Busways are a Better Alternative

Thursday, February 4, 2016 - 1:00pm
James E. Moore II

We saddle transit agencies with inconsistent objectives. We use transit as a form of wealth transfer to ensure at least a minimum degree of mobility for everyone. We fund transit to keep people mobile enough to work, pay taxes, and participate in an orderly society. However, expecting transit services delivered by a highly subsidized producer to attract people who have the option to use a car is foolish, particularly when the transit services involved have been shielded from the market forces that would otherwise guide these services toward delivering what consumers want. Whether or not someone uses transit is largely a function of income. Higher income groups attach a higher opportunity cost to their time. Travel on public transit is often a time-intensive proposition and for higher income travelers this makes transit an expensive option. 

The LA Times article focuses some overdue media daylight on specious policy claims by MTA and others that rail lines are key to improving transportation services in Los Angeles. The MTA responded in the article with the standard agency smoke screen:  Let us finish the system. They report that once they achieve a "complete buildout," the rail system will perform. It won’t. We’ll spend billions more on rail at the expense of bus service, and continue to drive down transit ridership as we force riders off buses. No one currently with the agency will still be employed by the agency in the distant future the MTA is claiming to predict. None of the parties responsible for spending on rail transit will be standing before the public to be held accountable. They will be long retired, and not available to explain why the future they promised never materialized.

The MTA statement in the article that "we are not building for today," could not be any more true. Unfortunately we are not building for tomorrow either.

Between fiscal years 1982 and 1985, Proposition A sales tax revenues were used to suppress SCRTD bus fares. Bus ridership exploded, achieving the 1985 zenith. After FY 1985, Proposition A funds were diverted to a capital account for the Blue Line train. Bus fares went up, and bus ridership began to crater. Let’s take delivery on the obvious. Transit riders are price sensitive, because they are mostly low income.  Raising fares on any transit mode prices people off the system. 

The NAACP and the Bus Riders Union understood this in 1994. When they sued the MTA in federal court, the plaintiffs’ argument was that hopelessly inefficient decisions make the transit pie smaller for everyone, including members of protected groups. The plaintiffs were systematically winning their case when the MTA settled with them in 1997. The terms of Judge Hatter’s consent decree required that MTA resources be shifted toward buses. The MTA could continue to build all the rail it wanted and could afford, but they could not trade-off the growth of rail against the quality of bus service. Once the terms of the consent decree were met, transit ridership began to grow and continued to grow until 2007, when the terms of consent decree expired. Once bus fares began to increase and bus service began to diminish, total transit ridership began to fall again. 

Trains are an expensive way to deliver passenger miles relative to buses. The year it opened, the subsidy absorbed by the Blue Line would have been sufficient to fund 22 of MTA’s busiest bus lines. Collectively, these bus lines delivered 17 times more passenger miles than the Blue Line train. The more rail we build, the more financial pressure the MTA faces to diminish bus service. This outcome is highly predictable. Nationwide, rail transit operating and capital cost forecasts are inevitably lower than realized when these systems are built. Rail ridership forecasts are inevitably higher than realized. The net effect is that cost per rail rider can easily be an order of magnitude higher than forecast. The money to operate rail systems has to come from somewhere once the rail system is built. The same people responsible for building and operating new rail systems are typically the agency responsible for operating old bus systems. The funds needed to operate the rail system are shifted away from the bus system.  Bus service contracts, and total transit ridership drops. The number of people who show up the trains is smaller than the number of people priced off or otherwise scheduled off of the buses. This happens time and time again in North American cities that invest in rail transit. It is completely predictable, and is routinely predicted. The jury is in. The effect is understood. There is no further interpreting to do.

Trains can deliver a high level of service if grade separated from traffic, but if we are serious enough about transit service to want to improve the attractiveness of transit by shielding it from traffic, then we should build busways instead of trains. Busways are cheaper to build. They offer operational options railways do not, because vehicles can enter and exit the busway to collect and distribute, and they are higher capacity than all but trunk line railways. Trains have to be separated by minutes. Buses can be separated by seconds.

James E. Moore II

James Moore is director of the Transportation Engineering program in the USC Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Vice Dean for Academic Programs in the Viterbi School of Engineering. Professor Moore conducts fundamental and applied research on the engineering economic aspects of large-scale transportation and land use systems. His research interests include risk management of infrastructure networks subject to natural hazards and terrorist threats; economic impact modeling; transportation network performance and control; large scale computational models of metropolitan land use/transport systems, especially in California; evaluation of new technologies; and infrastructure investment and pricing policies.

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