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Buses and BRT: some facts

Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich has a plan for "rapid bus" corridors around the county. While I applaud Councilman Elrich's vision, he's not the first person to articulate such an idea.

BRT being tested in Cleveland. Photo by jeffschuler on Flickr.

In fact, the Action Commitee for Transit sent BeyondDC some excellent recommendations to immediately improve existing bus service on major routes in Montgomery County for no cost, or the very small cost of painting stripes on asphalt. I hope that Mr. Elrich and County Executive Leggett embrace these suggestions.

We don't have true Bus Rapid Transit in our region. We have some limited stop "express" bus routes. These routes have fewer stops, and can therefore run a tighter schedule. However, they operate in mixed lanes with automobile traffic. Anyone who rides a bus during rush hour can attest that there's nothing "rapid" about that. True Bus Rapid Transit is defined by the presence of a completely separate roadway that is only for the bus. No pesky automobiles. In theory, no traffic jams.

While everyone has heard about the BRT wonder that is Curitiba, Brazil, looking at existing BRT in other American transportation systems sheds more light on the transportation possibilities in the Washington, D.C. region. Other cities in the United States do have true BRT: Maryland Delegate Al Carr, whose district includes anti-Purple Line centers Kensington and Chevy Chase, recently visited Cleveland and wrote about the new BRT line there. Carr feels that Maryland should choose BRT instead of light rail for the Purple Line:

I came away convinced that BRT is a practical, efficient and cost effective transit option. Giving buses priority at traffic signals seems to be a key factor in achieving its full potential for fast trip times.

Here in Maryland it would be unwise to rule out BRT for the any of the new transit lines being considered. In a time of fiscal constraints, we need to keep all options open.

But Edson Tennyson, P.E., a transportation planner and former official of the Pennsylvania State DOT, sent Purple Line NOW some more sobering statistics on the true effectiveness of BRT:
We have lots of official data on Bus Rapid Tranait. I funded the state share of the first Pittsburgh BusWay [The BusWay is true BRT]. It was not cheap. They promised me 32,000 weekday passengers, up from 18,750 with no added buses, just improved efficiency.

Well, in 1981, we had the Second Energy Crisis, and the South BusWay peaked at 20,750 weekday passengers. No efficiencies. It has been all down hill from there, down to 10,000 weekday passengers now.

Pittsburgh has suffered economically like Cleveland but not as bad. Nevertheless, the Light Rail Lines parallel to the South BusWay gained 50 % in ridership when it was converted to include a short subway downtown. When one branch of the Light Rail line was shut down in 1993 to avoid bridge repair, the 8,000 displaced riders showed up with only 1,600 on the replacement BusWay bus. After 11 years, they put the Light Rail Line back and ridership on the Light Rail system gained 10%.

Pittsburgh then built an East BusWay. I refused to fund it, so my new boss, the Secretary of Transportation, funded it over my objection. This one planned for 90,000 weekday passengers but they thought better of it and cut the estimate to 80,000. It peaked at 30,000 and is at 28,000 now, but [aggregate] bus ridership in Pittsburgh declined 26% at the same time. The East BusWay disrupted existing routes and split up travel with fewer buses on each line with longer waits.

Finally, Pittsburgh built the West BusWay using an abandoned railroad bed like the Georgetown branch [Purple Line ROW] except it had a short tunnel. It was to be eight miles long and was to cost $325 million in 1998. It was to carry 50,000 people. The bids hit $525 million. [The local] Congressmen got an earmark to disregard the Full Funding Agreement that required the County to pay the cost overrun. They cut it back to only 5 miles to stay within the $325 million, but lost access to downtown, other than by the old way on the congested streets. Only 18% of the 50,000 passengers have shown up so far. It cost more to build than Light Rail, but attracts far fewer passengers.

Mr. Tennyson also compares the long-term cost-effectiveness between BRT and light rail:
Los Angeles has three Light Rail Lines and several BRT projects but Light Rail is the low cost operation. 48 cents per passenger-mile vs. 55 cents by bus BUT the accounting is distorted. They assign General Administration cost by passenger, so empty buses get no such cost, but busy Light Rail lines carry the bus overhead costs.
Bus Rapid Transit has its place in diversified transportation systems. However, it is in no way a direct substitute for light rail (and even farther from the capacity of heavy rail). There is no BRT line in the United States that has an average daily ridership of 68,000 per day, which the the Purple Line DEIS projects for High Investment LRT, even under conservative FTA metrics.
Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 


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To an out-of-towner, like Carr, BRT may seem like a great product, but I suspect that Cleveland is going to find it a tough sell to locals. True, the RTA Healthline is a wonderful improvement over the former #6 bus route the Healthline is spacious, runs frequently and 24 hours a day... but the perception is that it is still nothing more than a glorified bus line; and in Cleveland (and elsewhere) buses are psychologically less popular than trains. Nevertheless, transit advocates in Cleveland can't really complain. For a city that has lost over 50% of its population since its peak, and for a greater region that is not particularly dense to begin with, any transit improvement is worth cheering about. In general, however, Cleveland's Healthline represents a slew of missed opportunities and I suspect will be taken advantage of by anti-transit critics looking for a case study of a BRT system that failed to live up to its potential.

by Rob on Dec 9, 2008 10:34 am • linkreport

Carr saw what he wanted to see. It's that simple. He's sucking up to one part of his constituency (Town of Chevy Chase) at the expense of another part (Woodside and North Woodside) who are in favor. Not to mention the other parts of his district that are not in organized civic associations.

Look for a fight in the House of Delegates. Prince George's County's delegation is starting to get upset about this. They want rail and they want it ASAP. Montgomery does, too, except for this narrow constituency that gets way more attention than it deserves.

by Cavan on Dec 9, 2008 10:47 am • linkreport

I'm from Pittsburgh, and my experience 100% confirms Mr. Tennyson's report. The two light rails in the south get huge ridership, even though they have to share the street for parts of their route. Something that Mr. Tennyson omitted, also, is that the rail runs through some of the wealthiest parts of Pittsburgh, while all of the BRT lines go to the poor parts. It's the people who can least afford to keep their cars who are losing out from the poor service that the Busways offer.

by tom veil on Dec 9, 2008 10:58 am • linkreport

Tom, your last sentence is a big part about why Prince George's County is starting to get heated. The Purple Line Corridor in PG County is not poor by any stretch of the imagination, on average. However, is does have couple of poorer enclaves.

by Cavan on Dec 9, 2008 11:03 am • linkreport

Existential question: As I recall, the Paris metro runs on rubber wheels. Does that make it a BRT?

by Reid on Dec 9, 2008 11:26 am • linkreport


No, that does not make it a bus. The Paris Metro (and the Montreal Metro too, as well as other rubber-tired systems) are still trains. They have steel guide wheels, track, etc.

Rubber tire metros have advantages in terms of acceptable grades and acceleration over steel rail and steel wheel, but the guideway can be more expensive.

Furthermore, they can and do operate with the same kinds of automated train control that you see in DC's metro. They have far more in common with trains than buses.

by Alex B. on Dec 9, 2008 11:38 am • linkreport

The issue of BRT capacity was discussed last evening at the Mont. Co. Planning Board meeting. MTA is estimating that in 2030 the peak eastbound demand in the Bethesda to Silver Spring section will be at the maximum design capacity for the BRT. The ability to add more capacity by adding more buses will be severely compromised, serious problems start to arise when the headway between buses becomes very short on routes that are in mixed traffic. Light rail still had some extra capacity at 2030, and could be easily expanded for even higher capacity.

BRT can not carry the demand we expect over the life of the Purple Line. It is not smart to build a system that will be jammed by 2030, when we expect the system to operate well beyond 2050 when demand will be even higher.

by Wayne Phyillaier on Dec 9, 2008 11:47 am • linkreport

I agree that Montreal's system is really a "rail" system rather than BRT, but I think it's important to note that some BRT advocates call it Bus Rapid Transit.

I grew up outside Atlanta, and just before I moved to Washington, GDOT was proposing a major widening (to 23 lanes) of the Northwest Expressway (I-75) from the Perimeter (Beltway) northward. It would have partially used transit funding because the HOV lanes qualifed as BRT. Buses would operate with mixed traffic, but would be called BRT.

Still in public hearings, often citizens were shown pictures of Curitba, Pittsburgh, and Ottawa, places where significant investment was made to separate buses from other traffic. It was typical bait-and-switch.

We need to remember that BRT can be used to refer to anything from modern vehicles to rubber-tired metros. It can mean queue-jumping lanes and signal priority or it can mean on-line stations with pre-paid boarding. But just because someone calls it BRT, doesn't mean you're getting the highest end system. You might just be getting something like the 79 bus.

Now don't get me wrong, the Metro Extra service is great and should be expanded. But it is not a replacement for rail investment where necessary. Even if every bus line in the region had a counterpart like the 79, we would still need the Metro.

The Purple Line needs to be light rail, not buses--no matter how advanced. Unless someone wants to replicate Montreal's success with a rubber-tired subway from Bethesda to New Carrollton

by Matt' on Dec 9, 2008 1:44 pm • linkreport

And therein lies the problem with BRT. It is a poorly defined alternative. Proponents tend to take the costs estimates from the 79 bus and use the service levels of the Montreal Metro.

By the way, I don't care how looney they are, a rubber tired metro is NOT BRT.

by Alex B. on Dec 9, 2008 2:12 pm • linkreport

The PGH busways work really well too. Exactly how BRT is supposed to work. Except many of the buses aren't fancy. Some are. But you can tell most of the riders are transit-dependent. Well, I shouldn't generalize, since I only road the segment from East Liberty to Downtown. Well, to and from the airport too.

So it's damning about the ridership. BRT is great probably in places where rail isn't cost-effective or likely. But in places that have rail already, or the possibility of high ridership because of density and concentrated activity centers, BRT is nothing but a snow job.

People should just admit, and they should admit this in Cleveland, that they are doing BRT because they can't get rail funded and it is 2nd or 3rd best, and be honest about it.

by Richard Layman on Dec 9, 2008 3:56 pm • linkreport

There is a place for BRT in this area, but it's not the Purple Line. Where it could work is in places where Metro has proposed limited stop express buses. For example, the Q2 line along Viers Mill Road, and the 28 line along Leesburg Pike where there is room to add a bus lane, colored with epoxy to make it a different color.

BRT will not work for the Purple Line. Operating costs for BRT are just too high compared with rail. And, as proposed, the Purple Line BRT would be on some surface streets, making it slower. Politically, Prince George's County would rather have nothing at all than to have a BRT line. Rail will make it more palatable to Alexandrians, making it possible to expand the line through National Harbor and across the Wilson Bridge.

As a former Pittsburgh resident, it is sad to hear that the Busways are failing. I used the East Busway and the South Busway daily when I lived there. I used the light rail as well, but only when going against the commuter traffic. Going with traffic on the T was unbearably crowded.

by Stanton Park on Dec 9, 2008 4:47 pm • linkreport

For the record, I was mostly kidding about the rubber tire-Metro being BRT.

by Reid on Dec 9, 2008 5:05 pm • linkreport

The problem with BRT is that it can mean two completely different things: either a package of improvements to regular bus service (local or express), or a dedicated and probably grade separated right of way for buses. Now, I personally don't think the first really deserves the name BRT. It's really "Quality Bus Service" or something to that effect: making the bus system run more efficiently, and that's generally a good thing. The latter, grade separated type of thing is a different story entirely. The problem is that it's fixed infrastructure and that's not much cheaper than rail to build, and probably more expensive to maintain (rails last longer than pavement), but it inherently doesn't have the capacity of a rail line. I'm not sure that there's any reason to build that sort of thing pretty much ever.

by anonymouse on Dec 9, 2008 5:10 pm • linkreport

Los Angeles makes sharp distinctions between its various types of buses:

BRT: The Metro Orange Line uses buses in a dedicated ROW, with stations and is integrated with the rest of its Metrorail system.

Rapid bus: These buses operate on regular, "surface" roads with limited stops, favorable signals and short headways (maximum 12 minutes).

Express bus: Point-to-point service with minimal stops. Usually does not have a single stop between the terminals.

Premium bus: Extra fare to use freeways, otherwise local.

Local bus: What we usually think of as buses.

I have to concur with other comments that when something is called a BRT, get the specifics before committing to it.

by Chuck Coleman on Dec 9, 2008 6:42 pm • linkreport

I should note that the 79, REX, and similar buses are considered "rapid buses" in Los Angeles.

by Chuck Coleman on Dec 9, 2008 6:44 pm • linkreport

I'be been in LA a few times recently, and the bus system is really great. I really hope DC can take scaled system they have there and add it to to Metrorail and someday metrotrolley, or whatever they intend to call it. It was so easy to get around, in spite of the lack of transit investment in so many places.

by The King of Spain on Dec 9, 2008 9:22 pm • linkreport

Light Rail = Coal Powered Global Warming Agent

Let's use a system that can be changed as engine technologies change for the greener.

BRT to the future.

by Ned on Dec 16, 2008 8:15 am • linkreport

Wrong. Once you build a BRT system, that's what you got. The only other way to power a bus other than with hydrocarbon fuel is to use an overhead wire. With the overhead wire, you should just use a train since it has more capacity, lower long-term operating costs, and greater room for expansion.

Your argument is just not true. While it's possible that someone might make a battery that can power a multiple ton vehicle at some point in the future (though probably not in your lifetime) you still have the problems of capacity. You can fit roughly 100 people on a bus on a good day. You can fit that many on one train car. Light rail cars can be grouped together on groups of three or four, depending on the specific car design.

The environmentalism argument for trains is just not about the energy used to propel the vehicle. It's also about the energy saved when people live in traditional walkable towns/cities. What's more energy efficient, Bethesda or Rockville Pike? Bethesda because you can function and perform your daily routines without a car. Bethesda never would have been built if it weren't for that train running underground. By not having to park a car, trains enable walkable land uses to occur. One of the most fundamental features of suburban sprawl is the large parking lots that push everything farther apart. With a train, there is much less need to waste land on automobile storage.

Just like I wrote in the post, are there any BRT systems in the United States that carry 68,000 people per day? Because of the political capital required to build one of these systems, once you build it you're stuck with it in perpetuity. Building BRT would wasting money on something that will never work for its intended use. Cost-effectiveness is not only about initial up front capital costs. It is also about building something that serves its intended purpose well. BRT is "penny-wise and pound-foolish."

Or, do you really just want BRT in someone else's backyard? Or, do you really see BRT as a way to distract and delay the issues? BRT was never meant to be an alternative to rails. It was something that was invented in the mid-20th century by the Highway Lobby to combat the building of any new trains by distracting the conversation and trying to make sure the highway lobby would build the buses and asphalt rather than any money going to any train builders. They made sure that gasoline and asphalt was always in the discussion. You're doing an excellent job of being a mid-20th century Highway Lobby pawn. The sad thing is that it's now the early-21st century.

by Cavan on Dec 16, 2008 9:02 am • linkreport

>Light Rail = Coal Powered Global Warming Agent

That's a foolish argument.

1) Light rail gets more people out of cars. Even if the LRVs are powered by coal, they are effecting massive emissions reductions by virtue of using energy more efficiently.

2) BRT is no cleaner. Gas, deisel and CNG all emit climate altering exhaust. Hybrids are better, but not fully clean. The best BRT can hope for is to be powered by catenary, just like light rail.

>Let's use a system that can be changed as engine technologies change for the greener.

Sure. Except that describes LRT, not BRT.

With BRT you have to invest in totally new vehicles every time the energy tech improves. You're not upgrading, you're starting over. That's the bulk of the cost of the system, so in effect you're buying a whole new BRT system every few years.

With LRT the energy improvements will come on the generation end. When the power plant switches over from coal to nuclear or from nuclear to wind, you don't have to change a darn thing. The same electricity still flows through the same catenary. The original tracks, trains and wires all work just as well as ever.

by BeyondDC on Dec 16, 2008 9:31 am • linkreport

When do you expect our new nuclear plant or wind turbine farm to be installed?

I would say that your argument is pretty foolish.

by Ned on Dec 17, 2008 12:55 pm • linkreport

Ned, according to the National Wind Energy Association (NWEA) residentioal small wind wind turbines have been installed in all 50 states. It's not like we're waiting for the technology for individual jet-packs.

by Bianchi on Dec 17, 2008 1:20 pm • linkreport

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