A central objective of bus rapid transit (BRT) is to dispel the commonly held notion that bus services, although cost-effective and versatile, are devoid of the convenience and quality exhibited by light rail transit (LRT). It’s never been a mystery that BRT projects can operate at a lower cost than rail, but do they offer the other advantages that many perceive in LRT, such as fewer and faster stops and reduced noise and pollution?
More importantly, will the public ever buy into the BRT concept? Various BRT projects around the United States indicate that obstacles have surfaced but that, overall, the idea is being well received and the outlook is still very bright.
BRT exists to provide congested cities an alternative to light rail, commuter rail, mixed-traffic highways and large-scale roadway additions. After several international models have proven the potential for BRT success, U.S. projects are moving into a phase fraught with new opportunities and challenges. The issues facing the growth of this means of urban public transportation are multifaceted.
BRT vs. LRT
The original idea behind BRT was to provide bus service in the image of light rail. LRT systems provide a technology-driven, environmentally conscious and traffic-reducing alternative to other forms of transportation. Because of the inherent advantages of LRT, there are those who believe that rail is always the best option for high-density corridors. But BRT researchers claim that LRT qualities are attainable with buses through features like exclusive rights-of-way, cleaner and quieter vehicles, rapid fare collection and infrastructure development.
Martin Hull, senior planner for the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) in Albany, N.Y., says that continuously stressing the advantages of BRT to the public helps people visualize the concept. “There are a few people who still prefer light rail, but not enough to be called a faction,” he says. Hull is involved with the CDTA’s Best Bus Program, a BRT project under development.
The advantages of LRT and BRT were recently pitted against one another in a U.S. General Accounting Office study intent on uncovering which system is more effective. The study drew upon information and conclusions made by the Federal Transit Administration’s BRT Consortium, a group of 17 U.S. cities, including Albany, with projects currently in operation or development.
At a September press conference, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo from Colorado revealed the study’s results. “This study shows that BRT can work in concert with existing light rail lines and allow an immediate reduction in the traffic and congestion that has gripped our communities,” he said. “BRT can accomplish this at a fraction of the cost of light rail.” The study also addresses the negative perception of buses compared with rail and discusses ways BRT ameliorates these problems with improved vehicles and increased route flexibility.
Building political support
Still, the relative newness of BRT in many U.S. cities has presented problems when it comes to earning public confidence. Hull says it can be difficult to define exactly what bus rapid transit is. “BRT in general is not as clear a concept as, for example, light rail,” he says. “Hammering home the BRT concept to the general public, our stakeholders and elected officials is always a challenge.”
Dennis Albrecht, project manager for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority’s Euclid Corridor Transportation Project agrees with Hull’s assertion. “People tend not to believe anything until they see it,” he says. Albrecht says that the local community is beginning to wonder whether the new BRT system will ever happen. This, he says, is attributable to the long process that the project has had to go through.
Albrecht’s concern is pandemic to most BRT projects in the U.S. It takes countless studies, preliminary designs and planning to initiate these undertakings. Along the way, clear and consistent communication between all involved parties is necessary to emphasize the value of the finished product.
“There was resistance in many communities along our proposed alignment,” says Bruce Ahern, assistant general manager of business development and planning for the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. The Port Authority opened its most recent BRT project — the West Busway — in September 2000. “Through an extensive public relations effort, one by one communities were converted into strong advocates of the project,” he says.
That was accomplished in part, Ahern says, by negotiations between community officials and project planners to redevelop municipal facilities in the area. In one community, for instance, the mayor changed his stance on the BRT project after a mutually beneficial agreement was made. “We struck a deal that allowed them to create a new municipal complex by our donating two acres of land, and they in turn provided road access and curb cuts to our park-and-ride site. It was a win-win for both parties,” says Ahern.
The implementation of a BRT project poses more than just a conceptual dilemma to the surrounding residents and business owners. It also stimulates concerns over issues like land use, safety, property value and environmental influence.
Michael Sanders, public transit administrator for the Connecticut Department of Transportation, says that one advantage of BRT programs is that they are flexible enough that most community concerns about them can be easily addressed. Sanders is involved in the development of the Hartford-New Britain Busway, a BRT Consortium member backed by federal funding.
“The main issue is that we are literally going through some people’s backyards, so they have held our feet to the fire to make sure we design a facility that is safe and environmentally conscious,” he says.
Sanders says that noise and pollution concerns are quelled by publicizing the intention to use CNG and hybrid electric vehicles. Safety issues are addressed by installing signals, walkways and other precautions. The goal of traffic reduction is another attractive quality of BRT implementation.
“A lot of the issues community members bring up we can and have addressed very well. We have made some compromises, but we certainly didn’t have to make any compromises that would affect the value of the system,” he says.
To allay community fears over BRT, Stefano Viggiano, planning and development manager of Lane Transit District in Eugene, Ore., prescribes an unwavering commitment to keeping the public informed and up to date. To communicate its progress on the Pilot East-West Corridor, the Lane Transit District has had hundreds of meetings with various community groups and met one-on-one with community leaders.
“We went door-to-door with every business located along the corridor, sent out information by mail, held open houses and had interactive design workshops,” Viggiano says. He adds that one of the most important tools used in communicating with the public was an informational video with a computer simulation of the project.
BRT projects offer transit authorities and municipalities the opportunity to work in a concordant effort toward accomplishing their goals. For example, the Maryland Department of Public Works and Transportation is proceeding with its Veirs Mill Road Bus Priority project in collaboration with a relief project initiated by the state highway administration, in which 50 local intersections are being renovated.
Rob Klein, a senior planning specialist for the department, says that some disagreements exist between proponents of BRT and general-purpose travel, but that the outlook for bus priority in the intersections is promising.
Alberto Parjus, chief of management and information service for the Miami-Dade Transit Agency, touts the ways in which BRT projects allow multiple authorities to work together to accomplish various goals. With the development of the South Miami-Dade Busway, he says, four major centers of economic and infrastructure development were identified in the corridor.
“We have a joint development agreement with local municipalities to achieve several goals, including a housing community and station improvement,” he says.
The building and operating costs of many of the projects in the BRT Consortium figure to be about one-third of what LRT projects in the area would cost. Although federal analyses, environmental impact statements and third-party studies have justified the costs and benefits of implementation, actual results will be the final factor in determining the success of BRT. The progress of U.S. projects has revealed that challenges are being met, but that the process is slow and gradual.
“If you save 30 seconds on a bus at one intersection, it’s not going to show much in terms of ridership improvement or traffic reduction,” Klein says. “But if you add that up over a six-mile route, then you have something to show and people get excited.”