Read Will Doig's fine short article at Salon today, and not just because it quotes me.
In Greater Greater Washington (GGW), Jenifer Joy Madden and Malcolm Kenton have written an excellent summary of my talk at APTA in Washington DC last week, which GGW also partly sponsored. It also includes this photo, which makes me look a bit like a preacher. (Click to enlarge, if you must.)
If you missed my talk(s), please read the article but also the comment thread, in which some people accuse me of "anti-rail bias" and others say everything I would say in response to that. This is gratifying to say the least. It's fun to be applauded, but it's far more fun to be understood.
The state government that rules Sydney is giving signs that it's ready to tear down the city's monorail, ostensibly for a rebuild of the convention centre but also to remove some obstacles to surface light rail, including game-changing new line down the middle of Sydney's CBD spine, George Street. Jake Saulwick has the story in today's Sydney Morning Herald.
A source from one consortium [bidding to build a new convention centre] said no decision had been made ''but the word from the government is 'don't let the monorail constrain your thinking' ''.
''Conversely they say the light rail is quite important.''
This could be read as a story about big bad developers destroying a crucial transit resource, but it's not. The Sydney Monorail, opened in 1988, is the red line in the map below: a one way loop connecting the CBD to the nearby tourism-entertainment-convention district of Darling Harbour:
Map by discoversydney.com.au
Like many transit toys, it was built cheaply on the assumption that the joy of the technology itself would transcend its lack of usefulness. Its most obvious use is for travel between the convention/exhibition area on the west side of the loop to the city centre in the east, but the key stations on the west side of the loop, serving the convention/exhibition area and Paddy's Markets, are attached to parking structures, offering an unattractive walk to the destination itself. The fare is $5.00. Meanwhile, it's less than 1.5 km (1 mile) walk from one side of the loop to the other, mostly along reasonably pleasant paths that lead to the front door of your destination, though to be fair there is one elevated waterfront freeway in the way.
I lived and worked in inner city for five years, crossing the monorail's service area on foot several times a week. Twice in that time, in very bad weather, using the monorail made sense to me.
The monorail is a barrier to light rail, indirectly, because its pillars form a bottleneck in a potential north-south traffic lane on Pitt Street, and this lane could be useful in rearranging street uses to create room for a light rail line the whole length of George Street, the largest continuous north-south street in the city's core. Light rail is being designed to be useful. It will be in an exclusive lane (which is why it's not being called a "tram") and it will form the common CBD segment for several lines branching out in several directions, serving high-demand corridors in the inner city. Its high capacity (in the sense of passengers per driver) and its two-way service in high-demand places will make it a real transit service, unlike the tiny one-way loop of the monorail.
Next time someone wants to introduce a fun new technology into your city using a one-way loop, remember:
For more on those principles, see Chapter 4 of Human Transit.
Finally, monorails are fun to ride, but most people experienced this one from being underneath it. This was just a single beam for one-way loop service, causing all the problems above, but it was still much-disliked, especially in the narrow streets of the highrise core where it added to the sense of overhead weight above the pedestrian.
To be fair, it's less oppressive than, say, the Chicago "L" or many other downtown viaducts. A transit advocate might fight hard for exactly this kind of visual impact if it was the only way to get useful two-way service through a high-demand area. In fact, one of the best uses of monorail is in historic and very crowded areas where the combination of archeological and ground-plane impacts of any transit service simply mandates elevated as the least bad solution -- parts of New Delhi, for example. But the Sydney monorail had few of these benefits. Perhaps it was just a toy, and Sydney has outgrown it.
Here is an outtake from an early draft of my book, written at a time when I intended to confront technology choice issue more directly than I ended up doing. (There turned out to be a book's worth of stuff to explain that was even more important than that, so the next book will likely be about technology choice.)
Darrin Nordahl's My Kind of Transit argues the opposite of my view here. Since I am debating Darrin tomorrow in a webinar (for US Green Building Council members only, alas) I thought I'd post this in the spirit of cheerful provocation.
In Chapter 2 of Human Transit, I argue that useful transit can be understood as involving seven dimensions or elements.
1. “It takes me where I want to go.”
2. “It takes me when I want to go.”
3. “It’s a good use of my time.”
4. “It’s a good use of my money.”
5. “It respects me.”
6. “I can trust it.”
7. “It gives me freedom to change my plans.”
The dominant mode in a community is the one that best addresses the seven demands, compared to the available alternatives, in the perception of the majority of people. In a rural area, or a low density suburban one, the automobile meets all seven demands handsomely. You can drive to just about anywhere (demand 1). The car is in your garage when you need it (demand 2). It is the fastest way to get to most places (demand 3) and thanks to many government subsidies it is relatively cost-effective to own (demand 4). It is comparatively comfortable (demand 5). You maintain the car, so you have some control over its reliability (demand 6). Finally, it’s easy to change your travel plans mid-trip (demand 7).
In core areas of Paris, London, or New York, these same demands explain why the rapid transit system, not the automobile, is dominant. Rapid transit goes to every part of the city that many people want to go to (demand 1). It runs every 5-10 minutes for 18 hours a day or more, so there is always a train coming in a few minutes (demand 2). It can easily be faster than driving (demand 3), and is certainly cheaper given the high cost of big-city parking (demand 4). It is probably weakest in demand 5 -- the comfort and sense of respect -- but some systems do a good job at this, especially away from the crowded rush hour, and in any case the high speed means a fast trip where a period of discomfort is more tolerable. It’s reliable (demand 6) -– or at least, it’s big news when it fails, so you’re likely to be forgiven for being late. Finally, the rapid transit systems of these major cities offer a level of freedom (demand 7) that is hard to achieve in a car, which faces the constant problems of parking and congestion. You can spontaneously get off at any station, for example, knowing that when you’re ready, another train will be along soon to complete your journey.
The seven demands collectively define the dimensions of a transit service that most people in a society would rationally decide to use. If transit satisfies these seven demands, to the standards of the people that it is trying to serve, and compared to their alternatives, then the transit service is useful. useful service to denote service that is good enough in its seven dimensions that given the alternatives, many people would rationally choose to use it.
(Note that by useful (and later useless) I mean useful or useless as transportation, because that is transit's primary task, just as firefighting is the fire department's primary task.)
Now here’s a key point: “many people” may not mean “people like me.” An effective strategy for maximizing the use of transit can't serve everyone, because some people are just not cost-effective to serve, so success as a strategy may be different from usefulness to you or the people you know. If your friends will only ride streetcars rather than buses, but your town is too small to fill streetcars to the point that their capacity is needed, then your friends may just be too expensive, and too few, to be a good service investment for a transit agency focused on citywide demand. Likewise, if you live in a low-density area, and you wonder why transit isn’t useful to you, the answer may be that you form too sparse a market for transit to efficiently focus on. Chapter 10 is all about the challenge of hard-to-serve markets and how, or even whether, subsidized public transit should be trying to serve them.
Still, most public transit services aspire to attract a wide range of people, and breadth in the market is important for political support. Of course, most transit agencies cannot hope to capture a majority of the travel demand in their communities, or even to their downtowns, but they can provide services that many people will find useful -- enough to get many cars off the road and dramatically improve mobility for everyone. A great deal of research has been done, and much remains to be done, about the seven dimensions of the useful and how good transit really needs to be at each of them to achieve a city’s goals.
The key idea, though, is that useful transit will appeal to a diverse range people with different origins, destinations, and purposes. The more diverse the market that can be rationally attracted onto one transit vehicle, the greater the potential for the service to grow and prosper, and to help the city achieve higher levels of economic activity with lower numbers of cars. Again, though, some people will be too expensive to serve, and if you’re one of them, you’ll need to distinguish between your private interest and the public good.
A vast range of public comments fall into the seven values that form useful transit. Did we leave anything out? Well, what about comments such as:
“I like the logo.”
“I like what it says about my community.”
“It’s on rails, and I just like rail.”
“Streetcars make the community more attractive.”
“They gave me this really cool coffee mug.”
“It’s lots of fun to ride.”
These comments may seem to overlap some of the vaguer demands that fall under the fifth element of useful transit (“It respects me.”) but there is a crucial difference. The concept of “respect” in the definition of useful transit includes demands that are subjective and perhaps unmeasurable, but there is wide agreement about these demands in a given culture.
In most societies, at least in the developed world, most people will not choose to sit in a seat next to a pool of urine. Pools of urine in a seat indicate the failure of the service to respect the passenger, and thus a failure to be useful, because the revulsion that a pool of urine causes is nearly universal in the society.
Some cultures may react differently to a pool of urine, so clearly, the boundary of the useful is culturally relative, but it can still be defined for a given society. Useful service, in its subjective fifth dimension of “respect,” is determined by what the vast majority of people in the society, or at least the target market, consider acceptable.
But many subjective comments are not universal, such as the ones listed above. A beautiful free coffee mug may motivate some people to feel good about transit, or even to try riding it once, but most people do not make their routine mode choices based on such gifts. Even if a coffee mug lures you onto the bus or train, it is unlikely to make you more comfortable sitting next to a pool of urine. Clearly, the absence of a pool of urine is a fundamental requirement in a way that commemorative coffee mugs are not. The absence of urine, then, is part of the definition of service that “respects me,” and therefore part of the definition of useful service. The commemorative coffee mug is … something else.
For aspects of a service that do not fall within the culture’s requirements for useful transit, but are nevertheless perceived as fun, nice, good to have, attractive to tourists, etc., let me propose the term endearing transit. By this term, I mean any aspect of a service that engenders good feeling, but that do not seem to be essential for achieving ridership. The boundary between demand #5 of useful transit (“It respects me.”) and demands for endearing features such as a cute paint scheme is simply the boundary between values that are nearly universal in the culture and values that are not so universally shared, or that seem to be a lower priority in people’s actual decisions about how to travel.
Another way to think about the useful/endearing distinction is that useful features of transit encourage regular use, but endearing features encourage occasional use motivated by curiosity or pleasure, which is why endearing services are often justified by the economic rewards of tourism and recreation. Endearing transit is often about fun, or about the way that the service contributes to the community’s general “look and feel,” but it also includes obsessions with any transit technology that go beyond that technology’s usefulness.
“Endearing” may seem like a loaded word, but the other words commonly used for these values are simply too vague. We constantly hear about service needing to be more “convenient” or “attractive,” but if you press on these terms they usually come apart into some measurable element of usefulness, such as speed or frequency, plus some strong but obscure sentiment that isn’t really about the service at all. The endearing, then, includes all of the values people bring to transit that are not related to whether transit is useful, where useful is defined by the seven demands that we’ve summarized.
Endearing aspects of transit are important, because subjective perceptions unrelated to service do influence whether people choose to use transit. However, there remains a vast difference in importance between the endearing and the useful. The difference is this: Many people will use service that is useful, even if it is not especially endearing. Relatively few people will use service that is endearing but useless, with the major exception of tourists and others who are travelling for pleasure. Endearing transit may attract tourists and others for whom the ride itself is the purpose of traveling, but if the service is useless, it will not attract anyone who needs to get somewhere at a particular time, and it is these people – people who just need to get somewhere – who make up the vast majority of travel demand in all but the most tourist-centered communities.
Effective transit planning, then, must start with a diligent focus on the useful. It will make the service as endearing as possible, but it never sacrifices the useful for the sake of the endearing, unless a tourist or recreational market is its primary aim.
If tourism and recreation are the aim, the success of the service is not measured by whether it gets you where you’re going within acceptable bounds of time and cost, because there are enough people who will use the purpose solely for the purposes of fun. Endearing-but-useless services succeed or fail not on their value as transportation, but on their value as entertainment. If our goal is to add a new kind of attraction to our community, then they may meet that goal, but we must not mistake these services – essentially amusement-park rides with multiple access points -- for a useful service that many people will logically choose to ride day after day. We may all enjoy riding a Ferris wheel, but that doesn’t mean we’d enjoy commuting on one.
(Many endearing-but-useless services can be understood as amusement rides with multiple points of access.)
Perhaps the world’s most famous endearing-but-relatively-useless transit services are the cable cars of San Francisco, particularly the lines running to Fisherman’s Wharf and particularly during the daytime. Developed in the late 19th century as a strategy for serving hills that were too steep for horses, these charming vehicles have been preserved on three lines as part of the city’s identity and tourist appeal. Until recently they were presented as essential parts of the city’s transit network, but their contribution to actual transportation within the city is minuscule.  Now, because they are so specialized around tourism, recent budget cuts have raised their fares dramatically to capture their high operating cost, further separating them from the vast and integrated transit network that most riders use.
Cable cars run on tracks, but unlike other rail services they have no means of propulsion within themselves. Instead, they have handles that reach through a slot in the middle of the trackway and grab onto a cable that slides continuously underneath the street at a speed of nine miles per hour. Cable car “gripmen” learn the delicate art of grabbing this cable in a gradual way that provides some sense of acceleration, while a second crewman, the “conductor”, operates brakes located at the opposite end of the vehicle. When no braking seems to be needed, conductors also collect fares. Because the grip apparatus and the brakes are at opposite ends of the car, cable cars require two transit employees, so they cost much more to run than typical buses or rail vehicles, even before we take into account the expense of maintaining a technology that is now unique in the world.
In high season, tourists may stand in line for half an hour or more to board these cars at the foot of Powell Street. Once they reach the front of the line, they scramble to fill a car to bursting. A cable car has a small enclosed cabin, but most of its riders sit on side-facing seats that face directly onto the street without any protective railing. Around the edges of the car is a narrow platform with vertical bars. The last or most adventurous passengers stand on this platform and cling to these supports. On a fully loaded cable car, about 30% of the exterior surface consists of customers’ bodies.
Finally, off we go. In the first three blocks of Powell Street, the cable car mixes with traffic, often in severe congestion. Through this segment, the car is rarely faster than the pedestrians walking alongside it. Finally, we begin the steep climb on Nob Hill. On the ascent, the cable car has its own reserved lane, which finally allows it to reach its maximum cable-driven speed of nine miles per hour. Passengers on the side platforms lean inward as cars and trucks fly past at three or four times that speed.
When we reach the top of the hill, we go back to sharing a lane with cars, and from there to Fisherman’s Wharf we stop constantly – not just for passengers, but for the obstructions of left-turning or double-parked automobiles, delivery trucks, and so on. Perhaps we even stop for 15 minutes while a tow-truck is called to remove a poorly-parked car that is blocking the rails. In theory, the cable cars run every few minutes. In fact, they encounter so many obstacles that it would be unwise to count on them to be on time.
I lived for seven years just a few blocks from the Powell-Hyde and California cable car lines, but I used them only late at night, when traffic was low and the crowds were gone, and even then, the parallel buses were usually more useful. Most of the time, the cable cars were useless to me. Many people who live in the neighborhoods served by the cable cars reach the same conclusion, so the riders packing the cable cars tend to be mainly tourists, who are riding for recreation rather than to reach a destination quickly. After a 1993 cable car accident, the San Francisco Examiner listed all of the occupants of the car. Only two lived in San Francisco: the conductor and the gripman.
Describing the cable cars as endearing-but-mostly-useless doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them. They are a crucial piece of recreational infrastructure in a very scenic and tourist-oriented part of San Francisco. Their very high operating cost per passenger is borne by the city as an investment that pays off in attracting tourism – fundamentally the same kind of investment decision that causes cities to buy distinctive streetlight fixtures or encourage horse-drawn buggies for hire. It’s an amenity, one that makes San Francisco obviously special in ways that tourists in particular will value. Those may be good investments, but they’re quite separate from the core purpose of transit, which is to help people get where they’re going.
Again, by useful service I mean service that addresses all of the six basic demands of transit. Useful service takes you where you want to go, and when, in a way that is a good use of your time and money; it offers a decent level of comfort and courtesy, and gives you the freedom to change your plans. Nevertheless, the logo may not be to your liking, and the type of vehicle may not be what you prefer. The agency may even lack a commemorative coffee mug.
In many transit agencies, well-intentioned people are pouring their time into making useless services more endearing. Often, marketing specialists are charged with simply improving the “image” of the agency, regardless of whether the agency offers useful service. The effort isn’t totally futile, but it is often close. Although it’s harder to measure than the useful, the endearing is easier for many people to talk about. Endearment is about feelings after all, so on the surface, it’s a domain where any opinion is as valid as any other. In conversations about transit, many people focus on the endearing not because they accept transit’s uselessness, but because they aren’t sure how to talk about what makes transit useful.
To compound this problem, the features that constitute useful transit – features such as frequency, speed, and so on -- are often described as “technical.” This term misleads us in two critical ways. First, it wrongly suggests that only experts can understand these features. Second, it suggests that these features can’t possibly be as important as things we all know how to talk about, like logos, slogans, color schemes, or the indisputable “romance of the rails.”
In fact, the seven values that comprise useful transit are easy to understand if we stop to think about them. By contrast, if we ignore them in our passion for the endearing, we risk creating services that are endearing-but-useless. If this book focuses heavily on the useful, it’s not because the endearing is unimportant, but because the idea of useful transit is so taken for granted that it’s actually quite poorly understood. Explaining useful transit is the core challenge of this book.
 In a city where total daily transit ridership is around 700,000, the three cable car lines combined carried about 24,000 daily trips, as measured by the SFMTA Transit Effectiveness Project in the summers of 2007 and 2008. http://www.sfmta.com/cms/rtep/tepdataindx.htm
 This unreliability is shared by all transit vehicles that must run in mixed traffic, but especially rail vehicles, as they cannot maneuver around a small disruption – such as a poorly parked car intruding slightly into its lane – as buses routinely do.
Darrin's thesis: Transit should be more fun.
Mine: Transit should be more useful.
But we also agree on many things. He's a great guy, and moderator Lloyd Alter is worth watching, too. Here.
If you've come from today's interview of me in Portland's free weekly Willamette Week, please note that while I certainly stand by my own words, my work on "rail vs bus" questions is easily misunderstood. In fact, my work is all about giving you better ways to frame the question, ones that focus on the outcomes that we want.
For a quick intro to my work on the issue, see especially these articles:
And there's a lot more in the "Streetcars (Trams)" category. A full list of categories is in the next column -->
From a correspondent in Portland:
Among my peer group [educated people in their 20s-30s] I see a "mono-modal" fixation on cycling, very similar to the attitude many drivers have that their primary mode should be everyone's primary mode. It really is remarkable how many young, affluent, educated folks living in inner Portland see cycling as the only legitimate travel mode for all people everywhere. My [peers] basically scoff at the idea that I might prefer to take the bus to and from school when it is rainy or dark out. I see walking, biking, and transit as three completely complementary modes that support a car-free or car-light lifestyle, but I'm realizing that in Portland at least there is a large group of people in the cycling community who see both cars and buses as the enemy, or at least not an option worth considering or supporting. This might help explain TriMet's underinvestment in the bus network, since politically active young people do not support transit.
I've been away from Portland too long to have my own impression, but if this is true it's certainly unfortunate. While there are some conflicts between bicycles and transit in road design, I have always tried to accommodate both. I don't necessarily believe bike lanes can be accommodated on every street, any more than transit is, but I do think both cycling and transit deserve and can have complete and functional networks.
How common is a monomodal fixation on bicycles? If so, why does it occur?
There's nothing wrong with cycling advocacy, or advocacy of any mode, until it becomes hostile toward other aspects of the full sustainable transport package. Wouldn't advocacy for the suite of sustainable transport options (walking, cycling and transit, supplemented by carsharing etc.) be more effective than endless conflicts among these modes?
This blog rarely goes on about interesting transit vehicles, since my main interest is in getting people where they're going in whatever vehicle makes sense for the purpose. But while working in Wellington last month, I made early morning ritual of climbing to the Botanic Gardens summit just west of downtown, and on one such walk I took some time to admire the cable car.
"Cable car" generally means any vehicle attached to a cable that provides the locomotion. The car has no engine, but an engine of some kind is moving the cable. The cable can be aerial (gondolas, aerial trams) or underground (San Francisco cable cars) or it can just lie on the surface in a special guideway, as in most funiculars. Wellington's is essentially a funicular: it runs in a dead-straight track up the side of a steep hill. The two cars are fixed to the ends of a single cable, connected at the top, so that they move in counterweight fashion, one car rising as the other descends.
Unlike most funiculars, though, it has more than two stations -- five in fact. At Talavera station in the exact middle, tracks widen out so that the cars can pass. Everywhere else the cars share one track, but with two separate rollers for the two cables:
(In this case, the presence of just one cable means that one car is below us, the other above.)
The spacing of the other stations is limited by the design or the system, because when a car is at the station one up from the bottom, the other is stuck the same distance below the top. In Wellington, even spacing of stations -- not always ideal for local geography -- ensures that both cars are at stations whenever they stop.
But enough with technology fetishes. Why is this thing useful?
Easy: it's a straight line, running at high frequency, through high density, where competitors are at a disadvantage.
Cable cars (aerial or surface) can make sense in settings where you want a straight line up the side of a steep hill -- especially if there's no straight road that a bus could follow. That's exactly what the Wellington line (marked by the five yellow pins) is:
The terminal stations are Lambton Quay in the heart of downtown and the Botanic Gardens summit. There's demand everywhere on this dense hillside. Botanic Gardens station offers a level walk into the fairly dense Kelburn district to the southwest, while Lambton Quay is right on the Golden Mile, where buses come every minute or less to take you north or south through downtown, and beyond.
The other stations are Victoria University, one down from the top, Talavera in the middle, and Clifton, one up from the bottom. Victoria University's campus is visible on the south side of the above image. It has its own bus services, but it's a short level walk along a terrace to its station.
And while climbing this hill is something I might do as early morning exercise, it's understandable that you might want an alternative to that. The climb is 120m of elevation gain in only 612m of horizontal length, a grade of nearly 20%.
But the real reason I thought to write about it is the interesting feature observable at the top.
As a result, it's possible to open the car on both sides and produce a level boarding from the surrounding ground. Where the car dwells at the top, as in this image, you can even walk right through the car as though it were part of the sidewalk.
I'm always interested in ways to make transit feel more continuous with the pedestrian realm. I long for buses with precise docking for absolute level boarding -- not just to eliminate the delay of wheelchair ramps but also to create a feeling that the bus is a moving piece of sidewalk, that you are not leaving the street to crawl into an oppressive enclosure. Local transit won't really feel effortless to use until we have this effect.
So that's why this image appealed to me, so much that I even indulged some uncharacteristic technology-fetishism. Because the effect in this picture in important, and if I need a cable car to get it, I'll take a cable car.
US News and World Report claims to have identified the 10 best US cities for public transit:
1. Portland, OR
3. New York
7. Los Angeles
9 (tie). Denver
9 (tie). Austin
All fine cities. The methodology:
The rankings take into account per capita spending on public transportation, number of safety incidents per million trips, and the number of trips taken per capita.
But then there was this:
Analysis of data from the Federal Transit Administration and APTA shows which cities are among the best in the country for public transportation. All of these cities' systems have unique features that set them apart. Portland's public transit provides riders with a variety of travel options, including buses, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, and an aerial tram.
Aargh! Diversity of technologies says nothing whatever about travel options! And if Portlanders really did have the options of a bus, a light rail train, a commuter rail train, a streetcar, and an aerial tram all competing for the same trip, that would be a pretty silly network, wouldn't it?
UPDATE: Followup post is here!
When you think about transit technologies, how do you categorize them? And why?
Have a look at this first table, which sorts services according to the exclusivity of their right of way. The terms Class A, B, and C are from Vukan Vuchic, describing the basic categories of "what can get in the way" of a transit service.
Is this table two rows, each divided into three columns? Or three columns, each with two rows? Which distinction is more fundamental, and which is secondary?
Right-of-Way Class vs Rail-Bus Distinction
Exclusive right-of-way and separated from cross traffic
Exclusive right-of-way, NOT separated from cross traffic.
Mixed with traffic, including mixed with pedestrians.
Most rail rapid transit, using “third rail” power sources. Most classic “subway” and “metro” systems.
Most “light rail” in surface operations. Parts of some European and Australian tram networks.
Most North American streetcars. Many European and Australian trams.
Separated busways: (Brisbane, Ottawa, Bogotá, and segments in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh) Freeway bus/HOT lanes.
At-grade busways: Los Angeles Orange Line, Western Sydney busways, etc.
Buses in mixed traffic.
Well, if your objective is to get where you're going fast and reliably, the Right-of-Way Class tells you a lot about a services's potential to do that, while the rail-bus distinction, in isolation, tells you nothing. The fact is, both rail and bus technologies are capable of the complete spectrum of possibilities. Both can average 6 mph (10 km/h) in Class C situations, and both can run Class A at 60 mph (100 km/h) or more.
RIght-of-way isn't the only thing that matters for getting you where you're going. There's also stop spacing, with its inevitable tradeoff between speed and local access.
Stop Spacing vs Rail-Bus Distinction
(faster = fewer stops)
(slower = more stops)
(one long nonstop segment)
“Subway”, “Metro”, some commuter rail.
Tram / Streetcar
Some commuter rail.
Bus Rapid Transit,
Commuter express bus (often on freeway)
... and of course there are other essential distinctions like frequency, which are also entirely separable from rail and bus technologies.
UPDATE: Please note, yet again, that contrary to early comments I am NOT claiming that these are the only distinctions that matter. As I laid out in some detail here, there are several distinctions that matter. In fact, one of the reasons that people cling so hard to the rail-bus distinction is that the other crucial distinctions are a little more complicated and require some thought, and it's hard to think about this stuff in the political space where decisions get made.
Rail services do tend to be presented in ways that "package" the various crucial dimensions of usefulness. Typical metro systems, for example, are guaranteed to be frequent, with rapid stop spacing, and Class A right of way, because all three are intrinsic to the metro technology, so there's a psychological "packaging" effect when you see a metro map; you can be confident that this means a certain level of service.
I think these tables are interesting because now and then I meet someone who divides the world rigidly into rail and bus, often aligning these categories with a rigid class distinction (William Lind, say) or simply claiming that rail does beautiful things and buses don't. In that view, the different columns of these tables are secondary and interchangeable, while the rows express something absolute.
Patrick Condon, for example, proposes that instead of building one rapid transit line (Class A, rapid stops) we could just build lots of streetcars (mostly Class C, local stops). That can make sense if you judge technologies entirely on their influence on urban form, and prefer the kind of form that seems to arise from streetcars. But it will be just incoherent to a transit planner who's been trained to help people get places, and wonders if he's being told that nobody cares about that anymore. Because if you do care about personal mobility -- people getting where they're going, now, today -- you have to care about the columns.
I hope to leave this topic for a while, but I do think it's worth coming back to tables like this to ask yourself: Do I tend to divide the world according to the rows first, or the columns? If so, why? Is my way of slicing this table something I've discovered about the world, or something my mind is imposing on it?
The planning professions work in a grey zone between expertise and activism, and managing these competing impulses is one of our hardest tasks.
As a transit planning consultant, I don't worry much about being perceived as an advocate of transit in general. Experts in any field are expected to believe in its importance. But I do try to keep a little distance between my knowledge about transit and the impulse to say "You should do this." A good consultant must know how to marry his own knowledge to his client's values, which may lead him to make different recommendations than he would do as a citizen, expressing his own values.
Often, I use this blog and its comments to refine my own thinking about transit in the abstract. This is part of how I cultivate my own expertise, but it is easy to mistake what I say for activism. When I say, for example, that some of the widespread claims about the superiority of rail over buses are cultural feedback effects, I'm not thinking like an activist or advocate; I'm thinking theoretically, like a philosopher. To me, this is a crucial skill for a consultant who's going to have to marry his client's values with his own expertise.
Philosophical or scientific training attunes you to the difference between prescription (telling people what they should do) and description (describing reality as it appears to be). In their purest form, prescription is the job of ethics, while description the job of science and metaphysics. A great deal of human speech, especially political speech, is a mixture of description and prescription, often one pretending to be the other.
In the planning world, prescription is the job of citizens, leaders, and advocates, while description is the work of professional experts like me. Obviously, this has to be a conversation. The expert has to ask the community to clarify its values based on the actual tradeoffs presented by reality, and the community has to respond. And as that goes on, both sides need to be clear about their roles, and respect the role of the other.
Partly because of my science and philosophy training, I tend to police the prescription-description boundary in my own thinking, and dwell in the space of pure description more than many people do -- certainly more than most activists do. A lot of regular readers of HT share that training and that inclination, and some don't.
For a critique of the futility of living your whole life in this descriptive mode, watching and describing the world but never doing anything, see Shakespeare's Hamlet. But the opposite is also futile. An ethical system devoid of curiosity about objective reality devolves into pure egotism, such as that of the tyrants currently falling across the Middle East. Tyrants -- whether they lead a nation or an office clique -- are people who sift reality and see only what suits their ethical narrative (which, at that point, is really an egotistical narrative) and who forge echo chambers of people who help each other do that. At the core of the tyrant's stance is a childlike egotistical wail: "Why doesn't everyone do as I say? I see so clearly what needs to be done!"
And yes, everyone has an inner tyrant, including me. I try to describe that tendency in myself, so that while it will always be in the room of my mind it's not usually able to set the room on fire. In fact, that's exactly why I'm so careful about not letting my descriptive thinking turn too quickly into prescriptions.
Streetcars, for example. Nowhere in this blog have I said that cities shouldn't build streetcars if they are sure that they want streetcars. Some streetcar advocates hear me saying that because they are dividing the world into pro-streetcar and anti-streetcar camps, and I've said things about streetcars that don't sound like enthusiastic advocacy. I've made some descriptive observations about problems raised by the American streetcar revival movement, and I've also noticed situations in which streetcars are inferior to buses in their ability to actually get you where you're going, like this one:
I would like people to know about these issues so that they make better decisions about what to advocate and why. That doesn't mean I want them to decide not to build streetcars, but it may mean, for example, that in deciding whether to support a streetcar, you might need to care about whether it will be in mixed traffic. It may also mean being very clear, when you're advocating a streetcar, that you're not getting anything faster or more reliable than a bus can be. Again, I say this not because I think cities should or shouldn't be building streetcars, but because you shouldn't be deluded about what you're buying, and what purposes it will really serve.
I have vivid memories of San Francisco Transportation Authority meetings in the early 1990s when the Third Street light rail was under debate. Activists from the neighborhood had turned out in droves to support the line, but when you actually listened to their testimony, some were talking about "we need rapid transit," while others were saying "we need rail to stop in every block where it will strengthen our businesses." I knew, as an expert, that while this whole crowd appeared to be on the same side of the issue at hand, half of them were not going to get what they thought they were advocating. They were not going to get a project that served their values.
I may also point out that if you think purely about "extending your rail network" as though your bus network is irrelevant, you can do serious damage to your existing transit system. For example, in a high-frequency grid, if you break one line of the grid into three consecutive pieces because you want rail in the middle but buses on the extremeties, you may suddenly force many new connections to a degree that could quite possibly will reduce the overall level of mobility in the city. That thought is relevant, for example, to several cities' streetcar plans, and to the Crenshaw light rail line in Los Angeles, and to the Gold Coast light rail line (at least its first phase) in Australia.
And yet, sometimes I do sound like an advocate -- about transit in general, about protecting transit from traffic, and about congestion pricing. Am I just falling off the wagon when I say those things?
Well, all scientists (by which I mean broadly "people who try to describe without prescribing") have this problem. Sometimes the scientific work of description discovers that something needs to be done if we want to survive and prosper: Banning DDT, addressing carbon emissions, correcting perverse pricing signals, even building a transit line. If you've followed any of the conversation around climate change, you know how uncomfortable trained scientists can be when they're required to speak prescriptively. Their credibility (not just to their profession but also to themselves) has depended precisely on not doing that. It's like telling a recovering alcoholic that after all the disciplined work of recovery he's done, the future of humanity now requires that he start drinking again, just a little.
All I can say is that I feel that discomfort and try to manage it, by marking, as clearly as I can, when I'm prescribing and when I'm describing. And there are also issues (like climate change) where, quite frankly, practically all experts seem to know what needs to be done to achieve the outcomes that everyone seems to want. I feel that way about congestion pricing. It's just not that hard to explain, to a reasonable person who's familiar with the idea of supply and demand, that as a motorist you are going to pay for scarce road space in either time or money, and that it's not unreasonable for some people to choose to spend money to save time.
I do what I can to distinguish between description and prescription when I'm writing. But frankly, we all need to do the same work when listening. If your first contact with transit politics is in the context of a fight about whether or not to build a particular rail line, you're going to hear prescriptive voices on both sides, citing data that's been selected to match their point of view. You're also going to hear descriptive voices treated as prescriptive -- which is how some streetcar advocates perceive my comments about streetcars. One of the most basic disciplines that you can cultivate, as an advocate or leader, is to try to hear descriptive information as descriptive. This may require you to consciously suppress or bracket the emotional reaction you have, as an advocate, when you first hear it.
Really, none of what I've written about streetcars is about streetcars, except insofar as the American streetcar revival movement is a excellent example of a descriptive point that seems important to me. The point is that "it's possible to spend a lot of money on transit lines that don't improve anyone's mobility." I'm not saying you shouldn't do that. I am saying that before you that, you should understand this point, so that you're sure that the line you support does what you want it to do.
That's what responsible experts do: they help you implement your values.
Here's a crucial passage from the book I'm working on, though it may will end up in the next book rather than this one [Human Transit]. The topic is emotive, so I'm trying to be very carefully factual here. I welcome your critiques in comments. If you disagree on a matter of fact, please provide a reference to a source.
In 2009, the then-popular [but now defunct] blog the Infrastructurist asked its readers whether streetcars are better than buses, and why. Readers came up with 36 responses (listed verbatim here) that formed a good summary of popular perceptions about the rail-bus distinction.
Of the 36 reasons, only six refer to an intrinsic difference between bus and rail technologies. All the others fall into two categories, which I’ll call misidentified differences and cultural feedback effects.
In your city, the rail system has lots of differences from the buses, including technological differences. But that doesn’t mean that all these distinctions are true rail-bus distinctions. For example:
A community’s attitudes toward rail and bus technologies can easily affect they way they are operated and presented. In short, people who believe that rail is better than buses will tend to act in ways that make that belief true. For example;
When we set aside those two categories and look at the differences that really follow, intrinsically, from the rail-bus distinction, there appear to be seven, and only the first three of them are always to rail’s advantage:
Of course, in a particular transit debate, you may not have all of the choices that I’ve articulated here. Still, it’s important to remember that most of the things you hear about why rail is better than buses are not true in the abstract, as facts of geometry or physics that follow from intrinsic differences between roads and rails.
It may very well be that rail is culturally better than buses in your city, in which case all you’re really saying is that people in your city think rail is better than buses and will therefore tend to act in ways that make that true. If you’re interested in appealing to your current population, and motivating them to make investment decisions based on their current perceptions about the benefits of rail, that may even be a good reason to build rail even if you don’t need its intrinsic benefits.
But if you’re thinking in longer-range terms, don’t forget: Attitudes, assumptions and perceptions will change over time. Physics and geometry won’t.
UPDATE! See endnotes for this post here!
Matt Lerner of WalkScore.com and I recently exchanged emails about WalkScore's "Transit Score" product, which provides a two-digit score supposedly capturing the usefulness of transit at any address in the USA. It's designed on analogy to the successful (if still controversial) Walk Score, a similar tool for summarizing how friendly a place is to walking. For example, 300 Turk Street, San Francisco is scored 100 (perfect) on both Walk Score and Transit Score.
Toward another extreme, here's 7000 Lake Mead Blvd in the far east of Las Vegas. Walkscore is 52, Transit Score is 33.
Tools like these have huge potential relevance to the real estate industry, and more broadly to anyone who makes locational decisions about anything. To the extent that we encourage people who value transit to locate where good transit is viable, everyone wins.
Earlier, Matt's team had created a "transit travel time tool" which can be used to show you the actual area you can get to in a specified amount of time. I used this tool as the core of my definition of mobility, in one of this blog's earliest posts.
So which is more useful, the simple two-digit Transit Score, or an actual map of where you can get to in a given time?
Here's what I wrote to Matt:
About a year ago I mentioned your transit [travel time] tool as a useful way to visualize mobility ...
The first draft of the book I'm writing ... praises this WalkScore tool in some detail, as a way for people to understand the degree of freedom that transit will offer them. I think it may be a crucial tool for helping people see beyond modal fetishes to understand how transit actually works and how to determine if transit can actually get you where you're going.
... Transit Score is useless to me because it encodes an intrinsic bias toward rail modes, as though rail is intrinsically faster, which is utterly misleading in a world of 6.5 mph streetcars and 60 mph busways. [I'm referring to the Transit Score methodology's use of a "mode weight" defined as "(heavy/light rail is weighted 2X, ferry/cable car/other are 1.5X, and bus is 1X)". Note that unlike the travel time tool, Transit Score lacks a way to capture how far you can get how fast, so it uses mode as a proxy for speed, fatally in my view.]
In short, whereas the earlier tool presented raw information in a compelling way that the user could use for her own purposes, Transit Score contains value judgments ("we know you'd rather ride a slow streetcar than an express bus") which the user may not share, and thus may be an obstacle to her ability to make transit meet her needs.
So I guess I will praise mapnificent.net instead.
This issue sits at the very foundation of my current book, so as an admirer of your work, I'd like a better understanding of why you abandoned the original accessbility tool. Was it a matter of the processing required to do what's basically a massive search of trip planners? I can see that Transit Score is a much faster calculation, but wonder if that was the key issue.
All the best for '11,
Good to hear from you.
You're right that we are promoting Transit Score over Transit Time Maps -- but we haven't abandoned the transit time maps. We are working on new ways to use them and they are still available here: http://www.walkscore.com/transit-map.php).
Here's why we've been promoting Transit Score more heavily. Our mission is to promote walkable/transit friendly neighborhoods and we think the best way to do this is to have Walk Score / Transit Score on real estate listings.
As we developed Transit Score we looked at a few methods of calculating a Transit Score. The two finalists were our current method (detailed here) and a method where we summed the Walk Score under the area of the transit shed in our Transit Time Maps. In practice, the scores were very similar between the two methods so we chose the current method which is much easier to scale (we show millions of scores per day).
We want to boil down transit access into a score so that it can appear on real estate listings and people can compare locations. ZipRealty.com has added our Transit Score to millions of listings and we have some more partners on the way.
We did not see a lot of consumer/partner interest in the transit time maps -- which is unfortunate because of course I love them. One scenario I'm hoping to promote with our Transit Time Maps (we just need a partner) is to allow people on real estate sites to search by transit time. E.G. find me an apartment within 30 minutes of work on transit. I'd also like to integrate the transit sheds into the standard Walk Score experience.
I like the simplification Mapnificent made which was to not include walking time in their transit sheds -- this makes it much easier to compute.
So to sum up, I like your suggestion of avoiding any mode weight value judgments -- it just turns out that in practice our current method was very similar and easier to scale. Anyway, would love to hear your thoughts on this.
Also, we're launching a beta of "Street Smart" Walk Score later this month and we'd love your feedback on that too.
Happy New Year!
To which I replied:
Thanks! ... Suppose, hypothetically, that you had the processing power and datasets to run a purely mobility-based Transit Score. Let's call it a Transit Mobility Score. The algorithm would be something like: Identify the area reachable in 30 minutes on transit from the selected point (I choose this because it seems to have a long history as an acceptable commute time). Then, grab the MPO's database of population and jobs by small zone and calculate the percentage of the region's jobs and population that are in that 30 minute band.
That also gives you a 2-digit number, but now it's a fact rather than a score. You're saying: "If you locate here, you'll have convenient transit access to __% of the region's activity." And that strikes me as something that a realtor could value, understand and explain. How far are you (or someone) from being able to do that kind of algorithm? Obviously you'd need to have the MPO on your side, so start with somewhere like Portland where they generally are.
Frankly, you'd probably want to do two such scores, one based on your mobility at 8:00 AM and another for your all-day mobility -- say, at 1:00 PM. But I think a realtor could make sense of those too. Everyone understands that transit in the peak is different from midday, and that both matter. Suburban areas, especially those under the influence of commuter rail and commuter express buses would show quite a difference between the two.
I think this could be huge. Because the output is a fact, not a judgment. ...
All the best, Jarrett
Matt replies that this "sounds like an awesome planning tool and one we could potentially pursue if we had a grant or something to fund it."
I still think this could be huge. What if everyone making a locational decision could go to something like the WalkScore travel time tool or Mapnificent and see a map of where they'll be able to get to in 30 mintues on transit? It would finally make our mobility visible.
And if we could measure our mobility so accurately, for so many hypothetical cases, we just might value actual mobility more, and be less distracted by unreliable symbols of mobility -- like, say, whether there are rails in the street. Technophiles shouldn't be too alarmed; many people will still have modal preferences. But meanwhile, those of us who just want mobility would be able to measure it, fast, for anywhere that we might be locating something, including our homes.
Transit debates often get stuck because the word we need doesn't exist. And as longtime readers of this blog will know, I'd really like there to be a word that means "transit vehicle, maybe on rails and maybe on tires" or "clearly a bus right now, but with the possibility of growing rails in the future."
But there isn't such a word. So when I'm working in a city where the short-term reality is an all-bus system, and I talk about that system and our short-term plans for it, well, it's really hard not to use the word bus. And when I want to help people visualize it, it's hard not to draw a picture of a bus.
And when I do, rail advocates assume that means I'm expressing an opposition to rail, or perhaps just pandering to such feelings in my clients. Here, for example, the latest blast from the head of the main light rail lobby group in Australia's capital city, Canberra, in a comment on the Canberra news blog RiotACT:
Although Mr Walker proclaims transport mode agnosticism, he is being paid by a pro-bus department ... . What do you think would happen to future work for his firm if he came out and said, replace buses with light rail on the rapid route where the demand warrants this modal change.
I have heard the [local government] policy people report on their long term plans based on the ‘Canberra Transport Plan’. They only refer to buses.
Actually, I'm being paid (and modestly) by a department that's trying to plot a rational course into a sustainable transport future, for a city of 345,000 people who live mostly at low densities with an abundant road network. The transit system is not yet at a scale or intensity where it needs the capacity that light rail would offer, nor is there much near-term prospect of funding for it. Light rail could happen, and I certainly don't oppose it, but as I said over and over in Canberra's Strategic Plan process, if you wait for light rail, you will miss a lot of other opportunities to improve transit mobility, and to encourage more transit-friendly urban form.
So to improve public transit in Canberra, the government is moving forward with a plan to improve the buses. Not because they love buses, but because (a) they have buses and (b) they need to move forward.
And so, to talk about that, they need to say the word "bus" a lot, and even draw pictures of buses. And yes, if your conception of transit begins with an absolute division between a bus world and a rail world, then officials who do that are going to sound to you like bus advocates.
But if you call them that, you're projecting your scheme onto them. Not everyone lives in a bus-vs-rail world. The experts and officials who say bus a lot may well be true bus enthusiasts, but they may also be people like me who just want to get on with the work of developing good transit, and who therefore reach for whatever tool will best do the job at hand.
Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl. Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil [2nd edition]. Earthscan and New Society Publishers, 2010.
As you’ve probably heard by now, the world is starting to run out of readily-accessible oil, and most rational predictions are that oil prices will continue to rise to reflect the increasing difficulty and risk involved in pursuing new supplies. How will that change our transport system? What kinds of change are needed? What technologies most urgently need research? And who will lead these changes?
Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil, is one of the most through analyses of this problem available to the general reader. While plenty of frightening books on this topic are available, Transport Revolutions is an essential counterpoint: it takes the kind of gentle and optimistic tone that you’d use to coax a suicidal friend off the ledge, or for that matter to pry anyone off of long-held but doomed opinions.
But the book goes further. The message is still that we need a revolution, but not quite the one that many of us have in mind.
Car-based thinking is so dominant in the US that attention has focused mostly on ways to solve the problem that let us still have lots of cars and not much limit on where we can drive them. These solutions include biofuels, diesel-electric hybrids, various kinds of battery technology, and hydrogen. One by one, Perl and Gilbert knock down all of them, predicting that each will develop but remain marginal to the real scale of the problem.
It looks pretty clear that the long-term answer is some form of electric motor, both because electricity can come from sustainable sources and because electric motors are highly efficient and give off little or no noise or pollution. But Perl and Gilbert argue that the crux of the problem is not sustainable power generation, but rather the means of storing energy for portable use; in other words, batteries. And the hard fact is that there just isn’t a battery, or even a sound technical basis to hope for a battery, that approaches the efficiency of internal combustion.
The crux of the crux is that petroleum has a very high energy density, which can be thought of as the energy stored divided by the mass required to store it. Batteries, by comparison, are just too heavy compared to the amount of energy that they can deliver, so when you put them in a mobile vehicle, they lose a lot of their efficiency to the work of transporting their own weight, and don’t have much left over to transport us or our cargo.
All this is carefully explained, and leads Gilbert and Perl to a striking conclusion: We will need to shift most of our mechanical transport to “grid-connected vehicles” (GCVs), vehicles -- like trolleybuses and electric rail lines – that can draw power from the grid continuously (and increasingly, return surplus energy back to the grid as well). At first, this may sound like a revolution in the direction of passenger transit, and much of it is. Gilbert and Perl call for high-speed rail replacing intercity aviation, growth of urban public transit, and so on.
But their vision goes further, to a network of “grid connected” roads, and a crucial moment, this vision turns into something that looks to the authors like Personal Rapid Transit (PRT).
Here’s the transition:
One [possible pathway toward implementation of a GCV-based land transport system] is via the plug-in hybrid car … Extensive operation of such vehicles could lead drivers to want more use of their electric motors. To facilitate this, governments or entrepreneurs could provide means of powering htem along major routes, accessible by appropriately equipped vehicles while in motion. When such en-route powering is sufficiently extensive, [electric vehicles] with only batteries and retract able connectors could prevail over plug in hybrids. As the grid-connection expands, the needf or off-grid movement would decline. Roads could be supplemented and even replaced by lower-cost guideway infrastructure. At the same time, vehicles would evolve to move only on the guideways. They would be as light as possible and, where appropriate, be assembled into trains. They would comprise PRT.
Another pathway could involve the evolution of public transport toward supplementation of or even replacement by PRT. This could be driven by PRT’s low energy cost and, perhaps even more, by its potentially low infrastructure cost. … An analysis for Corby, UK, compared costs of PRT and lighter ail. For similar initial investment, operating costs, and fare structure, PRT would carry almost twice as many passengers annually …
The second of these paths is almost certainly an illusion. You can do all kinds of comparisons of existing transit technology with proposed PRT technology, but none of these changes the physical fact that PRT requires carrying people in more vehicles, which means hauling around more metal per passenger. If higher oil prices caused a huge shift in demand to some form of automated transit, PRT would have to move more metal per passenger than conventional transit would do, and that would almost certainly be the decisive factor in its ultimate energy-efficiency. (An argument against this point would need to show that PRT is so dramatically lighter in weight than lightweight conventional transit [e.g. Vancouver’s SkyTrain] that it ends up moving fewer tons of metal per passenger. And this comparison would have to be against lightweight rapid transit alternatives. If anyone has made that argument, please point me to it.)
But the first path is probably worth contemplating at least as a thought experiment. Suppose we keep our current levels of car use, but gradually convert to grid connected cars. I guess we’re to imagine giant catenary systems above every street and highway, and something like trolley poles or pantographs on top of each private vehicle. However much they might love the freedom of the open road, motorists with hybrid vehicles would be motivated to connect to these catenaries at every opportunity, because their off-wire power options would be so expensive.
At that point, all we need is an automated system to combine cars into “trains” and we have PRT. I suppose we could arrive at that route, but this is so unlike the station-based PRT being proposed today that I’m not sure the term is even useful in understanding it.
[One nasty technical detail: grid-connected vehicles on tires need to route both directions of the electric circuit through the overhead catenary. That’s why trolley buses have two wires, while overhead-powered rail has only one. With two wires, you have to connect to them with poles, because the two sides of the circuit have to be kept apart. Trains, by contrast, are grounded through the rails and therefore need only one wire above. That means trains can meet this wire with a large horizontal structure -- called a pantograph -– which easily accommodates lateral motion. It’s a fine joke, really, by the technology gods: The power source that offers the most lateral flexibility works only on rails, which have the least need for it.
So grid-connected cars, if they run on tires, will need a power-supply system that supplies both current and ground from above – like the double-wire of trolleybuses. This is a fairly delicate technology even when all the drivers using it work for the transit agency, and even then the buses can’t pass each other. Will someone invent a system for grounding all of these private “trolley-cars” to the earth, maybe with some kind of continuous metal strip in the pavement that the car continues to touch? That would allow for zero lateral motion as well, so doesn’t really solve the problem. At times like these I’m so glad not to be an engineer!]
To sum up, I think we need to be reluctant to derive “PRT” from this path, because the result would be so unlike what anyone today means by PRT that we are only creating confusion by using the term.
I have delved on PRT because it’s a topic of interest on the blog, but the larger import of Gilbert and Perl’s book remains fascinating and timely. If the future lies in grid-connected vehicles, transit agencies should be getting out ahead by expanding trolleybus systems, and certainly not removing them.
Trolleybus infrastructure may be one of those investments that would make total sense in a world that correctly priced its carbon impacts, and other externalities. So long as the market is distorted, though, government simply has to override those market considerations in its own purchasing and planning decisions. Yet another reason that government, not just private industry, will need to drive this next “transport revolution.”
The remarkable bus straddles two lanes of traffic, allowing cars to drive underneath while it carries up to 1,200 passengers.
It's environmentally sound too because it runs on electricity, using a state-of-the-art charging system. Called relay charging, the roof of the bus conducts electricity and contacts special charging posts as it moves along.
Engadget links to a video in Chinese explaining the concept, which is pretty clear even if you don't know Chinese. A trial line is planned in Beijing, so we won't have to debate it in theory for much longer.
But this is interesting:
It's cost-effective because there are two ways it could operate: first off, special tracks could be laid into each side of the road, like a tram.
Or secondly, simple coloured lines could be painted onto the road for it to follow automatically on conventional tyres. There'll be a driver on the bus at all times, though.
I'm not sure how that makes it cost-effective, but it does have the effect of reducing the bus-rail distinction an almost academic quibble.
Either way, this is going to be a large structure resting on narrow wheels. It could be on rubber tires but linked to an optical-guidance system (sensors on the vehicle responding to a painted line on the pavement) and the effect would be the same as if it were on rails: a controlled path with little or no lateral motion.
So is it a train or a bus? Who cares?
I'm relieved to report that commenters who actually saw me give the presentation "A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels" seem to agree that I wasn't displaying a bias toward or against particular projects, except perhaps for projects that were based on misunderstanding or ignoring some basic geometry.
However, finally I have a comment that attacks me full-on, which gives me yet another opportunity to think about whether I do have a "modal bias." It's from commenter Carl, who I believe saw the presentation in Seattle:
My perception is that you have a mode bias toward bus and BRT, and that this comes out in your talk and writings. I don't know if there is a professional reason for this (perhaps this is your expertise and source of consulting engagements.) These are the reasons that I feel you have a mode bias towards bus and BRT:
1. You say that bus/BRT can be made "just like" rail - in vehicle appearance, fare payment, stations, exclusive right of way, etc. Embedded in that assertion is the fact that the typical features of rail are superior to the passenger comfort, which you don't fully acknowledge. But even if all these improvements are made, it may close the gap but it is still not rail.
If I've every used such a vague term as "just like" in discussing rail-bus distinctions, then I was just being lazy. I do believe, however, that there's such a thing as mobility, which consists of the ability of a network to get you to a wide range of places with a certain travel time and reliability, and which defines a transit system's ability to provide a sensation of freedom to those who choose to depend on it.
And I do contend that most of the features of a transit service that determine travel time and reliability are simply not about the rail-bus distinction. They are about frequency, stop spacing, boarding/alighting time, and the exclusivity of the right-of-way (what can get in your way). I've also pointed out that in mixed traffic, buses have a reliability advantage over streetcars because they can go around many minor obstructions that would trap the streetcar.
I've never contended that bus and rail are equivalent in matters of comfort, but they are certainly converging, becuase rail cars are defining the comfort standard that bus design aspires to. I agree that there will always be a ride quality difference. How much that matters, in the long run, will depend on all the other factors that influence our decisions about how to travel.
There are a few cases where mobility does arise directly from a technology choice:
2. You cite the lower cost of bus/BRT. The reason that bus/BRT is lower cost is that the investments aren't being made to create the ride quality and reliability. The primary advantage of bus/BRT is to use existing roads and require less investment -> lower experience. It's a valid trade-off for lower demand routes or if the resources can't be gotten, but the lower cost comes with lower quality, not equivalence.
I agree that if you compare rail to a completely closed busway, you can get similar costs if you design to similar standards. Some factors push one way and some the other: A busway tunnel has to be a little wider than a rail tunnel, for example, but rail has a power supply system and most busways don't.
But busways still have certain kinds of versatility that rail lacks. In the high-end BRT system in Brisbane, the busway itself was very expensive but the buses serving it flow through the end of the busway and onto various routes. This means that a large area has the benefit of the busway's speed without requiring a connection, and without requiring dedicated transit infrastructure on all those outer routes. This is a very specific and powerful feature of BRT that rail simply can't do.
3. You dismiss evidence that the riding public has a preference for rail and that rail on a given corridor (with enough latent demand) will attract 50%-100% more riders than bus service at the same frequency. (See http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schienenbonus or the comments by the Munich transit planner on the Munich thread). You call this cultural or emotional, but if even riders make an emotional decision, the evidence is there that riders prefer rail and will ride rail in greater numbers.
I don't dismiss it at all. But to use the terms of my field guide, the intrinsic preference for rail is the reuslt of a combination of factors that are mostly cultural -- though ride quality has an element of the biological. The preference for rail observed in ridership is partly about ride quality, and that will always be better on rail. But it is also partly something that has been trained into the culture by the way rail and bus are often presented to the public, such as the message that rail systems are simple and buses are complicated. In other words, the preference for rail is partly about an intrinsic difference but partly an echo of the history of how these modes have been used.
What I see in fairly modern German and Swiss systems (Heidelberg and Bern come to mind) is a deliberate effort to make bus and tram feel as similar as possible. Other cities, notably Karlsruhe and Munich, seem more invested in maintaining a feeling of difference between bus and tram. Berlin displays impulses in both directions.
4. You dismiss the mode debate as political or emotional. If a corridor has traffic demand to support rail, the debate is often about whether to be cheap and under-invest in transit capacity (bus/BRT) vs. make the big investment in exclusive right of way and grade separation. The USA's most successful BRT right of way, LA's Orange Line, clearly should have been built as rail, which would give it higher capacity and lower operating costs.
Again, capacity needs, such as are coming up on the Orange Line, are a very solid reason to build rail rather than bus. Rail will always be better at carrying more passengers per driver, and in some cases doing without drivers entirely.
But I do not "dismiss the mode debate as political or emotional." I simply observe that emotional factors play strongly in technology debates, and that while these factors have their place, it's risky to let them get out of control when you're building long-term infrastructure.
Why? Look around your city and I bet you can find some long-term infrastructure that's not at all what you would build today, and that presents obvious practical problems for the life of the city now. Those facilities were designed to meet the emotional needs of a past generation, and some of these were built in spite of obvious mathematical or geometric absurdity because of the passion of the moment.
The US Interstate Highway System is full of examples. Why did the US build grade-separated interchanges at every farming road in North Dakota, so that I-94 could be built to Interstate standard instead of being just a really fast highway with some very minor intersections? Well, one answer is that the Interstate system was conceived as the Intersate and Defense Highway System, and defense is an emotive topic. After all, we might need to move tanks from Seattle to Miami without stopping, or even being delayed by a truck slowing down to turn onto a farming road. The Interstate system was driven by an emotional obsession with a single, consistent, national network, and this caused huge sums to be spent on things that no longer seem to have much value.
You can tell the same story about the rise of car-dependence in cities in the 1950s and 1960s, a period where we fell in love with cars to the point that we didn't foresee obvious geometric limitations on how many of them we could fit into a city. This simple geometry mistake led to a range of urban woes that many people, including myself, will spend their whole careers trying to undo.
Both of these highway examples are the same story: Things were built a certain way to meet the emotional needs of a moment in history. Today, the emotions have changed, but the geometry hasn't. So we're still stuck with the geometric consequences of those emotional decisions.
Emotions change, culture changes, priorities change, but geometry will never change. A project becomes risky when it starts trying to use the emotions it arouses to overwhelm geometry-based objections. Emotions will always play a role in technology choice. But it is in the nature of emotions to sweep us away, so sensible people just notice when that's happening and keep an eye on reality. They don't ignore emotional factors or oppose their influence, but they recognise them as emotional and keep them in perspective. It comes down to that age-old advice about teenage dating: "Keep one foot on the floor."
My tour of Germany, France, and the Netherlands in July brought me to numerous situations where trams are used to great effect in handling high volumes of passengers moving in exclusive rights-of-way. (I cannot emphasize too often that these are usually more like light rail than like American streetcars or Australian trams, which are often compromised by having to share a traffic lane.)
I spoke to many transit experts on the trip, and only in Munich did I hear a planner state the view that it may make sense to convert buses into trams solely because trams can attract more riders. (Note that Prof. Patrick Condon also wants to replace buses with trams, but he's thinking about a development and urbanist outcome. He's also arguing, as my Munich contact would not, that it may be good for transit to be slower.) This planner recently wrote to me to share the following data, showing that German cities with trams have higher per capita ridership than cities that run only with buses. It's too big to copy here, but it's a simple Word file:
The result is, that cities with a tram system have in average 50% more passengers in the total system (tram and bus) than cities with a bus only system.
Cities like Wiesbaden with an extensive bus lane system are among them.
OK. But if you're going to throw these kind of data around as though they're decisive, please remember:
Correlation is not causation, nor does it tell you which way causation goes.
In this case, the correlation may be more easily explained by a causation that goes the other way, i.e. that ridership is "causing" trams. The best reason to convert a bus to a tram, or to build trams instead of a bus line, is because you need a higher capacity -- in riders / driver -- than you can handle on buses. It's perfectly logical that high-demand corridors have trams rather than buses, but that doesn't mean the trams caused the ridership. It may be the opposite, or a complex mix.
Photo: MaxM via Wikipedia
UDPATE: New, easier links!
My presentation "A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels," which I did last month in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, is here as a PowerPoint with notes on each slide describing its essence.
As always with free stuff on the web, there has to be some advertising. So: If you'd like me to do a presentation to your group or organisation. The recent North American tour was the last time I'll do this for free, but costs can often be figured out.
Look forward to comments, as always. Thanks to Scott for the PDF links!
From reader M1EK:
I continue, like many it seems, to be amazed at how often you feel the need to tell us we're wrong about bus vs. rail in this country. Perhaps the fact that you need to keep telling us is itself telling?
I guess it depends on your view of international examples. Assuming the reference to "this country" means the USA, well, US culture is especially prone to exceptionalism, which we could define as a stubborn disinterest in innovations and experience from outside one's borders. For example, the US is the only country where people often comment on international blogs without making clear that they're talking about the US, a violation of the comment policy but in this case, an instructive one.
My own belief is that countries with similar economic situations should be eager to learn from one another, so when I encounter an interesting difference between how bus-rail issues are presented in the US and how they're treated in Europe, I think it's useful to point that out.
By now I hope it's clear to regular readers that I am not an advocate for any transit technology. Rather I am interested in improving people's mobility via transit, and tend to be interested in whatever tools (not just technologies but systems of branding and styles of operation) that seem to do that best. My point in this post, for example, was that buses are good for some kinds of mobility and trams are good for others, and that the Paris transit agency appears to see all its customers as deserving the same quality of infrastructure and amenity, regardless of whether they're on a bus or a tram.