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VOL. 37 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 14, 2013

Getz: BRT plan would worsen West End traffic

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About the author:


Malcolm Getz is a member of BRT Concerns Inc. (brtconcerns.org), a group formed in opposition to the Bus Rapid Transit proposal as it is currently defined and is led by businessman John Carnes.


Getz is associate professor of economics at Vanderbilt University. He has been a faculty member in economics at Vanderbilt since 1973, and has served as director of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library (1984-94) and associate provost for information services and technology (1985-94).


He has authored four monographs, two textbooks and many essays. He earned his BA in economics from Williams College in 1967, and his Ph.D. in economics from Yale University in 1973.


Getz’s writing addresses a range of public policy issues.


The opinions stated here are his.

The Metro Transit Authority’s plan for a bus rapid transit installation on Nashville’s East-West Corridor has two fundamental problems:

Removing two lanes from traffic dramatically increases congestion with adverse effects of residents and businesses.

The choice of a rail-like design does not take advantage of the flexibility of buses. Experience with rail systems in other cities is sufficiently mixed as to raise substantial doubt about likely success here.

West End Congestion

The congestion problem would be severe.

The MTA’s “Summary: Phase Two” report of April 2013 notes that 48,000 vehicles move along West End from 31st Avenue to Murphy Road each weekday. Today, three lanes flow inbound in the morning and three lanes flow outbound in the afternoon from Centennial Park to I-440.

The summary (prepared by MTA) clearly shows inbound traffic narrowed to two lanes at 33nd Avenue and outbound traffic narrowed to two lanes at 32nd. The narrowest point in the road is a choke point that limits the total flow.

Restricting the three lanes of traffic to two would reduce the space for traffic by 16,000 vehicles, one-third of the total flow. The choke dramatically increases congestion delays. These spaces would be lost immediately as construction on the BRT begins and would change little when the BRT opens.

The Summary also estimates 5,197 people would travel on the BRT on weekdays, an optimistic doubling of the current bus ridership.

Among the added riders, many would be new trips, not trips formerly taken by car or truck.

By MTA estimate, about 1,000 people would switch from other vehicles to the BRT.

The BRT plan anticipates about 500 park-ride spaces at St. Thomas and Elmington Park, enough to account for 1,000 one-way BRT trips. With 16,000 spaces lost to traffic and the 1,000 auto travelers switching to the BRT, the net effect is a loss of space in the flow of traffic on the street for 15,000 vehicles after the BRT service begins.

Lost space on West End and Broadway would increase congestion on alternate routes, including particularly 21st Avenue, Wedgewood and the downtown ramps at I-40.

Neighborhood streets would see increased traffic flow and congestion. Congestion caused by large-scale athletic events at Bridgestone and Vanderbilt would be more severe with negative financial consequences.

The rapid increase in traffic congestion would adversely affect the medical centers and other businesses in the area.

The Baptist, Centennial and Vanderbilt medical facilities would see a decrease in revenues as some patients shift to more accessible suburban facilities. As commuting times increase, higher wages would be needed to recruit staff.

In-town facilities would see lower bottom lines. Other businesses would also suffer adverse consequences and some would close.

Residents of the area experience reduced access from their homes and more traffic and parking on neighborhood streets.

Ambulances and other emergency vehicles would experience delays.

The immediate, dramatic increase in congestion would blight the area with reduced commerce and diminished livability.

The MTA believes that, in the long run, traffic congestion would induce more people to choose transit. Severely limiting the flow of traffic, however, may cause trips to go elsewhere.

The MTA’s top engineers have worked for a year and a-half to tweak the plan to minimize the effect on traffic of removing two center lanes, and yet the choke points remain.

There is little likelihood that this plan can be tweaked so that the $175 million investment increases the flow of people through the corridor rather than sharply decreasing the flow.

Rail-like Design Issues

The decision to use two middle lanes in Nashville’s busiest artery exclusively for Bus Rapid Transit derives from a focus on providing a rail-like service.

The choice of a rail-like system, however, does not take advantage of a wider range of uses of buses. The MTA considered carefully only three alternatives: Two forms of rail and the rail-like Bus Rapid Transit. There is a substantial probability that aggressive deployment of buses would increase transit ridership significantly more than BRT without removing lanes from traffic.

Rail-based systems are limited to where the rails go. Building and maintaining rail (and exclusive lanes) is expensive, so a given budget buys few miles.

Rail-like systems depend on funneling many different kinds of travel into just a few miles of a rail or dedicated lanes. Most riders must use some other vehicle to reach a station, then wait for a train, ride to another station, then walk and wait for a third vehicle to complete their trips.

Most travelers are annoyed by the time spent transferring and would choose a way of travel that takes much longer in a continuously moving vehicle rather than a trip with less total time but that involves walking and waiting. Mid-trip delays are aggravating and have significant effects on how people choose to travel. People shun trips with more transfers.

Bus-Style System Better

A bus-style system should be designed to minimize the number of transfers. A rail-style system involves many more transfers.

For example, a bus-style park-ride facility would provide large-scale parking at an Interstate ramp and provide non-stop shuttle services to final destinations. A rail-style park-ride requires parking near a train station and then, after exiting the train, walking to and waiting for a shuttle to a final destination. The train involves two transfers rather than one.

A bus system has routes that begin in outlying areas and continue to a variety of major destinations without requiring transfers.

A rail system extends to few outlying areas and requires most riders to use one vehicle to reach a train station and another after leaving the train.

As a consequence, the number of riders on a through-route would drop when required to transfer to a train.

Local buses post many more stops but stop only when someone wants to get on or off. A train, with many fewer stops, pauses at every station.

A local bus can then provide more convenient access to individual places along its route.

Nashville’s hospitality industry would likely soon expect another MTA central circulator route to stop at the Music City Center convention facility and proceed out West End, ready to stop curbside at individual restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues.

The BRT is a weak alternative.

A Sample Tourist Trip

The BRT station closest to the Music City Center is two blocks away. The BRT provides relative few stops, all in the middle of the street, often requiring a long walk after exiting the bus.

For example, a trip from the convention hall to Blackstone Brewery would involve a two-block walk to the BRT station, a ride on the BRT and then a one-third mile walk from a station to the restaurant.

A circulator would stop at the hall and at the curb near the restaurant. At off-peak hours, when most conventioneers are likely to make such a trip, the circulator would be much faster end-to-end. The BRT serves the convention center poorly.

Bus service can include limited-stop service like the BRT lite on Gallatin Road. With fewer stops, the bus makes faster time. The faster speed is of greater benefit for travelers going a longer distance.

The same idea can apply to a bus that circulates through a dense housing area and then proceeds non-stop to a hub. Trains generally stop at every station.

A bus system can provide limited-stop, point-to-point service between major locations without going to a central hub.

There is a direct analog to Southwest Airlines. Southwest gained market share with point-to-point service away from major air hubs.

The center of Nashville is, of course, an important destination, but modern cities develop several important destinations, as Nashville is doing.

Buses can serve our Metro region with point-to-point service among major destinations better than trains, even those on rubber tires.

A Better Solution

Off-street transit depots at major destinations would enhance the development of point-to-point services. Instead of a train ride from Lebanon to downtown, followed by a bus ride to major downtown hospitals, a trip that takes more than an hour, an express bus could go directly from Lebanon to the hospitals in half the time and at lower cost.

Aggressive development of modern bus services meets the needs of current bus riders, as well as those making new trips.

Train-style services reduce ridership among current riders by requiring more transfers.

The expense of building dedicated lanes reduces funds for enhancing other services.

The train-style service of the BRT tends to reduce the level of service to traditional bus riders.

An important way to improve bus service is simply to increase the hours of service and the frequency of buses.

Low-platform hybrid power buses are easier to board and easier on the environment. Better fare systems and digital signs enhance the experience. Shelters at key stops attract more riders.

Overall, a sustained effort to strengthen bus service would attract more riders. As the city builds more buildings, parking prices increase and more households move into town, and an imaginatively designed, more-capable bus service would become more important.

We can do much more with buses without a precipitous increase in traffic congestion caused by dedicating lanes in crowded thoroughfares.

Rail Successes and Failures

A number of cities have invested in new rail systems in the last 50 years with varying degrees of success. The details of design and distribution of major traffic destinations in a city make a significant difference.

The Metro in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1976, offers multiple lines that cover the downtown grid that connects many major destinations.

It operates 103 miles of track with 86 stations, and the long distance between stations allows the trains to sustain faster service.

The Metro successfully attracts a broad spectrum of Washingtonians and is second only to New York in total rail ridership. Washington remains, however, a heavily congested city. The Metro is a transit success. Construction is under way to extend Metro service to Dulles Airport.

Jacksonville’s JTA Skyway, which opened in 1989, is a failure.

It has eight stations in its two-way, elevated, 2.5 miles. Some suggest the city could pay cab fares for all of the riders at lower expense than the public funds that go to the Skyway.

Because of the terms of a federal grant that helped support construction, Jacksonville must continue to operate its Skyway for eight more years.

Lessons of MARTA

Forty years ago, Atlanta spent $5 billion ($20 billion in today’s dollars) to build its 48-mile MARTA rail system with 38 stations. Eighty percent of the capital cost came from Federal grants.

The Atlanta MSA had about 12 percent more population in 1970 than the Nashville MSA today.

MARTA opened in 1979 with essentially a north-south line crossing an east-west line in the middle of the city. Although there were plans for more lines, the one-cent local sales tax and the federal funding supported few additions.

In 2012, a referendum to add another penny of sales tax for roads and transit failed. MARTA does not enjoy the support Washington’s Metro has.

MARTA planners had goals similar to those given for the BRT in Nashville:

New development would concentrate near rail stations.

Many more residents would live and work in the city without using automobiles.

Dense residential and commercial development would become more common in the middle of the city with less sprawling development on the periphery.

Traffic congestion would be less and the city would build fewer lanes of highways.

None of these claims proved true.

Atlanta has grown phenomenally, but most of the growth is far from MARTA stations, much of it over the horizon. There is little development near many MARTA stations.

Most people who ride MARTA are conventional transit users, not the broad spectrum seen in Washington. Atlanta added many miles of lanes to its Interstate and arterial roadway, but congestion is severe. MARTA failed to meet the goals of many of its proponents.

Nashville’s underperforming Star

Nashville’s Music City Star rail service opened in 2006 with 32 miles of service and six stations, and ridership remains below the forecast of 1,500 one-way trips per day.

Many millions of dollars of extra subvention have been necessary to sustain the underperforming service.

The train arrives at the Riverfront, not at the Music City Central bus hub, making connections difficult. MTA operates central circulators and special routes to compensate.

The proposed BRT would not extend to the Riverfront, making transfer from the Star to the BRT inconvenient. Proponents of the Music City Star claimed its success would make the case for more commuter rail lines in Nashville. Its economic failure suggests that commuter rail has little place in Nashville.

The Star has had no discernable effect on congestion.

The Cleveland Comparison

Cleveland opened a bus rapid transit service in 2008 that is often compared to the BRT proposed for Nashville.

Cleveland’s Healthline BRT increased ridership by 47 percent with its 24-hour service compared to the buses it replaced.

The 6.8-mile route has 59 stations and connects to a rail station on the same rail line at each end.

An end-to-end trip by rail takes about 18 minutes, while the BRT takes 40 minutes in rush hour along a more direct route. That’s 10 mph for the BRT.

The Healthline goes through the middle of the 41 buildings of the Cleveland Clinic, a large medical complex that made a multi-million dollar contribution to the BRT development.

The Healthline operates in dedicated lanes for 4.1 miles of its route and in mixed traffic at curbside for the remainder. Much of the route goes through an area with a large amount of land made vacant by riots in the 1960s.

The Healthline, then, is a link in a wider transit network through an underdeveloped area.

It is more like a local bus service with many stops than a rail service with few stops.

Few people ride the BRT from its outer end to downtown because a rail line offers the same through-service in a fraction of the time.

Time saving is not the critical element for the success of the Healthline, which is successful because it stops in the middle of a principle destination, the Cleveland Clinic, offers many convenient stops, runs every four to seven minutes in rush hour, and operates around the clock.

How much dedicated lanes contribute to its success is unclear.

Successes and Failures

Experience with rail services in other cities suggests success is possible when the routes go to large employers and other destinations with large volumes of traffic, as with the Washington Metro and the Healthline.

Experience also points to many failures.

These experiences do not support removing lanes of traffic from a major arterial roadway to provide dedicated lanes for buses on the speculation that people might choose to ride.

The level of ridership must be implausibly high to offset the loss of traffic. Simply offering more frequent service for more hours of the day to more places with more limited-stop and express services would go far toward attracting bus riders with little harm to traffic flows.

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