New light rail projects in study beat BRT

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line "bus rapid transit" (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

by Lyndon Henry

New light rail transit (LRT) projects came out ahead of new bus rapid transit (BRT) projects that were included in a research study I presented last November (2012) to the 12th National Light Rail Transit Conference in Salt Lake City, sponsored by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Dave Dobbs, a longtime colleague, helped me conduct the study.

In part, this research was a response to the assertions of critics of rail transit who maintain a constant barrage of attacks on rail, trying to convince the public at large and decisionmakers that public transit (especially rail) is just a waste of money … and that, if you must install something fancy, so-called “BRT” is invariably cheaper and better (or “Just like light rail, but cheaper…”). However, these attacks rarely appear in independent professional forums like this one, co-sponsored by the TRB (an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences).

All papers accepted by the TRB for publication/presentation — including this work, titled Comparative examination of New Start light rail transit, light railway, and bus rapid transit services opened from 2000 — must undergo a rigorous peer-review process critically examining their methodology and conclusions.

My PowerPoint presentation to the conference has been placed online by the TRB and can be found here:

In addition, I discussed the study — both the methodology and the results — in several articles published in my online blog column at Railway Age:

Research study: New LRT projects beat BRT [26 November 2012]

Research: BRT can truly be pricier than LRT [14 January 2013]

Study: LRT ridership gains are spectacular [18 February 2013]

Here are some summary results, excerpted from the Railway Age articles:

How well did LRT and BRT final costs compare with budget estimates? LRT again did better, exceeding budget by only 2% on average, while BRT averaged 35% above budget.

In terms of capital cost, for “substantial” installations (5% or more of route length involving heavy civil works), LRT was a clear winner, with an average cost per mile of $80 million, less than a fifth of BRT’s average of nearly $452 million. (All costs in 2012 dollars.)

Where electric LRT really excelled was in achieving ridership goals. On average, LRT projects seemed to meet their ridership targets at about twice the rate of the BRT projects, using the “ridership achievement index” we developed for the study (which accounted for the pace at which projected ridership was being achieved).

It should be noted that some BRT projects didn’t do so badly — Cleveland’s “HealthLine” project (Euclid Avenue) was achieving its target at a 60% faster pace than expected, while Los Angeles’s Orange Line busway was reaching its ridership at nearly 3 times the projected rate.

But some of the LRT results were really spectacular. St. Louis’s St. Clair Extension of Metrolink, for example, was racing towards its ridership goals at over 7 times the predicted rate; Minneapolis’s Hiawatha line at six times; and Denver’s Southwest LRT at more than 6 times. (It should be noted that 3 out of the 20 LRT projects studied were failing to meet projected growth rate targets; nevertheless, the overall LRT average still exceeded BRT’s.

There’s a lot more, both in the PowerPoint presentation, and in the full Railway Age articles.

One thought on “New light rail projects in study beat BRT

  1. Pingback: Bus or Light Rail, the Evidence Is Clear : Rail for the Valley

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