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April 13, 2006

Brazilian Whacks

It's interesting to see what Jaime Lerner -- the legendary mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, who created a world-class bus rapid transit system on a shoestring budget -- had to say about Seattle transportation, in a question-and-answer session with the Seattle P-I:

Is there a way to create dedicated bus lanes in a cramped city like Seattle?

"There are many ways, many corridors where you can have a really good system. ... Sometimes you think, 'Aaah we don't have enough space.' ... There's always a good solution."

How long does it typically take to set up a bus rapid transit system?

"You can build in two years a good system. It's not difficult, because it has not too much public works. It's very simple.

I tend to agree: bus rapid transit is far more viable than most people think.  It's cheaper, faster to deploy, and more flexible than rail.  Now that Seattle's monorail has been - uh - derailed, it's a solution that's worth considering for the corridor that the monorail was designed to serve.

And then there's this:

Some people say that if the viaduct were replaced with nothing but a surface road, heavy traffic along the waterfront would ruin it. Do you agree?

"If you provide good alternatives for public transport, you won't have traffic problems. ... Can you imagine how much better the city could become with 30 percent less of the cars running in the street? It's very easy. The main issue is having good public transport and after, if it's needed, the wall to protect the waterfront -- I don't have the answer to that. But definitely it's not the viaduct."

Seems as if the P-I editorial board may be inching towards the same conclusion.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


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i am not anti-BRT, i think it's pretty cool actually, but i feel skeptical about it in the US, here's why.

1) does BRT not need dedicated lanes in order to be effective?
2) without dedicated lanes (but with, say--traffic light control, off bus fare-pay, longer buses, fewer stops), is it fair even to call it "Rapid"?
3) wouldn't dedicated lanes for BRT mean fewer lanes for automobiles?
4) fewer lanes plus traffic equals a serious political problem--drivers in traffic cannot stand open lanes they cannot use.
5) is there enough density for BRT?
6) can a tenuous BRT system spur transit oriented development?


just questions worth asking, i admire jaime lerner for what he has done in Curitibia. has BRT ever been successful in the US?

Posted by: colorless green ideas | Apr 13, 2006 3:58:18 PM

Before getting sucked-up into the feel-good vortex of BRT marketing that's being conducted all around the United States right now, someone in Seattle ought to take the time to compare and contrast Seattle with the realities of Curitiba, Bogota and Brisbane.

Do these cities seem comparable to Seattle in terms of wealth, topography, car ownership and attitudes toward crowding and personal space? For example, does Seattle ban cars from large parts of its downtown in order to prop-up its bus system? Curitiba does.

True busways like the ones they've built in the cities mentioned above cost as much or more than light rail. On the other hand, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) -- I call it Bus Vapid Transit -- is really "busway-lite". It doesn't equal the performance of rail, not by a long shot. A better term for BRT is "better bus", a necessary but not sufficient condition for getting people out of their cars. You get what you pay for.

There is no evidence that BRT or busways in the United States have fostered economic development, none whatsoever. No busway or BRT promoter would dispute this statement.

When BRT is marketed as equivalent to rail, its promoters are fooling you.

John Schneider

Posted by: John Schneider | Apr 13, 2006 6:14:31 PM

There is a big difference between dedicated busways like they have in Curitiba and dedicated bus lanes. Cars have to use the bus lanes to turn right, buses have to leave the bus lanes to turn left. Imagine, for a moment, that we decide to create BRT between Ballard and downtown. Do we create bus lanes on the Ballard Bridge? If we don't, turning general purpose lanes into bus lanes in Magnolia will create a traffic bottleneck that may cause traffic backups on the bridge, thereby slowing down the buses we're trying to speed up. If we do, we halve the car capacity of that bridge, causing major traffic headaches and sending cars to alternate routes where they slow down other bus routes. As Elliot won't be a great route through downtown, the bus will have to pick a high traffic intersection to make a left turn at, and there will be no good way to get it past the traffic there. Once the bus gets to downtown, there really won't be anything that can be done about the regularly spaced traffic lights -- signal prioritization is really only feasible when there are few buses and cross traffic would be allocated a pretty small part of the light cycle to begin with. Add to that the fact that we might have to switch third avenue buses to stopping at every third stop... well, you get the idea.

Posted by: Eric L | Apr 13, 2006 8:15:29 PM

To play devil's advocate, Eric, would any of your issues with BRT would go away if we built an at-grade rail solution in the same corridor? It seems like we'd still need to deal with traffic impacts on the bridge, figure out how to cross traffic on major streets, integrate the line into the existing connections downtown, etc. I think the issue here is not mode but grade-separation -- transit isn't really rapid if it's not grade-separated.

But that's not to say the bus system couldn't be improved. I just wish people pushing BRT (or improved buses, or whatever) would push it as an addition to rapid transit rather than a complete replacement for rapid transit.

Posted by: Steve Mooney | Apr 14, 2006 10:40:50 AM

The rubber tire v steel wheel war continues.

Personally, I lean toward the rubber tire side. BRT, better bus, or even just more of the same not-too-awful-bus system seem like great ideas to me. And if cities can afford to build more-expensive rail systems, more power to them.

But mostly I see it as tragic the degree to which transit advocates wage war over technology rather than uniting behind a rigorous decision-making approach such as least-cost planning.


Posted by: Alan Durning | Apr 14, 2006 11:33:30 AM

"Is there a way to create dedicated bus lanes in a cramped city like Seattle?

"There are many ways, many corridors where you can have a really good system. ... Sometimes you think, 'Aaah we don't have enough space.' ... There's always a good solution."


I think it's happy talk.

Show me.

Give me an example which
1. doesn't destroy possible pedestrian-orientation of an arterial street e.g N. 45th in Wallingford,
2. doesn't require eliminating private cars.

Point 2 -- the political point -- is the deal-breaker.


No, we blew our chance for in-city mobility when the monorail went down, You won't see any improvement for decades.

Posted by: David Sucher | Apr 14, 2006 12:43:34 PM

Well, something like BRT / "better bus" is happening in downtown Seattle right now, on 3rd, with the closure of the bus tunnel. That definitely took space away from private vehicles during rush hour in the most congested part of the city. It was forced on the city more by necessity than choice -- but it seems to me that it hasn't totally snarled downtown traffic (though 2nd does seem more crowded than it used to).

I could see some form of "better bus" -- maybe a combo bus/hov lane during rush hour -- working on the NW 15th St/Ballard corridor. The same thing could work on NE 15th/U Way through the U district, on the part of the corridor served by the 70/71/72/73/373/~48. It might work along the current 41 route, too -- the one that makes a stop at the Northgate park and ride and then continues to some NE seattle neighborhoods; though I don't know enough about any of these routes to know if it would really work.

I'd probably focus on one or two of the most heavily trafficked bus routes, through the most densely populated places, at first; see if there's one lane that could be dedicated to buses & carpools; take modest steps to speed up boarding and exiting (raised platform, pre-paid fare) along the most heavily trafficked part of that route; and give buses priority at traffic lights. That's not BRT in its full sense -- there's no dedicated, full-time bus-only lane, for example -- but it could shave enough minutes from a trip to boost ridership.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 14, 2006 1:46:48 PM

"Better Bus" is a great idea from the point of view of those of us who already ride the bus; however, I am deeply skeptical that incremental improvements in bus service will attract any significant increase in ridership.

Fully-fledged BRT would probably result in an increase of ridership. However, BRT also involves creating new right-of-way, which is exactly the same reason that light rail or monorail is so expensive in the urban environment. The hardware (tracks, trains, buses, or pavement) is fairly cheap compared to the value of the underlying land, and BRT uses basically the same amount of land as light rail or monorail.

Of course, BRT has an advantage in that other types of right-of-way (highway lanes, for instance) can be easily (and presumbably, cheaply) converted to BRT. At that point BRT merely becomes a political question - but then again, financing the monorail was merely a political question too, and one that didn't even involve taking roadway away from automobile commuters.

If we go down the route of "Better Bus" expect incremental improvements in service, but don't expect a flood of new ridership. It isn't going to happen. I personally think (and I use the bus to go almost everywhere I go) that the money would be better spent on more buses and more operating hours, since the current system actually operates fairly well but is basically at capacity.

If we have the political will and money to build true BRT, it makes more sense to build light rail or monorail, since the cost will basically be the same, and rail systems are more obviously distinct from the same old stuck-in-traffic buses, and therefore more likely to attract new riders.

Posted by: Roy Smith | Apr 14, 2006 2:14:03 PM

I'm with Clark. Whatever else happens, let's make a series of incremental investments in improving the existing system in every Cascadian city.

I don't think these things need to be expensive, in every case. Raised platforms would be nice, but what about a simpler innovation: treat people in buses as honored citizens and give them the right of way.

Maybe outfit buses with flashing lights and pass an ordinance declaring that private motorists must get out of the way for buses, just like they do for fire trucks. That anyone caught getting their car in the way of a bus will pay a $250 fine. Or maybe send them to jail for a night.

We treat people in hearses better than we treat people in buses.

Bus riders deserve respect. Boarding a bus should be a thrilling ride, like climbing aboard a zooming ambulance. Or like being in the president's motorcade, with the crowd of traffic parting to make way.

Oh, and maybe give buses sirens--or at least bells. Or music like the "ice cream man".

Whaddya think?

Posted by: Alan Durning | Apr 14, 2006 2:23:18 PM


One other benefit of BRT, over rail, is that the bus can leave any dedicated busway and continue onto surface streets. That means you can do BRT one block at a time, unlike rail.

In fact, I can readily imagine incremental steps that ultimately approximate Curitiba-style BRT, with certain lines ultimately replaced by rail. That's essentially have Vancouver is using express buses.

But the key point here is to put all options on the table, rank them by cost/benefit and start quickly on the flexible, no-regrets options. (In other words, least-cost planning.)

Posted by: Alan Durning | Apr 14, 2006 2:28:41 PM

Roy -
I think you're right -- incremental improvements probably won't create a *flood* of new riders. But they might create incremental increases in ridership -- which, if they're modestly priced, can add up to a pretty big bang for the buck.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Apr 14, 2006 2:42:10 PM

Steve, basically that is what I'm getting at, and don't even get me started on streetcars... There are some ways to keep at grade transit completely separate from traffic. On MLK Way, Sound Transit's trains will run in the middle of the street, left turning cars have to wait for their signal, and the trains will be guaranteed green lights when they're going through. To prevent them from snarling traffic, they have to limit the frequency to one train every 6 minutes. This kind of thing can be done with buses if you buy special buses that can board from both sides, but as they carry only a fraction of what can be carried on a train, you'll have capacity problems much sooner.

To me, the whole third avenue situation just illustrates that we are pretty close to the limits of what we can or should do with buses. We turned a four lane street over to buses, but we can't fit all the bus routes that used to be there on that street. Maybe we could squeeze some more buses on the road if we switched them to stopping at every third stop. Maybe we can create bus lanes on more streets if we get rid of most downtown parking. We won't be able to do anything about the traffic lights. We can probably find some places where we can make minor improvements to get them to downtown a few minutes sooner, but if we really want to draw people out of their cars we need actual rapid transit.

Posted by: Eric L | Apr 14, 2006 3:10:29 PM

For reference re. Curitiba's bus system: http://sol.crest.org/sustainable/curitiba/part4.html. Their version of public/private partnership is interesting, and might improve some experience here.

Big factor in ridership is fare: Curitiba has a single fare - simple. Here in PDX there are so many different fares, from free to all-zone, lift, student, sr. citizen. Complexity! Confusion!

It's been suggested that if public transit was FREE, lots more people would ride. (Portland's system is funded largely by subsidy anyway, only 20% from riders.)

One noteworthy item from TriMet's stats (http://trimet.org/pdfs/publications/factsheet.pdf): operating cost per boarding ride is 57% HIGHER for bus than light rail ($1.54 vs. $2.43), and as a permanent fixture, encourages transit-oriented development. Implications for Seattle?

Posted by: charlie weiss | Apr 14, 2006 3:27:07 PM

Thanks for posting this. I had not heard of Lerner before I saw this story in the P-I. I'm astonished that Brazil is able to solve transportation problems with relative ease and inexpense. Why can't we got our act together? Anyway, I thought it was one of the more interesting news stories this week. And interesting for me to follow the debate here.

Posted by: Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Apr 14, 2006 4:03:16 PM

wikipedia,the free online encyclopedia has a good deal of information on bus rapid transit at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_rapid_transit

Posted by: jonathan st.thomas | Apr 14, 2006 10:50:43 PM

Brt can work and should work with rail too. Its important to identify the major employment centers in the region and see who lives where and organize our transit sytem for ease of commutes. In addition, the most popular lines should be turned into rail for more capacity, to reduce the number of buses on the road. For instance in downtown the bus drivers are manics. THey cut people off and the sheer number of them is crazy. The way transit is really going to take off is if a system is created where people can get to work on transit faster then they can in a car and if it stops within 5 blocks or so of their work. I imagine many people think, why didn't i just take my car if this bus goes just as slow and the person sitting next to me smells horrible.

Posted by: Gary Durning | Apr 17, 2006 12:58:47 PM

Ron Sims is apparently about to announce a bus expansion plan that includes claims to create Bus Rapid Transit lines: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/transportation/267079_bustax18.html

It doesn't sound like Sims is proposing anything to make the buses run faster on those lines (though the article does make reference to bus-tracking devices in shelters and specailly marked buses), so I'm a little suspicious this will be lipstick-on-the-pig Bus Rapid Transit.

Posted by: Steve Mooney | Apr 18, 2006 11:02:15 AM