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Bus Rapid Transit Offers a Fast, Low-Cost Alternative

June 9, 2014

With Americans seeking out new forms of transportation in congested urban areas, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is emerging as a relative.ly low-cost alternative. The 25 BRT systems now in operation across the United States vary considerably, but most share characteristics such as dedicated lanes, larger capacities than regular buses, faster trips, and more rail-like stations. Although new BRT systems in places like Boston and Eugene, Oregon, have proved highly popular, some opponents contend that light rail systems are generally a better choice.

As any frequent driver knows all too well, American roadways are crowded. And with the population expected to increase 100 million by 2050, it’s a problem that’s only going to become more pressing. Nearly half of those surveyed in the 2009 Growth and Transportation survey, sponsored by the National Association of REALTORS® and Transportation for America, thought that improving public transit was the best way to cut down on local traffic. So communities from Puyallup, Washington, to Chicago to Bergen County, New Jersey, are turning to Bus Rapid Transit, an affordable, efficient alternative to intercity rail. Supporters say that Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, can cut down on congestion while improving access to employment centers and cultural attractions.

Strictly defined, BRT has seven characteristics:

  • Dedicated lanes on streets or highways
  • Stations that go beyond bus shelters, with benches, lighting, ticket vending machines, and information on arrival times for the next buses
  • Specialized, articulated buses that carry more passengers than regular buses
  • Improved fare collection systems
  • Advanced technology that allows vehicles to change upcoming traffic signals and provide real-time travel information to passengers
  • Improved service such as faster trips and better reliability
  • Branding and marketing, including special signs, distinctive logos, and colors for the buses and stations

Most of the 25 metropolitan areas across the United States with Bus Rapid Transit don’t incorporate all seven features. Cities as varied in size as Los Angeles; Hartford, Connecticut; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Eugene, Oregon, operate BRT programs that conform to the needs of the area. Some systems are doing little more than calling a bus route BRT, while others meet several qualifications, such as running on a dedicated lane during peak traffic times and being able to affect traffic signals.

An elaborate BRT system can cost $300 million to $400 million. But even small changes that might cost as little as $1 to $2 million, such as upgrading bus shelters and running a bus that stops at every other stop, can make a difference, says Dennis Hinebaugh, director of the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute in Tampa, Florida. “Take the best route on your system and make it more rapid,” he suggested. 

Encouraging Beginnings

Early versions of Bus Rapid Transit date back several decades, but only in the past five to 10 years have communities around the United States engaged in earnest discussions to adopt these systems. Most have been implemented just in the past three years.

One model of a BRT system is the TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia, launched in late 2000. According to a World Bank report, by early 2004 TransMilenio was running as many as 280 buses an hour in each direction and providing up to 900,000 passenger trips on an average weekday, or about 16 percent of the city’s public transportation trips. According to TransMilenio, air pollution along its corridors decreased 40 percent in the system’s first year of operation.

In the United States, Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor Transpor.tation Project is the newest full-scale BRT. Launched in fall 2008, the BRT, called the HealthLine System, uses 63-foot, hybrid diesel-electric, articulated buses that can hold as many as 111 passengers (seated and standing) and have two interior bicycle racks. The seven-mile route, through one of Cleveland’s oldest areas, uses special median bus lanes and is being adorned with $1.2 million worth of public art. The corridor links downtown Cleveland to major hospitals and Case Western Reserve University, as well as to cultural attractions. Since the HealthLine System began running last October, ridership is up nearly 40 percent.

A Burgeoning Success in Eugene

It didn’t take long for people in the Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, areas to take to their Bus Rapid Transit system. After 12 years of community discussion and planning, the Emerald Express, or EmX, debuted in January 2007, replacing what had been a regular bus line. Before the EmX, the route drew 2,700 boardings per day; now, it averages 6,000, says Andy Vobora, director of service planning, accessibility and marketing for the Lane Transit District, which runs the service. “Our projection was a 40 percent increase in ridership over a 20-year period. So we’re pleased with that,” he said. So far, the service has been free, but fares will begin this summer.

The EmX’s four-mile route connects downtown Eugene with downtown Springfield and uses the same type of elongated buses that Cleveland’s system has adopted. It also has median bus lanes separated from traffic, median transit stations, and signal priority. “We tried to create, probably, the most extensive BRT system around, in terms of amenities. We were try.ing to emulate light rail,” Vobora says. 

EmX stations are one-third to one-half a mile apart, which means there are fewer stops than with a regular bus. People have to walk a little farther, which may be more difficult for older or disabled passengers, but few have voiced concerns, according to Vobora. One benefit is faster travel time. The regular bus traversed the route in 22 minutes while the EmX takes 16 minutes or less.

Skeptics may ask if it was worth spending $24 million to create the four-mile EmX stretch just to save six minutes. Vobora’s reply: “Even that is pretty significant in terms of operational cost savings.” In other words, fewer buses are needed to provide the same service. And the real impact will be felt when a 7.5-mile, $41 million extension opens in 2010.

Eugene’s EmX quickly drew recognition from around the United States. The BRT system received an Honorable Mention from the 2008 Sustainable Transport Awards, sponsored by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York. Eugene was the only United States city nominated for the awards, whose top honors went to London and Paris.

Boston’s Popular Silver Line

In the Boston area, traffic is often an issue because the streets are former cow paths and were never laid out in a grid formation like most other big cities, says Gregory Vasil, chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “Our members were seeing…a number of people that were looking for homes very close to public transportation nodes--commuter rail, subway, or bus routes. Traffic is a nightmare, and people would rather take public transportation than drive,” Vasil said.

It makes sense, then, that Boston’s Silver Line also has been popular with passengers. Skirting Boston’s waterfront and extending to Logan Airport, the Silver Line opened in 2005 and has become the busiest of the 185 bus routes operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). On a typical weekday, the Silver Line has 14,200 boardings compared to 800 to 13,000 a day on the other bus routes.

The Silver Line is just one part of a massive transit system in the Boston area that also includes light rail and subways. Joe Pesaturo, director of communications, notes when planning was underway, some people thought the Silver Line should be a light rail or trolley system, but the cost would have been substantially higher. “And trolleys still compete with traffic,” he says. “All it takes is one car, one accident and trolleys have to come to a stop.” A bus can veer around a crash scene and keep going.

BRT vs. Light Rail

Opponents say Bus Rapid Transit doesn’t measure up to light rail when it comes to long-term labor costs, fuel use, or economic development. “You can’t make a bus into a train and that’s what’s been promoted,” said Dave Dobbs, publisher of LightRailNow.org, based in Austin, Texas. 

A study by the California Center for Innovative Transportation showed the Orange Line, a BRT route that travels from the end of a subway line across the San Fernando Valley, has reduced traffic congestion on the parallel U.S. Highway 101 by 14 percent. Dobbs says he thinks the Orange Line probably could have been converted to light rail for a relatively small cost “and would carry even more people than it does today.” According to Dobbs, about 50 United States cities either have light rail lines or are considering building them; France is building an electric-powered light rail system in every city of 100,000 or more. “Operational costs of light rail, over time, are much lower than a bus,” Dobbs said. He said a study by LightRailNow.org shows energy consumption on a per-passenger-mile basis is lower with light rail than with cars or buses.

Dobbs also contends that Bus Rapid Transit does little to encourage economic development along its routes because bus routes are less permanent than rail lines and can be changed. “A bus tends to be an afterthought. Buses are followers where.as trains and rails are leaders,” he says. “A bus stop can go anywhere it wants to go tomorrow.”

Space constraints can also pose problems for BRT, where downtown streets in big cities may be narrow, says Aimee Gauthier, communications director for the Institute for Transportation Development Policy. “What we want is for [communities] to implement a good quality, customer-oriented mass transit system. Most cities can’t afford to pay for light rail or heavy rail. But Bus Rapid Transit is not only affordable, you can also provide the same level of service and demand as rail.”