BRT: A Case of Mistaken Identity

As Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, has become a much-discussed alternative among transportation planners, Jeff Wood of Reconnecting America argues that a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet. When comparing transportation options, it is important to understand the true definition.

Recent alternatives analyses have added a newcomer to the list of transit options. Light rail, heavy rail and bus alternatives have been joined by a hybrid bus option, known as Bus Rapid Transit or BRT. Proponents of this technology claim that it gives the benefits of rail at a lower cost, citing the success of systems in Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Columbia. Opponents believe the technology is being oversold and the full costs and benefits are misrepresented. But the biggest question everyone has is: What qualifies as Bus Rapid Transit?


The Orange Line

Full BRT

Full scale BRT is a system of fully grade-separated, dedicated bus lanes with intelligent transportation systems (ITS), full scale stations, low floor/level boarding, branded vehicles, and off vehicle ticket vending. Successful BRT needs all of these elements to truly create the benefit attributed to BRT. The Orange Line in Los Angeles is an example of full-scale BRT. Buses can be as long as 65 feet and carry 90 passengers per bus. Recent costs have ranged anywhere from $25 million per mile for the Orange Line to an estimated $49 million per mile for a new BRT line in Hartford. This includes guideway reconstruction, platforms/shelters and new buses which can cost anywhere between $300,000 for a 40 foot conventional bus to $1.6 million for a full 60 ft. articulated vehicle. Also included in the cost is new ITS technology, including signal pre-emption and GPS arrival time information for the stations. Costs obviously increase in specific cases such as the Silver Line in Boston when subway tunnels must be built.


Euclid Busway, Cleveland
Photo courtesy Heidi A. Cool.

Part BRT

Some systems operate as part BRT. These lines often run part of their route in city streets or run in HOV lanes with other traffic or dedicated transit lanes. They also have some or all of the same features as full BRT including ITS, full-scale stations, low/floor level boarding, branded vehicles and off vehicle ticket vending. An example of part BRT is the Eugene EMX busway or the Euclid Busway in Cleveland. 40% of the EMX route is in traffic, while the rest is in a single bi-directional dedicated lane. Another example of half BRT is the Houston Express buses that operate in the HOV lanes of Houston's freeways with vanpools and cars. Costs are much lower for these systems and reported costs range from $6 million per mile for the EMX to $17.9 Million per mile for the Euclid Line. This includes the partial guideway reconstruction, vehicles, ITS, and stops.


The Rapid Bus

The remaining systems really are not really BRT at all. They are instead repackaged express buses. These lines run in traffic along regular bus lines but have limited stops and some of the special features of BRT including ITS, stations, low/floor level boarding, branded vehicles, and off vehicle ticket vending. Examples include the San Pablo Rapid Bus in Oakland, California and the Metro Rapid Bus system in Los Angeles. Both run on the street with regular buses that have red "Rapid" badges. Costs for these systems only include new buses, station canopies, and necessary technological changes such as GPS for real time arrival and signal pre-emption.

In other words, don't judge a book by its cover. The "Bus Rapid Transit" label is touted as a low-cost, easily implementable solution, but unless it is in an exclusive use guideway, with boarding platforms and the ability to change the streetlights ahead, it won't deliver all of the benefits attributed to the concept. Riders and developers know the difference. Part BRT and Rapid Bus are incremental solutions that are an improvement over standard buses, but they should not be touted as substitutes for rail and full BRT.

Jeffrey Wood is Program Associate/GIS Specialist at Reconnecting America. Jeff does mapping analysis for a variety of projects and conducts research on transit mode funding, technology and the relationship of transit to development. Previous to his work at Reconnecting America, Jeff co-founded Connect Austin, an umbrella organization for nonprofits in Austin that promoted streetcars. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and a Master of Science in Community and Regional Planning from the University of Texas at Austin. He is also co-instructor of Planetizen's online course PLAN-115: Transit Oriented Development Toolbox.



Improving Transit Operations

Good overview Jeffery on a relevant topic, but I rarely encounter riders or developers who fully understand the subtle differences between these transit technologies.

Neither the Orange Line in Los Angeles nor the existing surface Silver Line in Boston meet your definition of a 'Full BRT system'. These lines are not fully grade-separated like a subway or airport people mover. If a BRT system is fully grade-separated, it should not have to contend with any intersections or signals. If operators, drivers, pedestrians or cyclists are not alert, collisions will occur. Fully grade-separated bus lanes facilities are often associated with existing or abandoned rail corridors or freeway medians.

While emergency vehicles frequently utilize a 'pre-emption" system to change red signals ahead, buses typically utilize a 'transit-priority' system to adjust the traffic signals ahead to minimize the amount of red time. Newer traffic signal control systems are programmed to optimize transit performance without disrupting traffic or diverting vehicles off the arterials. In low-density suburban communities with long signal phases, directional commuter flows, and few pedestrians, these transit oriented signal adjustments are relatively easy and effective (especially at minor intersections). It is a far more daunting task to implement these signal improvements in high-density urban areas with loaded transit vehicles moving in multiple directions and where pedestrian phases are non-actuated and signal phases are typically shorter.

You also mention GPS based real time arrival information as a key element of the Rapid Bus concept. This arrival time information is an amenity that does not necessarily improve transit performance in a manner that delivers quantifiable performance benefits. A far more important element of both these Rapid Bus systems and a key to their success is the fact they both operate on "headway based" schedules. These Rapid buses depart their terminals at set intervals and the operators are instructed to operate to the end of the route at a safe speed. Unlike other regular buses, if these buses make good time and get ahead of schedule, they will not pull over and wait for the schedule to catch up.

When discussing costs for these systems, you should also consider operation costs. If local bus service is to be retained along a proposed BRT or Rapid corridor, the operations of the BRT or Rapid system will likely incur added operational costs.

Kevin Keck
Oakland, CA

Fully Grade Separated??

I have never before heard a definition of BRT that requires full grade separation. Exclusive bus lanes, yes. But grade separation is a new one on me.

In most locations, complete grade separation, avoiding all intersections, would drive up the cost of BRT so much that it would eliminate its cost advantage. It would be cheaper to build light rail that has a dedicated lane but is not fully grade separated.

Charles Siegel

Absolutely correct

It does not require full grade separation rather dedicated lanes. Sorry for the term mishap.

Jeff Wood

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