Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Should Broke Cities Be Building New BRT Lines?

Dear Winnipeg,

I hear you’ve started to see the light when it comes to your transportation system. You’ve realized (and accepted) that it’s financially impossible (not to mention environmentally irresponsible) for you to build and maintain all the infrastructure that is needed so that everyone can drive a private automobile everywhere they want to go, every single time. [Zoom, zoom.]

You’ve come to your senses and realized that some (if not most) people need to travel by other means at any given time. By foot, by bike, by bus, really anything that takes up less space than a car. And it’s your job to encourage, nay enable, it! Your financial fate depends on it!

So you’ve been thinking about building some BRT lines to make public transit more efficient, more “rapid”.

And you’ve actually even built (most of) one of those lines already.

Well, I gotta tell you. I hate it.

How did you come to decide that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this was a good idea? This is high-risk, high-cost and permanent. Once it’s built, you’re on the hook for it forever.

Maybe rich, highfalutin cities can afford to do it this way, but you, Winnipeg, cannot. [Sorry to have to be the dad here. I can’t help it.]

You can’t even afford to maintain the infrastructure you already have, so clearly, you shouldn’t be building anything new until you have that under control. No new roads, remember?

And you see, roads for buses are still roads. They still require maintenance, snow clearing, intermittent renewal, and eventually, complete replacement. And unfortunately, that’s cashola you just don’t have. [And no, you can’t have more of mine.]

So I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but that includes BRT.

But what is a cool, progressive city like you to do? You’re trying to do the right thing. You know you can’t build more roads for cars, yet I won’t let you build any new infrastructure for BRT. What gives, man? [Don’t give me that look…]

You see, you’ve already built all of it. [Woah, power dad move! Who saw that coming?!]

You’re overlooking one of BRT’s biggest advantages: that it’s buses! And buses, unlike trains, can go anywhere there are roads.

Remember when I told you that you have three times more roads per capita than New York City? I didn’t make that up, it’s actually one of those things scientists call “facts”. [Sorry, I’m unsure of the spelling.]

And facts are useful for more than just a rousing game of Cheese Pies.

They can also be used to gain insight into stuff. And the insight to be gained is this: if we have 3 times more roads than necessary, then at least 2/3 of our roads must be underutilized. [My wife hates that word.]

But it gets better. If we were as efficient in the use of our roads as New York City is with theirs, 2/3 of our roads would actually be UNutilized. [And that’s a word now apparently.]

But it gets even better. Existing roads already go to all the stuff people want to get to, so it increases the odds that people will use your new BRT. Plus, where do you think new transit-oriented development will go? [Two words: In. Fill.]

But it gets even more better. If you want to convert some of those roads to BRT, here’s what you’ll need: paint.

Yup, that’s it. Paint. [OK, and maybe some reprogramming of traffic lights.]

We can get all six BRT lines in by the middle of next week for the cost of paint.

And if we misjudge traffic patterns? No problem, just change the paint. Adapting to real-world feedback is a cinch!

And if we make a mistake in routing? No problem, just change the paint. Adapting to real-world feedback is a cinch!

And if we made a mistake with stop placement? No problem, just change the paint (and move a sign). Adapting to real-world feedback is a cinch!

And what if, despite all our best efforts, despite all our best attempts at tweaking, it all ends up being just a colossal, crunchy cluster-fudge? Again, no problem. Just change the paint back. And thank our lucky stars it cost us next to nothing. [Boondoggle? More like bore-o…doggle…]

This approach is incremental, low-cost, and low-risk. Exactly what is needed by a functionally insolvent city like you.

So maybe when you can prove to us that you’ve stopped investing in Ponzi schemes, we’ll let you do it your way. But until then Winnipeg, there is no sugar-coating this: you’re broke. You need to start acting like it.

Love you lots,

Elmwood Guy