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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.


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.


"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 system—that cutting corners to save money is OK—it'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 buses—including rapid ones—should 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.

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