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Bus Rapid Transit is a toolbox, not a package

Is Bus Rapid Transit a good idea? The answer depends on what BRT means. At its best, BRT is a toolbox full of techniques that make buses faster and more convenient. At its worst, it's an excuse for highway-building in places where rail transit is needed.

BRT in Eugene, Oregon. Photo from Lane Transit District.

The term is used in so many different ways that the only way to judge is to ignore the label and look at the specifics. What Chicago calls BRT is a plan to speed up buses that already carry 31,000 riders a day. In San Diego, BRT is an excuse to build freeways instead of expanding light rail.

In Eugene, Oregon, BRT is a bus that runs every 10 minutes in its own lane between a university campus and two downtowns. In St. Louis, what's advertised as BRT is buses that would run 60 minutes apart outside rush hour, get stuck in traffic jams, and detour off the interstate to stop.

The Chicago Transit Authority has a definition that is vague enough to be accurate: BRT is "a term applied to a variety of bus service designs that provide for faster, more efficient and more reliable service than an ordinary bus line." The key to making BRT work is to understand that it's still a bus, and has to be planned as part of the bus network. Do only what helps the riders.

Seeing BRT as a toolbox is important because one tool can get in the way of another. One BRT technique is placing stops farther apart. Another is bus-only lanes in the center of the road. Either one moves buses faster, but they rarely work well together.

When BRT is in the middle of the road, local buses that stop more frequently run in the regular traffic lanes. For the rider, unless the buses come very frequently, the fastest way to reach a destination is to take whichever bus comes first.

As transit expert Jarrett Walker points out, there is a cost when local and limited buses make different stops. Riders on the limited may lose more time by missing the local bus than they gain from the exclusive lane. The better solution is then either a center bus lane where all buses run local, or a curb lane that buses share with turning cars.

"Gold-standard" BRT in Bogota, Colombia. Image from Streetsblog.

Even worse is what happens when all the tools in the box are used at the same time—what enthusiasts laud as the "gold standard" that resembles a "subway in the street." If buses are to carry subway-like passenger volumes, traffic lights and pedestrians can't get in the way. Gold-standard BRT becomes an interstate-like highway through the city, what urbanists have been fighting since the 1960s.

When BRT is seen as a toolbox, on the other hand, there are opportunities to help riders even on lightly used routes. The technique of off-bus fare payment can speed up any bus. For example, faregates could easily be placed between the Shady Grove Metro station and the bus stops on its east side. That would make boarding faster on all the buses that stop there, not just a few "BRT" lines.

Bus stops on the east side of Shady Grove Metro. Photo from Google Earth.

With large passenger volumes, rail is the best transit solution. Rail cars can be hooked one behind the other without swinging to the side, so a single train can carry many times more riders than any bus.

It's not hard to cross a street where 3-car trains run 3 minutes apart; buses carrying the same passenger loads would need to run less than a minute apart and pedestrians would have to be fenced out.

And when ridership gets high enough, trains can easily go underground. There are bus tunnels in Boston and Seattle, but the transit they offer is hardly rapid. Boston has speed limits as low as 6 mph where buses creep around blind curves. At the entrances to both tunnels, buses stop to latch onto overhead wires—running diesel buses underground would require expensive ventilation.

Where BRT shines is as a "middle-range" solution, when there are enough riders that buses deserve their own right of way, but not enough to justify a rail line. Veirs Mill Road is an example in our area. Buses there already carry as many passengers as a lane of auto traffic.

Transit advocates are justifiably wary of BRT because opponents of the Purple Line, the Silver Line, and other rail projects frequently push bus lines that no one really wants as a ploy to stop the rail. But the fact that BRT is no substitute for rail shouldn't blind us to the need for better buses. What matters is not whether a plan is labeled as BRT, but what it does.

Start out with the aim of building something you can call BRT instead of paying for a rail line, and you invite a debacle like Minneapolis' new $112 million-dollar "Red Line." Passengers get dropped off on a suburban highway that is ferociously hostile to pedestrians, buses go back into traffic just where the road backs up, and there are only 800 riders a day.

But when BRT is taken as an opportunity to rethink how we use our roads, it can have a big payoff. Bus priority becomes a means of making more efficient use of the pavement we already have. It enables us to stop fruitlessly trying to fight congestion with wider highways, and instead turn traffic sewers into walkable streets.

Ben Ross was president of the Action Committee for Transit for 15 years. His book about the politics of urbanism and transit, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, is now available in paperback. 


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Excellent piece. As much as BRT is a diversion from rail, and as much as its advocacy can inconsistent, BRT promoters have done a good job of cataloging the possible ways to improve bus service, several of which are worthwhile.

The fundamental anti-urbanness of a Bogota or Curitiba-style 'gold standard' BRT is one of the most glossed-over shortcomings of bus-based high volume rapid transit. (The other is the interplay between ride quality (remember, BRT is supposed to be 'just like a train'), bus frequency, road damage (which scales as the fourth power of axle weight, and buses--especially the high-tech BRT vehicles once prominently touted--are very heavy), and the cost of busway construction and maintenance.)

Ten years ago or so, it seemed like there was an avalanche of BRT promotion (and accompanying disinformation). There was the infamous GAO "BRT shows promise" report, there were lots of credulous newspaper stories gushing about Curitiba, the Civis bus was on tour, and the fuel cell industry was backing a group putting out a lot of slick marketing. I don't follow transit advocacy as much as I did then, but is it fair to say that the reality of BRT has become more apparent and that transit advocates and professionals are more likely to be in agreement with this post?

by thm on Sep 9, 2013 11:43 am • linkreport

Having decent places/facilities in which to wait for the bus - rather than on an unpaved, steeply-banked burm 2ft. from speeding traffic - and at grade boarding so there's no delay in the lowering and raising of the bus at every stop - would be a huge step ahead in bus transit.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 9, 2013 12:00 pm • linkreport

There are 2 really awful things about BRT. One is that it is so often used as a bait and switch, to talk about getting the same service for less than rail, and then the BRT creep sets in, and things like signal priority, offboard payment, station shelters, and dedicated lanes get sacrificed, and all you end up with is brightly branded bendy buses with all the same problems of the buses your city had before.

The other big negative is when cities "save money" by ripping out legacy rail routes, paving them, and turning them into busways. Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Hartford won that pyrrhic victory of destroying rail to "improve" their transit.

Sadly, the BRT toolbox is filled with improvements that should be integral parts of any modern bus service, but instead of rolling them out incrementally, transit agencies only want to launch BRT projects where only a few routes get the benefit. This in turn stems from our country's lack of transit funding, and the need to bundle any upgrades into projects that qualify for federal spending.

by Mike on Sep 9, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

Too true, Mike.

That's why we must insist on a test route that is true BRT.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 9, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

But what is "true BRT"? Something like Curitiba or Bogota? Personally I think any US city would be insane to build something like that, because if they want to spend that much they should just go ahead and build rail in that dedicated lane and save in the long run.

Eugene and LA are probably as much BRT as any city should build, and in LA it probably should have been rail. They are maxing out rush-hour capacity and talking about adding platooned buses; with rail you could add length to the train and not have to pay the labor costs for an additional driver.

by MLD on Sep 9, 2013 12:41 pm • linkreport

MLD, that is exactly the reason that light rail is actually preferable in some cases. The long-term cost metrics are more favorable than they are for buses.

by Capt. Hilts on Sep 9, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

The other big negative is when cities "save money" by ripping out legacy rail routes, paving them, and turning them into busways. Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Hartford won that pyrrhic victory of destroying rail to "improve" their transit.
I can't speak for Pittsburgh or LA's situations - but in Hartford's case, there's the added insult of the fact that between the Aetna Viaduct replacement coming in seven to ten years and extra tracks on the New Haven - Hartford - Springfield rail line coming in ten to twenty years, most of the billion-dollar busway is going to be ripped right back out again - and the little bit that's going to be left over is sitting right in the way of Amtrak's 2040 Vision corridor.

So the best news about that joke of a project that I can give is that 90% of it will be gone by 2033, and there's an outside chance that none of it will be left in 2040. It was an embarrassing mistake, but thankfully one we won't have to live with.

by Ryan on Sep 9, 2013 1:41 pm • linkreport

The article is very self-contradictory. It first argues that a lot of bus systems claim to be BRT but are of poor quality, due to a piecemeal approach. At the same time, it claims that planners can't combine elements of BRT and thus must use a piecemeal approach to building BRT. In addition, most claims in this article are unsupported by any evidence (why can't local and express service BOTH run in the center median? how does BRT prevent other bus improvements?). I could go into more detail, but it doesn't look like too much thought went into the writing of this article.

by BRT on Sep 9, 2013 3:12 pm • linkreport

@BRT RE center medians, center-running BRT buses (like those in Bogota and Hangzhou, and the proposed plan for Ashland in Chicago) have doors on the left side of the vehicle. Most local buses don't. Obviously this isn't always the case--the K street transitway will have side platforms, and will only be served by local buses--but even if you combined center-running bus-only lanes with side platforms, local buses can't just dump passengers in the middle of the street...they need a curb to pull up to.

Also, center-running BRT with local stops and express stops would need at least three lanes so that express buses could pass the locals. There was a K Street transitway article here on GGW a few months back that discussed that problem.

I don't think Ben Ross' argument is all that contradictory...there are lots of articles out there on the interwebs that argue something along the lines of "BRT would be great if only it was gold-plated." It's good to see an argument that challenges gold-plated BRT as well. BRT (as a toolbox of elements) is a great enhancement for existing bus services; it isn't a rail replacement.

by Steven H on Sep 9, 2013 5:26 pm • linkreport

As a rule of thumb, if a project is marketed as BRT then it should be subject to stricter scrutiny. The "good" bus transit projects tend to eschew the BRT label, and instead are marketed as bus lanes, frequency improvements, system reorganizing, new buses, etc.

by Zmapper on Sep 9, 2013 8:16 pm • linkreport

I'm less inclined to criticize Pittsburgh's busways as being deficient compared to could be there with rail transit. Pittsburgh's hilly terrain, as we know, creates some difficulty for transportation planners, including the expansion of light rail. The East Busway, which parallels active freight rail line, has a fairly constrained right of way. If it could be upgraded to heavy rail transit (or light rail), the course of the busway misses some obvious employment centers and key neighborhood corridors (though it comes close in some cases). Stations would be in random places and in some cases, require passengers to negotiate a major elevation change via elevators, like at Baum Blvd, where the busway is at the bottom of a gorge/ravine and the surrounding neighborhood is considerably higher. The ability of buses to leave/enter the busway at certain points not only allows a quick express trip to/from downtown, but easy connections to other neighborhoods that wouldn't otherwise be connected or would be too expensive to create rail spurs from the main line of the busway.

by Michael_G on Sep 10, 2013 9:31 am • linkreport

I don't think that this says elements should not be combined - but rather that aiming to have all the elements in order to create BRT in a corridor with volumes high enough to justify rail on seperate ROW, is usually a mistake (compared to building rail). And that in the medium dense corridors where BRT makes sense, its probably not going to have all the elements.

Did I misread it?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 10, 2013 9:50 am • linkreport

Excellent points, Ben.

by Nancy Floreen on Sep 10, 2013 10:15 am • linkreport

The title suggests the piece will discuss how best to use BRT (or elements of BRT), but instead we're provided a litany of problems; in fact, BRT is damned with faint praise.

BRT is actually under construction in our area. Are there any thoughts on the BRT which will connect Crystal City with the Braddock Road Metro station?

by Rich on Sep 10, 2013 10:16 am • linkreport

Traveled by Train and Bus in Denmark a few years ago. From the passenger point of view it was fantastic. At the station in Copenhagen we were assisted with our route and were able to buy tickets for the whole trip then. When we came to our destination on Bus,Train or boat, and needed to transfer,the transfer vehicle was waiting for us and off we went. Don't know how they coordinated this between Bus and Train, and boat, but it was great.

by Nancy Miller on Sep 10, 2013 10:18 am • linkreport

@ Nancy Miller

Are you talking about The Copenhagen Metro and S Trains or Intercity Trains and Buses to places beyond Copenhagen? The first sentence makes it seem as if you traveled all over Denmark but the following sentence speaks of Copenhagen.

by kk on Sep 10, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

We started in Copenhagen, traveled all over Denmark and back to Copenhagen.

by Nancy Miller on Sep 10, 2013 11:03 am • linkreport

The fraud involving Bus Rapid Transit comes when its advocates - at times including the Federal Transit Administration - describe it as "Providing all of the benefits of light rail transit at a fraction of the cost." What they never do is define the fraction. Is it one-tenth, one-half or eight-tenths? From a passenger's standpoint, a bus is still a bus including its poorer riding qualities than a light rail vehicle. There needs to be an evaluation of what is obtained for the difference in investment before chosing BRT over LRT just because the former is "cheaper."

And, deniers of facts to the contrary, LRT can go anywhere that BRT can. Pittsburgh has 10 percent grades - both ascending and descending - on its LRT system; its streetcar system, largely dismantled in the 1960s, had ascending grades in places over 14 percent. Other American cities, including Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco, have grades in the 8 to 9 percent range on the LRT systems; the so-called “superiority of BRT” when it comes to infrastructure possibilities is nonsense. Wherever BRT can go so can LRT.

Yes, capital investment in an LRT is likely to be greater than some version of BRT, but that investment will last for decades longer, provide lower operating and maintenance costs, and greater passenger-carrying capacity. Let us not be suckered by propaganda designed to support the use of oil and rubber.

by Philip G. Craig on Sep 15, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

Yes, this post is confusing in its aims. Also, it's somewhat credulous about the supposed benefit of BRT in the curb lane (inevitably shared with right turning cars). If the corridor is, or becomes, a successful one, pedestrians crossing the street in parallel will inevitably slow down right-turning cars, which will then inevitably stop the supposedly rapid transit vehicle dead in its "tracks". Oops.

by M1EK on Sep 17, 2013 9:58 am • linkreport

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