The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) concept developed by NJ Transit (NJT) over the past few years is to build a dedicated bus-only right of way (ROW) that is essentially parallel to the Northeast Corridor rail line that passes through places of anticipated demand such as office parks, major shopping malls and high-density residential developments. Part of the plan is also to have a BRT line into Princeton constructed along the existing Dinky right of way. At its end, it will leave the dedicated ROW and travel up University Place to Nassau Street and then to the Princeton Shopping Center and on to Montgomery Township. There is also talk of connecting in some manner to Hopewell.
The logic behind this concept is that buses can transport large masses of riders at a lower cost per mile and that they require lower cost infrastructure than other modes. The plan is that the buses will run every 10 minutes. Local officials have also suggested a BRT terminal at the present location of the French Market at Nassau Street and University Place (next to the old Town Topics building). According to the GMTMA newsletter the proposed vehicles are 60-foot-long articulated buses.
Local officials are seeking resolutions approving the BRT plan from both Princeton Borough Council and Princeton Township Committee. Why, you ask? One big reason is that NJT asked for the resolutions to help obtain that great elixir for all of our woes: federal funding. This request comes courtesy of the keepers of the nearly bankrupt state Transportation Trust Fund. This endorsement could rank as one of the worst decisions ever made by the Princetons.
The press reports that this was touted as a solution to the Dinky station location stalemate elicited by the university's Arts Campus proposal. Well, who caused the stalemate? It was certainly not the university; it was those who insisted on not moving the Dinky station an inch. This intransigence cost the university a lot of money. And now the same people want to eliminate the Dinky and replace it with BRT and claim it will have improved reliability! The press also reports claims that the BRT will be an elegant and cost-effective solution to our congestion problems. No doubt it will create jobs and fix the economy as well.
Several of these officials had various meetings with university people when they learned that the NJT plan would require tearing up the Dinky tracks and moving them over to build the BRT ROW. On first blush it does seem logical to just scrap the Dinky and not waste the money building new tracks. Of course, all that assumes that BRT will work. Let's look at the tradeoffs. The university wants its Arts District approved and would welcome better access to its lands to the south. The politicians want to eliminate the Dinky and bring BRT throughout the town. It has been suggested that the university's Tiger Transit buses could use parts of the dedicated BRT ROW with its other features. The Princeton Packet reported members of the public implying that there had been a back-room deal; in my experience that is not the university's modus operandi. In a quick call to university vice president Bob Durkee I verified that he had seen the presentation earlier and had found it interesting but that the university was not asked to take any position or agree to anything and it did not.
Setting the politics aside, let's examine this in detail. When the BRT was first presented to the Master Plan Update Committee about three years ago Sheldon Sturges of the nonprofit Princeton Future said: "I predict that this will be successful in direct proportion to the amount of dedicated right of way."
And that hits the nail right on the head. As soon as the BRT leaves its dedicated ROW it becomes BT. It all comes down to right of way. The public roads in Princeton are not wide enough and not topologically correct to handle the traffic that we have now. Adding yet another bus every 10 minutes will make the situation significantly worse. In earlier forums, the elimination of all parking on Alexander Street and on the south side of Nassau Street clear down past Hoagie Haven in order to create a longer dedicated BRT ROW was discussed along with the comment that "we don't think that will be necessary."
This came up because if the BRT is built and it doesn't work then the amount of dedicated ROW will have to be increased. Will the merchants tolerate the loss of that much street parking because they feel that in the future the bulk of their customers will either ride in on the BRT or walk in from the multi million dollar condos and that no one will drive into town and park? Will the students mind not being able to move in and out of their dorm rooms and access them easily from the streets?
One of the features touted for the BRT is traffic light preemption. The idea is that each bus will have a transponder that will cause the light ahead to change in their favor. The real question is, what moves out the traffic ahead of the bus -- a bulldozer? One of the carrots offered to the university was that its buses could use the light preemption too. Each entity envisions its buses just flying through town, oblivious to all of the other traffic.
If you talk to a licensed traffic engineer they will tell you that light preemption gives an advantage only if the vehicle with the preemption is trying to cross a much more heavily traveled artery, not merge with it. Also, there are statutory requirements on how quickly a light can change from green to yellow to red. Presently the traffic lights in town are all synchronized on something like a 90-second cycle. This allows each one to be optimized based on the traffic demands of each intersection. If one just stood on University Place and activated a preemption transponder approximately every 10 minutes traffic flow in town would be hugely disrupted, and that is without even trying to run a bus through. So implementing the light preemption feature would preclude us from ever optimizing traffic in town again. This is certainly not solving the congestion problem.
Then there is the bus issue. The BRT buses have been described as sleek-looking and built lower to the ground than the NJT buses that we are used to. They vehicles proposed are 60 feet long and articulated; that's the length of a tractor trailer. If it looks like a bus, sounds like a bus, smells like a bus, and runs like a bus (on a schedule with multiple stops) then, it's a bus! Will people ride it? Americans are an instant gratification society. We want it now and we don't want to wait.
Will the BRT buses be cost effective? This will be only be true if they are full most of the time. That will never happen; they will only be full twice a day. Look around town at the university's Tiger Transit buses and the Free B. The other day I was going out Washington Road toward Route 1 at 3 in the afternoon, and there were three of those buses back to back. They comprised the entire traffic load for one full block and had a grand total of two riders. I don't view this as a particularly sustainable, elegant, or cost-effective solution.
Even if the BRT buses eventually achieve a decent level of ridership do you think for one second that the state won't raise the fares to generate revenue? The state is in the process of raising public transit fares 25 percent at this writing.
One of NJT's selling points for BRT is that it will enable it to give service to Hopewell and Montgomery. Do you think that masses of residents of these towns would even consider riding a bus? If you research the local history you will find that Princeton's traffic problems can be traced to the actions of Montgomery Township and Hopewell in the past -- namely they blocked I-92 and the Princeton Bypass. I, for one, am not willing to turn downtown Princeton into a beehive of buses and sacrifice my town for the sake of those towns who probably won't even use them much.
One must also realize, if the BRT is built and it causes more problems than it is worth, that we will be unable to get rid it in our lifetime and probably our children's lifetimes as well. The argument then will be that we have to consider not just Princeton but those but those other towns as well. We'll end up with just another government authority outside of our control; building BRT will be pretty much an irreversible action and will prevent us from actually implementing a system that functions.
About five years ago NJT began predicting that traffic in the Princetons would increase 55 percent by 2020. This means the town will be utterly paralyzed twice a day; the economic cost of that will be huge. It is important to realize that today we have a temporary reprieve because of our economic collapse. But, when the economy recovers, traffic and congestion will be even worse than before.
I applaud these politicians in having the courage to actually admit that the Dinky is obsolete even though the fact has been obvious for years. However, to replace it with another scheme that will be obsolete and unworkable before it is built just seems crazy. Then we can spend another 100 years trying to get rid of it.
A much longer-term view of the problem is warranted. Is it prudent to build a BRT where the vehicles run on carbon based fuel given future availability of oil? Their other fuel option, bio-diesel, has a much bigger environmental cost than most people realize. The proposed buses are touted as hybrid electric (like a giant Prius) and low carbon. A more accurate statement would be lower carbon. The fact is they are giant vehicles that run on a schedule versus on demand, and they make many stops. By these facts alone these vehicles are an enormous waste of energy. We need to move to much smaller vehicles that operate on demand, stop only at origin and destination, and are totally electrically powered; at least that will give us options in the future to utilize solar, wind and nuclear sources.
I will concede that BRT might be a good solution for high-volume routes such as proposed along the Northeast corridor line, but for in-town routes such as Princeton they will be a disaster. Imagine a tractor trailer-sized double bus trying to get in and out of the French Market. Arch Davis, who served many years on the Borough traffic and transportation committee, pointed out that the main line BRT does not connect with the significant commuter path that extends well into Bucks County and that alone would make it ineffective. Further, riders do not want to multiply transfers between buses.
The technical facts are that BRT is not a sustainable, cost-effective or elegant solution for our future transportation needs and it is unworkable in our town. I've seen no data on the reliability or performance claims either. Further, I've seen no analysis of alternative schemes. No due diligence has been undertaken. The obvious fact is that BRT is a tool way too large for our "last mile" transportation needs. The political fact is that Princeton is not a very progressive town. I believe that we need to take charge of our future now.
It is possible to get a ROW for a local transportation system without losing a single parking space or running yet another vehicle on the roads. It is possible to have a sustainable, cost-effective, on-demand system that serves our needs. This is achieved by using much smaller and more nimble, electrically operated vehicles and allowing the ROW to become three-dimensional instead of two-dimensional. This scheme is known as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), and the first system will be operational in several months at Heathrow Airport in the UK. Other installations are in advanced planning stages worldwide. Development of the concept is lagging in the U.S. and ironically the concept originated here. NJT and NJ DOT funded a study in 2007 that concluded that PRT was a very viable option for New Jersey and that we should move forward; subsequently the agencies buried the report.
Typical PRT vehicles (sometimes called pods) under development are golf cart-sized, motorized enclosures that typically hold up to four people and bicycles or luggage. There are a number of different schemes, all of which utilize some sort of guideway. Typically the vehicles get their power in some fashion from the guideway. Guideways can be miniature rails, monorails, or paved surfaces with buried wires for tracking. Generally the vehicles run on rubber tires. Some have sliding power connections below the surface that the wheels ride upon or alongside the guideway. Solar versions would not be feasible here; inductive versions are probably too complicated for now.
The point is that these are small; two could pass in the width of a typical driveway. The ratio of vehicle to passenger weight is much lower than that for buses, cars, trains etc. They also can change elevation quickly; this allows a three-dimensional ROW to be carved out where nothing else would fit. PRT vehicles do not stop at every station along the way; they only stop at the selected destination(s). This means that stations are miniature sidings along the route. It also means that routes can be interconnected in multiple ways to allow loops.
There is no waiting time as PRT does not run on a schedule; riders just enter the next available vehicle, select their destination and go. The overall PRT system is controlled by an intelligent computer system. Thus the passenger traffic is monitored continuously and empty vehicles are routed where they are needed based on historic and actual demand. PRT vehicles do not run empty unless the central computer is redistributing them (or perhaps ordering them to pick up a snowplow and clear the guideway as the snow is falling or to report for maintenance). All of these features combine to provide what will be the most efficient and sustainable public transit option.
Today it possible to create a ROW in Princeton that is totally independent of existing roads with their limitations, congestion, and even gridlock. This ROW would never cross a road; instead it would go either over or under it. This ROW would exist almost totally on public and university property and would only require the purchase of one piece of private property and a handful of easements. My dream is that the university would initially build a pilot system with a terminus downtown. This would be a compelling public demonstration project and well as a research system that fits beautifully into its sustainability initiative. I believe the university could find alumni donors who would fund such a project.
I would like to see the Dinky terminate on the south side of Lake Carnegie at a new "Turning Basin Station" where ample commuter parking could be provided. There would also be a connector road along the same side of the lake that went from Harrison Street to Alexander Street, thus giving multiple ways to get to the station by car. The PRT would run from the new station along the old dinky ROW in through the new Arts Campus with a number of stops along the way. In most areas it would be at grade except it would be overhead to cross Faculty and other roads. At the location of the old dinky station is would dive underground and go up University Place and emerge at grade at a new downtown station at Nassau Street.
Once this initial link is operational incremental expansion is quite easy. All that is needed is to extend the guideway, change the system map in the computer, and add a few more vehicles. In 30 years I envision the system being expanded out Faculty Road to Harrison, up Elm Drive into the main campus, to the Stadium, and up Washington Road to Prospect.
Another branch could loop around the golf course and service Graduate Housing, the Grad College and the Seminary. From the downtown station service could be extended down behind Merwick and Stanworth to Community Park and out the Middle School, Choir College and the Shopping Center. Eventually the PRT could go clear to Princeton Junction. At some point the university might tire of operating the system at which point it could be turned over to some sort of joint operating authority.
Princeton University is our biggest regional asset. I feel strongly that we should creatively encourage the university to assume a leadership role in creating and building a local public transportation system that would benefit them, the town and, by example, the world.
The local leaders are off by one letter -- it is PRT that we need, not BRT. Let's move forward, not backward. We deserve better than buses and we could have better if we only set our minds to it. To learn about this, see detailed plans on possible implementation in Princeton and find links to worldwide PRT activity please visit www.SPURTS.org
Chip Crider received his PhD in electric engineering and device physics from Princeton in 1979 and owns a scientific instument business in Princeton.