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The US has only 5 true BRT systems, and none are "gold"

When new bus rapid transit lines are discussed, proponents often say they hope to make the routes gold standard, meaning so high-quality that they mimic many features of rail. That's a high bar; most BRT projects in the United States don't even qualify as true BRT, and so far not one has actually met the gold standard.

Cleveland's Health Line, America's highest-scoring BRT. Photo from EMBARQ Brasil on Flickr.

The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy publishes BRT standards that describe minimum characteristics necessary for a bus route to qualify as BRT. Those standards establish three levels of BRT quality: bronze, silver, and gold. They include features like off-bus fare collection, high station platforms, and bus frequency.

So far, only 5 lines in the United States have scored highly enough to qualify as true BRT, and all 5 rank at the bronze level. Not one is even silver, let alone gold.

According to ITDP, the best performing BRT systems in the world are Bogota, Colombia and Guangzhou, China, which score 93/100 and 89/100, respectively. They are the gold standard.

By comparison, the United States' highest-scoring BRT route is Cleveland's Health Line, which hits bronze with a score of 63. The other 4 bronze BRT lines in there US are in Eugene, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Las Vegas.

Boston's famous Silver Line, which even runs in a subway for a short stretch, scores a meager 37. That's not enough to qualify as true BRT at all, even a low level.

It isn't that gold standard BRT is impossible in the United States. Certainly it's possible. But it isn't built here because nobody really wants to build it.

The same community leaders who choose BRT over rail, because BRT is cheaper, then make the same choice when faced with other potential cost-cutting measures. They eliminate the most expensive features, until the gold standard that was promised isn't actually what's delivered.

That sort of feature cutting is called BRT creep, and so far it's happened to some extent on every major BRT project in American history.

None of this should suggest that BRT is worthless. Sometimes BRT creep can even be beneficial, if it makes an otherwise infeasible project possible. Bronze level BRT is still rapid transit, after all, and even bus priority routes that don't fully qualify as actual BRT are often a huge improvement over regular busing.

WMATA's MetroExtra service, for example, isn't usually called BRT even by low American standards, but it's still a great service. It was something Metro could do quickly and cheaply to help riders, and it works.

But beware the politician who argues for gold standard BRT over rail. Odds are they won't deliver.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Which city's rail system has the best Walk Score?

Last week, David Klion computed the Walk Score for all Washington Metro stops. How does Metro stack up to the other heavy rail systems in the United States? The answers may surprise you.

I analyzed the 11 heavy rail systems in the United States. Some of these cities also have light rail, commuter rail, or other transit systems, but I didn't count those. That means in Boston, I looked at stations on the Red, Blue, and Orange lines, but not Green. (Why?)

I also combined heavy rail stations from multiple operators in the same region. For example, the Philadelphia score counts both SEPTA and PATCO heavy rail stations. New York's includes PATH and the Staten Island Railway (SIRT).

And the winner is... Los Angeles?

I was surprised by the results. Los Angeles scored the highest! I certainly did not expect that. Though in hindsight, it makes a good deal of sense.

Los Angeles has only 2 heavy rail lines, the Red and Purple lines. Those lines are confined to a relatively small area in the LA Basin, with the exception of 2 stations on the Red Line in the San Fernando Valley. And while Southern California has a reputation for being sprawling, the LA Basin is actually fairly dense, especially where the Metro has been built. As a result, its score isn't dragged down by suburban park and ride stations.

In the same respect, I was surprised that BART scored better than WMATA. Large portions of the DC system serve areas that are urban or urbanizing. In contrast, BART's system is much more suburban-oriented and has very little in the way of urban circulation.

Also surprising is that New York is not an outlier. It does come in a close second to Los Angeles, but I really expected it to be off the charts compared to everyone else. The New York City Subway alone scores 90.47 without PATH and SIRT, still just below LA; SIRT averages 71.45 while PATH is higher, 92.23, but its relatively small size (13 stations) means it doesn't change the New York average even a tenth of a point.

What is not very surprising is that the sunbelt cities (except LA) score more poorly than the more urban older cities (except for Cleveland). Cleveland is at a disadvantage because of the structure of its transit system. The system only has one stop in the central business district, and that station's score isn't that impressive anyway, which harms the average.

Distribution matters

The chart above shows how Walk Scores for stations in each system are distributed. The green bars give the average score. The rectangle shows the 25th and 75th percentiles, and the lines with dots at each end show the highest and lowest Walk Scores for any station in that system.

At the high end, several cities had at least one station (sometimes several) with perfect 100-point scores. The lowest score for any station nationwide was 28 points. Two stations in the Washington regionArlington Cemetery and Morgan Boulevardand one station in San FranciscoNorth Concord/Martinezhad that score.

The distribution is important in understanding how well distributed the well-scoring stations are in the system.

In Washington, the distribution is weighted more toward good-scoring stations, but there are still a lot of poor-scoring stations, too.

Compare that to San Francisco's BART, where there are fewer poor-scoring stations. Instead, there are a large quantity of stations in the middle of the distribution.

New York and Cleveland offer contrast to each other. While most New York stations score very well, Cleveland's don't rank above medium.


The Walk Score algorithm is not perfect. It works by calculating the quantities and distances of various amenties. There are other factors which it does not measure that help to define the walkability of an area.

For example, a street grid makes an area much more walkable than a sprawling network of superblocks and culs-de-sac. The quality and proliferation of sidewalks also influences walkability. But these factors aren't currently part of Walk Score; there's no good data file for Walk Score to use that shows where there are and aren't good sidewalks, for example.

Regardless, Walk Score gives us a standard and fairly good measure to compare transit stations (and systems) to each other.

Why I didn't count light rail or other transit

I'm sure this will prove to be controversial, and that's fine. I did not include the light rail elements of systems in cities like Boston for 3 primary reasons:

  1. Peer comparison: I wanted to create an apples-to-apples comparison, as best as possible. While the Washington Metro is easily comparable to BART, it doesn't make as much sense to compare a Metro stop to a Muni LRT stop on the west side of San Francsico that is just a sign on a telephone pole.
  2. To limit the scope: This project took a good amount of time as it was. I did not want to extend that time by trying to measure too much. Besides, I (or someone) can always do a follow-up with light rail.
  3. To avoid "mode creep": If we take Boston as an example, limiting the scope of the survey to heavy rail avoids the mode creep that can exacerbate the problems listed above. If I were to consider the Green Line, I would need to consider all of it. And if I'm considering the street-running portions of the Green Line, how can I not consider the full subway portions of the Silver Line in East Boston? And then would I not have to also include the Washington Avenue portion, that is essentially arterial bus?
This analysis is limited, as any analysis would be. I chose to try to keep it from expanding too far by limiting it to one mode. It would be interesting to look at the omitted lines, and perhaps that will happen in a future analysis.


In fringe suburbs, has economics trumped the appeal of new?

The recession and the burst of the housing bubble have stopped development in many fringe suburbs. With many urban neighborhoods on the rise, some suggest that fringe suburbs are on the decline. Has simple economics surpassed the appeal of "new" in the hinterlands?

Photo by Mark Strozier on Flickr.

There's been a lot of chatter around the blogosphere about Christopher Leinberger's New York Times op-ed that I think really hits the nail on the head when it comes to the issue of what's ahead for fringe suburbs.

Basically, the hypothesis presented is that fringe suburbs are headed downward, and I think this piece of evidence is really the most damning:

Many drivable-fringe house prices are now below replacement value, meaning the land under the house has no value and the sticks and bricks are worth less than they would cost to replace. This means there is no financial incentive to maintain the house; the next dollar invested will not be recouped upon resale. Many of these houses will be converted to rentals, which are rarely as well maintained as owner-occupied housing. Add the fact that the houses were built with cheap materials and methods to begin with, and you see why many fringe suburbs are turning into slums, with abandoned housing and rising crime.
Leinberger goes on and cites several examples of urban neighborhoods that have transformed from slum to hip in recent history: Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio; and Logan Circle in Washington.

I don't know much about Capitol Hill or Virginia Highland, but I do know something about Logan Circle and German Village. One very important (and I think non-trivial) quality that they share is that they both have a high quality, durable housing stock that has held up very well, given its age, all things considered.

When I think about what made cookie cutter houses in suburbs appealing to people, in addition to the square footage and the yards and the school systems, I really suspect that one of the things that people were drawn to was the absolute "newness" of everything. People love having new stuffnew appliances, new counter tops, new floors. When stuff is brand new, it's almost guaranteed to be in style. When it's brand new, it's not in need of immediate repair. There's a lot to like about brand new.

The problem though, as Leinberger notes, is that fringe suburbs were literally built on the cheap. They may have looked nice initially, but the drywall they used to throw up houses in Prince William County is not the same as the brick they used to build rowhouses in Dupont Circle. At the time, the appliances they put into new suburban homes might have been nicer than what was in old urban houses, but appliances can easily be replaced, structures can't.

Around DC, a lot of old rowhouses have gone through the process of renovationsome have gone through many renovations since originally being built. The interiors have been gutted, redesigned and rebuilt, but the physical structure is generally the same. These houses were built to last, I can only imagine what a cookie-cutter house on the suburban fringe might look like in 100 years. The rowhouses in DC that have been re-built look beautiful, easily as nice as what got built in the suburbs during the boom.

At one point, the suburbs looked so much "nicer" because that's where the building wasthat's where stuff was brand new. That's not necessarily true anymore. Now, some of the newest, shiniest stuff is right in the heart of the city.

I was reminded of this when I saw this article in the Plain Dealer last month. The author makes the case that there's more demand for housing in downtown Cleveland than the market can keep up with. A lot of folks will use this as evidence of a downtown renaissance, I think it says that people are no longer afraid to live downtown (something that was true in Cleveland for many years) but I also suspect it has something to do with the quality of downtown housing.

While it seems true that downtown Cleveland is doing well, many other urban Cleveland neighborhoods are not doing well at all. The apartments and condos popping up downtown are all brand new, beautifully renovated spaces. The houses in Cleveland's urban neighborhoods, on the other hand, are much lower quality. Compared to Washington's rowhouses, they're downright terrible. I suspect that many of Cleveland's houses are also below replacement value. The only hope is to knock them down, and that's exactly what's happening.

When I studied home prices in Cleveland a few years ago (pdf), I found that while downtown was in fact the neighborhood in the city with the highest prices, there was nevertheless a positive relationship between home price and the distance from the city center. In other words, the farther from downtown you went, the higher the price of homes. It was "drive til you qualify" in reverse.

I think the future of suburbs as Leinberger imagines them is going to look like some of Cleveland's neighborhoods today - Hough, Mount Pleasant, Cudellplaces with generally poor housing stock that isn't worth fixing up. Places where crime is frustratingly high, where most of the housing that isn't vacant is renter-occupied, and where few are willing to make any investment.

Is it true to say that millennials and baby boomers have a taste for urban living? I think there is good evidence to support that theory, but it's clearly the case that they don't want to live just anywhere in the city. Nobody wants to live in a slum, and the type of homes that people want has to meet at least a certain threshold of quality.

In high-cost cities, like DC, that's not so hard to pull off. A $200,000 rowhouse rehab might be well worth the cost when you can turn around and sell the house for half a million or more. A similar job simply doesn't make any financial sense in a city like Cleveland. In fact, the Plain Dealer article above specifically says that developers aren't building in downtown Cleveland without government incentives because the rents are too low to support the kind of investment they need to make.

I think the more realistic assessment of suburbs and cities is that some suburbs will see a precipitous decline, some urban neighborhoods will experience a renaissance, and the degree to which each happens will be highly dependent on local market conditions. In other words, it will happen, but it won't be as clear cut as the magazine articles might lead you to believe.

Crossposted on Extraordinary Observations.


"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.


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.
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