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Transit


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.

History


The shiny future, through the eyes of the past

In the 1950s, many center cities were in decline, crime-ridden, smelly, and crowded. Meanwhile, suburbs were new, shiny, and full of promise. Civic leaders very seriously believed that ripping out most of the old downtowns and replacing them with tall towers surrounding by parking would actually improve the quality of life in the city. This 1955 video from Pittsburgh extols leaders' wisdom in knocking down most of an older warehouse district, putting up giant freeway interchanges and some office towers in its place.

Tom Vanderbilt writes,

The irony of this video (and, I must say, the supposed congestion horror depicted here looks pretty tame) is that just about everything that's proposed here is the sort of thing that, half a century later, would be seen as a nightmare from which cities were trying to awake. ...

It's hard not to see Le Corb and Broadacre City all over that image of the tall tower, surrounded by acres of parking my initial thought was, where would you go for lunch? It's the sort of mundane question the motopians never paused much to consider as they drafted their gleaming tomorrows.

This article summarizes the successes and failures of Pittsburgh's far-reaching mid-century urban renewal program. At the Point, the subject of the video, the clearing did bring some immediate benefits, drawing more jobs into the area than were there before. However, we can't know how much more vibrant that district might be today had the warehouses been preserved. Nearby, planners demolished the Lower Hill residential area largely because the immigrant families populating it had less political power to stop it.
The population of the Lower Hill dropped from 17,334 in 1950 to 2,459 in 1990. People forced to leave the integrated area moved mainly to neighborhoods that reflected their own race, thus worsening the city's segregation problem. By 1960, Pittsburgh was one of the most segregated big cities in America. ...

A 1968 editorial in The Pittsburgh Press read, "The men of the Renaissance have been unable to produce anything but a crop of weeds on 9.2 acres of prime public land next to the Civic Arena." The land remains a parking lot today.

Ironically, while today we talk about "human scale" in terms of smaller plazas that work for people, detail on buildings, ground-floor articulation, and other elements of a more walkable urban place, the advocates of urban renewal also used the same phrase. According to the Post-Gazette, Fortune Magazine said in the 1950s, "Pittsburgh is the test of industrialism everywhere to renew itself, to rebuild upon the gritty ruins of the past a society more equitable, more spacious, more in human scale."

At that time, planners thought that auto-dependent freeway cloverleafs were more "human" than historic downtowns.

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