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monsoon

Bus Rapid Transit - Answer for Charlotte's transit problems

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20 Years ago Los Angeles built it's first subway system. Despite the fact that it is the 2nd largest city in the USA, a world city, it can't afford to expand the line. So the city has decided to invest a great deal in BRT. You can see a video about it here.

After watching that video, I see a lot of similarities with Charlotte. We have our first LRT but like LA, and due to tightening federal regulations, we most likely can't afford to build another one. The cities in the north are balking at paying additional taxes beyond the transit tax for the North CR line and the NE LRT's costs are most likely going to be so high the feds will never approve it. In both cases the problems are caused by the federal attitudes towards transit.

So, should Charlotte follow the lead of Los Angeles? (please view the vid first)

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It seems that BRT is (of many things) the last resort for cities without focused centers. LA is a great example: if you look at the city on a map in relation to the layout of the roads, the retail and residential centers, there is no clear corridors to run any focused transit line. Unlike NYC, which is a linear city, or Boston, or even Richmond. It is very hard to make fixed corridor transit work in such an unplanned and unfocused area. So, BRT could be the only real solution to LA's traffic problems, and it's more of a bandaid than a solution.

Charlotte has a much smaller footprint, albeit similar to LA to work with. But for us to go BRT would just show that we are not in it for the long run.

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In short, the answer is "no, but..."

I think we'll all agree that Charlotte and LA are different beasts entirely, so lets go ahead and get that out of the way. Charlotte is newer, and about 1/4 as dense, with an almost non-existsant traffic problem in comparison directly to LA, though in hours of delay, Charlotte is at 45 hours and LA is at 72 hours annually (per traveler).

The key point that they hit on in that video is that the transportation & land use connection is inseparable. You can't modify one without it impacting the other. That being said, LA has had long established land use policies that separate uses except in its most urban of urban cores. So the result is that most of LA is built out at the highest density possible given that the primary mode of transportation is the automobile.

Charlotte, on the other hand, is not built to its highest capacity yet. We are still a young enough city that our general development pattern can be reshaped by investing in transit now. Infact, we're already seeing it. Light Rail in Charlotte is doing what it is supposed to do. Its changing the development patterns in SouthEnd and a long the South Corridor as we speak, and the future north corridor is starting to see impacts as well, particularly around NoDa, where the alignment is more certain.

We all know BRT is a part of Charlotte transit plans, and Independence Blvd is being set up to carry the busses over time. BRT does have a lot of promise in Charlotte. It will be a viable transit option to many people. However, I don't see it being as successful at redefining land uses along that corridor as light rail would. The reason is just like the guy said in that movie- people favor trains over busses. Its a cultural thing, that we won't be able to change overnight. Developers want to see something that is more permanent, and lets face it, if the City invests hundreds of millions of dollars into a train system, you can rest assured that they will continue to keep it operational for the foreseeable future. And to date I have not heard that BRT can generate the same level of development impacts that LRT does (and has proven to).

To reinfoce this, LA's BRT gets about 25k/mo currently, and they estimate that and LRT in the asme alignment would have a ridership of about 35k - 40k becuase of this preference of rail over bus. This is based purely on existing development. I am interested to see how and if their BRT generates any significant land uses changes. I suspect it will generate some, but probably not to the extent that rail would.

My major question about the movie is that if indeed the Fed likes to see BRT justify LRT (which is a fair thing to do conceptually) how do you go about making the switch over from BRT to LRT without forcing people to drive? I'm not saying ti can't be done, but to my knowledge this has never been done.

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Given its function as a high-capacity transportation facility more so than a catalyst for development, BRT is the best fit for Independence Blvd. None of the other five rapid transit corridors compete for space with an expressway, but run parallel to freeways. But come to think of it, a Central streetcar would parallel Independence, yet I don't think East Charlotte could support two rail lines. And if the community ever accepted BRT, it could easily be the next line built sooner than even commuter rail, as well as save money for speeding up rail transit to Eastland Mall.

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Well, while not BRT, the popularity of riding the bus longer distances from the burbs is not too far fetched around here. Concord and CATS decided to pay another $24000 a year to add an extra bus to the Concord Express line bringing it up to 5 buses. It's becoming a more viable option for people now. While I see LRT as a much better alternative, if we don't get federal approval for the extra lines, BRT may be our only other option to sustain proper growth along the corridors.

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BRT in Charlotte will not succeed because BRT's success will be a question of land use and we do not have the courage to make the land use policies in this city truly supportive of a BRT network. It was Curitiba and Bogota that started the BRT fad in the US. BRT was hailed by planners and elected officials as the solution to America's transit problems since you could get 90% of the ridership of rail for 10% of the cost. BRT proponents in the US missed the very progressive land use policies, especially in Curitiba, where the BRT trunks were paralleled by secondary and tertiary roads, making the full corridor a half-mile wide or more. Buildings fronting the BRT trunk are a minimum of 20 stories and the height gradually and uniformly step down as you move away from the trunk. This is very similar to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, VA and would require Charlotte, or any city considering BRT, to show a lot more foresight that has been the custom. If they can't get Crescent to build vertically right next to the Blue Line on Bland, why should we believe Charlotte will be able to turn Independence Boulevard into a proper urban corridor?

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The los angeles Orange Line is not Bus Rapid Transit. It is a bus priority system with a good deal of up-marketing. Bus Rapid Transit, as it is pitched for a replacement of light rail, should have complete bus-only roadways to operate on, and grade crossings with gates, etc., like the Charlotte LRT.

Only Ottawa has done this in North America. Every other Bus "Rapid"(sic) Transit project in the US is a compromise where cost was put above quality. The Orange Line in LA is a perfect example. The Orange line crosses many city streets at grade, but they did not put in gates to let the buses cross. So, mid-block, the Orange Line cruises at 35-40 mph. Pretty nifty, and the kind of transit we'd all like to see. However, once it hits a grade crossing, it slows to 10 mph to avoid being hit by cars, which happened several times during the line's first few weeks of operation.

Here are some pictures and explanations of this line's considerable compromises. At the end of its run, it joins mixed traffic and gets stuck like any other bus.

If we are going to talk about Bus "RAPID" Transit, then we should insist that we build what exists in Curitiba, Ottawa, and Bogota. The problem is, once you commit to that level of building, the cost isn't much difference from rail. BRT in America is about 80% hype and 20% substance at this point, and unfortunately, many political leaders can't tell the difference between bus-only lanes and roadways (which make buses faster and more reliable) and shiny new buses and shelters. (which make for great ribbon-cuttings but still keep buses stuck in traffic)

Let's improve bus service in Charlotte. Let's get bus-only lanes and transit signal priority. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that watered down BRT is remotely the same thing as Light Rail. In the US, it's not even close.

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One MAJOR difference between America and the Latin countries of Central and South America is that in those countries there is a cultural preference for busses. That is, of course, compared to the cultural preference for trains here in America. It does indeed help that they have more progressive land use policies that don't require the car be the central focus of all development, and I won't argue with that :) But its important to recognize the affinity Americans have with trains.

United States

Train = good

Bus = bad

Latin America

Bus = good

Train = bad

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^That seems like a very broad and incorrect generalization. The 2nd largest rail system in the Western hemisphere is the one in Mexico City. It rivals NYC and is 5th busiest in the world and no other city in the USA or Canada comes close. I would guess there are more people riding rail transit in Latin America than in the United States. Aside from Mexico City there are rather extensive heavy rail systems in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aries, Santiago, and Caracas plus numerous smaller systems that most cities in the USA including Charlotte would love to have.

There are more buses in Latin America simply because it is cheaper to build bus systems and LA by most measures does not have the money found in NA and Europe. However that doesn't mean the people there don't prefer trains they build them when they can as the above examples demonstrate. They are pragmatic however in that a bus is better than nothing. In this city there is not nearly enough money to build an effective alternative transit system to rival the very wasteful automobile that is based on rail. In fact it maybe be decades before another line is built. Los Angeles has already realized this limitation and plans to extend its rail lines where put on hold and BRT installed instead.

BTW CATS says it is up to 25 million bus rides/year. I don't see how anyone could think "Bus = bad" given those numbers.

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Can anyone point to significant TOD in a comparable city to Charlotte along a median-running LRT line in an expressway? Denver comes closest in my mind, though TREX runs on the side of the freeway, creating half-circles of TOD.

Given its inevitable, albeit slow, freeway conversion, its auto-dominated environment seems to be what's making BRT a given for Independence. Neither the Blue Line nor its extension run immediately within or along I-77 or I-85. East Charlotte's development potential for rail transit seems strongest on Central Avenue, where building more pedestrian-scaled TOD makes sense. Pedestrians and freeways just don't mix.

Yet obviously, streetcars, though great for development, aren't that rapid. So then, if East Charlotte wants both development and rapid, it seems we (I live on the Eastside) need to support a combined strategy of Central streetcar and Independence BRT.

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I've always thought BRT was a much better option than LRT. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone works downtown. We have more in common with LA than NYC.

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I don't think any one technology is the "right answer" in Charlotte, LA or anywhere. Back when the tax and the plan was being questioned, I thought a lot about the 2030 plan... my personal conclusion is that CATS (despite being smeared a bit) has put together a very smart, comprehensive plan that is not a one size fits all approach. That is one of the chief messages that I think you will hear from transit and TOD planning experts, that transit technology decisions must be contextually-based. Even some of the supposedly more 'advanced' transit cities have adopted a more 'LRT-everywhere' approach.

LRT is perfect for the South Corridor: fits well in the old rail corridor for exclusive operation, can accomodate dense LU, and it's not too long (20+ mi) for the majority of trip makers (burbs to Uptown). I do wonder about the NE extension though... good fit for the southern portion, but I wonder about using the Tryon median. I would rather see use of a lateral alignment to one side. Good thing that UNCC saw the opportunity before them to locate the line on their campus! The streetcar line fits well: in mixed traffic on existing urban streets, can influence LU, connects 4 TCs (Rosa Parks, W Trade, CTC, Eastland), bisects Uptown employment center, replaces busiest bus lines. North Comm Rail too (despite some critism here): shared freight track + underused rail bed--> rail technology, longer distance travel in corridor-->LRT not appropriate-->CR or DMU (long term) good fit. And on Independence...

Can anyone point to significant TOD in a comparable city to Charlotte along a median-running LRT line in an expressway? Denver comes closest in my mind, though TREX runs on the side of the freeway, creating half-circles of TOD.

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I do support building the SouthEast corridor as BRT for its first generation, as it will take a long time to expand Independence all the way out to Matthews, and that it is a long shot to expect a whole lot of TOD along Independence anyway. However, I think that is the only real corridor on which it makes sense in comparison to the commuter rail, LRT, and streetcar options that have been selected. Every corridor is different, and if the numbers can be justified to build rail transit, it should always be preferred. Electric powertrains are better for multiple reasons over diesel, which is imported and has emissions that are more likely to be breathed compared to power plant emissions.

I also think it is wise to have all our freeways include an HOV lane that busses can use, which is, in a different sense, BRT.

BRT is the poor man's choice that is resulting from a conservative government that has forged swords over plowshares, and is politically disinclined to support urbanization and transit. We absolutely need to return to a political situation where transit investments are pursued and well funded (hopefully by making efficiency and environmental sensitivity a BIpartisan issue). Transit funding should be returned to 80% like freeway construction is, and the budgets should be increased to the point where viable transit plans can be funded without the cutthroat competition that has occurred in recent years.

BRT plans in LA and here are purely a response to that political reality and not due to it being the most effective tool. It is simply the cheapest. It is the fast food of mass transit. It is the cheapest, and feds like to feed to it to school kids, but it sure isn't very nutritious, and we would see far better results if we'd buy the real stuff.

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Well said dub. Though I think if we had an ideal situation, the fed would chip in for operational costs as well as capital investments.

^That seems like a very broad and incorrect generalization. The 2nd largest rail system in the Western hemisphere is the one in Mexico City. It rivals NYC and is 5th busiest in the world and no other city in the USA or Canada comes close. I would guess there are more people riding rail transit in Latin America than in the United States. Aside from Mexico City there are rather extensive heavy rail systems in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aries, Santiago, and Caracas plus numerous smaller systems that most cities in the USA including Charlotte would love to have.

There are more buses in Latin America simply because it is cheaper to build bus systems and LA by most measures does not have the money found in NA and Europe. However that doesn't mean the people there don't prefer trains they build them when they can as the above examples demonstrate. They are pragmatic however in that a bus is better than nothing. In this city there is not nearly enough money to build an effective alternative transit system to rival the very wasteful automobile that is based on rail. In fact it maybe be decades before another line is built. Los Angeles has already realized this limitation and plans to extend its rail lines where put on hold and BRT installed instead.

BTW CATS says it is up to 25 million bus rides/year. I don't see how anyone could think "Bus = bad" given those numbers.

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.....

It just adds to the weakness of BRT. I have to agree with dubone about BRT... its the cheap way out. It will be built here and in other parts of the United States, and while people will certainly use it, I predict it will not be anywhere near as successful as LRT in terms of redefining growth patterns along Independence.

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So the fact that all of the land being rezoned along South Blvd and all of the new, dense, developments going up means nothing because of parking requirements by the City? If thats the case, we may as well throw out all of development going on inside of 277 too. The Lynx line is generating new development along South Blvd that would not be there otherwise.

FWIW, I completely agree that parking requirements are too high near the LRT stations. And in Uptown.

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....The Lynx line is generating new development along South Blvd that would not be there otherwise.

.....

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I've not seen proof the BRT would do this either. Not just here, but anywhere in the USA. Granted there is not much out there to use as an example.

I think its a pretty safe assumption to make that if no transit were there, development/redevelopment would not be occurring. Perhaps SouthEnd would still exist due to its proximity to Uptown, but I think developments around Arrowood, New Bern, etc would not.

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...it (BRT) will not be anywhere near as successful as LRT in terms of redefining growth patterns along Independence.

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Absolutely the TOD options on Independence are no where near even what CATS hopes for. In that situation, the BRT option is most useful as even though it doesn't spur much redevelopment (according to conventional wisdom, if not supported by readily available examples), that is not an issue on Independence where it would be unlikely anyway. I happen to think that they should have selected the rail corridor behind Monroe Road as the rail corridor for the southeast line, and simply paid for the costs of fixing the right of way and rail crossing issues to make that corridor viable. In that scenario, light rail or even possibly a commuter rail system might have been viable. However, with Independence as the chosen corridor route, LRT has a hard time competing. Not only because of the TOD situation, but you also push out all the of standard bus routes that could use the busway in addition to the core BRT line.

In some of the other corridors, like the north line, there are simply no good routes on which to build it. HOV lanes are planned to occur anyway on 77, but they would not have the stations along the way, and would also not be able to have much of a schedule due to their need to interact with congestion anyway. It would be a similar situation to the express busses already in place that get 500-1000 in ridership. In the case of the Northeast corridor, a BRT option would eliminate the added value added onto the existing LRT line, requiring an awkward transfer downtown to go from South End (or anywhere else) to NoDa or University City. LRT is more than a commuter line, and is needing to attract riders at all times of day. Providing a meaningful extension to that line helps to fill the gaps and make the current line more efficient and better utilized.

As for replacing the streetcar options, the full analysis looked at BRT on the West corridor to the airport and found that after the costs of converting Wilkinson to allow for BRT in the median, that it was not much faster and possibly even slower than standard busses as it would need to be timed in with all the left turn whereas a standard bus would not. The expense was deemed to be a waste, and they opted for the streetcar option, which was a little slower, but had that ridership and capacity boost that seems to come with rail options. Due to the lack of congestion on Wilkinson, the streetcar would still have an effective travel time, even though it was not a rapid transit technology.

I truly think that blanketing the central part of the city with a streetcar system like smaller cities in Europe do would be the 'answer for Charlotte'. It would support densification and infill, help support car-free lifestyles, improve transit penetration in non-commute trips, would service the part of the city that is already the densest and transit-friendly. The lines that reach to 485 and beyond are still useful, but they rely heavily on park and rides once they reach the middle ring due to the lack of existing density.

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Good points y'all. I think the point about Independence not developing because of its alignment in the center of the highway is most interesting. Perhaps that is way they chose BRT for that corridor to begin with?

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^That has to part of the reason, because NE is more costly than even LRT for SE. But I also think it's partly due to Central streetcar being so close to Independence. No other corridor has two rail lines planned in such close proximity for that great of a length. If both rail on Central and down Independence were to be both built, especially in the short-term, that's a lot of faith in the development potential of East Charlotte over other corridors.

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^That has to part of the reason, because NE is more costly than even LRT for SE. But I also think it's partly due to Central streetcar being so close to Independence. No other corridor has two rail lines planned in such close proximity for that great of a length. If both rail on Central and down Independence were to be both built, especially in the short-term, that's a lot of faith in the development potential of East Charlotte over other corridors.

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The north commuter rail will serve a completely different part of Unversity City (if you can even call it university city over that far)

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