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Why Light Rail and Buses Are Both Essential to Detroit's Transit System

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On December 13, 2011, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced that the plan to create a 9.3-mile light rail corridor along Woodward Avenue was dead. In its place Mayor Bing proposed a "rolling rapid transit" system along four regional corridors that would be modeled on the 2008 Regional Transit Coordinating Council (RTCC) plan. This sudden shift in transit priorities set off an instant debate regarding the merits of light rail versus buses. This was, in fact, the wrong argument to pursue. To succeed in the 21st century, Detroit must have BOTH light rail and buses.

The fundamental reason why both light rail and buses are necessary is that they often serve different purposes and are suited for different locations. When the transit modes work together, light rail provides an urban transit backbone that is fed by buses delivering passengers throughout less dense areas.

Light rail transit, electric-powered train cars that run on rails built into the street, provides three major benefits. First, light rail is more cost-effective in dense areas because one light rail train and its driver replace the capacity of three buses and three drivers. By carrying far more people and not relying on diesel fuel, light rail generally has lower operating costs than most buses on the busiest corridors. Second, by providing a more reliable, higher quality of service, light rail tends to increase transit ridership and attract substantially more choice riders, who have access to private transportation but choose to ride public transit instead. Third, the quality and permanence of light rail leads to much more redevelopment near the light rail stations, raising the property values of both surrounding commercial and residential developments and increasing tax revenues along the corridor as well. In other words, light rail has the ability to grow the future job market and metropolitan economy and help our region compete on a national scale for creative-class, knowledge-based workers. However, light rail is very expensive to build, so it may only be appropriate for denser corridors with major destinations and high ridership (or ridership projections).

In contrast, buses can go many places and serve many people that light rail cannot. With far lower construction costs and greater route flexibility, buses are essential for serving people living or working in less densely populated areas. Detroit covers 138 square miles and about 30% of Detroit's population does not have their own car, relying on transit or rides from others in order to get to work, school, medical appointments, and other essential activities. Light rail could never cover the whole city, let alone the entire region. Buses are essential and appropriate for that. In order to get the economy and employment levels stable, this transit-captive population must have an equitable way to get around. In other words, reliable buses are essential to stabilize the existing job market and metropolitan economy. However, buses alone will not spur economic growth and are not efficient or effective at handling large demand corridors.

Some may ask whether there are in-between alternatives. Yes! Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Arterial Rapid Transit, and Rolling Rapid Transit are some of the ways to give buses many of the more advanced traits of light rail without making the full investment in light rail. The rapid bus alternatives often run in their own dedicated lanes of the roadway and have priority at traffic signals, making them quicker and more reliable. The vehicles are generally larger and more comfortable, making them more attractive to choice riders. With nicer stations where passengers buy tickets before boarding, these rapid bus options become even faster and more appealing. Depending on the ridership, economic development, and other needs of the corridor and community, rapid bus alternatives with some or all of these features can provide improved transit at a lower up-front cost than light rail. However, it is important to be clear of the trade-offs, watch out for "BRT Creep" and not promise one thing while budgeting for something different.

The most effective transit systems seamlessly combine all these transit modes and more. Many people will take a local bus from their neighborhood to a rapid transit line along a major road. In fact, St. Louis saw their bus ridership increase when they built light rail because the whole system became more useful and attractive together.

If Detroit wants to stabilize and grow its economy, buses, rapid buses, and light rail must all be included in Detroit's regional transportation system. If Detroit only supports a basic bus system, we will remain a third-class city unable to attract new businesses or highly-educated workers. If Detroit only invests in light rail and neglects its buses, we will worsen the region's economic inequality, potentially leading to higher unemployment rates and lower educational attainment.

Therefore, while more efficient buses provide an essential way for Detroit to provide access to dispersed jobs and education, light rail gives Detroit a means to move the city's economic base and quality of life into the 21st century.

Transportation Riders United (TRU) is Detroit's transit advocate. A Detroit-based nonprofit, TRU has worked since 1999 to improve and promote transit throughout greater Detroit, both fighting for more and better bus service and breaking down barriers to effective rapid transit. More at www.DetroitTransit.org.