It seems that when gauging reader interest about blog posts, the number of times a post is viewed is not actually that useful a statistic, because many of those views will be people who click through quickly from a search engine. A more useful metric of reader interest, I believe, is the number of comments readers write, and whether or not the discussion in the comments continues past the first day. Another useful metric is the number of times readers click links that are embedded in the post, because clicking a link in a post indicates (a) that the reader has made it past the first sentence, and (b) that the reader is interested enough in the post to see yet more material on a similar topic.
Recently, I compared comments and link-clicking (both on the actual blog posts, and on the maps posted on my Flickr account) for the post from last December about a fantasy subway rail network for San Francisco with the later post that discussed a fantasy bus rapid transit network for San Francisco. Some rather pronounced results emerged:
|Dream Subway Map||Dream BRT Map
|Comments written within 0-24 hours*||8||2|
|Additional comments, within 24-48 hours*||4||1|
|Additional comments, within 48-72 hours*||1||0|
|Additional comments, after 72 hours
(as of 2/12/08)*
|Total comments (as of 2/12/08)*||23||3|
|Image clicks on Flickr
(as of 2/12/08)**
|Comments written on the Flickr map posts
(as of 2/12/08)*
|People who called the map a favorite on Flickr
(as of 2/12/08)
* Note: These numbers only reflect comments written by visitors; I did not count my own comments.
** Note: These numbers combine views from both the citywide map and the more detailed downtown map.
In every category listed above, the subway post was more popular than the BRT post. Okay, so this is not a statistically rigorous discussion, but the numbers are consistent with the generally acknowledged truth that most people find trains to be “cooler” and more impressive than buses. I agree that bus rapid transit will probably never measure up in this respect, but at some point we have to set aside the aesthetics to realistically weigh service improvements and cost-effectiveness. There are good reasons why San Francisco, in particular, should be more interested in bus rapid transit:
- Given the fact that Muni’s latest attempt at expanding the Metro via the T-Third can hardly be deemed to be an unqualified success, we should be eager to embrace alternative methods to improve and speed up service, but on a quicker time scale and with fewer engineering hurdles.
- In terms of population density, San Francisco occupies a slightly difficult middle area. Despite being the second densest city in the United States, after New York, density is not high enough to justify the cost of subway tunnels in every which direction. And yet, density is high enough to ensure that many bus lines are so well used that a standard local bus running in mixed flow with automobiles does not provide the speed, quality, or efficiency of service that is necessary to support the high ridership.
Both these factors point to an ideal plan in which we mix modes: building rail in high usage transit corridors, where there is heavy demand sustained over a substantial distance, and building BRT to fill in the gaps — or as an intermediate step for corridors like Geary, which deserve rail in the long run, but which need improvements as quickly as they can be delivered. Despite the fact that there is no shortage of successful implementations elsewhere that demonstrate how BRT can be done well, local Bay Area experiments with BRT (e.g. AC Transit’s 1R and 72R rapid buses, and VTA’s 522 rapid along El Camino Real) still have buses operating in mixed flow and getting stuck in traffic. And so, for those Bay Area residents who have bothered to learn more about BRT, the real-life local examples they have been provided so far are not really a fair representation.
Ultimately, the test will come when we actually build the projects currently being planned on Geary and Van Ness in San Francisco, and on Telegraph Avenue and East 14th Street in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Leandro. If Muni and AC Transit deliver carefully designed BRT projects with improvements that are immediately palpable to riders, we will go a long way to convincing people that although they are not trains, buses can deliver faster, more comfortable service than people in the Bay Area have been accustomed to. Perhaps then this often under-appreciated transit mode will be given its due.