Greater Greater Washington

BRT might be cheap to build, but it's cheaper to destroy

Planners often promote Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as cheap to build and more flexible than rail transit. But that flexibility also makes it even cheaper to dismantle. A stroke of the pen can completely destroy a BRT line.


I-395. Photo by Aaron Landry on Flickr.

Even the highest quality BRT systems run in lanes that could just as easily serve regular drivers. All it takes is one government decision to allow private cars on a BRT busway, and then blam: what you have isn't really BRT anymore.

That's exactly what may happen in Delhi, India, where the country's supreme court is considering forcing the city to open up bus lanes for automobile traffic, amid complaints from drivers that it's "unfair" to dedicate lanes to other road users. Delhi has 16 million residents, and fewer than 20% of them use cars. Nevertheless, it's a serious possibility that the court will open the busways, effectively outlawing BRT.

Here in Washington, we have our own local example of a BRT line that has been systematically downgraded by being opened to cars, reducing the quality of bus service.

The Shirley Highway Busway was the first exclusive bus facility on a US urban highway when it opened in 1969. It was so successful that in the early 1970s, over 50% of all the passenger traffic on the Shirley Highway, the portion of I-95/I-395 from Woodbridge to the Potomac, traveled via bus.

Despite this success, Virginia opened up the busway to car traffic after a few years, beginning with HOV-4 users in December 1974. Since then, the restrictions on cars have been periodically reduced, and soon even single-occupant vehicles will be able to use the road, thanks to Virginia's HOT lanes project.

Wherever you build lanes that cars could use, car drivers will want to use them, and will exert political pressure to do so. Every BRT project that exists or is planned anywhere could be converted to a road for cars, without spending an additional dollar on construction.

This is not to say that BRT is useless. It certainly is not. BRT belongs in all our big cities, as one piece of a larger multimodal transit network. But the same flexibility and low cost that makes BRT attractive in many locations is simultaneously the reason it cannot be trusted to deliver on long-term promises in the same way as rail. It is easy to eliminate, and it has too great a history of being eliminated.

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Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for Arlington County, but his blog posts represent only his own personal views. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives car-free in Washington. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post

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This is a particular danger with the Montgomery County BRT plan, if it is implemented by building new lanes rather than repurposing existing lanes.

The county task force recommends (on page 74 of its report) that buses run 3 to 5 minutes apart in rush hour. Drivers will be sitting in traffic jams next to the empty-looking bus lanes. (On roads where traffic runs freely, there is no point to building new bus lanes.)

What will these drivers say about an empty lane next to them with one bus passing every five minutes? If heavily used bus lanes are endangered in a city where only 20% drive, what will be the politics in Montgomery? The pressure to allow cars on these lanes will be irresistible.

by Ben Ross on Jul 12, 2012 10:33 am • linkreport

I agree there's a danger, but part of New Dehli's favoratism towards cars might be the allure of first world status that car clogged highways and glass downtowns have for many in developing nations. It seems every nation (person) needs to learn the hard way, hopefully we are a bit further along. Besides, those clogged roads are exactly why we should build the BRT.

by Thayer-D on Jul 12, 2012 10:38 am • linkreport

This is EXACTLY why so many people around here champion rail projects, because it's harder for cars to take over. I wish BRTs worked in our region because they are very successful in other places in the world, where it is recognized that we should reward people for not contributing to traffic. It's a shame.

by dc denizen on Jul 12, 2012 10:41 am • linkreport

I ride a bus on the Shirley highway almost every day. While there are exceptions on some days, the HOV3 lanes generally work quite well, and the buses sail ahead of traffic in the conventional lanes - that carpoolers do as well does not detract from the speed advantage.

Also the HOT lanes will end at the mixing bowl, IIUC (due to Arlington County's opposition). The lanes from the mixing bowl will not be HOT lanes, but HOV3. The opening to HOT traffic south of the beltway will be accompanied by additional capacity, to be financed by the tolls.

If and when the HOV3 lanes become congested on a regular basis, discussion on modifying them to HOV4 could begin (just as there is discussion of changing HOV2 to HOV3 on I66) The flexibility down is also flexibility up.

Note though, Shirley highway is still not "gold standard" rail equivalent BRT. There are no intermediate stations along the highway before the Pentagon, no high platform boarding, etc.

The main barrier to more bus ridership, at least for the routes from southern Fairfax, is not congestion on the busway - its the low densities and auto centric layouts of the areas where the buses collect. If Braddock and/oR LRT had bus only lanes that would be a huge advantage. As it is, it usually takes far longer getting from Annandale TO I395, then it does getting from LRT to the Pentagon on I305 (despite the section from LRT to Seminary being in conventional lanes)

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 12, 2012 10:41 am • linkreport

I would be ok with letting cars into bus lanes if you wanted to turn them into congestion-managed toll lanes (not HOT lanes), with the toll revenue funding transit. So you can pay a toll to drive in the lane, the toll goes up DRASTICALLY as you fill up the lane, and all the toll revenue funds the transit and the busway. Oh, and there's only one lane so drivers have to wait behind the bus while it stops!

This does unfortunately open the lanes up to further cutting down (oh well the toll is too high, oh we should let carpools in, oh we should let hybrids in).

by MLD on Jul 12, 2012 10:46 am • linkreport

arlington and Alex are about to implement a transitway between Crystal City and Potomac Yard. It will have a mix of dedicated and general lanes, with the option to increase the dedicated portion. It seems an excellent way to get dedicated ROW for transit quickly and cheaply, and I hope Arlington County has a more positive view of its prospects, and will work hard to ensure its success. I note that Arlingon at least, hopes to convert to add rail - but IIUC it would then still be open to buses, as there are many bus lines that service the area that extend well beyond where rail will go. The need to deal with drivers coveting the lanes will still exist - laying rail down does not prevent that - since street cars can function with autos (as is proposed on Columbia Pike and in DC). You could have a completely offstreet, unpaved, light rail like much of Baltimore's system, but that relies on the availability of ROW, and does not allow for sharing the ROW with buses.

Heavy Rail obviously is immune to sharing - its a very different animal though - much higher capital cost, but much higher capacity.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 12, 2012 10:49 am • linkreport

"if you wanted to turn them into congestion-managed toll lanes (not HOT lanes), with the toll revenue funding transit. So you can pay a toll to drive in the lane, the toll goes up DRASTICALLY as you fill up the lane, and all the toll revenue funds the transit and the busway."

that model (other than $ for transit) is exactly what is envisioned for the Beltway HOT lanes - variable tolls to keep traffic free flowing. The $$ will not go to transit, as they are required to pay for the lanes themselves.

however there will be no busstops on the beltway itself - that is HOT lanes open to transit on a highway not a transitway like Corridor Cities, or like CCPY. Those are really somewhat different from something like the Shirley Busway, IMO.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 12, 2012 10:53 am • linkreport

BTW, I think the article indicates the opposite of what people are taking away. Despite the complaints of drivers, the local govt did NOT agree to allow cars in the BRT. It took a COURT case. I do not know Indian law, nor does the NYT explain the legal issues. But this is not precedent regarding political pressures. I am not aware of any legal precedent in the USA for denying local govts the right to maintain BRT's.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 12, 2012 10:57 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity

Well HOV can still used the beltway HOT lanes. And also it remains to be seen how much revenue will actually be generated - the gov't could end up paying Transurban. If the lanes don't fill up with enough toll payers then we start paying them for the road.

by MLD on Jul 12, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

Some interesting thoughts in this piece; however, I think BRT is great, especially for mid-size cities that might not have the incentive for the more expensive option of rail.

In my hometown (Nashville, TN) they are about to build the city's first BRT line. The route will have dedicated lanes and will travel through 6 or 7 dense miles in about 15 minutes because the traffic signals will prioritize bus movement. Doing a streetcar or light rail would have cost three times as much, according to the city's analysis, so BRT was a much more politically and economically feasible option. For a city like Nashville, this is an awesome development.

You write, "Wherever you build lanes that cars could use, car drivers will want to use them, and will exert political pressure to do so." Do you think this will be the mentality in DC when the streetcars are up and running? I've long thought the streetcars are absolutely useless without dedicated lanes.

Also, FWIW, comparing any US city to an Indian city isn't really fair. We are having growth in our urban cores, but the Indians are bursting at the seams!

by MJ on Jul 12, 2012 11:03 am • linkreport

"Well HOV can still used the beltway HOT lanes."

Yes, the toll lanes are open to Buses, HOV3 cars, and to toll paying cars. I am not trying to emphasize the difference between the HOT lanes and the I395 SOV lanes so much as the difference between those and transitways on local streets with multiple stops, and with gold standard BRT (im not sure how close either CCT or CCPY will be to gold standard, BTW)

"And also it remains to be seen how much revenue will actually be generated - the gov't could end up paying Transurban. If the lanes don't fill up with enough toll payers then we start paying them for the road."

I am not trying to revisit the debate about the beltway HOT lanes - just qualifying my point about the HOT lanes being like what you suggest (because they will have variable tolls to keep traffic free flowing) with an acknowledgment that there won't be $$ for transit and why.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 12, 2012 11:20 am • linkreport

I understand Dan's concern and have been frustrated by Virginia's handling of the Shirley Highway busway.

Physically separated, dedicated lanes, level platform boarding, pay/first shelters and other infrastructure can help make BRT more fixed and less susceptible to removal.

While it is harder to tear up and remove a rail system, it's been done before (America's streetcars). It's also true that fixed rail transit can be harmed through public policy neglect, such as the failure to invest in long-term maintenance and operating costs for Metro. Now, as a result of break-downs and rising fares, I worry about losing riders and support for transit.

We need to work collectively to continue to fight for transit -- to fund/strengthen Metro and to build the light rail, street-car, dedicated lane BRT and enhanced bus service that our region needs.

by Stewart Schwartz on Jul 12, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

In terms of new delhi, once you go there you'd probably agree about the bus lanes. They were installed as part of the commonwealth games, and have not worked well at all.

by charlie on Jul 12, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

@charlie: I don't think I have time to go to New Delhi today. Care to explain how the bus lanes "have not worked well at all"?

by Gray on Jul 12, 2012 11:51 am • linkreport

In short, they aren't planned out well, don't have enough traffic on them, and certainly don't have anything like BRT. Basically classic traffic planning error - they don't do a good job connecting people with jobs. Some do, but a lot don't.

Given the amount of curbs seperating them, they are taking up 2-3 lanes of traffic.

the bike lanes, on the other hand, are more crowded than you can imagine.

by charlie on Jul 12, 2012 11:55 am • linkreport

@ AWalkerInTheCity:Also the HOT lanes will end at the mixing bowl, IIUC (due to Arlington County's opposition).

Incorrect. The HOT lanes will end at the Fairfax/Alexandria border, which is at exit 3. If you drive on the Beltway from MD to I-395, you can see the new HOT exit just before the I-95/I-495 split with a sign with a hole for the toll fee for those first three miles of I-395.

There are no intermediate stations along the highway before the Pentagon, no high platform boarding, etc.

ART 87X gets off at Shirlington. Not really BRT, but a quick ride from the Pentagon nevertheless.

@ MLD:Well HOV can still used the beltway HOT lanes.

Not entirely true. Everybody will have to buy a VA HOT-lane capable EZpass thingie. Only cars with those will be allowed on the HOT lanes. They will have a special 'Toll/HOV-3' switch that can differentiate your situation to the system.

Unsurprisingly, the system is set-up to make it easy to pay tolls, and hard to use the lanes for non-paying customers.

by Jasper on Jul 12, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

This is a silly point, stated in a silly way. It's not that the BRT mode is not to be trusted, but that our officials are not necessarily to be trusted. I'm not a generic anti-government type, but clearly the big issue here is that the benefits of things like the Shirley Highway Busway (and its former bus-only operation) were not recognized by later generations of decision-makers, who changed the facility to operate according to their worldview.

In any point,human fickleness is not a characteristic of a transportation mode. It's a characteristic of humans and society.

by atlin83 on Jul 12, 2012 12:31 pm • linkreport

Why do the folks who carp when BRT is not in a separate right-of-way seem to be fine with streetcars that run in the middle of traffic?

Just wondering.

by jimble on Jul 12, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

@jimble Hah!, yeah...

Anyway, I actually like the idea of the mixed HOV-3/bus lanes. VDOT and others have called slugging a third means of transportation. Full cars are also incredibly fuel efficient, so there's that, too.

It is a shame NoVa hasn't bothered to install bus pads at freeway exits or boarding stations along the Shirlington Busway, which could be made into a powerful mass-transit corridor.

I grasp the point of the article, though, and am in agreement.

A bit off topic: A pie-in-the-sky idea would be to somehow link the Orange Line Metro stations with dedicated carpool/busways on the 66 corridor, allowing cross-platform connections with high-speed buses and boosting capacity on an overcrowded system.

by OctaviusIII on Jul 12, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

With streetcars there is a greater incentive to build dedicated lanes in the future because rail vehicles cannot pass other traffic. They are also higher-capacity. And light rail can enable building in grassy areas, preserving green urban landscapes, whereas ripping up asphalt almost never happens.

When dedicated bus lanes are built without physical barriers to save costs, there is also too great of a temptation for cars to use them, even with proper enforcement. BRT is a cost-saving measure to begin with, and then there are many more cost-saving measures that can downgrade the project into regular bus oblivion. In that regard, light rail faces similar problems, but it is a much more solid start for a project to build from—on the other hand, busways can be easily upgraded to light rail when they are properly built. But politicians and their constituents tend not to keep long-term goals in mind.

by Omar on Jul 12, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

"Wherever you build lanes that cars could use, car drivers will want to use them, and will exert political pressure to do so."
[citation_needed]

by Ironchef on Jul 12, 2012 2:31 pm • linkreport

[citation_needed]
Well you could start with many busways built in the 70s. The Shirley Busway, El Monte Busway (I-10 in LA), the list goes on:
http://www.fta.dot.gov/4392.html
"With the exception of the I-495 lane in New Jersey and the Pittsburgh busway, the early highway exclusive bus lanes have all since been converted to HOV lanes..."

Because people see vehicles and not people being moved they complain about "wasted space" in the lanes and demand that it be filled with vehicles. There is less demand to do that on separated facilities along city streets though since there is little room for cars to get onto and off of the busway in those instances.

by MLD on Jul 12, 2012 2:40 pm • linkreport

@MLD

so? Are you suggesting converting the Shirley busway back to buses only and excluding the carpoolers? What exactly would be the benefit of that? I mean would not that in fact be a waste of capacity?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 12, 2012 2:48 pm • linkreport

Dan Malouff wrote:

Despite this success, Virginia opened up the busway to car traffic after a few years, beginning with HOV-4 users in December 1974. Since then, the restrictions on cars have been periodically reduced, and soon even single-occupant vehicles will be able to use the road, thanks to Virginia's HOT lanes project.

As soon as the Pentagon Metrorail Station (Blue Line only at the time) opened in 1977, very nearly all buses that used to run up the Shirley Highway HOV lanes and across the 14th Street Bridge into the District of Columbia were turned-back at the Pentagon, even though most of those lines served stops in Southwest Washington, leading to longer travel times by transit (in some cases much longer).

There were formerly Shirley Express bus routes that were signed "Farragut Square" in (actually, if memory serves me correctly, they ran to 19th and I Streets, N.W.), returning southbound by way of K Street, N.W. and then 14th Street, N.W./S.W. There were also buses that ran to "Southwest Mall" (L'Enfant Plaza) and "Federal Triangle" (10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.).

All of those formerly single-seat rides became (at least) two-seat rides when the Blue Line opened.

In the late 1980's, the peak-period HOV-3 restrictions for traffic crossing the 14th Street Bridge in the express lanes were removed, which impacted the commuter bus lines that did (and do still) offer service all the way to downtown D.C.

None of the above did any favors to transit users in the corridor.

by C. P. Zilliacus on Jul 12, 2012 3:17 pm • linkreport

The northbound HOT lanes on I-395 will end in the Edsall Road area at the Turkey Cock Run ramps. Presumably at this point, all non-HOV HOT users will be merged back to the main I-395 NB, but this ramp has not been roughed out yet, which is of some concern, since almost every other part of the HOT project from Braddock is nearly complete.

From either loop of the Beltway approaching the Mixing Bowl, there are no HOV-3 signs going up. However, there are definitely EZ-Pass receivers already mounted on overhead racks.

I always wondered why the buses ended at the Pentagon and didn't go all the way into town. The 7 bus goes from the Pentagon to Federal Triangle but requires a connection. Pity.

VDOT is in the process of designing a northbound off-ramp at the Mark Center. Should be on-line next summer (?).

by Jack Love on Jul 12, 2012 9:27 pm • linkreport

@ Jack Love:From either loop of the Beltway approaching the Mixing Bowl, there are no HOV-3 signs going up.

That's actually not true. I have been very confused about the signs they've put of at the HOT/HOV entrance ramp where I-95S and I-495N split in Alexandria (well, geographically Fairfax, but nobody knows that). The sign pointing to I-95S and I-395N says HOV and has holes for digital pricing LEDs, while the I-495N sign says EZPass, and has no digital pricing. You'd think there should be no pricing for I-395N, and pricing for I-495N. I don't yet understand what the plans for the HOT lanes on I-95 are.

by Jasper on Jul 13, 2012 9:37 am • linkreport

the 16 has buses that run through to downtown (on 14th street I think) - thats such a frequent line, you can do that with direct buses that bypass the pentagon, and still have high frequency buses TO the pentagon (for people going to pentagon, or to parts of DC where metro is more convenient than the direct bus on 14th street.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jul 13, 2012 9:46 am • linkreport

A little knowledge of history would show that government policy decisions can work both ways – bus lanes to mixed traffic OR mixed traffic to bus lanes. The lanes on I-395 in Northern Virginia were designed originally to be peak-period reversible lanes for all traffic. As the first sections were nearing completion the 1973 gas crisis hit and it was decided that buses could use the yet incomplete lanes since there would be few vehicles with professional drivers. When the lanes were finally completed to the Beltway it was seen that there remained substantial unused capacity but, since the bus operation had been so successful, it was decided to person some cars – HOV with four or more – to use the lanes along with the buses. That HOV number was later reduced to 3 or more.

The value of the lanes to serving both buses and HOVs to move more people per lane that the general traffic lanes resulted in decisions not to restore the lanes to their originally designed purpose – use by all traffic – in spite of daily reminders by at least one helicopter traffic reported that the lanes were flowing freely while the general lanes were crawling.

Public policy can work in many ways. The great investment in streetcar track was paved over or removed based on public policy. Bus lanes have been established and maintained in many cites (e.g. Madison Ave.) based on public policy. Do what is right and then work to maintain it, but don’t try to outguess future policies.

by sgfranks on Jul 13, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

sgfranks wrote:

The great investment in streetcar track was paved over or removed based on public policy.

In Washington's case, a reasonably well-maintained streetcar system was abandoned in the aftermath of a nasty and long-running (7 week) transit strike in 1956. One of the stupidest long-term transportation decisions ever made in D.C. history.

The U.S. Congress (which in those days directly ran the District of Columbia through the House District of Columbia Committee via the D.C. Commissioners) passed a law mandating that the D.C. transit franchise of the incumbent, Capital Transit, be revoked and awarded to a new company, which was ended up being late O. Roy Chalk's D.C. Transit System. Congress also mandated that the streetcar system be shut-down by 1963 with transit service to be provided by buses.

It is not clear to me why Congress decided to take this drastic step (if the Congresspeople were mad at the workers that had been on strike (and their union), this made little sense, since the same workforce (represented by the same union) ran the buses).

by C. P. Zilliacus on Jul 13, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

El Monte Busway (I-10 in Los Angeles County) was originally bus only, then started to allow carpools (3+) during a 1976 bus strike.

Over the years, the mixed bus/carpool lane has worked well. A few years back, a local politician was able to have the carpool requirement dropped from 3 to 2 people: the lanes clogged up, so the 3 person requirement was reestablished (peak hours). Another issue that hybrid or zero-emission autos, regardless of load, are allowed in and that has also slowed the lanes down.

Sometime next year, the lanes will be converted to HOT, with tolls rising as speeds in the lanes drop.
http://www.metro.net/projects/expresslanes/

by cph on Jul 15, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

AWalkerInTheCity wrote:

the 16 has buses that run through to downtown (on 14th street I think) - thats such a frequent line, you can do that with direct buses that bypass the pentagon, and still have high frequency buses TO the pentagon (for people going to pentagon, or to parts of DC where metro is more convenient than the direct bus on 14th street.

The 16F provides that service during the rush hours only - in the mornings it provides service from Culmore all the way in to the Federal Triangle (yes, via the 14th Street Bridge; and in the afternoons, it is possible to take the 16F in the reverse direction). Mid-days it is a replacement for the old 13A, and only runs between the Pentagon and D.C.

Then we have the 16Y, which runs from the Columbia Pike corridor into D.C. via the T. Roosevelt Bridge.

It's an old-fashioned rush hour peak-direction-flow-only limited-stop bus line (and please don't get me wrong because I wrote old-fashioned, I think such bus service is great).

Peak-direction-flow-only as in inbound to D.C. in the mornings and outbound from D.C. in the afternoons.

by C. P. Zilliacus on Jul 16, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

The problem is that in North America, BRT is treated as just that - mostly a cheap rebranding of express services. Unlike global best practices, BRT lines here are mostly a study of inconsistency from runningways (rarely 100% exclusive) to stations (a shelter with a bench, or a swank terminal on the same line), the schedules. We have alot to learn to build true systems.

Rio has partially finished one of it's Olympic BRT corridors, a 56 km regional line, with permanent fixed stations. I somehow doubt it will be torn out that easily.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRzudq5SQxE&feature=youtu.be

by I amm on Jul 28, 2012 10:51 pm • linkreport

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