Summer Savings! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
Op-Eds
News Opinion Op-Eds

Rapid buses beat rails [Commentary]

Transit agencies from Baltimore to San Diego and from Seattle to St. Petersburg are planning new light-rail lines. Yet light rail is not only vastly more expensive than buses, it is slower, less comfortable, less convenient and has lower capacities than a well-designed rapid-bus system.

Being expensive to build, light rail can only reach parts of a region and thus most people have to drive to a park-and-ride station or transfer from a bus to train and back, thus lengthening the time of their trip. By comparison, for less money, rapid buses, which often rely on dedicated bus lanes to bypass traffic, can reach every corner of an urban area.

When full, most people have to stand on a light-rail train, but most people on a bus can be seated. Modern buses can also come equipped with WiFi and other amenities, making them even more attractive to riders.

And while it would appear that light rail can transport more people per day, the opposite is true. A single light-rail car can hold about 150 people, and in most cities three can be strung together in a train holding 450. By comparison, the biggest buses hold only a few more than 100 people. For safety reasons, however, most light-rail lines can support only about 20 trains an hour in each direction, while city streets can serve more than 160 buses per hour, giving the buses a huge capacity advantage. Where an expensive light-rail line can move about 9,000 people per hour, an inexpensive bus route can move nearly twice that many on city streets and many times more on a freeway lane.

The trade-off between light rail and buses is that one has higher capital costs and the other has higher operating costs. With the federal government willing to pay much of the capital costs of transit, but little of the operating costs, many transit agencies chose light rail so they don't have to impose high operating costs on their taxpayers.

This is a false bargain, however, because the light-rail line ends up serving far fewer people. To reach more people, the light rail must be supported by feeder buses, which cost nearly as much to operate as a rapid-bus system.

Moreover, when the costs of maintenance are counted, light rail ends up costing more, not less, than buses. Most maintenance costs are hidden because it isn't needed until the rail line approaches 30 years old. But few transit agencies have budgeted for these costs, with the result that the Federal Transit Administration says America's rail transit lines have a $59 billion maintenance backlog and growing.

And for many areas, there's no point to creating such lines. If a corridor won't attract 9,000 riders per hour, then why go to the expense of building rail when buses will move them for far less money? The truth is that light rail makes no sense anywhere in the world except places that are so rich they want to waste money.

It turns out that, outside of Manhattan and possibly Chicago, there is no urban area in America that needs any kind of rail transit at all. Buses can easily move hundreds of thousands of people into and out of a downtown or other urban center, as football fans learned when buses worked far better than trains at moving people to and from the MetLife Stadium for the 2014 SuperBowl.

Transit agencies that want to build light rail are wasting their taxpayers' money. Cities that haven't yet built light rail should plan rapid buses instead. Cities that have light rail should expand their systems with rapid buses and plan to replace the rail lines when they wear out with more efficient buses.

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of Rapid Bus: A Low-Cost, High-Capacity Transit System for Major Urban Areas. His email is rot@cato.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Former Bostonians find 'urban oasis' in Baltimore

    Former Bostonians find 'urban oasis' in Baltimore

    Tim Nelson and Kathy Edin fell in love with their Butchers Hill rowhome, and the city

  • How to kill the summer job

    How to kill the summer job

    I had a lot of summer jobs. I was a foot messenger in New York for a couple of summers. I worked as a receptionist and mail room flunky. Before my junior year of high school, I briefly sold ice cream snacks — sort of yuppie bonbons — on the street for a company called Love Bites. The uniform was...

  • Unmasking Dr. Huxtable

    Unmasking Dr. Huxtable

    Like many African-American women, when I heard about the sexual assault accusations against comedian Bill Cosby I was shocked and disappointed. I had difficulty separating my memories of Bill Cosby and his popular '80s sitcom with the new picture that was emerging of a predator whose victims claimed...

  • In Baltimore, hope can be a dangerous thing

    In Baltimore, hope can be a dangerous thing

    On a warm summer Saturday last month, while many of you were relaxing with your families or running errands, I attended the funeral of a 16 year old.

  • Suspensions are the symptom, racism is the cause

    Suspensions are the symptom, racism is the cause

    When my daughter was a junior in high school, she became captain of her softball team. One morning, while she shared some snacks I had brought her with a couple of teammates, a teacher accused her of selling food. He then confiscated my daughter's bag, violating the school board policy that gives...

  • Addressing the work family balance

    Addressing the work family balance

    Whatever you think about Sen. Bernie Sanders and business billionaire Donald Trump, it is exciting to see the chorus of viewpoints being offered by more than a dozen presidential candidates (16 on the GOP side alone). The summer of 2015 is hardly going to be a sleeper.

Comments
Loading
84°