Greater Greater Washington


"BRT creep" makes bus rapid transit inferior to rail

Can the US make Bus Rapid Transit work as well as Latin America? Tanya Snyder asks that question in GGW and Streetsblog.

Curitiba BRT station. Photo by

BRT systems in places like Bogota and Curitiba have narrowed the gap between bus and rail, producing BRT lines nearly as good as subways. If they produce such great BRT, why should American BRT be considered the little sister of rail?

The answer is something I call "BRT creep". Putting aside the inherent differences between bus and rail, one of the big problems with BRT is that it's too easy to strip down. There are too many corners you can cut that save a lot of money and only degrade service a little bit.

You put your BRT in HOV lanes or regular travel lanes instead of dedicated lanes, or you build "stops" rather than more luxurious "stations", or you leave out pre-pay, or you don't give buses signal priority, or you don't give your BRT unique branding, or whatever. There are a thousand corners like that you can cut that individually may or may not hurt too much, but collectively add up to the difference between BRT and a regular bus.

In the US, BRT creep is a big problem. Generally speaking the main reason American cities opt to build BRT instead of rail is to cut a corner and make it less expensive. Once you've adopted that view of your transit systemthat cutting corners to save money is OKit's too easy to keep going and cut a lot of other corners as well. Once you've made the decision to cheap out and go with BRT rather than rail, then your priorities are clear and the temptation to cheap out in other ways is too strong to pass up.

It happens all the time. The four leading examples of recently-built BRT in the United States are in Boston, Cleveland, Eugene, and Los Angeles. Boston's Silver Line BRT was built with curbside bus lanes like the one on 7th Street in DC, and is perpetually stuck behind car traffic using the lane illegally. Cleveland's Euclid Avenue BRT spends half its time stopped at red lights because it doesn't include signal preemption.

Eugene's EmX BRT doesn't even have its own lane for much of its route. LA's San Fernando Valley Orange Line BRT is probably this country's most successful "rail like" bus line, but even it was forced to repave its running way after barely a year of operation because the originally-constructed running way was substandard. So far, every example of BRT built in the United States has cut at least one extremely damaging corner.

And then there's Northern Virginia, where the HOV lanes on I-395 and I-95 that the state wants to convert to HOT lanes were originally built as a bus-only facility. Here, we built a pretty good busway and have spent the years since opening it up to more and more use by cars.

And why not? After all, if your goal is to substitute a less expensive but less effective alternate mode, why should anyone be surprised when you make the same sort of substitution when it comes to details of running way engineering or signalization?

If BRT is just a way to avoid spending a lot on transit so more can go to highways, why be surprised when BRT lanes are converted to car lanes? If decision makers were actually interested in spending the money to produce a transit line as good as rail, well, why not build rail?

I don't mean to suggest that BRT alone suffers from these problems, or that it's useless. Certainly rail projects can suffer from creeping cost reductions as well, and certainly good busesincluding rapid onesshould be a part of every major transit system.

Still, as long as US planners think of BRT as a cheap replacement for rail, then the US will be very unlikely to ever produce BRT that is actually rail-like (as much as it can be anyway), because that mindset inherently undervalues many of the specific features that are needed to produce a high-quality transit line, regardless of mode.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 


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Jarrett Walker over at Human Transit has covered this subject frequently, with some recent high-profile articles really spurring a lot of this recent debate. Here are 3 of his recent articles on rail/bus differences in reverse-chronological order:

by Bossi on Mar 9, 2011 3:23 pm • linkreport

Perception is key with transit...

If a system is perceived to be inferior or "of a cost-cutting nature", it won't lure people out of cars. This is exactly what happened with bustitution: cities across America replaced the streetcars of yesteryear with loud, smelly buses that no one seems to like, diminishing the allure of taking transit.

This reminds me of a old saying:
"If you build it, they will come" (except for BRT in the USA)

by John M on Mar 9, 2011 3:34 pm • linkreport

One could turn this around and ask you about your need to put trolleys everywhere:
After all, if your goal is to substitute a more expensive but not substantially more effective alternate mode...

by EJ on Mar 9, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

The same exact thing can, and often does, happen with LRT. Look at Philly's Girard Avenue trolley, which is slower than the bus it replaced, yet was originally supposed to be a light rail line. In a lot of ways, in traffic rail is remarkably inferior to busses.

I'd agree with you that there is a problem with BRT being sold as something that is less expensive than rail, and receiving something inferior, but it doesn't seem to me that there's anything inherent about rail that makes it any less prone to cost-cutting.

by ldrks on Mar 9, 2011 3:44 pm • linkreport

Cost is not the only reason that BRT in US practice seems invariably to fall short of the vision touted by its advocates. Another problem is traffic engineers' resistance to giving buses priority over cars on the road -- resistance that often comes from the same agencies that are touting BRT as an alternative to rail.

When BRT is proposed as an alternative to rail, reserved bus lanes, signal priorities, etc. need to be implemented on existing bus routes before it can be considered. Unless agencies are willing to give buses priority on their existing streets, there is no reason to think that BRT will ever be "real" BRT.

by Ben Ross on Mar 9, 2011 3:46 pm • linkreport

If the FTA pays for the lanes are there restrictions on opening the lanes up to all traffic (like having to pay the FTA back). I know that is the case for highway to transit like with the I-90 bridge in Seattle.

by jon on Mar 9, 2011 3:53 pm • linkreport

As you mention, rail is also vulnerable to this "creep." DC streetcar will not have dedicated right of way or fare prepayment. Is there reason to believe that service will be any faster or more reliable than limited-stop bus?

I know the purpose of the streetcar is to create a buzz, much bigger than a bus project could, in order to spur economic development, but wouldn't it also be nice to get a public transit benefit proportional to the investment?

by @ruSERIOUSINGme on Mar 9, 2011 3:56 pm • linkreport

BRT doesn't work everywhere, just like light rale doesn't work everywhere.

The idea of dedicated ROW works against both forms of transportation similarly, which is a legimate critique of the proposed dc streetcar system.

Why spend all the money on a streetcar that has to share a road with all the other vehicle traffic, when you could accomplish the exact same transportation goals by spending a fraction on more buses.

The proposed K Street Transit Way is the only plan I've seen for the District that does it right, in that it seperates the bus/streetcar lanes from the rest of the traffic on K Street.

Anything else is just dumping good money after bad.

by freely on Mar 9, 2011 3:57 pm • linkreport

I don't think it's fair to say, we must either be very expensive (rail), or very cheap (local bus). BRT is the middle ground and if it is done right, is as good as rail and much less expensive. Rather than two sides fighting for their ideals, maybe we could compromise on a successful middle ground.
Take the purple line for example: transit advocates hated the idea of BRT because they knew it would be done cheaply (as the author says). Fiscal hawks hated the light rail because of the price tag. It would have been a good opportunity to try real BRT. Oh well.

by Pat on Mar 9, 2011 4:00 pm • linkreport

Pat - The "fiscal hawks" hated the Purple Line because it went past their back yard or their golf course. The same people who advocated BRT had previously advocated a multibillion dollar underground heavy rail line that would branch off the Red Line.

The "BRT" route supported by Governor Ehrlich actually involved buses running in traffic on a two-lane road, in order to avoid the golf course. More details, with additional examples of the opponents' double standards, are here.

The Purple Line exemplifies advocacy for BRT as an excuse for stopping rail.

by Ben Ross on Mar 9, 2011 4:07 pm • linkreport

@Ben Ross-

Not all traffic engineers! The mindset is changing... it just has a long way to go.

Although, the mindset is tending toward moving *users* rather than *vehicles*. This sounds well and good, but this necessitates that there also be increased coordination with planning practices.

Given current mode splits, being user-focused can still seem car-centric. The next step is in boosting the ped/transit mode shares, to which proper planning & growth practices are critical toward ensuring that transit-oriented & bikeable/walkable development work.

RE: Mixed Traffic Rail

Most bus/rail traits are extremely similar, with most differences being more perceived than anything. But one critical issue is that rail can't leave their lane... as others have said, I'm quite skeptical of rail which shares lanes w/ general traffic -- particularly along curb lanes where other motorists are likely to stop.

Malfunctioning vehicles can also be an issue even in exclusive right-of-way, necessitating single-tracking between the nearest crossovers (and hope that there aren't any trains in between which will have to either wait or back out).

I'm rather fond of rail vehicles in exclusive right-of-way, but willing to consider that buses can also work well. However, when I look at the design of the streetcars proposed for the DC region: I become a bit of a skeptic. Not necessarily in opposition... but not entirely supportive of their current form, either.

by Bossi on Mar 9, 2011 4:09 pm • linkreport

I think it's quite common for BRT boosters to talk about the performance of an expensive system and then seamlessly switch gears to talk about the cost of a featureless system. For example, someone describes how wonderful the systems in Bogota or Curitiba are, and then suggests that 'the humble bus' might be a better choice for DC than streetcars, glossing over the fact that dedicated surface-level rights-of-way were *never* on the table for DC's transit expansion.

One other thing that gets lost in the discussion of the wonderfulness of Bogota or Curitiba's systems is how anti-urbanist they are, at root. In the central core they are, together with the parallel roads for cars, tremendously massive multilane monsters. I suppose if you've already carved up your city with a twelve-lane expressway, then re-dedicating some of the lanes to express buses is not a bad way to improve the mobility of the carless. But it's not the sort of thing you'd want to build from scratch.

by thm on Mar 9, 2011 4:13 pm • linkreport

Given what was said about the LA-San Fernando line, I do have to wonder how much damage articulated buses do to road surfaces. One reason riding a bus is miserable is how badly maintained our roads our -- truly on a french level.

by charlie on Mar 9, 2011 5:15 pm • linkreport

I think it's quite common for BRT boosters to talk about the performance of an expensive system and then seamlessly switch gears to talk about the cost of a featureless system. For example, someone describes how wonderful the systems in Bogota or Curitiba are, and then suggests that 'the humble bus' might be a better choice for DC than streetcars, glossing over the fact that dedicated surface-level rights-of-way were *never* on the table for DC's transit expansion.

This. Once you've built a real BRT system (dedicated rights-of-way, stations, etc.) the costs to go to rail are actually not that much, and they are made up for by the fact that the rails require less maintenance than a bus lane (pavement with buses pounding it all day wears out much faster) and the fact that your rail vehicles last 5x as long as a bus.

by MLD on Mar 10, 2011 9:42 am • linkreport

So exactly what does the "R" stand for? ;-)

by Steve O on Mar 10, 2011 10:11 am • linkreport

DC streetcar will not have dedicated right of way or fare prepayment

This is untrue. The H St line will run with traffic, but the most congested segments (ie. K St) will run in their own lanes. Also, all lines will be given signal priority.

by andrew on Mar 10, 2011 10:32 am • linkreport

The express lanes on what is now I-395 were not built as bus lanes or a busway. They were built as general-purpose lanes but before they were opened to traffic, a far-sighted Northern Virginia Transportation Commission lobbied of exclusive bus use during peak period and the Virginia Department of Highways (yes, highways) agreed to it. The best example of how autos have gained advantage is at the 14th Street Bridge where the HOV incentive was discontinued temporarily, for reconstruction of the Case Bridge in DC, and never reinstated

by Mark on Mar 10, 2011 10:51 am • linkreport

It is a strange argument to say that these projects shouldn't happen because they've never been done correctly.

US BRT systems have improved a lot in recent years, so there's not far to go in getting some high quality examples. Latin cities purse BRT because it is less expensive and financially sustainble, and they have figured out a way to make it work without making cuts that lower quality. There was a learning curve there, as has been the case all over and is the case here. It is disheartnening, however, to see such reluctance among transit advocates -- which I assume is mostly due to their own personal preference for rail.

by norb on Mar 10, 2011 11:09 am • linkreport

Another question is capacity. Those BRTs in LA are packed to the gills -- that's the advantage rail has over buses. The LA buses make some of the S2s on 16th at rush hour look roomy.

by lou on Mar 10, 2011 12:19 pm • linkreport

Check out the Seoul bus system... I've taken it many times since I lived there and it's one of the best bus systems I've ever ridden. The roads are separated only by paint but for some reasons, I've never seen regular cars even cross into the lanes.

by pathfinder8 on Mar 13, 2011 3:22 am • linkreport

Mike Madden, the Purple Line project manager for Maryland, has said in both written and oral testimony that the light rail will the "subject to traffic" for 12 miles of the 16 mile route. He testified that trains could go up to 45 mph for 4 miles but then much more slowly for the rest of the route. This does not sound so much better than BRT. I do not belong to the Country Club and live in DC so am not near the Purple Line route. However, I think it is unconscionable to clear-cut and destroy an existing linear park/multi-use trail used by thousands of people of all ages each week. I am a transit rider and proponent but is it really wise to be adding a totally different, expensive mode? Unfortunately many are under the impression that the Purple Line will be part of Metro.

by aileen worthington on Mar 16, 2011 9:56 am • linkreport


"Subject to traffic" is a vague term which can encompass an exclusive lane just for transit but that still has to stop at traffic signals; as well as a streetcar or local bus which is sharing the same lane with traffic.

The Purple Line only shares with traffic for a very small portion, and on that portion is a pretty low volume of traffic. At most other times: it's in its own lanes but is still stopping at signals. The speed limit for the rail vehicles would be the same as the road traffic; there are very few segments where the roadway speed limit is as high as 45.

It's still unknown who will operate the Purple Line: MTA or WMATA. Of course, I do agree that there's a big disconnect in that many people envision this as a subway... even some of my closest friends haven't quite come to understand that yet.

by Bossi on Mar 16, 2011 10:04 am • linkreport

Jumping in late here, but I biked Jones Mill Rd last weekend as part of a larger group ride. There's NO WAY IN H*$& that BRT along that road would work as an effective alternative to the planned Purple Line routing. Too narrow, too hilly, and an even worse right-of-way mess than the existing LRT + bike/ped path along the Georgetown Branch.

by Froggie on Mar 17, 2011 11:06 am • linkreport

BRT should never mix with normal traffic. BRT should run on its own right-of-way. Anything less is just regular bus service with a fancy name. If you're not going to build it right, then don't build it at all. But doing things half-assed seems to be the American way, at least in regard to public transportation.

I'd sooner see more money spent on rail than a kludged-together 'BRT' system where the moral imperative seems to be building the cheapest possible system and still getting away with calling it "BRT".

by Tommy on Mar 5, 2012 9:14 am • linkreport

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