To Rail or Not to Rail?

After three decades, there is consensus — more (see A) or less (see B) — on the principles that define “smart growth.”  However, debate continues about what precise policies should appropriately be labeled “smart growth” and which are most effective at promoting the principles that define smart growth.


Providing alternatives transportation choices and reducing overall reliance on the automobile for mobility are principles all smart growth advocates would agree with.  Consensus breaks down somewhat once the discussion moves beyond principles and begins to address the specifics of alternative transportation models – What is the right mix of modes? What land-use reforms will be needed to complement the new transportation model? How will the projects be funded? And so on . . .

Pittsburgh's public transit system is a mix of traditional bus lines that run on public streets and BRT lines with designated bus-only rights of way. On my only two visits to Pittsburg, I stayed with friends living in the Shadyside Neighborhood not far from Carnegie Mellon University, but needed to be in Downtown Pittsburgh both days. The BRT stop was 3 blocks from their apartment, the bus was on time, and the ride was wholly uneventful.

One key question that is raised in the discussion about how to implement smart transportation reform is whether a particular region would be best served by rail ( a fixed-guideway system) or  Bus-Rapid Transit (aka “BRT” – a model that relies primarily on existing roadway infrastructure, but which might have some designated exclusive rights of way).

Light Rail Car in Phoenix, Az.

Journalist Diane DeRubertis poses this question and offers a thoughtful discussion at Plantizen:

When faced with the costs and logistics of rail, planners and city officials increasingly seem to favor Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a trend likely to continue through the current recession.  But even with the many persuasive arguments for BRT, the nagging question remains:  why not rail? (CLICK HERE FOR FULL POST)

There is no simple answer to this question, nor an answer that applies uniformily across different regions of the country.  Nonetheless, it is a question that the Lehigh Valley will have to grapple with when determining how best to shape the region’s transportation system for the 21st century.

NOTE (per comment from Bill): Pittsburgh has a light rail network as well.  The map is below.  Most of the coverage is south of Downtown.  Light rail and BRT can clearly complement one another as well as complement traditional bus service.

Pittsburgh Light Rail Map: CLICK IMAGE to view Port Authority of Allegheny County Website

Posted on February 19, 2010, in Neighborhoods, Transportation. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Pittsburgh also has a nice light rail system, as well. In fact, they are looking to expand it to the North side of the city. It is free in between downtown points and has other lines radiating to other areas.

  2. Ever wonder what a larger more extensive Pittsburgh rail system would look like? Check out a theoretical map here:

  3. Rail is the future of transportation in the U.S. and the Lehigh Valley would be smart to plan for a passenger rail system.

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