Jeramey Jannene
Milwaukee Transit

The Technologies

By - Jul 14th, 2008 01:07 pm
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This is the second article in a series on Milwaukee transit. The first article was “Milwaukee Transit: The Game and The Players“.

It’s absolutely critical to understand the different transit technologies available if one is to understand and evaluate the merits of the various transit proposals for Milwaukee. Technologies include Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT), Express Bus Transit, Electric-Guided Bus, Standard Bus, Street Car, Light Rail and Heavy Rail. This article examines the technologies, largely with regard to how they would be implemented here in Milwaukee.

Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT) – The most important distinction between BRT and other forms of bus transit is that bus-rapid transit must feature right-of-way exclusively for buses through most, if not all, of the route.

BRT in South America

BRT in South America

It is also important that the service offer off-bus ticketing. This is crucial to ensure that stop time is minimized, especially at peak riding times. Another frequent feature of BRT is level boarding, that is a raised curb, or lowered bus. This helps speed boarding and shorten stop-times.

As part of the off-bus ticketing and level boarding, bus-rapid transit often features stations for boarding. Unlike the current 3/4-shielded bus stops we have in Milwaukee, BRT stations are typically bigger, offer a little more protection from the elements, and have substantially more route information, usually including a digital display indicating when the next bus will arrive. At bigger, central stops, this can often mean transit personnel working to sell tickets or help passengers board. The stops also extend out to the lane the bus travels in, as opposed to the standard bus model of the bus pulling over to a curb.

The greatest distinction between bus-rapid transit and standard bus service (when it comes to Milwaukee) is the frequency of stops and the exclusive lane use. To increase the speed of service, bus-rapid transit stops on average no more than once every half-mile. Depending on the layout of a given city, the service may have more stops in the densest areas. The greater spacing between stops allows bus-rapid transit to provide a greater speed of service to customers, along with a smoother ride. It is designed to go greater distances more quickly than standard bus service.

When considering a possible implementation in Milwaukee, imagine going from UW-Milwaukee to downtown in a dedicated lane and only making one or two stops at major intersections such as North Avenue and Brady Street. The bus would get signal priority at all stop lights, so you wouldn’t be stuck watching cross traffic. In some areas it might even be grade-separated.

When it comes to the actual vehicles that make the run, BRT vehicles are often articulated (meaning there is a second vehicle attached through an accordion-like connector). This allows them to have a greater capacity than standard buses and still be able to navigate city streets. At the cheapest level, they are diesel-powered buses. Options are available for hybrid diesel-electric buses, which have a greater up-front cost, but have a better fuel economy. Another potential plus of a hybrid bus is that it is presumably quieter, much like when a Toyota Prius accelerates.

Bus-rapid transit systems do not operate in isolation from other transit systems; existing standard bus service should be routed as a feeder system for BRT. Transferring from the slower standard busing to bus-rapid transit should be easy and encouraged for distance commuters. For an understanding of how this and other features of bus-rapid transit may work, watch this short video of BRT in Bogota, Columbia.

The estimated cost of building a BRT system is $5-$10 million per mile.

In summary, bus-rapid transit systems feature rubber-tired, high-capacity, fast boarding vehicles with dedicated lanes.


Express Bus Transit –
An express bus system (as proposed by Mayor Barrett) varies just slightly from bus-rapid transit. The most significant change is in the use of the dedicated lanes. Express bus transit as it is proposed for Milwaukee would get signal priority and priority lanes for large parts of the system, but not dedicated lanes. While dedicated lanes are just that, priority lanes are existing lanes that buses are able to stop in (using curb bump outs).

Express Transit Proposal for Milwaukee

Express Transit Proposal for Milwaukee

Reconfiguring lanes as priority lanes is substantially less expensive than using dedicated lanes. While it may not yield an average speed as high as bus-rapid transit, with dedicated lanes, it still yields service substantially faster than standard bus service by eliminating the need for buses to pull over.

The other advantage of using priority lanes is that they are substantially more politically appealing than dedicated lanes, not only because of construction cost, but because they do not require the elimination of any parking.

While a dedicated lane could be constructed down Prospect Avenue, for instance, by removing parking on one side of the street and adding some form of barrier – a curb – between the existing lanes and the new dedicated lane, a priority lane takes the existing right lane and bumps the curb out at an intersection once every half-mile or so. This preserves parking next to the lane and allows other vehicles to drive in the priority lane.

As with any of the technologies listed, the need for dedicated and priority lanes is dictated by how much other traffic is on the road. There isn’t a need to build full-blown priority or dedicated lanes in non-congested areas. When it comes to an area like downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin Avenue especially, it may be necessary to build dedicated lanes even for express buses. A dedicated lane would be on the high-end for cost options to speed travel through downtown. A more affordable, but potentially less-effective option, would be to implement “queue jump” lanes at intersections. “Queue jump” lanes operate similar to traditional signaled turn-lanes, except instead of giving exclusive priority for vehicles to turn, they would allow buses to go through the intersection first before the rest of traffic. Study of any express bus route will reveal which lane enhancements options would be the most cost-effective.

Express bus service in Milwaukee would feature off-bus ticketing, digital displays to indicate the next bus’s arrival, and easy-on, easy-off buses that are at the same height as the curb. As with bus-rapid transit, typical standard bus service can and should be routed as a feeder service to these faster modes of transit.

The estimated cost of constructing an express bus system is $2-$5 million per mile.

The vehicles for express bus service are very similar, if not identical, to bus-rapid transit. That is, they are most often high-capacity, articulated, diesel buses. For routes with expected lower ridership or less need to navigate tight turns, the articulated second section might not be used.

Electric-Guided Bus – Electric-guided bus transit is the most “train like” of all bus types. While still being rubber-tired, electric-guided buses are powered by an overhead wire, similar to modern light rail systems. They do feature the ability to leave the wire temporarily in the event of a detour.

The substitution of rubber tires for steel wheels makes electric guided bus systems cheaper than light rail, but slower and a little less smooth ride. Light rail systems run on smooth steel rails, guided buses would run on the existing road network with an overhead wire.

The proposal for the use of electric-guided buses in Milwaukee was adopted by the Milwaukee Common Council, but was ultimately vetoed by Mayor Barrett because of funding, technology, and existing route elimination issues. If Barrett had not vetoed the service, the proposal would have moved into the preliminary engineering stage. Barrett was not alone in opposing the service, as County Executive Scott Walker was in opposition of the proposal.

The estimated cost of guided bus construction is $30-$35 million per mile (cost for a proprietary Bombardier system).

It is my belief that an electric-guided bus system is a good example of good intentions gone wrong. It’s promoted as a cheaper option for nearly the same service as light rail, but it is just that: cheap. It’s more expensive than express busing, but slower than light rail. Spending less gets you a lower-speed service, which would result in fewer riders. So you could spend less upfront, but you would get fewer riders and have a less effective service. Fewer riders diminishes the ability for organic transit-oriented development to occur. It would be better to stick with standard bus service than go to electric-guided buses. I will explore this notion of transit-oriented development more, later in the series.

Standard Bus Service – Standard bus service is what the people of Milwaukee County have been riding for years. The service is very effective at going just a couple miles. Your standard run-of-the-mill bus service can be very good at ensuring you don’t have to walk far to get to a bus.

The traditional way busing has been done in Milwaukee (and elsewhere in the world) does have significant flaws. Frequent stops substantially slow the service down. To make matters worse, going in and out of traffic to get to the curb to pick-up/drop-off is not only slow, but is uncomfortable for the rider.

If you’re going a short distance, the current approach taken by the Milwaukee County Transit System works fine. If you’re going a distance that is more than a couple of miles, the constant pulling to the curb gets tiring, and the speed is lackluster.

It’s worth noting that Milwaukee’s currently stock of buses exacerbate the discomfort from pulling in and out of traffic by being out-of-date and loud. The buses currently in use make it difficult to have a conversation on the bus because every time the bus changes speed there is a substantial amount of engine noise generated, both inside and outside the bus.

Having been a frequent rider of bus systems elsewhere in the country (and world), I can tell you there are far quieter buses out there. In fact, I would guess that almost every new bus available from manufacturers is considerably quieter than what Milwaukeeans are experiencing now.

That said, Milwaukee isn’t alone in having loud transit. Fred Jandt, editor of Mass Transit Magazine, recently wrote an article detailing the differences in the philosophy of noise dispersion for automobiles versus mass transit (hat tip to Nate Holton for the link).

While priority and dedicated lanes will make the ride much smoother, new buses would provide a substantially more comfortable version of the existing, standard MCTS bus service.

Portland Streetcar

Portland Streetcar

Streetcar – Streetcar systems vary in a key way from light rail systems. Streetcars are steel-wheeled, electric single-car trains. While light rail by definition is expected to use private right-of-way, streetcars ride on rails in the street. This causes a slight reduction in speed, but delivers a smoother and more-defined (by the rails in the road) service than typical standard bus service.

Streetcar routes are usually no longer than 5 miles and have an emphasis on moving people within a neighborhood. You can expect streetcar speeds to rival standard bus service at nearly 12 miles-per-hour, but the service would be substantially more quiet (on modern systems) and much smoother. Streetcar systems are very successful at moving people within an area without the need for automobiles.

Streetcar stations are typically spaced no more than a couple blocks from one another.

Streetcar systems have an estimated per mile construction cost of $14-$18 million.

Streetcar systems are less costly than light rail because they feature single-car trains, share existing right-of-way, and have shorter routes. Streetcars are designed for circulation within a local area, while light rail is designed more for regional connectivity. Using one for the other’s purpose would be inefficient.

Light Rail – Light rail is the slower and smaller version of heavy rail. Light rail systems include multiple cars per train, unlike streetcars. To be classified as modern light rail, the system must be electrically powered. This is frequently done by an overhead wire. Light rail vehicles also operate in dedicated right-of-way for almost all of their routes, meaning they are separated from the rest of the street by some barrier (such as a curb or wall).

Light rail has the capability to get up to higher speeds, but not as fast as traditional heavy rail. Some systems, especially in Europe, connect to smaller, near-by towns. Light rail, however, is not designed to go long distances and does not usually interconnect with the existing national rail system. Light rail systems are focused on regional connectivity at distances from 5 to 20 miles. Using dedicated right-of-way and higher capacity trains than streetcars, light rail would be well-suited for connecting the edges of Milwaukee County with downtown.

Kassel Tram System

Kassel Light Rail System

Stations for light rail are usually at least a half-mile apart from one another. Paired with dedicated right-of-way, this allows light rail to have substantially higher speeds than street cars. But private right-of-ways and multi-car trains causes light rail implementation to be expensive.

The name “light rail” was selected in 1972 by the U.S. Urban Mass Transit Administration. The idea behind the name is a little convoluted.

Light in this context is used in the sense of “intended for light loads and fast movement”, rather than referring to physical weight, since the vehicles often weigh more than those on so-called heavy rail systems. The investment in infrastructure is also usually lighter than would be found for a heavy rail system. Read more.

None of the transit proposals for Milwaukee include light rail. This is an important and misunderstood fact. If you understand nothing else about this series, understand that no one is proposing true light rail in Milwaukee.The cost to build a light rail line is estimated at $30-$40 million per mile.

Heavy Rail – Heavy rail is the system of standard trains you are used to. All inter-city freight railroads are heavy rail; Amtrak is heavy rail, and most commuter lines are heavy rail (Metra in Chicago being the nearest example). The former North Shore Line that ran down down the middle of streets on the south side of Milwaukee and down to the edge of Chicago was heavy rail.

Heavy rail systems feature greater top speeds than light rail, but at a greater cost. While at first glance it would seem logical to build in-city rail systems the same way inter-city systems are built, there are numerous reasons not to. Heavy rail systems typically feature diesel powered trains, while light rail is electric. This creates a substantial difference in engine noise, not to mention air quality. Also, light rail trains ride much closer to the ground than heavy rail, making for easy on and off for light rail passengers. Light rail train-sets are optimized for stopping and starting; heavy rail is designed for going long distances at high speeds. If you’re still not convinced, ride the Amtrak Hiawatha line to Chicago and back, and imagine stopping and starting every half mile.

Heavy rail is the technology chosen for the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee (KRM) system. Light rail is not a realistic choice for this because of the long distances and the need for fast travel.

The next article in the Milwaukee Transit series will focus on the current proposals on the table. This will include a look at how they would be funded, and what potential they may have.

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11 thoughts on “Milwaukee Transit: The Technologies”

  1. Kevin says:

    Great Article. I’d never seen BRT in action. That Bogata system looks incredible. Thanks for the education!

  2. Joseph says:

    i have lived in a city where there are these so-called accrodian-like buses. and let me tell you that it is a pain driving behind them, not to mention crossing on foot in front of them. although i should mention that in this particular city (leon mx) there are over 1.5 mill people in the city alone, with 3 routes, it was a disaster. lol. plus so many fatal accidnets, anyways, they have these huge cages in the median where people board the bus and et off (about every mile or so) .. not a pretty picture during rush hour for the many buses and cars usuin the same streets. lol

  3. Doug Glatzel says:

    With the rising cost of fuel, the city needs to look at investing in light rail. Not only that, but I think not having a rail system somewhat hurts the image of Milwaukee being a “big city”. People seem to be suprised to learn that we dont have a rail system, despite our high density and city population.

    And in regards to streetcars. Would a line running from Brady St. to the Third Ward (perhaps as far as Bayview) be an ideal line? I was thinking about this while driving down Water St. and the potential the gap between the 5th Ward to Bayview had for future development.

  4. Steven Schrab says:

    I’d be in favor of just about any system that gets rid of our current noisy buses.

  5. East Side says:

    Great information! Thanks for the article.
    But this has been on the table for so long now, is there anything Milwaukeeans can do to put pressure on a decision to actually get a plan rolling?

  6. Michael Clausing says:

    I agree with Doug. This city needs an alternative. I took part in a an exchange student program some years back that brought students from Germany here for 2 weeks. The lack of public transportation really hindered their ability to enjoy the city. I think this is the case for many when they visit.

    Is there an update coming soon?

  7. Jesse says:

    Milwaukee actually did have ‘accordian’ buses in the 1980’s and early 90’s. They were generally used for the flyer routes to the festivals and on routes 15 & 30. I was just a kid and didn’t ride transit much then, but I do remember riding on them a couple dozen times and seeing them around town.

    The biggest problem I can remember is that it was difficult for them to stop at every stop, especially in tight areas, sometimes they would just let people off far from the curb. They could find some use in a BRT, but BRT is only useful if it has it’s own seperate ROW.

  8. Jason Janczak says:

    I just passed through the Twin Cities and shocked how much of a blight the light rail lines were on the city. I’m sure there are plenty of advantages to light rail, but I also believe that as a city develops, it has a responsibility to do so in a way that creates an aesthetically pleasing environment. A handful of years ago, I came across a non-profit organization called Scenic America. For those that haven’t seen it, check out the web site. It would be sad to see a city that has come so far in its infrastructure development create an eye sore that would be in place for many, many years.

  9. Dave Reid says:

    @Jason I’m not sure what you found so “blighting” about the light-rail line in Minneapolis I thought they utilized existing right-of-ways pretty well and the stop in downtown certainly didn’t negatively impact the look of the street.

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