Recently, interest has grown among transportation planners and transit activists in so-called "Bus Rapid Transit", or BRT – possibly as a supposedly "lower-cost" alternative to light rail transit (LRT). in order to provide a deeper understanding of the complexities of both local and US national transportation planning, politics, and project implementation, this discussion examines the pitfalls of attempting to emulate the Curitiba BRT example in a first-world country like the United States – including cities like Austin, Los Angeles, Washington (DC), Charlotte (NC), and others where both LRT and BRT are on the agenda for consideration.
Nationally syndicated columnist Neal Peirce suggested in his column of March 19, 2000 that Curitiba's celebrated example of supposedly low-cost "buses-as-subways" could be duplicated in America "... at a fraction of the costs of ... subway or even light rail." While this sounds good, such thinking is seriously flawed when transportation reality in America is examined.
Peirce's key phrase is: "But couldn't we at least emulate Curitiba-style bus ways and tubes? A little political will is probably all that's needed."
The real problem is "A little political will..." – or, more accurately, nearly none, at least in many cities, in terms of a bone fide commitment to mass transit and to installing a truly efficient and cost-effective infrastructure to implement it. Using the Curitiba "bus-as-subway" example to confuse the naive, rail opponents and well-meaning transit supporters ignorant of the technical and political details of American transportation projects may well confuse voters about the proven alternative of light rail.
Overwhelmingly, politicians want solutions that fit their election cycles. Neither Curitiba-style buses nor light rail meets this criterion, so public brownie points and campaign funding are best acquired by extending the past into the future – i.e., road projects. if the public opinion is less than a clear majority, then paving is all the politicians will deliver.
As Peirce notes, much of the Curitiba success story is a product of government-imposed land-use controls and regulations in transit corridors. To suggest in his closing sentence that this will work without land use controls ignores some important lessons from places more akin to Austin vis-a-vis living standards, car ownership, and cultural similarities.
So-called BRT services, such as busways, have not had a stellar record in North America. in Ottawa-Carleton, Ontario, a very sophisticated busway has been operating since 1983 with government-imposed land use controls. it is a premium system with very plush stations, high frequency of service, very comfortable buses, and a price tag of about $20 million/mile (US 1983 $). Unfortunately, the Ottawa-Carleton all-bus transit system has lost about 20% of its overall ridership since the busway was installed; officials there are now beginning to install rail transit.
Two busways (totalling 22 miles) in Pittsburgh built on railroad right-of-way (ROW) cost $16 mn/mi (1986 dollars) without the buses, while in those same years (1981-1986) Sacramento and San Diego activated a total of 34 miles of light rail at a cost (with rail vehicles) of just under $10 mn/mi. Both bus and rail ridership there in those cities continues to climb while, in Pittsburgh and Ottawa, the busways' ridership remains stagnant. in 1999, Pittsburgh signed a full funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for four and half miles of busway on abandoned railroad ROW for approximately $60-70 mn/mi. Compare that with LRT extensions in Denver (opened summer 2000) and East St. Louis (now under construction) and a new start in Salt Lake City (opened December 6, 1999), complete with light rail vehicles, for under $25 mn/mi.
The cheapest bi-directional US busway, where costs can be accurately accounted for, is the El Monte busway in LA for about $5-6 mn /mi (1975 $). The first Houston one-way HOV lanes, with no on-line stations, cost in the neighborhood of $3-5 mn/mi when installed in the 1980s.
Making comparisons between cities must take into account the local situation. Curitiba, for example, has far lower labor costs, far fewer environmental controls, and much less stringent bureaucratic review of transportation projects.
Consequently, the cost per mile of a transit project in Brazil is likely to be considerably lower. Subways in Los Angeles are more costly per mile than in Washington DC (on the order of 6 times more per mile), so it may be that for Curitiba, subways are not the best option.
We cannot tell from the Peirce article (or any other that i have read) what the cost of light rail on Curitiba streets would have been in 1971. Characteristically, BRT proponents bestow token LRT "alternatives" with lavish overdesign features, producing much more costly rail projects which they then contrast to ultra-cheap BRT to corroborate their claims of its low cost and thus justify their decisions. Furthermore, Curitiba's operating costs seem virtually ignored by Curitiba promoters, and have not been publicized by Curitiba transit officials.
In 1976 the Texas Association for Public Transportation did a thorough study estimating that Austin could build a 10.5 mile double and single tracked LRT system on the street and on the Union Pacific Railroad ROW from Dobie Mall to
Slaughter Lane for about $4.5 mn /mi. in 1984, TAPT did a similar study of an all-double-tracked line from downtown to Round Rock using railroad ROW that was estimated to cost $6.6 mn /mi. Both studies's cost estimates included rolling stock, signals, stations, electrification, and track rebuild. Today, many years later, as we try to retrofit LRT into a city that is continually building over its options (e.g., the convention center over 3rd Street), LRT per-mile costs exceed the CPI extrapolations of earlier estimates and Austin is now projecting more than $40 mn/mi for street-routed light rail.
Finally, I would observe that, outside of possibly Brasilia, American automobile facilities are lavish and exclusionary when compared to Brazil. After sixty years of nearly eliminating all means of passenger movement except by motor vehicles in cars that are little worlds of luxury in themselves on miles of excellent smooth roads, Americans are a very spoiled people (albeit, perhaps, sorely in need of re-socialization). Future gasoline prices may change this.
Car ownership in Toronto, Ontario is comparable to Austin, and yet it is a transit city, just like Curitiba, with higher per capita ridership than New York City, because Toronto's system survived the road lobby after World War II and flourished in the last two decades. With 35 miles of heavy rail, twelve light rail trolley lines, thousands of buses, and neighborhoods designed for walking, bicycling, and transit access, Toronto exemplifies public policy in the public interest that Americans would endorse. As a former Toronto resident, Lucy Johnson, once told me, CEOs and janitors, alike, ride TTC transit to work every day. if we are looking beyond our borders for likely examples, Canada, its economy, and its daily lifestyles are far more akin to those of the USA.
Austin and other US cities must begin with something that leads us away from the auto-roadway system, has developer support, reduces infrastructure costs, and has higher tax returns from new, denser neighborhoods while allowing our older neighborhoods to evolve comfortably into true city
environs. LRT, in US cities, has proven it has an outstanding ability to do that.
It is likely that attempts to install "Curitiba in Austin" would simply result in forestalling truly workable LRT and could well have the result of diverting more Capital Metro transit money to fund road-based projects, such as HOV lanes, favored by the Texas Department of Transportation, which facilitate flight to the suburbs. Whether the "Curitiba model" turns out to be busway or HOV lanes, it seems clear they would not look or work anything like Curitiba's and yet would cost many times more per mile.
Certainly, in Austin and virtually every city, improvements will continue to be needed in both roadway maintenance and capacity. However, our "socialist" roadway system with its numerous hidden subsidies will continue to be increasingly congested with or without busways, HOV lanes, or LRT; it make sense to invest in a transit alternative – LRT – that has proven its success in attracting much of its ridership from cars, and which will give Austin taxpayers a helping hand.
Dave Dobbs is a transportation researcher and longtime Austin activist in neighborhood, environmental, and transportation issues. He is also director of the Texas Association for Public Transportation, a 501(c)(3) organization focusing on research and education in public transport.