Life in the Fast Lane: Fixed-Guideway Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail

In a recent post, A Tale of Two Modes, we discussed why gondolas and heavy rail aren’t being considered for future high-capacity transit service as part of Project Connect’s regional transit system plan.

Now, we want to talk about two types of transit we ARE considering for Project Connect.

“What is Fixed-Guideway Bus Rapid Transit?”

A step up from Capital Metro’s MetroRapid service, Fixed-guideway Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is designed to operate much like a rail service, travelling in its own lanes and providing frequent service – every 10-30 minutes. It’s faster than traditional and rapid bus service both because the stops are placed approximately ½ to 2 miles apart, so it makes fewer stops, and because it operates in dedicated lanes, uninterrupted by other traffic. Yes, you read that right: No getting stuck in traffic! Because fixed-guideway BRT moves a lot of people, at a greater frequency in its own lanes, it is considered a high-capacity transit mode.International standards are different and designate bronze, silver or gold status to a BRT service depending on the percentage of the dedicated lane it uses.

HealthLine-Cleveland
International standards are different and designate bronze, silver or gold status to a BRT service depending on the percentage of the dedicated lane it uses. Cleveland’s Healthline is the highest-rated BRT in the U.S. according to international standards. (photo courtesy of nacto.org)

To develop this type of service, however, Capital Metro must first secure right-of-way to locate and install the definitive dedicated lanes. What seems simple – changing a lane of an existing road into a dedicated transit lane – takes more than just a new coat of paint. Just as we did to construct transit-priority lanes for MetroRapid, Capital Metro would need to work with regional transportation partners like the city of Austin and TxDOT to develop inter-agency plans to secure the right-of-way, all while ensuring that other forms of transportation still have safe and efficient use of surrounding lanes.

Fixed-guideway BRT stations can be designed and built to include safe drop-off/pickup and waiting zones for riders. Stations on major roadways can be built above road-level.

“Why are you considering Fixed-guideway BRT instead of Light Rail?”

A lot of you want to see Capital Metro add sleek, innovative modes to its transit mix and feel that BRT buses don’t fit the bill.

Fixed-guideway BRT and Light Rail share some of the same qualities: Both operate in dedicated lanes, connect local activity centers and feature stops approximately ½ to 2 miles apart.

While BRT buses are flexible and can easily travel on winding roadways, light rail trains demand straighter tracking. Other key differences are the building and maintenance costs. Light rail requires performing major excavation, building an electrified track, having a constant electrical supply, constructing sub-stations, installing overhead wires and buying and maintaining more expensive vehicles. Cha-ching! Fixed-guideway BRT is a lot less expensive.

Green Line UtahTransit Authority TRAX
Utah Transit Authority’s TRAX Green Line train at Gallivan Plaza. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Even so, light rail can carry many more passengers than BRT. So, if all the required resources are available – the corridor has enough demand (read: LOTS of people in densely developed areas) and is a “straight shot” between activity centers, land can be dedicated and converted to tracking, electricity is in constant supply, ample funding is available and the public has voted to support the project (see Texas Transportation Code Section 451.3625) – light rail can be part of Project Connect’s regional high-capacity transit system.

The bottom line: The Project Connect team is considering fixed-guideway BRT and light rail where appropriate.

Project Connect’s Got Game

20170824_182742Talking about transit planning and regional public policy works better in a place that serves beer and great food. That’s why Capital Metro took to Scholz Biergarten last month to sponsor Project Connect’s Game Night.

Hosted with Glasshouse Policy, the event was designed to get people thinking about transit planning and the future of Central Texas transportation with all the limitations imposed by the real world. This can be difficult for a few different reason:

  1. Because the circle of people interested in transit planning is already pretty small.
  2. Because the people who are interested in transit planning tend to be firm in their opinions.
  3. Because sometimes those opinions don’t fully take into account all the real-world factors that professional transit planners deal with.
  4. Because sometimes those opinions conflict in ways that are hard and even impossible to reconcile.
  5. Because, really, it can be tough to find people interested in coming out on a Thursday night to talk transit planning.

So, you can see the dilemma. That’s why we bring folks to a beer garden and combine our planners’ expertise with the experience and crowd-pleasing skills of Glasshouse Policy. It was fun!20170905_110211_resized

The idea was to give people a real-world situation, throw some complicating factors at them and then have them design a transit solution. Like say, you’ve got a fast-growing medium-sized city with a traffic problem and an affordability problem that’s pushing lower-income residents further out of the central core. But those people still need to commute into the city for work. Add in an entrenched car culture, small but passionate fans of various forms of transit and a growing reluctance to approve bond elections. And you have to work within a budget.

But make it fun!

20170824_185415_resizedThe participants were given their instructions and the advice to play rounds of the game in a couple different ways:

  • First, implement a transit project you’re truly interested in (light rail, streetcars, rocket ships, whathaveyou).
  • But then the second time you play, go in a different direction. So, if you’re a light-rail-down-Lamar-and-Guadalupe true believer, try bus rapid transit or streetcars instead.

The intent was to make the players understand the complications inherent in the process and to see the possibilities available when you’re more flexible. In essence, to give these armchair planners a glimpse into the life of professional planners. (But make it fun!)

20170905_110029_resized2And it worked. The crowds came out and had a good time. About 60 people showed up, playing on 11 teams of 2 to 6 players each. The winners worked with their $1.1 billion budget and built three lines that were judged on their capacity to carry riders, frequency of service and ability to sustain operations for the long term.

It really was a good time, and the Capital Metro team has plans to bring it out to neighborhood events over the coming months to give more people a chance to play. Be sure to check ProjectConnect.com to find out where and when.

‘Traffic Jam! A La Mode’ Serves Up a Project Connect Transit Mode Talk

Picture1In the spring, the Project Connect team surveyed people about where they wanted to see future high-capacity transit services. Now the team is engaging the community in the second phase of the planning initiative — examining which types of high-capacity transit would best fit each location. Continue reading “‘Traffic Jam! A La Mode’ Serves Up a Project Connect Transit Mode Talk”

Capital Metro Board Approves Transit System Overhaul

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Capital Metro’s board of directors today approved the agency’s Connections 2025 draft transit plan, allowing the agency to move forward with a bold, new vision for its transit system. Some of the key elements of the new plan involve creating a more frequent, reliable and connected network of services.

In response to feedback from thousands of people around Central Texas, Capital Metro’s updated network will take a frequency-first approach, tripling the number of bus routes running every 15 minutes or better. The agency follows industry peers TriMet in Portland, Sound Transit in Seattle, Denver Metro and Houston Metro by investing in key corridors to build core frequent service and ridership, while reducing waiting times.

Capital Metro’s new plan is designed to improve the rider experience – creating a 24/7 transit system that will see expanded MetroExpress and MetroRapid service, and more east-west options.

“Today, our board showed its dedication to improving transportation in Central Texas through smart planning,” said Capital Metro President/CEO Linda Watson. “Major investments to build a better bus network will kick-off in 2018, and will continue paying off over the next 10 years. Austin desperately needs more mobility options, and this plan delivers the type of innovation and services people want.”

FEATURES OF THE NEW NETWORK:

  • 2 fare types (Local and Commuter)
  • 4 MetroRapid routes (running every 7-15 minutes)
  • 13 Frequent Local routes (running every 15 minutes)
  • 23 Local routes (running every 30 minutes)
  • 4 downtown circulator routes
  • 6 UT Shuttles
  • 8 Express routes

Continue reading “Capital Metro Board Approves Transit System Overhaul”