Some Busway Realities
Arguments in favor of busways as an alternative to rail transit are gathering steam, in part because of the success of Cleveland’s HealthLine, which connects Public Square with University Circle via Euclid Avenue. As a Clevelander, I know some things about the HealthLine and the development it has supposed to have brought that non-natives may not be aware of.
First, the reason the HealthLine is a busway instead of a streetcar line is political. The project was undertaken during the administration of President George W. Bush. That administration, which was owned by the oil industry, hated passenger rail, Cleveland knew that if it requested federal funds for any rail project on Euclid, the answer would have been “no.” So it requested a busway instead, and got the money.
Shortly before the HealthLine opened, I was given a tour of it. An RTA official, who took me on the tour, told me the above. He made it clear he knew the streetcar would have been better. But a busway – – a real one, not just some lines painted on a street – – was better than nothing, and nothing was the only other option. He added that the busway project had done all the necessary work, such as utility relocation, so converting it to streetcar would be simple, just a matter of laying the track, putting up the overhead and buying some streetcars.
It is important to note that building the HealthLine busway was about as expensive as a streetcar line. Studies that compare its construction cost with the construction cost of Light Rail are setting up a straw man. A stand-alone Light Rail line down Euclid Avenue, all running in-street, would make no sense. The venue is appropriate for streetcar, not Light Rail.
Busways, as their ridership rises, become more expensive to operate than light rail or streetcar because each vehicle requires a driver. Cleveland streetcars had a long history of pulling trailers, which in effect doubled capacity without additional labor costs. Ottawa is a current good example of a busway strangling on its own success. The number of buses required to accommodate exploding demand overwhelmed the busway and downtown streets. Consequently, Ottawa is currently building a light rail line to replace the busway and provide the capacity needed for the near present and future demand in the corridor. The Orange Line in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley also reveals the biggest flaw in busways. The line is essentially at capacity and adding more buses only results in a much slower service and higher operating costs, denying the service its full potential. Each additional bus adds another driver and increasing labor costs.
Don’t get me wrong; the HealthLine has been successful, in terms of both ridership and effect on development, compared to bus-on-arterial it replaced (which was nonetheless Cleveland’s heaviest bus line). But that is very different from saying it is better than streetcars would have been.
Looking at claims that the HealthLine has brought billions of dollars of new development to Euclid Avenue, some local knowledge is useful. Much, perhaps most of the development traces to the expansion of Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic’s growth goes back long before the HealthLine was conceived, and would have occurred busway or no.
Another important factor is the shift of the epicenter of black crime east and south, which has permitted an economic and social upturn not only along Euclid but more broadly in the area from Public Square to University Circle, stretching north from Carnegie Avenue to Lake Erie. A large influx of Chinese immigrants into this area, especially west of E. 55th Street, has brought major improvement. I know, because my church is on E. 55th between Euclid and Superior. A few years ago, the only pedestrians on E. 55th were black. Now, many are white or Asian. Since the black rate of violent crime is twelve times the white rate, a change in the ethnic mix is important for economic reasons.
While the HealthLine has seen an increase in riders-from-choice compared to the previous bus line, the Euclid Avenue route remains heavily used, especially in rush hour, by transit dependents. The HealthLine’s success does not demonstrate that busways are as effective as streetcars in drawing riders-from-choice. Since riders-from-choice usually have significant discretionary income, they remain key to spurring economic development. From that perspective, rail transit is still in the motorman’s seat, while busways have yet to prove their case.
Some busway advocates no doubt really believe they can do as much for urban redevelopment as rail transit – - again, an unproven assertion. But many remain closet advocates for continued automobile domination. They know rail transit compete successfully with automobiles, while buses usually cannot. They push buses instead of rail because their real loyalty (sometimes connected to their pocketbooks) is to cars. That game has been going on since the 1920s, and urbanists should not let themselves fall for it. The proven case remains clear: if you want to get people out of their cars, give them rail.
William S. Lind serves as Director of the The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation