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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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The Light Rail-BRT Debate

By Darius Sollohub

Over the last decade, as federal funding became scarce, competition between proponents of bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail transit (LRT) grew, and a vocal and acrimonious debate emerged. The website LightRailNow.org has described the promotion of BRT as nothing short of a “jihad” led by a cabal of automobile interests. In response, gobrt.org, through its newsletter the Transport Innovator, assiduously tracks each and every BRT success and juxtaposes it against LRT failures. The back and forth debate continues, and while each system has its own inherent pros and cons, they vie for the same market and in many ways are remarkably similar.

The struggle between these two systems dates back to the mid-20th century, when trolleys were replaced by buses in most American cities. That this was achieved surreptitiously by General Motors, Firestone and others has become almost a foundation myth for the LRT advocate. Some historians dispute its significance, arguing that a large amount of Depression-era federal funding went toward removing trolleys and their track before the consortium even got involved. They argue that this was less a conspiracy by big business and a more populist imperative driven by the public’s embrace of the automobile.


Top: Courtesy of RTD. Above: Jerry Masek, GCRTA.

A rivalry has developed between light rail and BRT advocates,

who have argued in recent years over which system is best.

Today the LRT advocate may have a legitimate fear that several decades of steady success may yet again be threatened by similar arguments, namely that today’s bus, re-branded as BRT, is like its predecessor—cheaper and more flexible. While the debate generally hinges on the practicality of BRT vs. LRT’s quality (an argument that quickly comes down to money), other flashpoints—such as each system’s ability to stimulate development or which system is more sustainable—have also emerged.

It is largely undeniable that BRT is cheaper to develop than LRT, although the degree can vary.  And despite some operational advantages for LRT—like the need for fewer operators—studies have generally found no clear advantages in a range of locations for LRT over BRT in operating costs per trip.

BRT can also be deployed relatively quickly with features layered on over time. Its economy can be very attractive to financially constrained transit providers looking for ways to add service, and its relatively short window of deployment appeals to politicians who can see results within one term. The trade-off is quality of service; BRT has yet to equal LRT, especially when it comes to passenger comfort. While each new BRT line gets a little better at emulating LRT, they also become more expensive. When and if a BRT system is ever developed that precisely simulates its counterpart, the question remains: Will it still maintain its economic advantage?

The indirect advantages of LRT—the impact on real estate development—have been consistently compelling. In northern New Jersey, in less than a decade, the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail’s impact on commercial and residential development has been tallied at between four to five times that of the public investment of roughly $2 billion. While this might be attributable to many factors, such as a sizzling housing market that has only now cooled, other cities from Baltimore to Portland can make similar claims. BRT boosters counter that development will indeed come (as reporting in the related article suggests). In an interesting irony, critics cite BRT’s advantages—flexibility, lower cost, gradual deployment and the potential for fine-tuning and evolution—as actual liabilities, arguing that real estate development will not follow BRT as they would LRT because it evidences the lack of agency or political commitment.

LightRailNow.org often makes the case that LRT is inherently more sustainable because it is largely driven by electric propulsion. Indeed, buses have long held a reputation for emitting noxious diesel fumes, but these vehicles have become cleaner and hybrid diesel will continue this trend. And even the diesel vs. electric comparison can be questioned on grounds of sustainability.  Recent research presented at the 2009 Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting argues that propulsion systems using coal-fired generation for electricity may produce more greenhouse gas emissions than hybrid vehicles.

BRT developers have strategically tried to shed the bus’ reputation as the transportation mode of last resort. While many bus trips of the 20th century were characteristically intermittent, slow and bone-rattling, the BRT of the 21st stresses express service and technologies ranging from real time tracking to magnetic guidance. To further shed BRT’s residual stigma, planners employ comprehensive branding strategies. TRB suggests that BRT branding produce “a quality image and unique identity.” When the French-made Civis vehicle—whose futuristic, bulbous form bears little resemblance to the angularity associated with circa-1970 buses—pulls into the highly developed stations in Las Vegas, people have to look close to tell whether it’s light rail or not. The stated goal of these branding strategies is to as closely as possible emulate light rail. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, one might wonder what all the fuss is about.

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