Lean Transport: Buses vs. Light Rail
Mark posted yesterday about the relative leanness of light rail vs. buses. He pointed out that
a rail line probably has more capacity, but it’s very much a fixed asset, a “monument” if you will. Buses are very flexible, both in terms of routes and incremental capacity, right? But, then again, buses do add to traffic congestion, so maybe there’s no easy answer about which waste is worse.
But buses don’t have to add to congestion as much as we believe. The January 2006 issue of the Sierra Club magazine featured an interview with Brazilian architect (and former mayor of Curitiba) Jaime Lerner about how to build a mass transit system that serves the needs of consumers without creating additional traffic. His questions, and his solution, demonstrate a keen eye for avoiding waste.
Lerner promotes a BRT (“bus rapid transit”) system. Currently, more than 60 cities worldwide have some version of a BRT (including Seoul, with 10 million people, and Curitiba, with 1.7 million residents). A BRT requires only a few relatively simple modificationsâ€”dedicated lanes in the center of the street where transit vehicles run unimpeded, “boarding tubes” where passengers pay fares before their bus arrives, and curb-level entries so they board and exit quickly.
Lerner’s team began with a clear customer focus: what do people value in a transit system:
We started by trying to understand what mass transit is and what it should be: fast, comfortable, reliable. Most of all, you shouldn’t need to wait.
And in true lean fashion, they had to figure out how to do more with less:
We wanted to make sure we could run our system on surface streets because it’s cheaper. We had no money and no loans. . . . When we started out, we thought our system could hold us until we could afford a subway. Now I’m sure we don’t need a subway.
While Paris, London, Moscow, and New York have extensive subway systems, they were built at the beginning of the last century when it was significantly cheaper to work underground. BRT is also much cheaper than a light rail line. (Are you listening Seattle?)
Light rail is sometimes 10 to 20 times more expensive than a BRT, and it takes more time to implement. When you have time and money and are able to subsidize the system, light rail is OK. But when you have to subsidize every ticket, you’re taking money from other social investments. That’s the main issue. You can have a BRT system that’s as good as an underground or light rail, and it pays for itself.
In true lean fashion, the city found (in Matt May’s words) an “elegant solution” to their transportation issues. Lerner explains that
we had to have dedicated lanes. Not just separated by painted lines but physically separated and at the center of the street. And the system had to be fast. That means stops every five or six hundred meters [about a third of a mile], not every block. We transport 2 million people at one-minute intervalsâ€”and sometimes at 30-second intervals. Our BRT can carry the same number of passengers as a subway and is 100 times less expensive per kilometer.
The entire interview is fascinating and well worth reading. For my money, the best quote is Lerner’s approach towards cars:
I’m not against cars. But your city doesn’t have to be oriented toward them. A car is like your mother-in-law. You want to have a good relationship with her, but you can’t let her conduct your life. When a city has good public transportation, it becomes for people and for cars. Imagine a city with 30 percent fewer cars on the streets.
30% fewer cars? Less traffic? Fast, cheap, mass transit? Public money freed up for other, more productive uses? Sounds lean to me.