A City of Change? LRT/BRT or Something Else?

BRT or LRT? London’s Transit Future

In the last LYAC report, we looked at a general outline of transit in London. At the end of that discussion, we had realized that we didn’t really know enough about bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail transit (LRT).  Our next policy discussion focused more directly on the differences between the two, and which we saw as the best option for the city. This report is what came out of that discussion.

Who Should Read This?

  • People who aren’t sure what BRT or LRT are

  • People who can’t picture what one or the other would actually look like in London, or how each system would work

  • People looking for signs of change in London

  • People interested in making transit an election issue

A Note About Our Reports 

LYAC reports are a different kind of report. They are conversational, friendly and honest. These reports don’t try to trick you by using complicated language or pretend to be based on the opinions of experts. They are based on the best information that the Youth Councillors have at the time of each discussion. We hope that the reports make you think, make you act and challenge you to consider things that you haven’t considered before. Share your opinions with us so that we can represent you better!

Our Reaction: BRT or LRT?

We were a bit divided as to our own preferences.  Some councillors preferred a BRT system because it would take less time to develop, and we’d be able to see changes faster.  Others felt that LRT might be more effective in attracting riders, in part because of the ‘cool’ factor.  One interesting note was that in a study of one American city, LRT was more effective in increasing ridership and decreasing the number of cars on the road. Another interesting point that came up in discussion is that London did have electric streetcars from 1895-1940, and buses were introduced in 1923. From 1923-1940, then, London had some kind of combined transit system, which changed over to bus-only.

Something that was important to a number of councillors is the investment needed to make each system work. One councillor noted that she preferred BRT because it was easier for her to see it in London, but you only really get one chance to ask the federal government for millions of dollars, and you might as well go big. Another councillor took a different position: while both systems would require a pretty big investment from the federal government, BRT would require less, which might free up more funding for other programs and services. Other were concerned with a different kind of investment: construction and traffic disruption, and maintenance.  We thought that LRT might be more disruptive to build, but we weren’t sure which would be easier to maintain.

In the end, the general feeling seemed to favor BRT, but while some liked the idea that is was easy to implement and flexible enough to grow with city, others weren’t quite sure it was enough of a change to show people that London is moving forward.

London: A City of Change?

One of the central messages of the London Plan (which started our discussions of transit) is the idea of moving London forward.  One of the questions we asked at this meeting is whether a BRT system does this in a big enough way. Some felt that LRT seems to move the city forward in a bigger way than BRT and noted that bus congestion can be a problem, which might make an LRT system a better long term environmental choice. We also pointed out that building an LRT system might stimulate the economy by creating construction jobs. We thought that people like change: it gives them hope and a reason to stick with the city, but that LRT might take too long to keep that hope going. We also looked at ways (other than in changes to the transit system) that we might see signs of change in the city. These included a lower unemployment rate, construction downtown, and more recreation opportunities and festivals in London.

Focusing only on the BRT/LRT debate, some councillors see BRT as a band-aid solution, one that’s easy, but not necessarily better.  Others repeated their concerns from earlier discussions: that LRT might not be a good long term choice because of changing technology, or that we should be looking at other options, including integrated transit and other types of transit. One councillor suggested electric buses, like trams but on wheels instead of tracks.

If you read our last report, you’ll be familiar with the idea that Google Cars might make LRT obsolete in a matter of years.  We came back to this idea again in this conversation.  The way we see this working is that either the city buys a bunch to use as transit, or private companies would run them for a small fee. No one would have cars, so we wouldn’t need parking spaces or drivers. Inter-city travel could be handled by Greyhound-type droidcars. However, we’re not sure how well Google Cars would actually reduce congestion, and there are some problems with accessing that kind of system. Everyone would need some kind of access to technology, so there could be issues around access. This is still (probably) far enough in the future that it could be ironed out later, but it was a good hypothetical to work through.

All of this comes down to the fact that the City of London needs to make a decision in the near future, and we’d like to have some say in how that decision is made. The London Plan probably won’t be addressed until after the municipal election, and there is a separate Transportation Master Plan that looks at changes to our transit system, but we really feel there is a need for more public education, and something to help people visualize each system in their city. We also need a way to hold city councillors accountable, making sure that they make an informed decision. We talked about a few ways to do this, including information campaigns, public pressure, making the information councillors have available to the public, and creating more detailed job descriptions for councillors. This was an energetic discussion, and something we might return to in more detail at a later meeting.

Making Transit an Election Issue

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about transit, about the different options out there and how to make sure we actually get to see a change.  It’s something that’s important to us, and since there’s an election coming up, we’d like to make transit something candidates have no choice but to talk about.  We came up with a few ideas, and in future meetings we’ll choose a few to put into action. Some of the ideas we came up with are:

  1. Opinion polling and/or candidate surveys

  2. Go to all candidates meetings and ask them their position on BRT vs. LRT. Report online and track the responses

  3. Call meetings, where we as councillors call candidates to ask their positions on changing London’s transit system

  4. Develop a website as resource

  5. Youth Networking event

  6. Make it a media focus: talk radio, letters to the editor.

We’ll report back with the actions we took and how well they worked-stay tuned!

Personal Stories/Quotes

“I prefer BRT because I can see it, whereas I don’t know what LRT would look like in London but […] you only get one change to ask the federal government for millions of dollars, so you might as well go big [and ask for LRT funding].”

One councillor, concerned about bus congestion replacing car congestion, talked about cities in other parts of the world where large buses, meant to reduce the number of cars on the road, just ended up as crowded as before.  This meant that transit wasn’t really an effective option in those cities, and it’s something to consider as we think about the best options for London.

Big Questions

  1. Does a BRT system make the city more competitive in terms of attracting people to the city?

  2. If we put a BRT system in place, would London ‘catch up’ to some of our neighbors? What does this really mean?

  3. Would improving the existing transit system signal enough of a change to persuade people to stay in the city? If not, is there any one thing that would?

  4. How do we hold someone accountable for reading the information provided to them and making an informed decision when they’re accountable to the people?  Should they be fired/removed from office, and under what conditions?

Recorder’s Notes

The discussion this week was interesting because no one seemed to want to be the first to speak. However, once we got down to talking about how to hold councillors accountable and how to make transit an election issue, that all changed.  Everyone was very engaged at that point, and definitely enthusiastic. There was great energy in the room, and I think we’ve got some solid ideas to move forward with.

What We Still Need to Learn

  1. How long would it take to build rails for an LRT system?

  2. Why did the city switch from streetcars to buses, and are those reasons relevant to our discussion now?

  3. Will others support us in making transit an election issue, and how?

Things We Missed the First Time

  • We don’t just want candidates talking about transit, we want them to take a position.

  • When we were talking about Google Cars, we talked about smart phones as an access issue, but that’s too limiting.  There should be, and will be,  lots of different options for access, and it’s way too early to be limiting that to smart phones/apps.

  • In the section on LRT or BRT, we noted the study that focused on LRT as successful in reducing the number of cars on the road and in increasing transit ridership.  We didn’t have a similar study about BRT to compare it to, and it would be useful to have multiple studies so we could make a more informed opinion. As it stands, it seems biased towards LRT, and we want to be clear that we’re not taking that position.