This week, San Diego City Beat, a weely newspaper printed an article related to my last post What moves you? Public transit plan rethinks the way we get around. See http://sdcitybeat.com/cms/story/detail/what_moves_you/7977/. This article describes the proposed "FAST" plan for San Diego developed by Alan Hoffman and others, based on Hoffman's "Quckways" grade separated busway concept. For my response to this article, see "below the fold."As a transit planner with more than 30 years of experience, in my opinion, the "Quickways" plan as conceived will not work.
Spending $7-$8 billion on 50-60 miles of grade separated busways would be a huge waste. The strategy of building grade-separated busways has been tried in both Pittsburgh and Ottawa over the past 30 years, and in both cases has been performing far less than expectations.
In Pittsburgh, the newest busway towards the airport was prected to have 50,000 passengers per day, but actually has around 10,000; the MLK busway to the east--built along existing railroad tracks at costs comparable to rail--was originally projected to have 70,000 riders daily but actually has about 30,000.
In Ottawa, as its grade-separated busway opened, per capita transit usage steadily declined, despite the fact that parking in downtown Ottawa is restricted and prices kept high by local and national government (Ottawa is Canada's capital.) Ottawa is now in the process of developing a comprehensive LRT system.
In Brisbane, many Australian transit experts doubt the busways are nearly as successful as claimed by the proponents of San Diego's "FAST" idea. See for example, the discussion at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/earth/stories/s33592.htm. According to this, Brisbane is ALSO seriously considering new LRT lines; whether this is reaction to the reality of their buways is also not clear.
In my view, the FAST plan is mainly useful because they have identified the major remaining routes where the San Diego Trolley should be expanded. Wasteful duplicating busways along I-5 both north and south of downtown San Diego should be eliminated, saving somewhere between $1 and $2 billion. The line out El Cajon Boulevard shold be a "rapid streetcar" (http://www.lightrailnow.org/features/f_lrt_2007-02a.htm), which could operate on a new Trolley trunkline paralleing Highway 163, then spliting as shown on the FAST map to the Golden Triangle and parallel to Mira Mesa along I-15. The east-west connector between the Scripps Ranch area, Mira Mesa, Sorrento Valley and the Golden Triangle should also be a rapid streetcar line, like the El Cajon Boulevard route.
On most other busy routes supplementing the beefed up rail network, "BRT Lite" is an excellent solution as suggested by FAST, but travel volumes are relatively low and cannot justify improvements beyond much better bus stops, "queue jumpers" and the like. Of course, I also endorse the upgrade of the Coaster to a frequent regional rail service, including a tunnel through University City--also used by upgraded Amtrak services.
Three other points. First, on average, rail transit attracts about 35% to 43% more patronage for a given amount of transit capacity provided compared to buses, apparently regardless of type of bus service, as some of my firm's empirical research has shown (See http://www.publictransit.us/ptlibrary/peakoccupancy2007.htm).
Second, most origins and destinations (O & D's) in San Diego are widely dispersed--as the FAST plan points out--but the vast majority of these O & D's have such small volumes, direct bus service cannot be justified, and transferring is absolutely necessary for a transit system to be affordable and productive. In the cases of both Pittsburgh and Ottawa, the lion's share of busway ridership is on the very frequent trunk bus lines, which are overlaid with low patronage peak period expresses with poor frequencies. Better to beef up the trunk lines, AND use the operating money saved by beefing up the local and feeder bus routes to frequent service, as it works in the highest per capita transit systems such as Toronto and San Francisco Muni.
Third, since LRT can more easily tolerate grade crossings in many locations compared to the maximum 20 buses per hour that surface busways can operate before "bunching" becomes a problem (THE problem limiting the capacity of the $400 million+, 13-mile surface Orange Line Busway in the San Fernando Valley), the core 40 mile+/- San Diego Trolley expansion I recommend above could be built for probably half the cost of the $8 billion FAST "Quickway" plan. Use the savings to fund beefed up rail and selected BRT Lite and local bus service instead.
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