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Bus v. Light Rail (Portland Tribune)

BRT may be forward-thinking, but light rail is a breakthrough, a bold move that seeks to face down our dependence on oil.

By Eric Bartels

(Originally published in the Portland Tribune on November 13, 2007.)

In the decades after World War II, public transportation receded into a cultural backwater in the United States as a broad, prosperous middle class took advantage of cheap gas to put two cars in every garage.

With access to and use of fossil fuels a growing concern in the climate-changing, post-9/11 world, Americans are beginning to re-evaluate.

And while buses and trains are really on the same team in terms of sustainable transportation - either option a vast improvement over the one-car, one-rider model - outspoken camps have sprung up around each.

The two are worth comparing.

Access

A fixed-rail system never will have the reach of a city bus, which can get just about any place there's a paved road. For folks in some parts of the Portland area, this debate is academic:

If there's no MAX train nearby, their mass-transit commuting will have to be done by bus.

Advantage: Bus

Comfort

Studies suggest that light rail appeals to actual riders in a way that buses do not. Commuters tend to see light rail as more modern, more upscale and safer, with no real possibility of operator error.

Rail cars are more spacious, offer more freedom of movement and are easier to board and exit. And the ride is smoother: fewer sharp turns, no potholes, no sudden stops.

"People tend to like the quieter transit," says Mary Fetsch of TriMet.

Advantage: Light rail

Initial cost

Building new light rail is stunningly expensive, costing tens of millions of dollars per mile. And anti-light rail types love to massage those numbers into cost comparisons to make bus travel look like a bargain.

Of course, those studies tend to ignore the cost of building and maintaining the roads that buses travel. Still, light rail can't win this game.

Advantage: Bus

Operation and management cost

Once light rail is up and running, both infrastructure and train cars are more durable and less expensive to maintain than a fleet of buses and the roads they travel.

A rail car can last up to 60 years; a bus can last maybe a quarter of that. Every bus needs one driver, while one driver can pilot a train several cars long. That means a lower payroll. And electricity is cheaper than gas.

Advantage: Light rail

Style

Face it, light rail is kind of cool. Buses are not that cool.

Advantage: Light rail

Resources used/environmental impact

Light-rail trains run on electricity. Much of that is generated by coal, and that's a nonrenewable resource that leaves an ecological footprint in all stages of its production and use.

Yet buses run on petroleum products. There aren't many folks touting fossil fuels as the energy of the future these days.

Advantage: Light rail

Safety

Recent reports have documented the need for increased security in parts of the MAX system. Indeed, while crimes against mass transit customers have dropped steadily in recent years, incidents on MAX trains continue to outnumber those on buses by about 3-to-1.

Yet overall, the numbers are low. TriMet's Mary Fetsch says that 310,000 rider trips a day on bus and light rail combined produce an average of three reported incidents.

Advantage: Bus

Vision

Opponents of light rail have created a category of public transportation called Bus Rapid Transit - express buses that travel at higher speeds, with fewer stops, in designated lanes.

It's a project that has been implemented successfully in places and may be integrated into a larger transit package in the future. But dozens of American cities are insisting that light rail be a part of that future.

BRT may be forward-thinking, but light rail is a breakthrough, a bold move that seeks to face down our dependence on oil.

Advantage: Light rail

Verdict

In the past half-century, Americans have come to see their relationship with their cars as a virtual birthright, abandoning the quaint ways of urban-dwelling parents and grandparents who practiced thrift and lived close to their work - in cities well-served by buses and streetcars.

For many, staying in our cars is an issue of personal freedom. But there are other considerations. Gas rationing meant giving away some driving privileges during World War II, on the grounds that it would help us beat back a looming threat, and Americans played along.

Are the stakes any less high now, with oil-rich countries rejecting our influence and the health of the very planet in question?

Winner: Light rail

But the bus is good, too. Start somewhere. Even if it's only once a week, walk, bike, carpool or use whatever form of public transportation works best for you.

You may be participating in an inevitable future that isn't fully visible to us now. In any case, it's the right thing to do.