true, there would be no reason to lament losing the prospect of the subway to begin with.

      However, I believe subway proponents are right--there are lots of reasons to believe a subway extension would bring benefits the BRT system would not (although I also believe the opposite is true, that the BRT system would bring benefits the subway would not). And if that is really true, then building the stakeholder pool while we are waiting for more favorable political dynamics to take hold at higher levels of government is a sound strategy.

    2. The problem is that BRT will hinder residential and retail development. That will really sour people on future initiatives. Our next big investment needs to be a good one and pack a lot of punch. BRT isn't it.

    3. How will BRT hinder development? Please explain. Also - a reminder...BRT is being explored because funding a subway or light rail link between Oakland and Downtown is not possible at this time.

  5. If you want to see the Oakland Perspective, check out the Oakland 2025 Plan we released for OPDC last year, that looks at how the BRT relates to the future of Oakland's neighborhoods. There is an evaluation of alternative routes and multimodal nodes as part of a "complete streets" approach.

  6. I'd note that there is a great example of BRT-based transit-oriented development with both residential and retail components going on right now in Pittsburgh, namely the East Liberty Transit Center/Eastside III development.

    Generally, I've linked before this study of BRT, LRT, and development potential:

    As I suggested before, the takeaway from that study is that when it comes to predicting the development potential of a new rapid transit route, the details of the technology are not particularly important. Most important is whether the route in question has fundamentally high development potential (e.g., existing market demand, developable land, and CBD service), followed by potential development along the route having good public support in terms of planning, zoning, targeted investment, and so on.

    And I think there is every reason to believe all that could and should come together in at least Uptown, and maybe to some degree in other parts of a greater system as well.

    1. This comment was intended to be in reference to the Anonymous comments of December 29 (5:50) and December 30 (10:21) above.

    2. LRT and BRT are very different. There is no reason to believe that BRT will do anything for the corridor it is being proposed to serve. There are already lots of buses that traverse Oakland and Uptown. Why do you think making those buses silver and a little longer will change anything? Please don't just post a study. Seriously, why is it important for the City to invest $150 million (probably more) of money we don't have making the trip from Oakland to Downtown a few minutes faster? Surely there are better uses for that much money in transit initiatives. Here is the key question no one is even asking. Why is this being proposed? Who is pushing it and why? Where is the money coming from for this study? What is their interest? Finally, why are we only studying BRT instead of studying all transit options for the City and then making a choice which option is the best use of that much money (if we even have it to spend).

  7. Great posts, Brian, thanks for sharing your thoughts!