November 07, 2005
Commuter rail versus express buses

Tory Gattis had an op-ed on commuter rail, which he compares unfavorably to the Park-and-Ride/HOV lane bus system in Houston, in Sunday's Chron. He's reprinted it reprinted it here on his blog for future reference, since Chron op-eds vanish into the ether in fairly short order. I don't currently have anything to say about his claims for Houston commuters (I'd love to know what the CTC crowd has to say, though), but I do have one nit to pick with what he says here:

None of this is news to older transit-based cities. Lower Manhattan is struggling to build and fill office space.

Why? Because most of the commuter trains arrive at Penn or Grand Central stations in Midtown, and nobody wants to make the additional subway transfer and slog to downtown.

It's true that the LIRR and the Metro North come into Grand Central and Penn Station, though PATH trains come into the Cortland Street/World Trade Center station downtown. I rode it in from Jersey City last year while visiting Michael and Ginger - it's a nice and surprisingly quick ride. But speaking as someone who commuted for four years from Staten Island into lower midtown Manhattan, that bit about "nobody wants to make the additional subway transfer and slog to downtown" strikes me as false. I mean, it's a fifteen minute ride on a local train like the R from 42nd and 34th streets to downtown; there are express train options, too. That just isn't much of an added burden, especially given the length of the rest of the journey. My commute to Stuyvesant was an hour and a half each way (bus, ferry, subway, walk four blocks), and that's just not unusual for living in the hinterlands. Believe me, the three subway lines that head uptown from South Ferry were crammed with the arrival of every ferry while I was making that trip.

This doesn't invalidate the point Tory was making about express buses bringing people closer to their destinations. I'm just saying that the comparison to the New York metro area is a weak one. It's also the case that buses in New York are subject to much worse street traffic than they would be here, which is another reason why a commuter train/subway linkup is way more viable there than he makes it seem. You don't know "sluggish" till you're ridden a bus in Manhattan.

Anyway, none of this is meant as a criticism of Gattis' main thesis; I'll need to give that one some more thought. Off the top of my head, it's not so obvious to me that it's a clear win for buses that travel farther away from HOV-enhanced freeways and into other employment hubs like the Medical Center. That's not a question that can be resolved until routes for one or the other get proposed, however. Like I said, I'm interested in hearing what the rest of the wonks have to say about this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 07, 2005 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles | TrackBack

Since I commute to lower Manhattan from the southernmost part of Staten Island, I don't have the issue of switching to the subway or bus after I get off of the boat. On the other hand, I haven't heard any real complaints from anyone that works or goes to school in midtown about having to make that change. Several people in my office get to work via the Port Jervis line of Metro-North (commuter railroad for those of you that have never been to NYC) and change to the PATH in Hoboken.

As for the NYC busses, let's just say that you can probably get across town faster by walking. The M34 (which goes across 34th Street) is probably the slowest of the bunch.

Posted by: William Hughes on November 7, 2005 7:55 AM

CTC board member Christof Spieler blogged about this same issue back in August: A map is worth a thousand words. It's great that Tory Gattis got some airtime for Houston's incredibly successful HOV bus system in the Chronicle since METRO sure isn't!

Houstonians spend a lot of time arguing over transit technology -- or mode -- when we should be focusing instead on service. Consider: you can hamstring any transit service -- whether bus or rail -- by adding lots of stops and making it compete with traffic in the same right of way (ROW). A route that runs every 6-10 minutes (short "headways") is more useful than one that runs every 45 minutes to an hour, regardless of whether the vehicle that shows up is a bus or a train. The quality of the commuter experience has more to do with the design of the service than the underlying technology.

I believe Houston can and should invest more in transit. The total cost of the MetroSolutions plan is less than the cost overrun on the Katy Freeway expansion, not to mention all the other freeway projects underway around town. Given that 1 in 5 adult Texans (not counting minors!) cannot or does not drive, there's a strong equity argument for policies that support transit.

However, as a taxpayer, I hope that our transit investment will pay for real improvements to transit service, and not just buy us technology for the sake of technology.

Consider commuter access to Ft. Bend County. The rail line along US 90A is one of the busiest in the region and congested with freight traffic. I've heard a cost estimate upwards of $2 billion to expand capacity in that ROW enough to add commuter trains, and that doesn't include the cost of the trains. In contrast, we could add a second HOV lane in the middle of US 59 -- so that we could have 24-hour bidirectional express bus service -- for a whole lot less. And the bus service would probably be superior for the reasons Tory outlines in his OpEd.

Finally, I hope we'll focus on ridership, as a key determinant of where to put new service. We should build and support transit where the people are, rather than in abandoned ROWs or empty places where it's easy to build.

Posted by: Robin Holzer on November 7, 2005 12:15 PM