BayRail general meeting
Types of Public Transit
We have many different types of public transit, including buses, paratransit, shuttles, trolleys, light rail, subways and heavy rail, regional rail, and hopefully someday in California, a true high-speed rail service.
When it comes to providing public transit, both the type of transit vehicle and how it is planned to be used, matter. Public transit is not "once size fits all". Every type of transit has a niche and a type of travel need that they serve best. U.S. planners and politicians who fail to recognize this build expensive projects that fail to meet most people's travel needs.
The lack of understanding about appropriate transit type may stem from the car culture prevalent in the U.S., where many people here have little experience with public transit. Hence what's intuitive to others elsewhere isn't intuitive here.
In the U.S., motorists can use the same automobile to drive to a store 3 blocks away, or across town, or to a city 50 or 500 miles away, or even across the country. They can use the same vehicle to do all of these things, without much thought, unless they are carrying vastly different amounts of cargo.
To go longer distances fast, most drivers will use a highway or freeway instead of traveling only on local streets that have stop signs and many traffic lights. Traveling 500 miles or more, most choose to fly rather than drive to save time and to avoid a grueling long road trip.
When it comes to public transit, design of vehicles must match the travel length and need. For destinations within a few miles, you'll probably take a bus, because they can travel on most any public road and can serve a large number of destinations economically. If you have a very high population density and many riders crowding even a frequently-running bus, you might build a light rail or underground metro that stops every 1/4 mile or so. If you're traveling to the next major city ten or more miles away, you'll probably take a regional train that stops every 3-5 miles. And if you're traveling 100 miles or more to where lots of other people also want to go, you'll likely have an opportunity to take a 160-mph+ high-speed train that may make only one or maybe no stops for 100+ miles.
In a number cities around the world, you'll find multiple forms of public transit in the same city. People living in those cities intuitively understand that each mode has its place, and that it would be silly to try to make certain modes and vehicles serve a transportation need that they're not designed to do.
One can't take a local bus and make it go 125 or 180 miles per hour. Even if that were possible, it would be a hazard and defeat the transportation role of the bus. The bus is there to serve local destinations in a way that is more flexible and financially-efficient than rail, given the number of riders that use the service. Even within buses, there are a wide variety of designs in use depending on whether it's for stop-and-go local service or for commuters who are going to be riding an express service for twenty miles. In the case of the latter, cushier seats and a single-door design are often used. When local buses are attracting riders to capacity even while running every 5 minutes along a route, it becomes cost-efficient to turn it into a light rail line to reduce operating costs.
Subways are extremely expensive to build and maintain, and that's why they're usually only built where population density is high and where they'd be packed standing room with riders during rush hour. Even then, subways are a money-losing enterprise -- but they make it possible to move large numbers of people quickly in the congested center of town.
Subway vehicles are generally designed to accommodate lots of standing-room only riders ("strap-hangers") who are traveling only a few miles. These vehicles are uncomfortable for trips of more than 10 miles. The average subway trip length is about 3 miles. These vehicles make all stops and are usually unable to provide express or "limited stop" service.
Longer distance "suburban", "commuter" or "regional" train vehicles are designed to be more comfortable for people who are going to be sitting for at least 30 minutes. They have cushioned seats, and bathrooms on-board the train. The nicest trains have tables and electrical outlets that one can use to plug in laptops and other devices. Long-distance trains that cater to riders traveling more than 60 miles will even have a dining car that serves food. These trains do not stop as frequently as a light rail or subway would. They often provide express and limited stop service as well as local service. In the U.S., we have for example the rail systems run by New Jersey Transit, Long Island Railroad, SEPTA in the Philadelphia area, and Chicago Metra. Locally we have Caltrain, the Altamont Commuter Express, and Amtrak.
Light rail serves a similar transportation need as a local bus, which is why it generally isn't a speedy choice for distances of longer than 6 miles. For example, a commuter from south San Jose who lives near the Capitol light rail stop who works in north Sunnyvale could either take light rail or else Caltrain, a regional rail service. The trip via light rail takes about 90 minutes. The trip via Caltrain takes about half that, or about 35 - 45 minutes (depending on whether it is a local or an express train), plus a ten-minute shuttle trip on the end. Caltrain provides a type of express, limited stop transit service that is more likely to entice a longer-distance commuter out of her car.
In some parts of the country, light rail has been designed with long distances between stops and functions more like a regional rail service. However, light rail vehicles are designed to operate at lower speeds and have less comfortable seating than regional rail vehicles. Light rail generally has a maximum speed of 45 - 65 mph and an average operating speed (including stops) of about 15 mph. Regional rail has a maximum speed of 79 mph - 125 mph (depending on signaling in place) and Caltrain's average operating speed is over 30 mph.
Adding to the confusion, sometimes vehicles are made to perform in a more hybrid fashion, more like a traditional subway or streetcar in city centers, and like a regional rail in the suburbs. For example, in the Bay Area, BART functions like a subway in the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, and the corridor to Berkeley but acts more like a regional transit purpose in suburban cities outside of this core area. While, BART has upholstered seats and more seating than subway vehicles generally provide, it has no bathrooms and is an all-stops system, just like a subway.
Because BART has a hybrid purpose, it doesn't do either job as well as it otherwise might. It has longer dwell times than most subway systems and doesn't provide the speed, comfort, or amenities that most long-distance commuters desire. It is also really expensive to build, maintain, and run compared to other regional rail systems.