Jacksonville BRT - Like 3 Card Monte - Only Cheaper!

Metro Jacksonville's Robert Mann explains what BRT is and highlights why Jacksonville's proposed system will not deliver what advocates are promising to the community.

Published March 12, 2014 in Transportation - MetroJacksonville.com

Jacksonville BRT: Like 3 Card Monte, Only Cheaper!

Contrary to local statements about rail transit not being a good fit for Jacksonville, there is no "one size fits all" for any city. Here, the Los Angeles RTD demonstrates that mix, each doing what it does best where it makes the most sense is the only way to success. Today, the city built by the 'Freeway' is a mass transit mecca.  (RTD Photo)

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can be great. However, what's being planned for Jacksonville may not be. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is promising big winnings on a small bet, for a fraction of the cost of rail. Real BRT promises to reshape the city, on on that note I'd agree, only this isn't real BRT; in fact, by internationally agreed upon standards, this isn't even basic BRT.

According to Wikipedia, "Three-card Monte is a confidence game in which the victim, or mark, is tricked into betting a sum of money, on the assumption that they can find the money card among three face-down playing cards. It is the same as the shell game except that cards are used instead of "shells."

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Jacksonville may equate to promising them something for nothing and when you can’t deliver anything, mass transit failure will becomes part of the culture. To understand just how good BRT can be and just how bad the current JTA Southeast Corridor plan is, we must understand enough about BRT to make an intelligent critique. The media needs to stop parroting whatever comes out of JTA's offices on Myrtle Avenue and do some investigation lest mediocrity become a plague.

In any large metropolitan area, buses fan out on a myriad of routes into diverse places. As those buses leave or approach the central city there are less and less choices of unique roadways and thus several routes use the same few boulevards to enter and exit the core. In Jacksonville for example, one might travel north and south on San Pablo, Hodges, Kernan, St. Johns Bluff, Monument, Southside, Philips, Old St. Augustine, San Jose-Hendricks, Riverside-Ortega, Roosevelt, Blanding-Park…etc. However, those that actually get you into downtown are limited to just three of those roadways. So, a simple bus service running on each of these streets with a origination or destination point in downtown, is at some point going to share one of those three crowded collector-distributer roads into the central business district.

Consolidation of routes entering or exiting a business core is where true BRT of quality design and construction can shine. Doing it right lowers the odds of failure, but stacking the deck will lead to a host of disappointed and angry citizens. To date, JTA has been playing a game of Three-Card Monte and we the people are the shrills.

A Jacksonville resident standing on a corner near University Boulevard and the Arlington Expressway, is not restricted to an "Arlington Expressway – Downtown" bus route to reach their downtown job. Theoretically speaking, this person could use a "San Pablo Road – Downtown" bus or a "St. Johns Bluff – Downtown" bus or a "Kernan Road- Downtown" bus, for at this point in their circuitous journeys, they may all be going in or out of downtown via the Arlington Expressway.

Such varied use of a single expressway for a multiplicity of bus routes is an opportunity to make each of these buses more efficient, safer, faster, more frequent, comfortable, and exclusive. Mass transit efficiencies also open up a broad doorway to invigorated economic development.

For the sake of this exercise, let us suppose that we have studied all of the bus routes feeding into and out of the city from the Southside. Going beyond the easiest, cheapest or free money opportunity, we have selected the Arlington Expressway as among the densest, broadest, developmentally desirable and iconic Jacksonville, bus routes available.  

Running the full-length from downtown’s Rosa Parks transit center to Regency Square Mall, we seal off two lanes exclusively for the use of our buses. If we are going to commit to rapid transit then true rapid transit it should be.  Nowhere from State and Union Streets to the eastern end of the line should the buses be competing with automobiles for limited lane space. To do so lowers the efficiency value of a multi-million dollar transit system.  

All of the Wi-Fi, real-time information, off board fare collection and branding in the world, couldn’t make a successful transit route when the bus is stuck in traffic behind a 1985 Yugo.

Equally disastrous would be a plan that called for an elevated bus freeway above, or a bus subway below the Arlington Expressway. While running in mixed traffic should be a deal killer in any attempt to create functional BRT, over planning and overbuilding are equally fatal. Structural components for elevated highways could quickly escalate the costs above that of New York or Miami styled elevated rail.

Along the Arlington Expressway, some vision, patience and perseverance could easily turn an aging, overcrowded corridor into an attractive jewel. Such a highway is also an opportunity for an internationally ranked bronze, silver or gold standard BRT line. This and only this type of BRT will produce the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) boom promised by the BRT industry, anything short of this is just another bus.

The BRT Standard
Despite the increasing prevalence, prominence, and success of BRT, many people remain unaware of the characteristics of the best BRT corridors and their ability to provide levels of service more typically associated with metro and subway systems. This lack of awareness frequently results in desire for rail when BRT is a comparable, more cost-effective, and equally elegant solution. The lack of awareness stems partly from the lack of a common definition for BRT. Without a definition, oftentimes, modest improvements to standard bus service are inaccurately labeled as BRT.

This illustration demonstrates where and why BRT can be very effective.  (BRT Standard Photo)

This arrangement doesn't even meet the most basic BRT standard, unfortunately this is what the Philips Corridor will look like. (The BRT Standard Photo)

Welcome to the Mass Transit Third World

Just how competitive is Jacksonville in mass transit? The larger question is just how competitive is the United States of America? It is easy to calculate our position and the anticipated effects of various BRT systems using an international BRT score system called "The BRT Standard 2013." Designed by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

The BRT Standard 2013 which improves upon the 2012 pilot BRT Standard Version 1.0, by better balancing the design needs of BRTs across different cities, countries, and continents. In just two years, it has become a well-recognized tool used by more and more cities, quickly becoming a key piece of the global urban renaissance.  

In the year 2013, for example the United States had four bronze level BRT systems:  the Los Angeles Orange Line, Eugene, Oregon’s EMX, Las Vegas' SDX and Pittsburgh's Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway. One system, Cleveland's Health Line, ranked at the silver level internationally, while there were no gold level systems. As a consolation prize of sorts, the USA does have two more BRT lines ranked internationally as "Basic". These are the West Busway and South Busway in Pittsburgh. The truth is, all of the graphics, think tank reports and testimonials about how BRT in Jacksonville will produce rail like results, spurring new economic development for the mere cost of a few buses and magic pavement markers is disingenuous.  

CASE STUDY: The Orange Line, Los Angeles, CA - Bronze Level BRT

Los Angeles Orange Line (Wiki Photo)

The Los Angeles Orange Line BRT has certainly achieved impressive ridership results. The Orange Line feeds to and from +100 miles of fixed rail transit. There is also this little publicized fact. The communities it serves demanded BRT over rail, because extensive studies disclosed that BRT would not spur economic development at the pace that rail would, even at the Bronze Level. The residents of the San Fernando Valley are quite content with their neighborhood and had no desires to see it more densely populated or trafficked.  

Los Angeles Orange Line (EMBARQ BRAZIL PHOTO – The WRI Center for Sustainable Transport)

Wherever the BRT game goes, you are guaranteed to hear about the amazing ridership on the Orange Line. However, talk about Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and that conversation will switch to Cleveland. When they talk about costs, the Orange Line came in at $27.4 million per mile and a newer extension will run $45 million per mile. By comparison Cleveland’s Health Line cost $29 million per mile to construct.

CASE STUDY: The Health Line, Cleveland, OH – Silver Level BRT

Cleveland Health Line (Wiki Photo)

Cleveland, OH represents the country's only Silver Level BRT system. Billed at an average cost of $29 million per mile, Cleveland’s Health Line feeds into and out of the city’s rail system at both ends, as well as one station near the middle (University Circle). The Achilles’ heel in both the California and the Ohio BRT winners are that they have significant street-level automobile competition for lane space. The difference is Cleveland took advantage of a complete corridor makeover by completely rebuilding Euclid Avenue.  While intersections still exist, significant investment in infrastructure, stations, amenities and a holistic urban plan has made the Cleveland system the unquestioned BRT champion in the country. Cleveland’s Health Line more closely represents what could be done if JTA, Florida Department of Transportation, City of Jacksonville and the Federal Highway administration, along with private input from developers, such as the new owners of the Regency Square Mall, got on the same page at the same time. This is a project that we as a city could get behind. While it may be a little disingenuous to claim that schools, hospitals, state and local government offices expanded because of the Health Line, it certainly played into the holistic planning that took place prior to and during the Health Line's construction.

Cleveland Health Line (Wiki Photo)

Rail as an Alternative?

All traces of Rail seem to have magically vanished from JTA'S maps. (MJ Photo)

It is important that we understand by comparison, Portland, OR has built three light rail lines at an average cost of $35 million per mile.  Charlotte, NC built light rail for $47 million per mile and Norfolk, VA's recently completed  light rail system averaged $45 million per mile, while Little Rock’s new streetcar system cost only around $17.5 million per mile. The difference here is that each of these rail systems have proved themselves to be amazing economic engines with a return on investment as high as five to one. Yet this argument is not over which mode is superior, this comes down to how do you want your neighborhood to look and how well do you want your transit to function. Indeed Philips Highway is the low hanging fruit, right at the top of the selection list under the word "cheap."  It's the kind of corridor light-rail would transform, a place where Club Climax and the hourly Mount Vernon Motor Lodge thrive. This is a transformation that cannot, indeed will not, happen short of an internationally rated BRT system and enormous development credits.  

The people of the San Fernando Valley in California didn’t want their neighborhood to see $10 billion in new mixed-use development that the people of Portland are enjoying from their rail system. California also had a conflict with a large Orthodox Jewish population which can't use electricity from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday.  The Valley wanted better mass transit and they got it. The people of Cleveland combined many things to produce $5 billion in new mixed use development along the Health Line. JTA needs to stop telling the media that this is a sure bet, a better fit for Jacksonville, and then drawing jokers.

Little Rock opted for traditional looking albeit modern streetcars and has created an economic tsunami. (MJ Photo)

CASE STUDY: Jeffrey Corridor BRT, Chicago, IL - Proposed BRT Corridor

Chicago is planing to remake the Jeffery area with BRT, a simple basic BRT that will score much higher and produce results we'll never see. (CTA Image)

Forrest Claypool, President of Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) acknowledges that the upcoming Jeffery service, “I don’t even like to call it BRT,” he says. “It is a first stage, faster, and hopefully more convenient service for riders.” That service will incorporate some elements of BRT, Claypool says, mentioning jump queues at lights that allow buses to get a head start on cars, dedicated bus lanes, fewer stops and elaborated street furniture and shelters. Why won’t JTA just say so? Why the deceit?

What the Jeffrey project won’t include is raised platforms for level boarding, pre-paid fares, and multiple entry doors, all of which help eliminate the dreadful wait as passengers shuffle through the front door of a typical bus.

“Constructing the bus-only lanes, stations and a landscaped median over the initial six miles plus purchasing specialized buses are estimated to cost $116 million, said Kevin O'Malley, CTA general manager of strategic planning and policy.” Chicago Tribune.

The big barrier is the expense of the $20 million per mile project. “You could spend a fortune on the gold standard of BRT like they have in Bogotá (Colombia), but if you could deliver 90 percent of the benefits of that type of service at a fraction of the cost, wouldn’t you do it? Wouldn’t you do it at more locations because you’ve stretched the dollars?” said Claypool.
In the case of Cleveland, new development was desired and better BRT bus transit was used as the tool to achieve their goal. In Los Angeles, development was the last thing the neighborhood wanted and in Chicago, they are seeking a balance of better transit and development, all achievable with properly designed BRT.

Flip the argument and the very best argument for rail is its ability to provide massive rush hour capacity without serious damage to the environment it passes through. Streetcar and Light-Rail can pass along grassy medians, or exclusive right-of-ways and remain innocuous alongside landscaped pedestrian trails. BRT forces usually counter with something to the effect that 'their mode of choice' can carry just as many riders, but they stop short of saying only if the buses run on three to ten second headways, enough to destroy any environment in any city.  

Frankly BRT is what all arterial city bus transit should look like, signal priority, top notch - low floor buses, comfortable 'CLIMATE CONTROLLED' stations with amenities such as water fountains and WIFI. It's easy to get caught up in the argument over which mode is best, but we are not Bogota, Rio, or Lima. We are not even a "small town" like Los Angeles, Chicago or Houston, but the improvements promised by BRT is the right direction.

(CTA Images BRT Renderings Chicago)

(CTA Images BRT Renderings Chicago)

(CTA Images BRT Renderings Chicago)

First Place: Form vs. Uniform: Generative Chicago BRT Stations by Hesam T. Rostami and Bahareh Atash (Toronto, ON)
Winners of the 2013 Burnham Prize Competition: NEXT STOP-Designing Chicago BRT Stations

Second Place: Enthalpy by Goi Artetxe and Elise Katherine Renwick (Chicago, IL)
Winners of the 2013 Burnham Prize Competition: NEXT STOP-Designing Chicago BRT Stations

Third Place: BTA by Conor O'Shea and Aneesha Dharwadker (Boston, MA)
Winners of the 2013 Burnham Prize Competition: NEXT STOP-Designing Chicago BRT Stations

Honorable Mention: Torqued Spine / HDR Engineering, Inc. (USA)
Winners of the 2013 Burnham Prize Competition: NEXT STOP-Designing Chicago BRT Stations


Rail is a qualitative improvement. Even assuming it cost twice as much to implement, it is usually an easier political sell. BRT on the other hand is quantitative as it promises more and better buses, something car drivers have already made a decision to avoid. It's hard to sell bus transit to the citizenry because it carries a stigma, seemingly calling out to "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses."

Why do the Jacksonville's of North America resist the urge to go for the gold standard and build real BRT? Maybe it really is Bogota, Rio and Lima; we don't want your tired, your poor, your huddled masses on our streets. But then most Americans have not experienced the magic of TransMilenio. We get a sense that BRT is inferior, or that "rail is not a good fit," rather then focusing on the benefits and strengths of each mode and planning for both. We could even toss a Skyway or water taxi into the mix. We get the argument that BRT is cheap, but is that because we are being cheap and allowing JTA and FDOT to be the same? Our version of 'BRT' simply isn't, yet we are being very vocal about BRT being a TOD magnet. In reality BRT is TOD friendly transit while rail is often called “development-oriented transit.” Promising huge winnings and TOD projects on such a small effort is like 3-Card Monte, we are going to lose.

"Bus Rapid Transit Jacksonville, promise them something for nothing and when you can’t deliver anything, mass transit failure will becomes part of the culture."(Google Earth)

Curitiba Brazil easily illustrates the question, could real BRT change the face of our city? Is a Roll's Royce more attractive then a Yugo?

...and the City of One Spark comes up with this and expects change?

So what about Jacksonville? Is it really BRT? Is this the best fit? How much development will we get? How much better will transit be? What about JTA’s claim that this will be "Just like rail – only cheaper?" How much cheaper and how can we know? And when BRT fails to be a huge development engine, how much more BRT can we expect from our council and mayor? I'm wagering about as much as riding the Skyway to Atlantic, the Stadium, Farmers Market or UF Hospital.

Article by Robert Mann

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2014-mar-jacksonville-brt-like-3-card-monte-only-cheaper

Metro Jacksonville

Copyright MetroJacksonville.com