Friday, June 29, 2012

Expensive learning

In 1988, the late John Kain published "Choosing the wrong technology:  Or how to spend billions an reduce transit use"  Here is the abstract:
In spite of a broad consensus among transportation analysts that bus rapid transit, whether operating on exclusive rights-of-way or on uncongested high occupancy vehicle lanes or general purpose limited access facilities, provides higher performance and has significantly lower costs per passenger trip than rail transit in medium and low density cities, nearly all Sunbelt cities are building or planning heavy or light rail systems. This paper reviews previous studies of the cost-effectiveness of heavy and light rail transit with bus-rapid transit and the growing experience with busways and transitways and concludes, once again, that some form of bus rapid transit would be a far more effective way of providing improved transit in these cities than heavy or light rail transit. Not only would bus rapid transit be substantially cheaper, but it would provide a higher quality of service than light or heavy rail transit for virtually all users. Finally, the paper speculates on the reasons for the continued, “blind” commitment to rail transit by policymakers in Sunbelt cities and on the refusal of policymakers in all but a few of these cities to even consider bus rapid transit.
Kain was angry and frustrated because he and colleagues Robert Meyer and Martin Wohl had made the case back in 1965 in The Urban Transportation Problem, copies of which are hard to come by after all the years.
In the age of the auto-freeway system, "freeway flyer" buses on freeways and occasionally using special bus lanes are the appropriate form of public tranit.  Flyers would be cheaper and more flexible than rail. And some of the buses could be their own feeder lines, once off the freeway.  No transfers and no park-and-ride.  The book followed from Ford Foundation-funded study for RAND, back in the days of great optimimism about the application of social science to "solving" urban problems. 
Like many other good researchers, these scholars skipped the public choice aspect of the problem.  The "wrong" technologies, rail transit, were the enthusiastic first choice because they cost billions.  The 1965 book and the 1988 paper were just 23 years apart.  Now, 24 years, after the 1988 study, we see the following in yesterday's LA Times:
Orange Line busway is Metro's quiet success story ... The Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley, which will soon be extended, has prompted a new focus on the role of rapid buses in L.A.'s transit plans.

As Los Angeles County pumps billions of dollars into its expanding commuter rail network, a different kind of mass transit has become an unlikely hero of the San Fernando Valley. ... The 7-year-old Orange Line, a 14-mile east-west busway connecting North Hollywood to Warner Center, has been a less-flashy workhorse of success for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Less than a year after its opening, the Orange Line busway's projected ridership more than tripled to 22,000 a day, and a study by UC Berkeley researchers found it even slightly helped relieve morning traffic on the 101 Freeway, which parallels the busway. By May of this year, daily ridership had climbed to 26,670 on a line that was significantly cheaper to build than it's light-rail counterparts, such as the Blue, Green and Gold lines.

"It's much easier to ride this than it is to drive," said Gale Johnson, 52, a retired security worker who lives downtown and was riding one of the busway's sleek, extra-long buses to a doctor's visit in Van Nuys. "It's like a train on wheels."
The Times has been beating the drums for rail transit in LA for as long as the idea has been around.  But almost a half-century after the case for bus rapid transit was first laid out in great detail, their reporter found a successful example close to home.

Learning via real life experiments is nice but, as the title of Kain's 1988 title suggests, also very expensive.