BRT – Downtown Bus or Upscale Ride?
Is the BRT a better bus?
No one likes the bus.
No one wants to take the bus.
But people do take the bus.
In dense metropolitan areas, people take transit for a variety of reasons: For many, it simply makes sense rather than battle traffic and pay for parking. For others, transit is a reasonable way to get to and from work, school, and play until a private means is found- (car, bike, or ride- share). Others are committed to reducing air pollution, and working to reduce their carbon footprint.
What if people chose transit because it was cheaper than driving, faster than driving, and made for a better, less congested downtown? Suppose a well planned transit development meant a net value gain for a metropolitan area? Is a small transit subsidy worth that? Perhaps. It’s easy to say, “Spend it and they will come” – It’s harder to actually make the case.
So-called “Heavy Rail” (such as subways and suburban commuter lines) are VERY expensive to build and maintain. They make sense in only the most commuter dense areas. A smaller, less infrastructure-intense counterpart, Light Rail, can make sense in a less dense area, but oftentimes light rail is relegated to old street car tracks, unused railroad right of ways, or other compromise placements. In those cases speeds are quite a bit slower than that of heavy rail and its dedicated right of way.
As rail is a large investment – it is quite a complex effort to align (over many years!) the interests of all potential stakeholders. In contrast, buses have consistently been a straightforward proposition for a transit operators . They can go anywhere, and can provide seating for up to 80 commuters per vehicle. Buses are a relatively easy way to deliver frequent service destined for places considered too remote (or too expensive!) to reach by train or light rail. Should employment patterns shift, a route can be moved or schedule changed, at little to no cost to the operator. Rail enjoys no such flexibility. There is, then, a benefit to a bus line- but it’s clear there is room for improvement- as the bus can only go as fast as the surrounding traffic.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
Given its own right of way, and well designed dedicated shelters(with pre-payment kiosks) and the ability to share a road paid for by all, a transit agency can have the best of both worlds by choosing a Rapid Bus solution. Such routes would also feature traffic signal priority for faster speeds, and level boarding for increased access by the elderly or disabled.
Bus Rapid can be a mode that is relatively fast, frequent, and less expensive to operate. It works well for Cleveland.
There is some economic development to be had from a well planned bus rapid transit deployment:
- Pittsburgh: $300 million in development around stations
- Ottawa: $700 million in development around stations
- Boston: $650 million in development around stations
Boston’s first effort at bus rapid transit, its Silver line, is not quite BRT- yet. The stations are closer together than originally planned- and only a small part of the line has a dedicated right of way. That will be changing, as the Silver line is being extended to the Chelsea area- and a long right of way is part of the new segment. Boston planners are considering five additional corridors which may work for BRT.
Even if Loop Link achieves its modest goals, the time savings for riders won’t be huge. According to CTA spokesman Brian Steele, the agency seeks to increase peak-hour bus speeds to 3.75 mph from the snail-like 3 mph that was the average before the system made its debut. In off-peak hours, the goal is to get speeds up to as high as 6 mph.
Bus Rapid Transit isn’t yet a solution for all metro areas. BRT can be a good thing, and can contribute to economic development if planned carefully- yet without proper study, or complete implementation a given BRT roll out could easily be considered a boondoggle.
Light Rail (LRT)
Given the mixed reception that BRT has received- the lure of rail remains. Light rail cars are quieter and have plenty of seating. Additionally, Train cars generally are more spacious, and provide a smoother ride. Additionally, when operating on a private right-of way, Light Rail speed can approach Heavy Rail – for a fraction of the cost. When teamed with transit oriented development, rail access is seen as both enhancing quality of life, and improving property values.
Light rail planners generally cite the many economic benefits of a new line- A standard bus route can move at a moment’s notice. Light rail, therefore, is more similar to a subway or commuter line. That stability reassures any business or real estate developers- as each needs to plan for the long term. In Portland, Oregon the light rail and streetcars contributed millions to development. Indeed Light rail and streetcars are more popular than commuter rail- and is fastest growing type of transit in the United States.
Are Light Rail and Bus Rapid the new darlings of transit then?
Well sited (and well managed!) transit can be a great means to reduce congestion, reduce pollution, and- nurture development. Sexy? OK, maybe not – but BRT and LRT, in contrast to expensive subways, are lower cost rapid transit solutions worth considering.
For more on Light Rail development and Bus Rapid Transit (and the importance of stakeholder support) be sure and check out this interesting (and comprehensive!) write-up : “The Light Rail Conundrum from Los Angeles to Atlanta: LRT in the 21st Century”
For more on the state of streetcar development (as of 2016) check out “The streetcar comeback makes a comeback”
Portions of this article originally were published in our prior blog - "The Work-Bench"