Saturday, December 6, 2008

guest blog: riding north america's newest transit line

The HealthLine, Cleveland's new Bus Rapid Transit system, pulls into a station downtown.

While visiting relatives in Ohio over Thanksgiving Break, State Delegate Alfred Carr (D-Dist. 18) took the opportunity to ride the HealthLine, Cleveland's new Bus Rapid Transit line. For more pictures and the original post, check out Generally Assembled, the District 18 delegation blog.

As a kid growing up in Ohio, I was fascinated with railroads and transportation. The first passenger train I ever rode was a PCC car on the Shaker Rapid (short for rapid transit) which is a light rail line that ran in the median in front of my godparents' house in Shaker Heights into downtown Cleveland. This rail line first opened in 1913 and was expanded and improved throughout the 1920s. Unlike many other U.S. cities, Cleveland never dismantled their light rail network and this line still runs today along with the "Red Line" heavy rail line.

My interest in transportation continues and during my Thanksgiving trip back to Ohio to visit with family, my 6-year old son Miles and I spent an afternoon trying out Cleveland's new 9.4 mile "Silver Line" that opened a few weeks ago. I've ridden many commuter rail, heavy rail, light rail and conventional bus lines over the years. But this was my first experience with Bus Rapid Transit.

Here in Maryland, several new transit lines are under consideration and I wanted to see for myself whether BRT might make sense. The lines under consideration in Maryland include the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, and County Councilmember Marc Elrich's thoughtful new proposal for BRT lines on suburban arterial roadways. Local blog sites Maryland Politics Watch, Just Up The Pike and others have been contributing to a lively debate of transit policies.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

East 105th Street Station.

Bus Rapid Transit is very different than conventional bus service.

BRT uses a number of design features to gain many of the speed and efficiency characteristics of light rail but at a much lower cost. Instead of bus stops and climbing steps up onto the bus, there are enclosed stations that allow you to enter onto the bus across a platform. The fare is paid in advance at a machine in the station instead of placing money in a farebox on the bus. The vehicle travels in dedicated lanes so that it does not compete with other traffic. Traffic signals are specially equipped so that they sense an approaching vehicle and remain green a little longer to let the vehicle pass through the intersection. Instead of a printed bus schedule, there is a frequency of one bus every five minutes at peak times. Cleveland's BRT vehicles use hybrid diesel-electric technology and low-sulfur diesel fuel to reduce emissions.

The Silver Line runs along Euclid Avenue, one of Cleveland's main east-west thoroughfares. The eastern terminus of the new line is in East Cleveland at the Windermere/Stokes Transit Center it runs through University Circle and on to Public Square in downtown Cleveland.

In addition to light rail, Cleveland has had a heavy rail line for many years. The heavy rail line is called the Red Line and it already runs between Windermere, and the two main hubs of activity at University Circle and Public Square (before continuing on to the airport). So why create a new transit line that runs between these same hubs?

The reason is that the current Red Line route bypasses many important points of interest because it follows an old freight railroad right of way. In a sense, the Silver Line is a do-over to correct missed opportunities from the past.

By following a direct east-west route down Euclid Avenue, the new BRT is able to directly serve many more points of interest such as Case Western Reserve University, Severance Hall, museums, Playhouse Square, Cleveland State University and the burgeoning health-care institutions of University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic (birthplace of your humble Delegate). The hospitals bought the naming rights which is why it is referred to as the "HealthLine". It is also designed to serve as a catalyst for revitalization along the entire length of this once grand avenue of commerce and culture.

Since Cleveland had existing light and heavy rail lines, why was BRT chosen as the mode for the new line?

The planning for the line began in the 1970s. George Voinovich (R-OH) was one of the proponents throughout his career path as a Cuyahoga County Commissioner, Lieutenant Governor, Mayor of Cleveland, Governor of Ohio and finally U.S. Senator. It was originally envisioned as a rail line. But over the long period, changing federal transit funding rules and decreasing density in the City made the cheaper BRT mode emerge as the winning option.

The construction of the Silver Line provided an opportunity for the complete rebuilding of the avenue with enhancements to the form and function. Underground utilities were replaced, sidewalks were widened, street lights were upgraded, public art, benches and street trees were added all using sleek urban design features. Bike lanes were added along much of the route. As my mom pointed out, even the defunct 19th century coal chutes in front of many older buildings were filled in.

The bus lane passes through Cleveland's downtown.

Our Impressions

We began our trip near the eastern end of the line at 118th Street. This is also a station on the parallel red line. The glass and metal station is sleek, open and airy. There is an overhead information display to let you know when the next bus will arrive. At the eastern end of the line, the stations are placed along the side of the road.

The vehicle pulled up and we got on board. It is longer than a regular bus with an accordion section in the middle. It holds about 50 seated passengers and around 100 total including standees. It is fully ADA accessible and even has storage space inside for bicycles. The low sulfur diesel electric propulsion system is quiet. It emits 90% lower emissions and gets much better mileage than a standard diesel bus. After we reached the end of University Circle, we observed that the stations move to the median.

According to Deputy General Manager of Operations Michael York, the vehicles have some unique design features. There is a precision docking system with an arm on the vehicle which connects to the station. The planners had seen it used in on a European BRT line and had to reverse-engineer it and get special permission from the feds to use it in the U.S. Also, there are doors on both the right and left side to accommodate the different station placement configurations.

The vehicles travel mostly in dedicated lanes with a 35 mph limit compared to a 25 mph limit in the adjacent automobile lanes. Car drivers are still getting used to the new lane markings and rules of the road. The picture above shows a lane configuration with bike lane along the curb, then a lane for cars and dedicated bus lane on the left. You can see the driver's hesitation to turn left from the right lane across the bus lane. This is a temporary problem that will correct itself as residents get more experience with a lane configuration that is different from what they knew for many decades.

We passed Playhouse Square where the narrowest right of way posed some design challenges. Median stations here serve vehicles going in both directions and passengers enter through the left side doors. We enter the loop through the public square area downtown and remain on the bus for the ride back. At each stop, passengers are able to board quickly and efficiently.

Our travel time from downtown to University Circle is about 25 minutes. We spent more time than expected stopped at right lights. This should be addressed once the transit signal priority system (manufactured by Opticon) is fully activated shaving about five minutes off the trip.

A bus pulls up to the platform at the Cornell Road station.


Down the road in Washington D.C., a stimulus package is being debated that promises to invest in our infrastructure across the nation. We all hope that this results in smart transportation investments instead of more bridges to nowhere. Although the kinks are still being worked out, Cleveland's new transit line appears to be the former.

I came away convinced that BRT is a practical, efficient and cost effective transit option. Giving buses priority at traffic signals seems to be a key factor in achieving its full potential for fast trip times.

Here in Maryland it would be unwise to rule out BRT for the any of the new transit lines being considered. In a time of fiscal constraints, we need to keep all options open.

For Maryland's Purple Line, there is a lesson to be drawn about the choice of route. Cleveland made the mistake of bypassing a world class medical institution and other population centers when the original Red Line was built. An old freight rail line initially was the the path of least resistance but did not prove to be the best route over the long-term. We would be wise to learn from their experience.

Transit Signal Priority (TSP) is a system that can greatly benefit the capacity of conventional buses as well as potential new BRT lines. This seems to me like something that the Washington region should have implemented years ago. Maryland appears to have invested very little to date in testing or implementing such a system on our roadways. This stems from outdated policies that seek to maximize the movement of cars instead of the movement of people.

It is regrettable that Maryland's lack of experience with TSP is reflected in the planning and analysis for projects such as the Purple Line. The Alternatives Analysis/Environmental Impact Statement is biased in that fails to adequately analyze TSP. This tends to make BRT appear slower that it might actually be. It also makes it harder to coordinate with the planning of transportation improvements for the BRAC expansion of the nearby Bethesda Naval Medical Center.


Robert said...

This sounds good, except perhaps for the "TSP" option ("Transit Signal Priority") for traffic signals. We have enough problems with signal timing already that extending green lights for transit or perhaps changing lights to green for transit would undoubtedly make traffic worse for everyone else and mess up traffic not only along the streets shared with the transit lines but also on the cross streets, perhaps extending the jams to intersections well away from the transit lines.

silverspringtrails said...

Before we try to apply this transit line as a good example for the Purple Line BRT on Jones Bridge Road option, three issues should be addressed.
The first is raised by Robert - giving BRT vehicles signal priority can really mess traffic up on the cross streets. The Purple Line projected peak hour demand is so high that dozens of BRT vehicles will be on the road each hour to meet demand. Can we give so many BRT vehicles signal priority to cross Connecticut Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue without having an unacceptable impact on traffic?
The second issue is how does Euclid compare with Jones Bridge Road and Woodmont Avenue? The photos of the Cleveland BRT show Euclid as a very wide, urban street. Can BRT fit on a narrower residential street like Jones Mill Road without being stuck in traffic? If BRT needs fully dedicated lanes on Jones Mill Road to function well, what will the impact be of building the dedicated lanes in the comparatively narrow right-of-way? If we must widen Jones Bridge Road to create dedicated lanes, and must also build bridges across Connecticut Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue to make BRT work on Jones Bridge Road, will the cost and impact of BRT still look more attractive compared to the LRT alternatives?
A third issue is capacity. Low to medium ridership can favor BRT, but LRT is considered to have more capacity and better cost effectiveness at high ridership levels. What is the ridership on Cleveland's new BRT, and how does that compare with the projected ridership on the Purple Line.

silverspringtrails said...

Oops, where I say "Jones Mill Road" in my comment, I always mean to say "Jones Bridge Road".
My bad.

Delegate Al Carr said...

I appreciate your comment.

You raise the question of whether TSP can be implemented in a way that moves mass transit vehicles efficiently without messing up traffic for everyone else. This is a good question to ask and it deserves an honest an unbiased analysis to reach the answer.

Unfortunately the Maryland Transit Administration has been unable or unwilling to make an objective assessment of TSP in their Purple Line alternatives analysis/EIS.
The MTA states that transit signal priority is not possible at Jones Bridge/Connecticut and at Jones Bridge/Wisonsin. That is because they have used unrealistic numbers in their analysis – holding for 67 seconds at Connecticut Avenue and for 105 seconds at Wisconsin Avenue. In Los Angeles (Orange Line BRT) they hold for 10 seconds to get good results. Here in Maryland I will concede that it might be more than 10 seconds but would be much closer to that than 67 or 105. It is not believeable to state that traffic at those two intersections is worse than Manhattan or LA where BRT is up and running well.

In any case, Maryland transportation agencies of MTA and SHA have little experience with TSP. SHA only controls signal timing on certain state roads. The two largest jurisdictions in Maryland, Montgomery County and Baltimore City control the timing of all traffic signals within their borders.

One of my constituents jokes with me that the current signal timing in our region seems to have been designed by OPEC.

woodyb said...

It sounds like just another excuse to succumb to pressure from the Town of Chevy Chase and oppose purple Line light rai. Why should the county abandon a right-of-way that it paid $10 million to acquire just to put more buses on narrow streets? BRT would only result in more drivers to cut through neighborhoods on residential streets.

Unknown said...

Marc Elrich's "thoughtful new proposal" includes running buses along the Georgetown Branch, an idea summarily dismissed by all District 18 neighborhoods when it was first proposed during the first DEIS hearings on the Georgetown Branch. It seems to be getting no more excitement this time around. Do you really think riding a bike on a trail adjacent to a busway will be a better experience than along a light rail line with the trains running in grass tracks?

It is not true that MTA has not looked at TSP. They looked at it for locations like Jones Bridge and Connecticut and do not believe the Sam Schwartz assertion to constantly interrupt traffic on Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenues is workable. In fact, there must be a disconnect if residents of the Town of Kensington think that BRT can cross Connecticut at grade and not cause serious north-south traffic problems. Presumably MTA consulted with their sister agency,the SHA, about this.

It it very difficult to get data on BRT ridership - have you found one in the U.S. ranging up to 68,000? Most seem to be less than 20,000 although it seems to be very difficult to find a clear ridership table among the pro-BRT websites.

Equally important: "... the more a BRT system resembles light rail, the closer it comes to having light rail capital costs" put the unit cost of the Euclid line close to that of recent two track LRT projects ($30 million/mile compared to Portland's ($26 m/mile)and Seattle's (40 mi./mile).
The ridership is put at 22,000 trips/day, about 1/3 that projected for the Purple Line.

Delegate Al Carr said...

Thanks for your comment.

Your first question is the same one posed by Robert. The public deserves an objective assessment of TSP at Connecticut and at Wisconsin. However, MTA seems unable or unwilling to do this in an objective manner. It is unreasonable to use assumptions of 67 and 105 second holding times when cities like LA use 10 second holding for their successful BRT line.

Let's think of the bigger picture.

Traffic conditions at JBR/Conn and at JBR/Wisc are already bad. They will be made worse by a number of projects in the pipeline including NNMC BRAC expansion, induced traffic due to the George W Bush Inter County Connector (increased volumes on both Connecticut and Wisconsin per the ICC DEIS) not to mention planned development at Chevy Chase Lake.

Unfortunately, the transportation planning for each of these projects is occurring in a piecemeal fashion rather than being coordinated.

The cross streets in question are Connecticut Ave and Wisconsin Ave with bus routes of their own that might also benefit from the implementation of TSP.

The failure to honestly assess TSP as part of the purple line aa/deis is a missed opportunity to address the cumulative effects of all of these projects.

The Euclid Ave BRT did remove some of the lane capacity for cars. You could argue that it will make car traffic worse. Another view is that by making transit fast and convenient, folks will be lured out of their cars.

Regarding your second question, the right of way width on Euclid Avenue varies. The section from University Circle eastward is four lanes, just like Jones Bridge Road/Woodmont. There are parts of Euclid Ave along the route that are narrower than certain parts of JBR.

The MTA states that widening would have to occur on JBR in order to accommodate dedicated lanes – scaring residents of communities along JBR. That is because they are applying “green field” standards to their analysis (new road widths that are used for brand new construction in open fields), but should be using “brown field” (i.e., with existing road). Why does MTA apply a different standard on JBR than they are on Wayne Avenue and in other places in Silver Spring. My understanding is that some other options have been identified that do not involve widening.

I am opposed to bridges at JBR/Conn and JBR/Wisc. As I stated above, I fear that cumulative impacts of pending projects and piecemeal planning might lead to drastic, unpopular changes at these intersections regardless of the purple line route/mode. I would like to see a fairer analysis of what could be done with TSP. The Euclid Ave BRT did not involve adding any bridges or grade separations.

Regarding your third question, I have not seen ridership figures for the Euclid Ave. BRT. I would not want to judge ridership until the line has a chance to mature. The traffic signal priority system is not yet fully operational nor is the fare machine/proof of payment system.

silverspringtrails said...

Delegate Carr:

I admit I do not understand the difference between "green field" and "brown field" standards to determine road width with BRT on Jones Bridge Road. But you don't have to be a traffic engineer to know part of Jones Bridge Road must be widened to make room for dedicated BRT lanes.

Jones Bridge Road near Jones Mill Road is now only two traffic lanes plus a center turning lane. Even if you convert the center turning lane to a through traffic lane, you still need to widen the street to create another lane. But the center turn lane becomes a left turn lane at Jones Mill Road, and that left turn lane is important for the Jones Mill Road/Jones Bridge Road intersection to function.

I often cross Jones Mill Road at the Jones Bridge Road intersection during the morning rush hour while walking or biking on the Trail. That intersection is busy with traffic backed up far in all directions. Traffic is normally backed all the way down the hill south on Jones Mill Road. Last Monday a.m. the traffic westbound on Jones Bridge Road was backed up into the intersection, so that northbound Jones Mill Road traffic could not turn onto Jones Bridge Road during its full green light time because it would "block the box". That intersection can only get worse if we introduce BRT, crossing from the Trail to Jones Bridge Road across the intersection, and in addition to introducing this additional traffic movement also give the frequent BRT vehicles signal priority. What will this intersection traffic be like in 2030?

Even if we buy it that BRT is the more practical mode, it does not follow that the Jones Bridge Road route is better than the master plan route on the Georgetown Branch Corridor. The MTA ridership studies show that even after BRAC is taken into account, downtown Bethesda remains the biggest transit market. The Medical Center will have almost as many jobs as downtown Bethesda, but downtown Bethesda also has many residents, and much commercial activity (shops, restaurants) that the Medical Center will never have. The transit alignment on the Georgetown Branch, with an underpass at Jones Mill Road and a bridge at Connecticut Ave., creates a whole new corridor with big transit capacity, instead of just jamming transit onto an existing road corridor where any new transit capacity is competing with existing motor vehicle lane capacity.

As Webb has pointed our, Elrich's "thoughtful new proposal" includes BRT on the Georgetown Branch Trail. The MTA study shows the BRT can go down the Georgetown Branch Trail and then be extended up Woodmont to the Medical Center, to give the fast ride to the primary Bethesda transit market, a one seat ride to the Medical Center, and yet not have and adverse impact on traffic at the crossings of Jones Mill Road, Connecticut Ave., and Wisconsin Ave.

I strongly favor LRT over BRT because I think LRT is much more compatible with the trail, and also works better in a corridor like this where high capacity is needed. I just can't see how we can expect to run dozens of BRT vehicles across Jones Mill Road each hour, across Connecticut Avenue and Wisconsin Avenue at grade, and in the traffic conditions we will see on these roads out well beyond 2030, and have a system that works half as well as a system on its separate route on the Georgetown Branch Trail.

Thomas Hardman said...

With all due respect, this conversation has gotten completely "derailed" as regards the real beneficiaries of Mr Elrich's proposals for Bus Rapid Transit ("BRT").

You people are, predictably and sadly, stuck arguing over the impacts on District 18, close in to the District, and also predictably, you're stuck arguing about Purple Line alternatives. That's not what this discussion is about. Get over yourselves.

Even though the proposed routes that would have the most positive impacts are far outside of his district, Mr Elrich has to be commended for his actions on behalf of the entire county and region.

"Just Up the Pike" concentrates mostly on "east MoCo", and generally on the transit and urban planning issues along US-29. I myself am concerned with all of Council District 4 and Assembly District 19, and that means my interests range all along the route of the desperately-needed ICC and from Derwood to beyond Burtonsville.

What we need here in "upper east MoCo" is lots more east-west transit. We need more east-west routes, period. I would very much like to see BRT running along the ICC and in fact proposed this in my 2006 campaign for Delegate (District 19). I didn't get elected, but it's still a great idea.

The State and County need to work together, very aggressively, to take advantage of President-elect Obama's proposals to massively fund infrastructure spending. First and foremost, they need to go ahead and do the grade-separated intersection ("GSI") at Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road and complete a GSI across the CSX lines preparatory to building the Montrose Parkway West. Further, if there's nothing more pressing, the GSI at Georgia Avenue and Norbeck Road is long overdue; both of the Georgia Avenue intersections are appropriately labeled "failed intersections".

Were those intersections "fixed", BRT north-south along Georgia Avenue on non-dedicated lanes becomes very feasible due to the massive reductions in traffic bottlenecks that are visible at those intersections at almost any daylight/twilight hour.

I don't know how many of you have ever tried to commute across downtown from Rockville to Clarendon in a car; I've been in a position where I had no choice but to do that. I had a lot of time in traffic to look for the problem spots.

Most, if not all, of Connecticut Avenue between the Beltway and East-West Highway needs to be re-done. E-W Hwy needs to be a GSI at least in part, and probably Jones Bridge Road at Connecticut Avenue. Headed downtown, once you get past E-W Hwy, there is almost no traffic impediment other than that intended by the timed signals in the District. Almost all of that backup all of the way back to Kensington in the morning rush is due to people trying to turn left from southbound Connecticut Avenue onto eastbound East-West Highway.

Alternatively, a major GSI at Jones Bridge Road with dedicated linkages to the Beltway could combine with major improvement of Jones Mill Road and the intersection with E-W Hwy to potentially eliminate the left-turn morning-rush bottleneck at Connecticut and E-W Hwy.

Major improvement of Jones Mill Road/Stoneybrook Road along the length of the right-of-way ("ROW") may be long overdue.

People have been complaining about how nothing can ever be done because the money just isn't there. Assuming that Congress will fund Mr Obama's proposed infrastructure-spending economic stimulus plan, the money will be there; you all just need to stop the endless bickering we see here in the County when it's all moot-court because there isn't money to do anything. There will be money, even if it's all borrowed from abroad. Quit kvetching and get constructing. If people don't like it because they're NIMBY, screw 'em. Gotta Have Progress.

We also need major improvements "up-county"; BRT would be a major incentive to improve Bowie Mill Road along its length. Sorry, some houses close in to Olney are going to have to go, but there's simply no excuse for Bowie Mill Road to be anything other than 3 by 3 lanes median separated with pullout lanes and probably eventually a GSI at or near Cashell Road. Well, there's an excuse, but that's called the "Upper Rock Creek Parkway" and that's supposed to be a State Secret so let's not discuss it.

silverspringtrails said...

It is now nearly two years after the Healthline BRT opened, and we have this assessment from the Cleveland Plain Dealer: Healthline buses moving slower than expected. The BRT is not running much faster than the older buses it replaced. It is a clear lesson that BRT must have good signal priority if it is going to be anywhere near "Rapid". Signal priority for BRT on Jones Bridge Road will be a traffic nightmare for those on Wisconsin Ave., Connecticut Ave., and Jones Mill Road.