Management & Operations

It’s too early to define a distinct BRT strategy

Posted on May 1, 2002 by Frank Di Giacomo, publisher

After several years of moving in fits and starts, bus rapid transit (BRT) is beginning to generate some momentum — well, if not momentum, at least serious discussion. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), to its credit, is facilitating lively debate about the future of BRT through a series of workshops around the U.S. These workshops bring together representatives of transit agencies, bus manufacturers, consultants and various other interested parties — all of whom seem to have divergent opinions about how BRT should be perceived, categorized, tested, funded and implemented. In Los Angeles, a two-day workshop generated much energetic discussion about the beguiling potential of BRT and the difficulty in defining exactly what it is or, more precisely, what it can and should be. Therein lies the problem. How does BRT fit into the continuum of transit applications? Is it bus service or light rail on rubber tires? What types of vehicles and propulsion systems should be used? How about fixed guideways? Sexy or merely practical? One size doesn’t fit all Still more concept than reality, at least in the U.S., BRT is best viewed as a wide range of possibilities and opportunities. We don’t have enough facts yet to commit to a single type of vehicle, propulsion system, guideway, fare collection system, station and so on. Every transit community will have its own unique needs and potential for BRT. Forcing a single vision of BRT onto a myriad of communities will most likely fail. In Los Angeles, the MetroRapid service exemplifies a service fitting the needs of the community. It has been widely successful, operating more as an upgraded fixed-route service than as a rail-like application with experimental vehicles and expensive infrastructure development. According to Roger Snoble, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority, MetroRapid is 25% faster than fixed-route service and could be even more efficient with signal coordination and dedicated lanes. “We’re trying to match the right tools to the right job,” he says. That’s exactly the point. BRT, like fixed-route or demand-response bus service, is a tool. It needs to be matched to the task, which in this case is filling a niche that exists in many communities for high-capacity transportation that can service corridors that don’t support light rail service. The federal government validated the cost effectiveness of BRT in its September 2001 GAO report, “Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise.” The key to successful implementation will be to meet the needs of communities, both in identifying routes that support the BRT concept and in delivering an express service that will be reliable, efficient and, yes, a little sexier than traditional fixed-route bus service. Start with a clean slate It’s too early to rule out any BRT scenarios. Small and large steps are being taken. Los Angeles has a low-cost, practical version of BRT; Las Vegas is planning a showier, more expensive program using the CIVIS. Other BRT programs are in development at transit agencies across the country. Years from now, a standard BRT vehicle may emerge that will simplify the design and engineering process for bus manufacturers, but until then, transit agencies need to work with the supplier community to create efficient and practical BRT programs that, most importantly, attract riders, improve service and also set the stage for upgraded technologies.

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