High-speed bus: the unexamined transit alternative
THERE WAS a major gap in the city's Nov. 1 Alternatives Analysis Report
on rapid transit options for Oahu: It did not examine a possible high-speed bus system that could run on the same kind of exclusive right of way now being proposed for the fixed guideway rail system. Some very preliminary mention of this possibility was raised in December when the City Council adopted the final version of Bill 79 -- the measure approving a fixed guideway for rail or buses. The bus option, however, merits more than cursory consideration.
The basic choices set forth in the Alternatives Analysis were: no-build; transportation system management; managed lane (that is, a two-lane, grade-separated highway viaduct); and fixed guideway. The latter is based on multicar trains, about 175 to 200 feet long, with each train able to carry 300 passengers.
What I am terming the "high-speed bus" is not examined in the Alternatives Analysis, nor is it included among a short list of options in that document that were considered but rejected. No reason was given for not analyzing the high-speed bus or a similar approach in either the Alternatives Analysis or in the Alternatives Screening Memo issued last October. This omission should not stand; with the wealth of data already collected, a relatively quick professional analysis is possible.
The mayor's announcement last week that he is ready to proceed with a $3.8 billion rail line from east Kapolei to Ala Moana Center (Star-Bulletin, Jan. 31) only adds to the urgency of scrutinizing the one other significant alternative not previously examined, namely the high- speed bus using the same exclusive right of way as the rail system. When one expends $3.8 billion, one wants to be certain that the very best choice has been made.
The high-speed bus would be very different from the Harris administration's Bus Rapid Transit proposal, which in its in-town portion had buses traveling on city streets, in many cases taking lanes away from ordinary traffic, and in its regional segment utilizing the H-1 for part of its route.
Rather, a high-speed bus would operate along the same alignment designated for the fixed guideway alternative, beginning in the Kapolei/Kalaeloa area and terminating at Ala Moana Center (the 20-mile option) or at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (the 28-mile option).
This alignment would need to be modified so as to provide five or six access and egress ramps at the end points and along the way to allow articulated buses to enter and depart the exclusive right of way. This restricted roadway would run overhead, just as is proposed for the fixed guideway transit system.
Vehicles in such a system would be articulated or similar high-capacity buses. The roadway would be similar to a highway, but for the exclusive use of regularly scheduled transit buses and emergency vehicles. There would be stations along the way, just as with the rail line.
WHAT WOULD be some of the advantages of the high-speed bus?
» The high-speed bus would significantly reduce the number of times the majority of passengers would have to change from one mode of transportation to another. Every time people are required to shift from bus to train or from car to train or from bus to bus, some decide they would just rather stay in their cars. Overall, this system would likely attract more passengers than would rail, though this again is a matter to be examined and documented.
» Articulated buses would provide people living in communities not located along the exclusive right of way (e.g., Mililani, Waianae) with access to that right of way without having to make an additional shift from one vehicle to another.
» While each high-speed bus vehicle would carry fewer passengers than a multicar train, the frequency with which such articulated buses would arrive and depart would be significantly greater than for trains.
» The high-speed bus system would allow modification in routes accessing the exclusive right of way as demand changes in the future. Such changes will occur due to new residential, commercial and light industrial developments in areas such as Ewa or Central Oahu.
» A high-speed bus provides the same kind of opportunities for transit-oriented development around selected stations as would the rail line.
» Travel by high-speed bus along the exclusive right of way would probably be just as fast as by rail, since the spacing between stations would be relatively short and trains would not be able to run at great speeds, one of the usual advantages of that mode of transport.
» If there is a vehicle breakdown, then the high-speed bus system can continue to operate with minimum delay, unlike a rail system -- unless an elaborate network of switches, signals and sidetracks is provided along the fixed guideway.
» The system might cost less to build than the proposed rail system and is likely to cost less to operate, taking into account all aspects, including maintenance and replacement -- again, matters that need to be examined.
» The exclusive right of way would vastly reduce the time it takes emergency vehicles to reach Honolulu from outlying districts, and vice versa, probably saving several lives each year.
WHAT MIGHT be some of the disadvantages of the high-speed bus?
» The high-speed bus would require more drivers than a fully or partially automated rail system.
» Building the necessary five or six entrance and exit ramps is likely to result in some dislocation of vehicle traffic around the ramps.
» Buses, even articulated hybrid vehicles, are unlikely at this time to be as energy-efficient or as quiet as trains on a fixed guideway, though this remains to be documented. One point to consider, however, is that buses are replaced every 10 to 12 years, thus allowing the city to take advantage of a range of technological improvements at frequent intervals. The same possibility does not hold true for trains.
» The roadway might need to be somewhat wider than the proposed fixed guideway and some high-usage stations (e.g., downtown, Ala Moana) somewhat longer, though, again, these aspects need to be examined and documented.
» Unless there is a binding and enforceable commitment from the very start to keep all vehicles, except regularly scheduled buses and emergency apparatus, off the right of way, there could be unwelcome operational problems and undesirable consequences. The political pressure to allow this or that class of vehicle to use the right of way would be great, which is why it is important that such options be banned from day one.
» It might or might not be a "disadvantage," but buses, even high-speed buses, are seldom as glamorous as trains.
PERHAPS the high-speed bus could be partially funded from federal sources other than the Federal Transit Administration's New Start program and with less delay. (New Starts is the major federal funding source for fixed guideway systems.)
An article in the August 2006 Metro Magazine, written by Cliff Henke, a senior analyst at Parsons Brinckerhoff, notes that Jeff Boothe, head of the New Starts Working Group, has stated that the New Starts evaluation process now takes more than 100 months and shows signs of lengthening.
I strongly urge the mayor and the Council to request their highly respected consultant firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff, to run an analysis of the high-speed bus concept. This option should be compared to a fixed-rail transit line in regard to total travel time, number of passengers served, construction and operational costs, environmental impacts, availability and timeliness of federal funds, social consequences, and other similar aspects.
This additional analysis should not take long; Parsons Brinckerhoff already has much of the required information in hand, including data on the two alternative routes.
Neither I nor the mayor nor the Council knows at this point whether the high-speed bus is a better or worse option than the proposed fixed guideway rail system. Only when we have the necessary professional analysis available will our officials be able to make the best decision for the people of Honolulu.
Tom Dinell, FAICP, is professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.