By Ryan McGreal
Published April 11, 2008
The 22 page Rapid Transit Feasibility Study just posted on the City of Hamilton's website is meant to be a preliminary analysis of the opportunities and constraints of Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) so that Hamilton can decide which system to adopt for its rapid transit strategy.
The study is not intended to make any recommendations on which system to adopt, but serious problems with its methodology produce a distinct bias against LRT. Specifically, the study: evaluates the feasibility of LRT along a route that was chosen for BRT; compares operating costs for dissimilar vehicles instead of for passengers; ignores the variety and flexibility in LRT technologies; and completely fails to compare the respective economic development potential of the two systems.
In fairness, the study is not meant to be an exhaustive comparison of every option on every criterion, as the analysis/rationale states:
This study was meant to be a starting point in the discussions about the type of rapid transit to pursue for Hamilton, and not a detailed analysis of alternative routes or exact design details.
However, by framing the comparison in a way that discounts the benefits of LRT, the study risks prejudicing Hamiltonians against LRT unfairly.
The study introduces positive but generic commentary about the benefits of rapid transit, which include reducing single occupancy vehicle use and spurring economic development.
Yet it shies away from actually comparing BRT and LRT on these two central criteria and even lapses into the passive voice, presumably so the author doesn't have to take responsibility for claims about reputed benefits.
In particular, the author lapses into the passive voice whenever mentioning a criterion that appears to favour LRT:
LRT is often thought of as being more permanent than BRT and as being able to provide greater economic spinoffs than BRT. LRT may also attract riders who, for whatever reason, will not commute by bus, helping to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips.
Then, when discussing a criterion that seems to favour BRT, the author reestablishes the active voice and asserts the claims rather than merely passing them on unverified. The next sentence reads:
BRT provides greater flexibility than LRT and has fewer operating constraints, including lower vehicle heights (a constraint for LRT at the TH&B bridge and the pedestrian bridge over King Street at Summers Lane) and the ability to handle the grade of James Mountain Road.
In fact, it's arguable whether flexibility (i.e. the ability to re-route or cancel a service) is even a benefit (more on this below in the section on economic development).
The study bases its comparison on the existing A-Line (James - Upper James) and B-Line (McMaster - Eastgate) rapid transit corridors that had previously been planned for BRT, and specifically states, "it was assumed that the ... same corridor design would be used for either BRT or LRT."
This exerts a bias against LRT, since an original decision to plan around LRT rather than BRT would have favoured a different route.
The most obvious example is taking the James Mountain Rd. access (from James S to West 5th). This is a steep access and wholly impractical for LRT.
By insisting that the LRT must take this route rather than a more accommodating access, like the gentler Claremont Access, the study absurdly concludes that an LRT on the A-Line would require two 1.5 km tunnels cut through the escarpment.
Adding the exorbitant cost of such an undertaking to the LRT option grossly distorts its capital pricing.
Another bias is the decision to compare operating costs by revenue hour per vehicle rather than per passenger. The report states that BRT is around $80 per revenue hour per vehicle, whereas LRT is $175 per revenue hour per vehicle.
The LRT vehicle is more than twice as expensive to operate, but since it can carry nearly three times as many passengers, its operating cost per passenger is actually lower.
Similarly, the study estimates $900,000 purchase cost per BRT vehicle and $4 million per LRT vehicle, but neglects to mention that LRT vehicles carry three times as many people and last at least three times as long, with much lower maintenance costs.
After taking these into consideration, LRT provides better value than BRT, as the following table indicates:
(BRT = 1)
(BRT = 1)
The study reaffirms frequently the assertion that BRT is more "flexible" than LRT, particularly insofar as it can fit along a route that was specifically chosen for it, but LRT offers its own type of flexibility.
Part of the vastly higher capital cost estimated for LRT is a claimed necessity to rebuild the TH&B bridge on James St. S. and the pedestrian bridge over King St. at Summers Ln. The study claims LRT is too tall to fit under the existing structures.
In fact, most LRT vehicles are around 3.6 m in height, lower than the clearance for both bridges. The height restriction is due to the overhead power lines.
Unfortunately, the study made no mention of alternative power options for trams, including using a ground level power supply - a third rail that is only energized where the vehicle is passing directly above. The Bordeaux, France LRT system uses a ground level power supply.
A cheaper alternative is simply to switch to battery power during part of the route, as some other systems have done (e.g. the LRT line in Nice).
The study mentions economic development - i.e. new private investment spurred by the rapid transit system - frequently, albeit in the passive voice, and indicates that economic development is an important consideration, but produces absolutely no research to quantify how the two systems compare.
There are numerous North American examples of BRT and LRT systems that have been seen as drivers of economic development, revitalization and assessment growth. In Hamilton, it needs to be determined which type (or types) of rapid transit is (are) most appropriate. [emphasis added]
Of course the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that LRT attracts a much higher rate of economic development than BRT, but the study makes no mention of this. The authors appear to have done no quantitative research on transit oriented development whatsoever.
In fact, by the consistent use of the passive voice to make weak, indirect reference to LRT's economic development potential, the study actually 'damns with faint praise' by casting the claim into doubt.
After all, if "LRT is often thought of" as being better at attracting economic development, who is to say that the unnamed people thinking of LRT in those terms have any credibility at all?
It's not for lack of evidence, either. In study after study in cities all over the world, LRT consistently attracts many more riders, generates much more economic investment, and raises property values more than comparable BRT systems.
It's so well documented that I'm left wondering how a consultant could do any research on the subject without coming across these studies by accident, if not by intent.
Though the study makes repeated mention of the increased "flexibility" of BRT, it is the very permanence of LRT that makes it so attractive to investors.
Developers know that a bus line can be rerouted or canceled, but an LRT line is guaranteed for decades. That lowers the risk for investors.
With the much higher growth in new ridership that accompanies LRT, developers know that a) the infrastructure will be there for a long time, and b) proximity to the infrastructure will confer a premium on property values.
Combined, these two features of LRT are irresistable to investors and property developers. Unfortunately, even a careful reader would never learn this from the Study.
Perhaps the consultant was not instructed by public works staff to include this research, but it seems strange to identify economic development as an important criterion and acknowledge that there may be some basis for thinking LRT is better at attracting it without actually making the comparison.
It may be that the author was afraid of appearing to make a recommendation as a result of the comparison. However, the study has no problem pointing out that LRT is less "flexible", less able to climb the mountain and so on.
All in all, the study appears as though it was researched without clear specifications and thrown together haphazardly. It makes absurd, one-sided tests (e.g. forcing LRT up one of the city's steepest Mountain access roads) and bizarre comparisons (e.g. operating cost per vehicle rather than per passenger), and it totally neglects to study one of the most important criteria: which system will attract more economic development.
Already, some commentators are suggesting that the outrageously high capital cost for LRT - a cost that includes completely unnecessary red herrings - is a deal-breaker.
It would be deeply unfortunate if, instead of opening the door to a robust debate over the respective merits of BRT and LRT, this study slams the door unfairly on LRT by subjecting it to a series of unfair trials.
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