UCLA expert weighs in on transit debate

Published On: Oct 19 2012 07:17:27 PM HST
Updated On: Oct 19 2012 10:37:29 PM HST

Voters still struggling whether to support the elevated rail project or a bus rapid transit system could benefit from the opinions of a transit expert with no local ties.

HONOLULU -

UCLA Prof. Brian Taylor doesn't have a stake in the battle over Oahu's transit future. However, the transportation policy and planning expert does offer a unique perspective on what would be best for the island's transit needs – the city's proposed $5.3 billion rail project, or a bus rapid transit system.

"When you look at the size of Honolulu (and) you look at the transportation problem they're seeking to solve, BRT is almost certainly a better investment," Taylor said Friday in a telephone interview with KITV4.

For Taylor, whose research examines travel behavior, transportation finance, as well as politics and planning, the superiority of BRT boils down to the amount of ridership Honolulu's rail project is expected to draw.

According to the rail project's final environmental impact statement, the 20-mile, elevated system from East Kapolei to the Ala Moana Shopping Center will see 116,300 trips per day on an average weekday by the year 2030.

While the overall number of projected riders appears impressive, Taylor says it's not nearly enough to offset the tremendous capital cost needed to build the system, as well as the additional expenditures required to operate and maintain it.

Taylor said heavy rail is much better suited for large, metropolitan cities like Tokyo, New York and London, which generate extremely large numbers of riders. The professor points to Mexico City as yet another example, where trains 10 cars deep run on 90-second headways with "crush-loads" at almost all hours of the day.

"These investments are essential to keep these very large, very densely developed cities functioning effectively, and so they're often the best investment that can be made," explained Taylor. "You have to take all that capital cost for the system, and you have to divide it over the riders you have."  

Taylor is no stranger to the transportation issues facing Oahu, having lived on the island from August 2005 until July 2006 when he served as a visiting scholar at the University of Hawaii.

Before joining the faculty at UCLA, Taylor was a planner with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area, and currently serves as the chair of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies Federal Transit Administration Transit Economic Requirements Model review committee.

Taylor told KITV4 rail systems often get mired in politics, as elected leaders point to shiny new rail lines as status symbols for their respective cities.

"When it comes to rail transit investments, there's sort of an aspirational quality," said Taylor.  "It means we're running with the big dogs. Elected officials say, 'I don't want to cut a ribbon in front of some new BRT system, when I could cut it in front of a rail system.'"

Taylor said with bus rapid transit, the system can expand as demand for public transportation increases. However, he cautions the cost of such systems tend to escalate with the construction of exclusive lanes for express buses.

"A big part of it is the amount of right of way that's exclusive," he said.  "The more it's exclusive, the faster operation you have, but the more you have to pay for it."

Taylor's research shows one of the greatest factors in determining a transit system's appeal is the ease with which riders can get to a transit line, whether it's BRT or rail.  If a rider needs to go through various steps like walking, driving or transferring to get to a final destination, the less likely he or she is to use public transportation.

"So, making the vehicle a little bit faster is not nearly as important as having a cutting down of the wait time," he said.

Honolulu's controversial rail project could hinge on next month's mayoral election.  Former acting Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who supports rail transit, faces former two-term Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano.

Cayetano has promised to kill rail transit and prefers a hybrid plan he calls FAST, which features a BRT system, an elevated Nimitz Highway flyover, and short underpasses along Kapiolani Boulevard at a projected cost of $1.5 billion.   

About Prof. Brian Taylor:

Taylor is currently an Associate Director of the University of California Transportation Center, Chair of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies Federal Transit Administration Transit Economic Requirements Model review committee, and a Fellow in the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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