Latest FTA data: Light rail trumps “BRT” in key performance measures

Left: Portland MAX LRT. (Photo: L. Henry). Right: Cleveland Healthline "BRT". (Photo: GCRTA).

Left: Portland MAX LRT. (Photo: L. Henry). Right: Cleveland Healthline “BRT”. (Photo: GCRTA).

Until recently, industrywide comparisons of performance between light rail transit (LRT) and the specific bus service mode of “bus rapid transit” (“BRT”), relying on reporting information in the National Transit Database (NTD) of the Federal Transit Administration, have been impossible because “BRT” data were not separately reported but instead were merely jumbled into the large general category of Bus. However, that has recently changed.

A number of transit agencies are now reporting “BRT” performance data within a separate category, with a total of seven agencies specifying their “BRT” data in the 2013 NTD report (the most recent so far). Thus it’s now possible to perform an analysis of LRT vs. “BRT” data to produce a preliminary evaluation of comparative performance of the two modes. (Because of the wide disparity in infrastructure and operational conditions applied to “BRT”, Light Rail Now continues to refer to this diversely and hazily defined modal designation within quotation marks.)

A comparative analysis of these “BRT” data and available data for recent-era new LRT systems (defined as post-1970, roughly following the introduction of the LRT concept in the North American transit industry) indicates that new LRT systems continue to excel in the two most critical performance areas of ridership and operating and maintenance (O&M) cost per passenger-mile. New recent-era LRT systems included in this analysis are those in the following cities/metro areas: San Diego, Buffalo, Portland, San Jose, Sacramento, Baltimore, Denver, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Houston, Phoenix, Charlotte, Seattle, and Norfolk. However, New Jersey Transit’s Hudson-Bergen LRT (HBLRT) system, launched in 2000, could not be included in this analysis of totally new systems, because the data for HBLRT is combined with that of Newark’s legacy subway-surface LRT system in the agency’s NTD report.

“BRT” systems with NTD data available include those in the following cities/metro areas: Cleveland, Eugene, Los Angeles, New York City, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Orlando. Note that a number of important new “BRT” operations, particularly those in Pittsburgh, Miami, Seattle, Honolulu, Charlotte, Boston, and Ft. Collins, are not included because their specific data are not reported to the NTD.

For more than two decades, proponents of “BRT” have pursued a virtual war against LRT with the mantra “just like light rail, but cheaper” — claiming that an array of rebranded and heavily promoted limited-stop bus services, deployed service applications similar to those of LRT, could offer all the benefits at far lower cost. Such claims can now be tested by comparing very similar relatively new installations of both systems. Derived from a comparative analysis of this data population, critical performance indicators are presented and discussed in the sections below.

Ridership — Certainly, average annual ridership is one of the most important indicators of a transit operation’s performance. As Exhibit 1 indicates (below), in this comparison of similar installations LRT services attract approximately three times the average annual ridership of “BRT”. However, it should be noted that the majority of LRT systems have been operational longer than the “BRT” systems.

Exhibit 1. Ridership comparison.

Exhibit 1. Ridership comparison.

Another important performance indicator is ridership per route-mile (or route-kilometer). This could be calculated from “Fixed Guideway Directional Route-Miles” in the NTD. Unfortunately, while these were available for LRT, none of the “BRT” systems presented this data in the 2013 report. Perhaps this data will be reported in future NTD reports.

O&M cost per rider-trip — In this important performance indicator, the “BRT” systems in this study averaged significantly better — 38% lower — than LRT, as shown in Exhibit 2. However, a drawback of this metric is that it fails to account for differences in average trip length, as discussed in the other performance indicators further below.

Exhibit 2. Comparison of O&M cost per rider-trip.

Exhibit 2. Comparison of O&M cost per rider-trip.

Another problem with this metric: While each agency’s LRT is a “closed” system (including virtually all costs, from platform operations to vehicle and way maintenance) with operational expenses compartmentalized and accounted for, “BRT” way maintenance accounting varies from agency to agency — sometimes funded by the transit agency, sometimes by the city or county in their public works budgets. Other “BRT” expenses, such as vehicle maintenance, may be blended with systemwide bus expenses. Likewise, while LRT security operations are almost always controlled and financially allocated to the LRT budget, for “BRT” this item may be hidden in systemwide costs. All told, there is really no consistency in how some “BRT” expenses are tallied and reported, thus affecting comparability to LRT costs.

Average trip length — Differences among modes may have different influences on passenger behavior and preferences, resulting in characteristically different average passenger trip lengths. This may also affect cost per passenger-mile. For example, the average O&M cost per trip of regional passenger rail operations is often compared disadvantageously with that of urban modes, including bus operations. However, the units cost per passenger-mile may be lower as longer trip lengths are factored in.

As illustrated in Exhibit 3, analysis of the 2013 ATD data indicates that comparable LRT systems attract passenger trip lengths almost exactly twice as long as the “BRT” systems in this study.

Exhibit 3. Comparison of average passenger trip length.

Exhibit 3. Comparison of average passenger trip length.

O&M cost per passenger-mile — This unit-cost metric is by far the most important indicator for assessing financial performance, since it measures the actual work being performed — the actual transportation of passengers — rather than cost based on merely the number of “bodies” boarding the average transit vehicle. As shown in Exhibit 4, The LRT systems in this study averaged an O&M cost per passenger-mile approximately 17% lower than the “BRT” systems reported.

Exhibit 4. Comparison of O&M cost per passenger-mile.

Exhibit 4. Comparison of O&M cost per passenger-mile.

The bottom line: In critical metrics of transportation activity, LRT continues to demonstrate major advantages.

NOTE: Since original publication, this post has been revised with a modification to the graph of cost per passenger-mile data (Exhibit 4). The original scale ($0.48 to $0.66) has been changed to $0.00 to $0.70 to reflect a minimum zero-value consistent with the other graphs. Also, in the discussion of O&M cost per rider-trip, a section has been added explaining the difficulty in accounting for some “BRT” expenses. Rev. 2015/07/02.


Rail Users Network (RUN) 2015 annual conference in Los Angeles, March 27th

Los Angeles Metro Red Line (rail rapid transit). Photo: Eric Haas

Los Angeles Metro Red Line (rail rapid transit). Photo: Eric Haas

Rail Users’ Network (RUN), a group “representing rail passengers’ interests in North America”, will hold its 2015 national conference on Friday, March 27th, in Los Angeles. Billed as a “Making the Transition from Roads to Rail Conference” … “in what was once considered the car capital of the world”, the meeting will be held from 8:00am to 5:00pm at the Southern California Association of Government (SCAG) Offices, 818 West 7th Street, 12th Floor.

With a focus on examining “how Los Angeles is making the transition from roads to rail:, the conference will feature opening remarks from RUN chairman Richard Rudolph and Hassan Ikhrata, SCAG executive director. Other featured speakers include:

• Denny Zane, Executive Director of MoveLa — will describe his organization’s efforts “to build a powerful business-labor-environmental coalition” that worked to put Measure R (a half-cent transportation sales tax) on the ballot in 2008 and helped to win voter support.

• Arthur Leahy, LA Metro CEO

• Mark Murphy, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Amtrak Long Distance Services

• Christopher Coes, Director of LOCUS and a staff member of Smart Growth America — will give keynote address

The conference will include several panel discussions.

“Big Rail, Little Rail” (morning session) — “will highlight rail expansion and the emerging regional and inter-regional rail network.” Moderators: Dana Gabbard, RUN Board Member and Executive Secretary, Southern California Transit Advocates. Panelists include Eliza Echevarria, Community Relations Manager, Riverside County Transportation Commission; Raffi Hamparian, Director, Federal Affairs, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority ; Michelle Boehm from the California High Speed Rail Authority; and Jessica Wethington McLean, Executive Director of Bringing Back Broadway.

How Transit Oriented Development has impacted the local economy (afternoon). Moderator: RUN chair Richard Rudolph, Ph.D. Panelists include Diego Cardoso, Executive Officer, Countywide Planning and Development, LA Metro; Roger Moliere, former Executive Officer for Real Property at LA Metro now currently serving as Senior Adviser at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP; Dan Rosenfeld, a private real estate investor who alternates between private and public-sector service, and Huasha Liu, Director, Land Use and Environmental Planning, SCAG.

“Best Practices for More Effective Advocacy” (third panel). Moderator: Andrew Albert, RUN’s vice chair and chair of the NYC Transit Riders Council. Panelists include Lynda Bybee, former Deputy Executive Officer, Community Outreach, LA Metro, past President of the Women’s Transportation Seminar; Jaime de la Vega, former Deputy Mayor for Transportation under Mayor Villaraigosa, former General Manager, Los Angeles Dept. of Transportation and former Board Member, Metrolink, and Darrell Clarke, who helped get the Expo Line started, and extended as far as Santa Monica.

“Multi-State Effort to Save the Southwest Chief: A Case Study in Advocacy” (final panel). Moderator: David Peter Alan, Esq., RUN board member and president of the Lackawanna Coalition. Panelists include Jim Souby, President, Colorado Rail Passenger Association, and J.W. Madison, President, Rails Inc., and RUN board member.

Conference participants will also have an opportunity to take an optional inspection tour of LA-area public transportation on Saturday, March 28th. This will include a “behind-the-scenes” tour of Union Station and Metro’s Rail operations center, as well as riding subway, “commuter”, and light rail transit lines in Southern California.

The conference registration fee is currently $85, or $90 “at the door”; this will include “a continental breakfast, lunch, afternoon refreshment break, the pre-conference reception, the optional inspection tour on Saturday (excluding rail/transit fares) and all conference materials/handouts.” For more information, visit RUN’s website:

Austin: Support for “Plan B” urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar corridor advances

Proposed design for dedicated light rail alignments, retaining 4 lanes of traffic, could resemble San Francisco's Muni Metro N-Judah light rail alignment in Judah St., seen here near 16th Ave. Photo: (copyright) Eric Haas.

Proposed design for dedicated light rail alignment in Austin’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, retaining 4 lanes of traffic, could resemble San Francisco’s Muni Metro N-Judah light rail alignment in Judah St., seen here near 16th Ave. Photo: (copyright) Eric Haas.

Austin, Texas — Community support is mounting to apply millions of dollars in available municipal funds to resume the decades-old planning for light rail transit (LRT) in the city’s Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, described in a recent Austin Rail Now (ARN) posting as Austin’s “most central north-south corridor, with by far the heaviest travel and congestion.”

Several possible route plans for LRT in the corridor have been suggested. As this blog reported in November, one of these, proposed by ARN, would stretch 6.8 miles, with a short link to the city’s developing Seaholm-Amtrak station site, for a capital cost of $586 million.(See map below.)

Annotated map of proposed Guadalupe-Lamar LRT line shows various major activity and population points served, as well as connection to Seaholm-Amtrak site. Map: Austin Rail Now.

Annotated map of proposed Guadalupe-Lamar LRT line shows various major activity and population points served, as well as connection to Seaholm-Amtrak site. Map: Austin Rail Now.

In a December posting, ARN presented a proposed design to install dedicated LRT tracks in North Lamar Blvd. and Guadalupe St., while retaining four lanes of traffic as well as sidewalks for pedestrians and bicycles. Modeled after San Francisco’s Muni Metro N-Judah LRT route in Judah St., the design shows how an effective LRT line could work within what is mostly an 80-foot-wide right-of-way. (See photo at top of this post and graphic of cross section below.)

Cross-section of proposed LRT line, showing dedicated track alignment, 4 lanes of traffic, clearances, and facilities for pedestrians and bicycles. Graphic: ARN.

Cross-section of proposed LRT line, showing dedicated track alignment, 4 lanes of traffic, clearances, and facilities for pedestrians and bicycles. Graphic: ARN.

Widespread community support for such an urban rail line in this high-traffic, dense central corridor is evident. The crucial task is to gain official cooperation. But, warns ARN in a posting earlier this month, despite this community backing, a long history of previous study of the corridor, and suggestions for route and design options, key local officials “seem to have been struck blind and deaf, oblivious to the obvious feasibility of LRT in the city’s most central and heavily used local corridor.”

On the other hand, a recent major overhaul in Austin’s local government, reorganizing how councilmembers are elected and installing entirely new representatives, may open the possibility that things will change. As ARN‘s article asks,

Will a new mayor and a new district-based 10-1 City Council provide an opportunity to scrap this modus operandi of failure and disaster, bring the community into authentic involvement in crucial decisions, and move forward with the first phase of LRT as a starter line in Guadalupe-Lamar?

This is a developing saga worth following… ■

Austin: As urban rail vote fails, campaign for Plan B light rail rises

"Plan B" is a 6.8-mile light rail starter line route for Austin's most central inner-city local corridor. It was originally proposed as a more feasible alternative to the official "urban rail" plan, defeated on Nov. 4th. Map graphic: Austin Rail Now.

“Plan B” is a 6.8-mile light rail starter line route for Austin’s most central inner-city local corridor. It was originally proposed as a more feasible alternative to the official “urban rail” plan, defeated on Nov. 4th. Map graphic: Austin Rail Now.

Austin, Texas — In a somewhat astonishing victory, on November 4th the city’s most dedicated, experienced, and knowledgeable rail transit advocates — including leaders of the Light Rail Now Project — helped defeat an officially sponsored rail transit plan that they said would waste resources on a very weak route and actually set back rail transit development in the community. See: Austin: With flawed “urban rail” plan now on ballot, debate heats up.

Produced by a consortium of several public agencies called Project Connect, the official plan — designated “urban rail” but in fact deploying light rail transit (LRT) technology — proposed a 9.5-mile route connecting the declining Highland Mall shopping center on the city’s north side (also a site being developed as a new Austin Community College campus) to the East Riverside corridor in the southeast. While the proposal was projected to have an investment cost of $1.4 billion in 2020, Austin’s City Council placed a $600 million General Obligation bond measure on the ballot as the local share, in hopes that the remainder would be covered by federal grants and other undisclosed sources.

It was that bond measure that was defeated, by a 14-point margin, 57%-43% — a stunning triumph for opponents, outspent 2-to-1 by a powerful coalition of the core of Austin’s business and predominantly Democratic political leadership, who also managed to enlist the support of major environmental, liberal, New Urbanist, and other “progressive” leaders. But a coalition of transit advocates and many other community and neighborhood activists otherwise inclined to support rail transit vehemently opposed the plan, objecting to what many perceived as a scheme that ignored crucial mobility needs in deference to real estate development interests. Many community members also felt excluded from what was depicted as a “fraudulent” process that had engendered the proposal. See: The fraudulent “study” behind the misguided Highland-Riverside urban rail plan.

For analyses of the campaign and defeat of the Highland-Riverside rail plan, see:

Austin: Flawed urban rail plan defeated — Campaign for Guadalupe-Lamar light rail moves ahead

Lessons of the Austin rail bond defeat

Austin urban rail plan: Behind voters’ rejection

Austin urban rail vote fails, alternative light rail plan proposed

With Austin's most powerful business leadership, mass media, and Democratic Party-dominated political leadership arrayed against them, grassroots rail advocates, community activists, and neighborhood groups opposing the official "urban rail" proposition seemed to face overwhelming odds. Graphic via

With Austin’s most powerful business leadership, mass media, and Democratic Party-dominated political leadership arrayed against them, grassroots rail advocates, community activists, and neighborhood groups opposing the official “urban rail” proposition seemed to face overwhelming odds. Thus defeat of the official “urban rail” plan on Nov. 4th was an amazing upset. Graphic via

While the defeat of the City’s official plan might be seen as one step back, it could well lead to several steps forward in the form of a new “Plan B” LRT starter line in the central city’s heaviest-travel local corridor, potentially making far more sense to voters and attracting much broader support. This route, original proposed in the 1970s and intensively studied since the 1980s (and very narrowly defeated by less than 1% of voters in a 2000 regional referendum), follows the major arterials North Lamar and Guadalupe Street, serving increasing residential density and commercial activity in the corridor including the West Campus area adjacent to the University of Texas campus, with the third-highest residential density in Texas.

Various alternatives for a light rail starter line to serve this corridor are possible; one prominent example is a plan recently proposed by Austin Rail Now (ARN, a coalition of rail supporters including the Light Rail Now Project). As illustrated by the annotated map at the top of this post, this proposal envisions a 6.8-mile line, running from the North Lamar Transit Center (at U.S. 183) to the city’s Core Area (comprising the UT campus, Capitol Complex, and Central Business District). Along the way, it would provide a connection to the MetroRail diesel-multiple-unit-operated regional rail passenger service at the Crestview station (also a major development site), and important the Triangle multi-use development further south.

This plan also includes a branch stretching west to a new urban development site located at the former Seaholm electric power plant and current Amtrak intercity train station (at the western edge of the CBD). See: A “Plan B” proposal for a Guadalupe-Lamar alternative urban rail starter line.

With 17 stations and a fleet of 30 LRT railcars, ARN’s Plan B is designed to carry daily ridership of as many as 30,000 to 40,000 rider-trips — a figure derived from federally funded studies of the 2000 proposal, and roughly two to three times as much ridership as was likely for the now-defunct Highland-Riverside scheme. Yet, at a projected $586 million, and with no major civil works along the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, it would have roughly half the investment cost, and an affordability likely to be more appealing to voters.

Furthermore, a cost-effective and financially doable starter line located in Austin’s centralmost and most heavily traveled inner-city local corridor could plausibly serve as the central axis or trunk of a far larger citywide LRT system, with lines branching into many other neighborhoods and outlying communities.

LRT in Austin's North Lamar and Guadalupe corridor could resemble Portland's Yellow Line on Interstate Avenue, shown here. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

LRT in Austin’s North Lamar and Guadalupe corridor could resemble Portland’s Yellow Line on Interstate Avenue, shown here. Photo: Peter Ehrlich.

Supporters hope that this illustration of a Plan B LRT concept for Guadalupe-Lamar will provide a spark to re-kindle an official rail planning process that truly makes sense. Key to any plan for expansion of transit in Austin is acceptance of the need for re-allocating some street space — and traffic lanes — to dedicated transit use, and this policy is included in the proposal.

Most important, unlike the defeated urban rail proposal, a Plan B LRT on Guadalupe-Lamar seems to be an initiative that comes from the community itself. That’s an excellent ingredient for success. ■

New streetcar startups bringing rail transit to more U.S. cities


Tucson’s new Sun Link streetcar passes sidewalk cafe during opening day festivities in July 2014. Photo: Ed Havens.

Light rail transit (LRT) continues to sprout across the USA, driven especially by the lower cost and easier implementation of streetcar-type LRT technology. Listed below are several U.S. cities where new streetcar systems either have recently opened, or projects are under way, bringing the first rail transit in the modern era to these metro areas. Links to helpful articles providing further information are provided, as available.


This medium-sized Arizona city’s 3.9-mile streetcar line, branded Sun Link, opened this past July, at an investment cost of $198.8 million. The starter line route links up the University of Arizona campus with important activity points like Main Gate Square, the Fourth Avenue business district, and downtown Tucson, continuing westward to the Mercado area west of Interstate 10. Ridership (averaging over 4,700 on weekdays) has already surpassed projections. See: Tucson Sun Link streetcar opens, meets ridership goal.


This midwestern city’s streetcar project, now in the advanced stages of construction, will install a 3.6-mile loop (1.8 miles of route from one end to the other) in the CBD. The $133 million starter line will stretch from The Banks to Findlay Market, and is projected to open for service in the fall of 2016. See: CincyStreetcar Blog.

Kansas City

This 2.2-mile starter streetcar line will operate mostly along Main Street through the CBD, connecting River Market with Union Station. Budgeted at $102 million in 2012, the project is well under way. Construction began in May 2014, and the line is expected to open for passenger service in late 2015. See: Kansas City — Another new downtown streetcar project starts to take shape.

Oklahoma City

A 4.6-mile streetcar starter line, now in advanced planning, will bring rail transit to this major city. The project, currently estimated to cost $128.8 million, will circulate through the CBD, and will feature wireless operation beneath the BNSF Railway overpass linking the city’s MidTown area with the historic and adjoining Bricktown district. Opening is projected for late 2017 or early 2018. See: Oklahoma City Rail Transit and Public Transport Developments.


The City has a 2.1-mile streetcar starter line project under way with a budgeted investment cost of $64.6 million. Extending from Ogden & Prospect on the northeast of the CBD to 4th & Wisconsin, completion has been targeted for 2016. However, the City may have to find an additional $20 million to cover the cost of utilities relocation, under a recent ruling by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. See: Milwaukee aiming to start streetcar line construction in 2014.


In September, tracklaying finally began for this 3.3-mile, $136 million streetcar starter line, financed from both public and private sources. Designated M-1, the line will operate on busy Woodward Avenue, from Grand to Congress. See: Detroit’s M-1 modern streetcar project gets under way. Opening is projected for 2016. See: Detroit’s M-1 modern streetcar project gets under way. ■

Austin: With flawed “urban rail” plan now on ballot, debate heats up

Project Connect's 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail (light rail transit) proposal is opposed by the staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit proponents in Austin. Map: Project Connect.

Project Connect’s 9.5-mile, $1.4 billion urban rail (light rail transit) proposal is opposed by the staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit proponents in Austin. Map: Project Connect.

Austin, Texas — For months, this city’s staunchest and most knowledgeable rail transit advocates, including the Light Rail Now Project team, have been leading the criticism of an “urban rail” (light rail transit) plan being proposed by Project Connect, a consortium of several public entities, including the City of Austin, the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Capital Metro), and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO). A central focus of most of this criticism has been the fact that the proposed route fails to serve the city’s premier central corridor, identified as Guadalupe-Lamar because it follows two major arterial roadways by those names.

Project Connect’s route, a meandering 9.5-mile alignment now priced at roughly $1.4 billion (2020 dollars), instead seems to try to create a new corridor from a southeastern area known as the East Riverside corridor, across the Colorado River and north through the east side of the CBD, through the East Campus of the University of Texas, and through a somewhat convoluted connection to a declining shopping mall site, known as Highland Mall, now being transformed into a new Highland campus for Austin Community College (ACC). However, at a staggeringly high cost, the proposed line fails to solve critical mobility needs, misses the major local travel corridor of the central city (Guadalupe-Lamar), and misses the high-density West Campus neighborhood area.

Rail proponents also warn that, by “soaking up all the oxygen” (available financial resources), the project would seriously constrain further rail development and extensions throughout the city. Furthermore, the dubious urban rail plan (driven more by desires of real estate developers than by mobility needs) also seems linked to a plan to entrench the MetroRapid bus operation (portrayed as “bus rapid transit”) in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor, where it would likely become a barrier to urban rail development there.

On June 26th, the Austin City Council designated the Project Connect plan as the city’s Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), and on August 7th the Council authorized a ballot measure that asks voters to approve $600 million in general obligation bonds to pay for a local portion of the proposed urban rail project. The ballot language stipulates that bonds could only be issued if the City finds an additional $400 million in funding for an array of roadway projects, including roadwork on Interstate 35 running through the city.

The Austin Rail Now website (a project partly sponsored by Texas Association for Public Transportation and the Light Rail Now Project) has been a significant resource of information and analysis on Austin’s recent urban rail planning, including alternative plans as well as drawbacks of the official plan developed and recommended by Project Connect. Most of this material represents potentially useful guidance for other communities similarly involved in rail system planning. Listed below are just a few of the key major articles posted on the site that provide a better overview and insight into the forest of issues involved. ■

Project Connect planning problems

Project Connect’s “corridor” study — without corridors!

Surprise! Mayor and Project Connect select same routes they wanted in the first place

Questions for Project Connect

Memo to CCAG: “Pause” study or include “Lamar” sector

Project Connect Needs an Overhaul

What’s with Project Connect’s “2.9 million daily ridership” projection?

Will Project Connect continue to gag the public?

Science seems missing from Project Connect’s “scientific” transit planning

Project Connect’s urban rail forecasting methodology — Inflating ridership with “fudge factor”?

Reality Check: How plausible are Project Connect’s time/speed claims for Highland-Riverside urban rail plan?

Problems of Project Connect’s urban rail proposal

Dobbs: “Why are we squandering our best asset?”

Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route

Project Connect’s Austin urban rail would be 3rd-most-pricey LRT starter line in U.S. history

Project Connect’s urban rail plan “costs way too much to do too little”

Project Connect’s $500 million plan for bus infrastructure — The Elephant in the Road on Guadalupe-Lamar that could block urban rail

Project Connect’s urban rail plan is “worse than nothing”

Why Project Connect’s “Highland” urban rail would do nothing for I-35 congestion

Why Project Connect’s urban rail plan would remove just 1,800 cars a day — not 10,000

Project Connect’s gold-plated Austin urban rail plan shows planning process way off course

Three “incontrovertible facts” about urban rail proposals in Austin

Political issues of Project Connect plan

City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead

City Council to Austin community: Shut Up

Baker: Connecting some dots on Austin’s urban rail planning

Official urban rail plan bulldozed to ballot — in bulging bundle

Guadalupe-Lamar alternative

An alternative Urban Rail plan

Give priority to “Missing Link”

Demographic maps show Lamar-Guadalupe trumps Mueller route for Urban Rail

Another alternative urban rail plan for Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Guadalupe-Lamar urban rail line would serve 31% of all Austin jobs

How urban rail can be installed in the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor

Why the MetroRapid bus project currently is NOT an obstacle to urban rail in Guadalupe-Lamar

Contradicting local official claims, FTA says it “would consider request” for urban rail on North Lamar

West Campus is where the students are!

Austin’s 2000 light rail plan — Key documents detail costs, ridership of Lamar-Guadalupe-SoCo route

Puncturing Randal O’Toole’s autocentric robocar fantasy

Google self-driving Lexus covered 500,000 miles under robotic control. Photo via

Google self-driving Lexus covered 500,000 miles under robotic control. Photo via

By Bill Heger

In another of his familiar diatribes against rail transit, anti-rail Road Warrior “hired gun” Randal O’Toole recently posted on the Cato Institute website an attack on the relevance of long-range transportation planning (he’s particularly critical of the federally mandated 20-year horizon). Titled “Planning for the Unpredictable”, O’Toole’s tract focuses on the potential “unpredictable” impacts of “self-driving cars” (aka robocars, autonomous cars) on future travel patterns. Planning for public transport, he warns, should be minimized, because robocars “will be on the market in the next 10 years, are likely to become a dominant form of travel in 20 years, and most people think they will have huge but often unknowable transformative effects on our cities and urban areas.”
As usual, O’Toole’s admonitions are directed primarily against what he calls “obsolete technologies such as streetcars, light rail, and subways”, which he sees as “just a waste of money.” Don’t start developing rail plans for your community, he warns; in fact, don’t plan for the long term at all. Think short-term, because everything could change. “Instead of writing 20-year plans that pretend to know what a city will need in the distant future, planners should only write short-term plans that solve today’s problems …. Urban areas should avoid infrastructure projects that take decades to complete and would make sense only if people completely changed their lifestyles.”
Public transport advocates and professionals are well aware of robocar technology and have been analyzing its implications — with the assessment that, while technological innocation will undounbtedly introduce changes in travel options, there’s no basis for believing that rail and other public transport modes will be made obsolete by robocars anytime soon. Light Rail Now technical consultant and contributing editor Lyndon Henry has discussed some of the implications of robocars in two articles on the website: That Robot Is Derailing My Train and Sterilize Your City for the Robocar Revolution? Transport planner/researcher Todd Litman, head of the Victoria Transport Planning Institute, has also issued an excellent analysis titled Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions.
These analyses raise both daunting technical and policy issues which suggest major obstacles to predictions of a tsunami of self-driving cars that will flood cities and usurp mass transport services.
In the following post, Bill Heger, an authoritative and influential St. Louis rail passenger advocate, offers his own rebuttal to O’Toole’s counsel to cities to put transit planning and project development on hold while awaiting the Robocar Revolution just over the horizon. His narrative not only challenges some of the glib chicanery against rail transit development presented by O’Toole, but also expresses in a down-to-earth way several of the major complex issues that currently confront robocar technology and its implementation.

I see a lot of things wrong with what Randal O’Toole is saying in this article. First he complains about how long it takes to get transportation projects done. Has it occurred to him how much bureaucracy and red tape you have to go through just get a project started?

This fact is just as true for a road project as it is for a rail transit project. In fact, it’s usually people like O’Toole who come along and try to screw things up when you build a rail project, thus making the costs go up and dragging the construction time out.

Case in point: Here in St. Louis the original plan for the Shrewsbury Metrolink extension called for almost all surface construction. However, a group of arrogant and uninformed neighbors banded together and insisted that large portions of the line be placed underground. Once construction started, the crews ran into several underground utilities which did not show up on any plats. The project failed to come in on time or at budget because the transit company was not allowed to build it on the surface.

Another thing O’Toole leaves out is the energy impact these self-driving cars will have. Nowhere does he mention what will power these cars. Will they be standard gasoline engines, diesel, hybrid, fuel cells, electric? He does not say. Considering that one time he posted something once highly critical of the Toyota Prius, I suspect he would be opposed to anything other than gasoline standard internal combustion.

This leads into the next question: Where is all that gasoline supposed to come from? Oh sure, the powers that be now try to insist that the United States is currently nearly self-sufficient in oil. But if that’s the case, why are we still spending billions of dollars defending a bunch of third-rate dictatorships in the Mideast? It certainly was not to bring democracy to the region. Just ask the Iraqis.

A further question O’Toole neglects is: Will people really want self-driving cars?

Part of the whole appeal of the automotive culture is the word AUTO. It means self. A large part of the automotive culture is the idea of self-mobility; the fact that you are in control.

Furthermore, the automakers have wanted to convince the consuming public that they are building a car just for you. That’s why GM had 5 auto lines, Ford Chrysler and VW had three, and virtually all the other auto manufacturers existed. It’s your car. I even know of some people that still insist on manual transmissions because they want that much control.

O’Toole is a free market conservative. What if the free market says No to self-driving cars?

This point leads to another libertarian contradiction. Libertarians are always big on people doing their own thing. They oppose drug enforcement, they are pro-choice, and they are generally opposed to the government doing anything other than providing for the common defense. I knew of one libertarian that even wanted to privatize the military.

If their whole philosophy is one of the individual making their own choices, then don’t self-driving cars fly right in the face of that philosophy? Can you say “hypocrites”, boys and girls? Sure, I knew you could.

Furthermore, who is going to control the mechanisms that govern these self-driving cars? Nowhere in his article did O’Toole address who would be in control.

Does the Federal highway administration set up some central control center? Does each state set up their own control system with federal oversight? How do you guarantee each state’s system is compatible with the others?

Thrill of the open road? Latest version of Google robocar comes without steering wheel, brake pedal, or accelerator pedal — car will drive humans, human's won't be able to drive car. Thinking among robocar technology developers is that human control must be eliminated for safety reasons. Photo via

Thrill of the open road? Latest version of Google robocar comes without steering wheel, brake pedal, or accelerator pedal — car will drive humans, humans won’t be able to drive car. Thinking among robocar technology developers is that human control must be eliminated for safety reasons. Photo via

And finally, who and how do you pay for all of this? O’Toole and his fellow thinkers love to complain about the costs of rail projects. How much is his driverless car system going to cost? I don’t recall seeing any figures.

Finally, the next generation coming up may not even be able to afford a car, whether that car is conventional or driverless. Most likely, they will not make the money their parents made and they may be entirely responsible for their own retirement and health insurance.

Where is the money for a car supposed to come from? Furthermore, if they have kids, that only means even less income. A car is almost out of the picture.

In conclusion, I fail to see how O’Toole expects to make his autocentric future world work. ■