BRT Redundancy

Partially in response to numerous comments on the original post (and perhaps my own post on the topic), a few days ago V Smoothe reiterated that AC Transit's BRT proposal does not mimic the BART Richmond-Fremont line. The most compelling argument being that while the proposed BRT route mirrors the BART line, the service does not. It is an important distinction, and also correct as far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn't go very far.

In that post, V Smoothe laid out arguments for why the first BRT line should go in the BART Richmond-Fremont corridor, mostly having to do with the huge percentage of Oaklanders who live within a half mile of the corridor and the fact that existing bus routes through the corridor make up a large percentage (though smaller, hmm...?) of AC Transit ridership. Additionally, V Smoothe points out that the East Bay's largest employment centers also lie in this corridor. All of which are great arguments for locating the first BRT route as AC Transit has, if the BART Richmond-Fremont line did not exist.

V Smoothe uses an example to make the point, but one I think equally illustrates the potential of less costly means for achieving similar service. The example is one of traveling from downtown Oakland to 46th and Foothill on a weekday afternoon. On BART, the trip to Fruitvale takes 7 minutes. From Fruitvale station there are 3 existing bus routes (1, 14, 47) within 2 blocks of 46th and Foothill. Currently on a weekday afternoon, routes 1 & 14 have 15 minute headways and route 47 has a 30 minute headway. Given that, you'd expect to wait about 10 minutes for a bus at Fruitvale station, and the trip itself would likely take no more than 10 minutes. Which makes me wonder why V Smoothe would not take BART on this trip.

Looking more closley, the AC Transit online schedule tells us both routes 14 & 47 leave Fruitvale station (their origin) at 3:06, the exact time a BART train arrives from downtown Oakland. Perhaps someone interested in defending the decision making of AC Transit can explain why they don't leave at 3:10, as the BART headways for the line at this time are exactly 15 minutes as well. To me, this is inexplicable. The closest timepoint for AC Transit's 1 route puts it at 23rd and International (umm...why isn't the timepoint at 34th and International, essentially Fruitvale station?) at 3:02, which would put it at Frutivale station about 3:06 as well. And so now we understand why V Smoothe did not take BART for this trip. It is because AC Transit does not even bother to coordinate their schedules with BART.

And yet we are supposed to trust an organization that exhibits this kind of decision making (elaborated on in my previous post) with a capital-intensive improvement program that will reshape numerous neighborhoods along its route. Frankly, it hard for me to understand where the support for this BRT proposal is coming from, as AC Transit has been making such poor decisions of late.

Imagine if we could convince people in Washington D.C. (from where the BRT money is coming) that we know better how to spend this money. And so instead of spending it on the massive capital improvements this BRT proposal requires, we added buses, increased and expanded service feeding BART stations, and better coordinated transfers between AC Transit and BART. My guess is we could easily achieve the same level of service in the corridor, if not improve it with more and better routes perpendicular to it, and have enough money left over to better serve other routes and areas as well.

V Smoothe makes another point in support of this BRT proposal, mentioned briefly above, which I think can also be used to argue against it, the fact that this corridor contains the East Bay's largest employment centers. All are well served by BART stations. Which suggests the alternate proposal outlined above could work, because as V Smoothe rightly points out, most riders on the proposed BRT are going to/from work. And so these riders would only be required to make one transfer (at most), from a bus route near their home to/from a BART station. Now obviously it is better to have no transfers, but devising such a system is prohibitively costly. And it is the difference between one transfer and two where a transport system really begins to exhibit gross inefficiencies.

The example provided here is one of someone who now drives to MacArthur station to take BART to downtown Oakland, but might switch to BRT. But this hypothetical person only switches to BRT if they live along the BRT route and near another proposed BRT station. If instead s/he lives at 46th and Adeline, the proposed BRT doesn't much help. What would help is a feeder service that ran down Market and fed into MacArthur station or more frequent service down San Pablo on route 72 (which goes directly downtown Oakland), both of which would likely be possible if we didn't spend all this money on the capital improvements required by BRT. This is what I mean when I discuss the opportunity costs of BRT.

At the end of the day, I agree with supporters of BRT that transit service in this corridor should be vastly improved. In fact I believe transport funding in our country should be massively shifted in favor of transit (and the repair of existing streets and sidewalks) and away from the expansion and creation of new roads, where much of our spending now goes. What I disagree with is the most effective way to improve service in this corridor. Or rather, I am unsure what the most effective way of doing this is. And it is the responsibility of its supporters to explain why they think BRT is the most effective way of improving service in this corridor. As yet, I haven't seen that argument; I am still waiting.


V Smoothe said...

Raymond -

You keep saying AC Transit has been making poor decisions lately. Aside from disliking the design of the bus stops, why do you say this? Are you referring to something specific?

In any case, there are three problems with your plan, two relatively minor and one major. I'll do the small stuff first.

You talk about coordinating schedules with BART trains, but the problem with that lies in your assumption that everyone is coming from the same place. Sure, it would be more convenient for me if the 14 left Fruitvale BART at 3:10 instead of 3:06, but it would be less convenient for the people who arrive on the trains that get to that station at 2:59, 3:02, and 3:04. The bus schedule actually works out pretty well for them. Every BART station has multiple trains that arrive at different times. The bus can't be coordinated with all of them.

But even if the connection was timed more conveniently for me, I'd still take the bus, because - and this is the second problem with your plan - like the vast majority of people, I hate mode changes and avoid them whenever possible. It's true that people don't like to transfer in general, but they really, really don't like to change modes, as such transfers increase the cost of the trip, reduce reliability, and add inconvenience.

Resistance to mode transfer is pretty well documented, but I'll just use an anecdotal example here. I have to go down to San Jose every so often for work. When I do this, I take BART to Fremont, then the bus to my destination. I could shave time off my trip if I took BART, then the bus, then VTA Light Rail, which also delivers me to my destination, but quicker. But why would I? It would cost me more, add more unpredictability to my trip (one more system that could be late!), and I'd have to interrupt whatever reading or working I was doing on the bus to get up and wait for the train to come. Virtually everyone who gets on that bus with me at Fremont BART does the same thing. So the potential benefits of added BART feeder service are just inherently limited for that reason.

But the main problem with your alternative plan is that it rests on the assumption that it would be cheaper to expand service on multiple bus lines (and add bus lines) feeding into BART than it would be to build BRT. In fact, it would be vastly more expensive. BRT, with a one-time capital cost of $250 million and added operating costs of one line, is actually pretty cheap. And, well, relative to your standard major transit project, it's practically free.

Think for a second about what it would cost, instead, to increase bus service along lines that feed to the BART stations on the BRT route. Let's say you wanted to double frequency of those lines. Well, for starters, looking at a system map, you're talking about doubling service on roughly half of AC Transit's local lines (and apparently, adding new lines?). First, you'd have to buy all the new buses that would be running, so that's a capital cost of something (these are quick estimates, BTW, anything more specific would have to be in the context of a more detailed "alternative proposal") in the neighborhood of $50-60 million to start with. Then, you have run those buses, which means more drivers, which means more costs for salaries, health care, and retirement costs, plus more gas. So now you're talking about, on top of the capital cost of buying the buses and the cost of the ongoing maintenance of those buses, adding something like $100 million/year to AC Transit's $270 million/year operating costs. So after doing this plan for only two years, you've spent the same amount of money as it would have taken to build BRT, you've probably gotten smaller ridership gains than you would have with BRT, and you still haven't done anything about the reliability problem that makes BRT important in the first place. And you have to keep paying for it every single year.

Raymond Johnson said...

V Smoothe,

Thanks for your comments.

The poor decision making by AC Transit of late falls into three categories: design, scheduling, and procurement. In addition to the low-quality of the Uptown Transit Center, the whole design program of AC Transit is just terrible. From the graphic design of their signage to their website interface to their bus stops. I struggle to find one example of something design-related AC Transit does competently...the system maps are pretty good I guess.

Under scheduling are the problems in choosing strange timepoints (23rd and International?), or in the case of the Rapid, not even having them (they don't go that fast!). In my earlier post I discussed the problems with NextBus. And there is also the fact that online schedules sometimes don't correspond with those posted at individual (tertiary) stops. My guess is it means the posted schedules are outdated, but then they should be taken down. And they shouldn't have been put up if the money wasn't there to keep them updated. This is a huge problem, for reasons I outlined earlier.

By procurement I mostly mean the Van Hool debacle (that's a good name for a band!) which is well documented. I even have two phrases of derision for them. When I see a Van Hool, I either say, "Van Hool, I hate Van Hool", or I utter "Van Hool" with pursed lips and clenched teeth in the same seething way Jerry Seinfeld said "Newman". On less crowded buses, I like to sit up front and wait for the driver to complain about some feature of them, after which I'll engage them in discussing all the problems.

Of course as you mentioned there are other trains coming into Fruitvale station to consider. But if this corridor is so important (and it is) then AC Transit should give coordination priority to BART trains running its entire length. So I would argue the 3:02 (from SF) is least important. The 2:59 and 3:04 are from the south, but the 3:04 to 3:06 (bus) transfer is a little tight (I'd say you want 3-4 minutes to make that connection). Given that it is getting into the late afternoon, transfer priority should be given to the train coming from downtown Oakland and Berkeley. So between that 3:06 and the 2:59 from the south, the 3:06 should have transfer priority. And besides, for 2/3rds of its route line 47 runs within 3 blocks of line 14, why do they leave Fruitvale station at the same time?

The mode transfer problem is somewhat difficult, I'll admit. We could go a long way towards solving it though if there was an overarching regional transit body that dealt with coordination issues and allowed for better fare sharing. One shouldn't have to pay almost a full new fare to transfer between BART and AC Transit.

I think the example of your trip to San Jose isn't quite on point, though I would make the same decision. My guess is that the number of transfers (1 vs. 2) is at least as important as the number of modes (2 vs. 3) in your fellow travelers' decision making, and would be even more so if the trip cost were more equal. For your argument, I think you'd need to compare taking not one but two buses from Fremont. To which I'd guess (costs being equal) more people would take the faster option. But I admit to not knowing anything about the differences in resistance to mode transfer versus intra-system transfers, maybe it is significantly higher.

Finally, I appreciate your attempt to put some numbers to the alternate idea of BART feeder service. I didn't assume it would be cheaper, mostly I just didn't know. The alternate proposal is probably too ambitious and your estimates seem fair. But for the purposes of comparing it to BRT, you only need to look at the costs of increasing service on line 1 (modified slightly to better track BART) to 5 minute headways with features like signal priority and pre-boarding ticket purchase at BART transfer stations because that is what would give you similar service to BRT. And that is also mostly already a part of the BRT proposal. Thus the capital costs go from $250 million to maybe $50 million (guessing) and you have around $200 million to get 1R headways down to 3-4 minutes (if you like) or develop similar service for the San Pablo and I-580 corridors or improve BART feeder service during commute hours. Bottom line, I think BART can provide the reliability you are looking for, especially when combined with 5 minute headways.

Overall, my concern with BRT is that it basically ignores BART; it seems developed as if BART didn't exist. I find that incredibly frustrating. BART is one of the premier transit agencies in the country. And while I am also frustrated BART is too focused on extending lines into the periphery rather than adding them within its existing service shed, I believe AC Transit would have a lot to gain by better complimenting BART. And if they did, Oakland would benefit.