Implementing BRT: Making the Busway Work for You

Posted on April 2, 2009 by Robert Lepore and Timothy Martin

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[IMAGE]MET4aecombrt.jpg[/IMAGE]Victor Hugo said, “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” Bus rapid transit (BRT) is an idea whose time has come.

Most people love rail. But for many communities, rail is not the appropriate technology solution for a particular transit challenge. Implementing commuter, heavy or light rail requires a serious, long-term financial and community commitment to a large, all-encompassing endeavor — a commitment that not every community can afford or should make. You can’t build a single mile of rail to “see how it goes.” But, BRT is different.

Flexible in the extreme, BRT can be implemented in stages and allowed to develop its ridership over time — either as an end unto itself or as a prelude to a rail system. That underlying reality is one of BRT’s most appealing virtues: even in the most difficult of financial times, small and large metropolitan regions alike still need public transportation. BRT provides an extremely flexible, appealing and affordable way for cities to get it started. For example, in Curitiba, Brazil, which boasts the mother of all BRT systems worldwide, light rail transit is being considered as the natural next step of that transit system’s development.

However, confusion exists as to exactly what BRT is. It involves more than just a few tweaks or enhancements to a standard bus system. Although agencies constantly implement new methods to make their bus systems better, they usually only improve their own system of local services. From signalization to pavement markings to dedicated rush-hour bus lanes, such actions are worthwhile, time-tested service-improvement techniques. But they are not BRT.

Combining the permanence and urban identity of rail transit with the flexibility of buses, a BRT system operates on exclusive transitways, HOV lanes, expressways and, at times, ordinary streets; heavily exploits intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technology; takes advantage of traffic signal priorities; uses rapid, convenient and innovative fare collection systems; and integrates with land-use policy to create an effective public transportation system — just like rail does. BRT systems also usually boast an integrated “branding” signature — deploying distinctive buses and attractive stations and stops to differentiate the service from local and express buses.

BRT does require a capital commitment, but it typically is on a much smaller scale than rail requires. And, for many places in the U.S., that is critical. Of some 371 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, only about 35 MSAs have populations greater than 1.5 million people — a population threshold that is typically sufficient to support surface rail. But even in some of those larger metropolitan regions, rail may be prohibitively expensive, especially considering all the hoops and hurdles that must be passed through and jumped over to qualify for diminishing federal assistance. For example, the new BRT system being constructed in Cleveland (a metropolitan area of 1.7 million people) cost approximately one fourth of the more than $1 billion that would have been required for the desired surface/subway light rail system originally planned for Euclid Avenue. Because of its flexibility and lower cost, BRT presents an excellent option for metropolitan areas nationwide.

Consider Jacksonville, Fla., where the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) is evolving its BRT system. The JTA plans on starting with an integrated core BRT circulation system within downtown Jacksonville, and then expanding out along specific high-density corridors as demand grows and funding becomes available. Analogously, BRT also benefits the largest metropolitan areas as well, as is being demonstrated through BRT projects in both New York and Los Angeles. But for smaller areas, it is often the only viable public transportation option.

Given its considerable advantages, though, BRT is still a complex venture to implement. So, it is essential to follow certain best practices to ensure optimal execution. For transit agency executives, the first step in considering a BRT implementation is to really know what BRT is.

It Sells Itself

Without question, transit executives considering BRT should start by examining a good example of an operating BRT system. As mentioned previously, many executives view BRT as a glorified bus system. But, those who actually visit a working system generally walk away impressed; BRT is much more than they had imagined. Understanding exactly what BRT is and what it can do is paramount to starting the process. This is exactly how Cleveland convinced its civic leaders. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) organized a field trip to Curitiba, Brazil, and examined the system by riding it. RTA now hopes others will visit Cleveland to experience the new Euclid Avenue BRT after the ribbon-cutting ceremony in late October.

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