University of Washington Professor Scott Rutherford's Candid Lecture on Transit

A streaming media archive of seminars on transportation held at Portland State University includes one from January 10, 2003 featuring Professor Scott Rutherford of the University of Washington discussing bus rapid transit.

The hour and a half streaming media file can be found by going to .Scroll down until you see ARCHIVES: Winter 2003 Transportation Seminars. Select the January 10th, "Bus Rapid Transit: The New Mode of the Month"
At minute 14:30 to about 15:00, Scott Rutherford comments on Curitiba's system. He says "my whole career has been spent trying to develop some things like this." When touring the system, he asked Curitiba's mayor, "how were you able to do that?" and got the (presumably tongue-in-cheek) response: "First, we killed all the traffic engineers."
minute 45:00 re: detractors' criticism that BRT "doesn't have the capacity (of rail)", Rutherford states "Sure, BRT doesn't have the theoretical capacity of rail, but no one really uses that capacity."
minute 47:50 thru 50:00 he talks about the absence of evidence that there's any "inherent attractiveness of rail over buses" He cites Daniel McFadden's careful work to test that hypothesis, work that found no evidence to support it. (Rutherford reports that McFadden's got a Nobel Prize [in Economics] while none of those claiming "rail attractiveness" have one) "What you find is that people are comparing some lousy city bus going six miles an hour --for an hour you're on it-- with BART. Of course they're gonna have a rail-bias then."
minute 57:00 reflecting back on his career, particularly when he did consulting back East, in the 15 major cities they approached to conduct major transportation studies, "I can't think of ANY place that I went where the client didn't already KNOW what they wanted before they started the study. I thought we were going to get there in Seattle a few years ago when doing an alternatives analysis for what we were going to do. Because [when] they started out, they were going to hire separate consultants for the bus alternative and for the rail alternative and let them sort of fight it out in the arena of choice. And I don't know - I forget what happened, but it just fizzled. As soon as the more powerful policymakers decided that rail was it, it was it. So, eh, what can you say? It's sort of disappointing. We'd like to say, you know, that we, as engineers and planners, can go in there and do this totally objective thing and they're going to take our advice, [but] it doesn't happen very often. It doesn't happen very often. But you can make contributions, you certainly can make contributions. I don't want to be too cynical about it. But I saw a lot of bad rail systems go in. And I haven't seen any bad bus systems - but there haven't been very many of those go in yet. One thing about a bus system is that if it goes bad, its pretty hard to hide, you take the buses someplace else.  A bad rail system is a little more difficult. Every time the Miami rapid rail system [comes up], where the official forecast was 202,000 people a day - that was their official forecast on which they based in their application to the federal government for a billion dollars - it got about 36,000. Kind of a disappointment."
minute 59:00 in response to a question whether there is any bias in favor of BRT over light rail (or vice versa) in the federal government, he says "No, I don't think so. The bias is not in the federal government, it's in Congress. I mean, that's where these projects get picked, in the earmarks in the bill is the way most of these projects get done." And commenting at some length on the political forces, combined with the competitive pressures for federal $, that drove cities to shave cost estimates and "goose" their ridership forecasts in their grant applications (like his experience with Miami), he says "if you didn't cheat, you got nothing; if you cheated, you might get a billion dollars."
minute 1:03:00 responding to a question re: what lead to the Miami project (where only 36,000 of a forecasted 202,000 daily riders were realized). "was low ridership was a problem of poor promotion or a density issue?"

"(Where's all this going?) The rules were then that you had to get a certain cost-effectiveness to be able to get funded or at least to get recommended for funding by the then Urban Mass Transportation Administration. So if you weren't doing your trips for $6 a trip, then you couldn't get funded. So the 'game' was, you know, if you could keep your cost estimate down and your rider forecast up, they were looking at this cost-effectiveness number, cost per new rider -- and those costs can get waaay out of of line. And so the federal government is saying 'well we don't want to invest in something that has, you know, $30 per new rider', and so what people did was sort of lowballed their cost estimates and goosed their forecasts so that that number comes down to sort of under $10. I always thought that when I was out there, watching this that, you know, 'someone's gonna go to jail, these people are robbing the federal government of a billion dollars'. You know, they're defrauding the federal government basically --I mean what else could you say?-- they're cheating. But the thing was that if you didn't cheat, you got nothing. If you cheated, you might get a billion dollars. So what do you think people do? I mean, duh!" (laughter)

"Look how it worked in Detroit. I mean, you try to tell Coleman Young that he didn't have enough ridership on his line. Right -- he wanted his billion dollars. And he got it -- he got it before the study was done, right in the middle of the study, "Oh! here's your billion dollars." Because Jerry Ford needed it for his campaign brochure or something like that. They never did get it, though. He had it given to him, but he didn't actually get it in the end."
minute 1:06:00 1:05:30 In response to the question: "It sounds like bus rapid transit and light rail transit will serve the same general purposes, but bus rapid transit is less expensive in most cases than light rail. I wonder if you could talk about if that's the case or not and if there's any situation where you would recommend light rail transit over bus rapid transit?"

"Yeah, uh, I was really disappointed in Seattle when they didn't build the first leg from downtown to the university, not just because I work at the university. But I mean that leg has HUGE demand, I mean, just HUGE demand. And even to take it to Northgate, say. So they said, "we're going to go south to show people we can do it." Well, I mean if you can't do it north, then you shouldn't do it at all. That's the way I felt about it.

"I feel that if you can get support for either one of these modes - get it implemented - go for it. I mean the differences are pretty small anyway. I think that Portland has done a great job with implementing a whole lot of great service. You know, the first line, I'll bet, if you did an honest analysis of it, probably people wouldn't have done it. If there was some sort of objective person in a cloud that said "oh, no, we're not going to do that" - and that may have been a big mistake, the way it turned out. So, yeah, do the study at each location and see where you can get the support. In the Seattle area, where bus rapid transit might work really well is going south because the corridor is so huge. So you can sort of spread out. And even going east, as well. In fact, there's not very many places where rail would work in Seattle, I don't think. Although if we had built rail in 1970 like they planned - they voted on it twice in '68 and '70, and it got turned down, they needed 60% which is really hard to get for anything, but it got turned down both times - it would have been a BART-like system and it would have been done a long time ago. It would have changed the whole city and the way it developed. And also, the federal government was going to pay for two-thirds of it. And we turned it down - and who got the money? Atlanta. That's OUR money. We had the equivalent of Mark Hatfield when we were doing this study. It was ours, it was ours, he was chairman of the Senate Transportation Finance Committee. We said, "no we don't want your billion dollars - give it to Atlanta and we'll just wallow in our congestion forever." It's hopeless up there. At least there's hope here.".
minute 1:14:30 Responding to a query whether proponents of BRT might have more political power than proponents of light rail, (on the supposition that they're part of the automotive industry.)

"No. Sixty years ago that was true when they demolished all of the trolley lines in the country and General Motors and Firestone and Standard Oil got convicted of a anti-trust violation and paid a fine of something like about fifty dollars. It was terrible -- they've never recovered, at least General Motors hasn't. And I don't think so. The bus manufacturers are more dispersed today and that couldn't overcome the sort of desire for rail that exists among all the politicians. Its hard, real hard to get over that 'Are we going to be a world-class city and have a professional team and and a light rail system -- or not?' That's stuff that you'd have a real hard time putting in your analysis."
1:20:30 Responding to a question re: how well would a BRT system work in conjunction with HOV lanes, like up in Seattle.

"Yeah, yeah, that's certainly much better than being in a general purpose lane. I think that would be a good application. And also because in a lot of cases, you can give the buses the center - they're building a center access to those HOV lanes now. It's really expensive, but if you're going to have HOV bus access, you've got to pay it, $50-$60 million per intersection.

Follow-up question: And do the buses get on and off the freeway to service the stations?

"Yeah, the alternative is to drop everybody in the middle of the freeway and make them walk to their cars - or drive off the freeway and delay the bus. So, there's a lot of tension between the service people and the bus operators. You know, sometimes those freeway areas are not very hospitable places - especially when it's raining."