Management & Operations

Why BRT is Pushing the Envelope of Rapid Growth

Posted on April 1, 2004 by Cliff Henke and Brianne Plowman

To solve congestion, air quality and mobility problems, communities need to innovate. They need to think differently about how they provide mobility options, and they need to find cost-effective solutions. Bus rapid transit (BRT) offers this opportunity without sacrificing capacity or quality. What is BRT?
BRT is an increasingly common phrase among urban transportation planners and communities worldwide, and its popularity continues to surge. With the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) encouragement, more and more U.S. communities are taking note of the successes of BRT service realized in early adopters. Unique in its range of solutions and incremental approach, a BRT system combines the quality of rail transit and the flexibility of buses. Systems range from lower-cost conventional fixed-route bus services with exclusive branding, stops and frequency that emulate light rail and priority in mixed traffic to exclusive lanes and busways with technologically advanced, stylized vehicles. BRT is arguably the fastest-growing new mode in the history of U.S. public transportation. The Senate Banking Committee identified 50 U.S. communities that are either giving serious consideration to BRT or actually have BRT projects under development. This figure is up from the 19 that committed to join then-FTA Administrator Gordon Linton’s Bus Rapid Transit Consortium in late 1998. Several more have announced such intentions since the Senate Banking Committee’s analysis was made public last summer. However, while BRT’s advantages are many, they narrow when compared to recent improvements in light rail project delivery and continue to carry a bias among strident rail advocates in communities around the country that BRT is still “just bus service.” For these reasons, the most expensive types of BRT projects will be rare in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. The table below summarizes the strengths, weaknesses and costs of the range of BRT approaches. Indeed, because BRT has such a broad range of applications, it has created confusion among policy-makers and operators alike, especially with respect to how it should be treated in the FTA’s Major Capital Investment Program. To help address these issues, the FTA has launched a task force that intends to provide a guidance document for the industry. Targeted for a summer 2004 release, it will be designed to help cities contemplating BRT projects with advice on selecting the most appropriate set of technologies for the mix of outcomes (e.g., ridership, economic development, environmental improvements and congestion relief) each city seeks to achieve. Thus far, the task force, which comprises representatives from several public agencies as well as the private-sector bus manufacturers, has identified eight elements critical to developing effective BRT systems. These include the following:

  • Rights-of-way that enable the vehicles to go faster (either with segregated lanes or exclusive transitways, signal priority in mixed traffic or with traffic bypasses).
  • Upgraded stations for faster boarding and to attract choice riders.
  • A route structure that spaces stations like rail lines and is well integrated with other rapid transit service.
  • Intelligent transportation systems for better coordination and passenger information.
  • Distinct branding that indicates this is not typical bus service.
  • Off-board fare collection to enable faster boarding.
  • Transit-friendly planning and land-use strategies like those used in rail.
  • More stylized vehicles with better passenger flow and higher capacity. While it might not be necessary to have all these elements, good BRT systems have at least a majority of them. Evolving BRT needs
    Particularly as the more sophisticated of the early BRT projects have progressed through the federal government’s application process for major capital investment assistance, the industry’s thinking on what BRT should be has evolved. For example, under current law, new starts for bus facilities can be funded out of the Major Capital Investment Program only if there is an exclusive guideway for buses or other high-occupancy vehicles. However, in both the Bush Administration’s reauthorization proposal and in the Senate bill passed this winter, this requirement was dropped in recognition that many BRT systems do not have separate lanes or roadway. Perhaps the area where the industry’s consensus has undergone the greatest evolution of thinking has been regarding vehicle design. While it is clear that the industry has always felt that BRT vehicles should be “more than just a bus,” it is equally clear that it has for the most part rejected the European designs that initially had so intrigued many transit officials. This is not surprising, since these vehicles typically do not achieve performance characteristics necessary for North American public transportation operating conditions, such as capacity, freeway speeds for express service or “dead-heading” back to maintenance facilities, gradability and acceleration. (This is also true of many European light rail vehicles.) Because of these reasons, virtually all BRT cities that were once seriously considering offshore sources are now procuring North American-made BRT vehicles. Will BRT interest wane?
    There is very important rationale as to why interest in BRT is so high now and will remain into the foreseeable future: money. Despite record levels of federal funding during the past decade, and by all indications from Congress for the foreseeable future, competition for federal transit funding in the Major Capital Investment Program has never been more acute. According to FTA estimates, federal policymakers face a funding shortfall between the value of all projects in the FTA’s “pipeline” of new starts (including projects that are in various planning stages required by federal law) and reasonably available sources of revenue of more than $16 billion. Moreover, this does not include many of the BRT projects contemplated by the 50 cities previously cited. This is because many of them likely will not ask for Major Capital Investment Program money, relying instead on available state and local funds as well as federal formula grants. Little wonder, then, that BRT solutions — particularly the lower-cost ones — are becoming more attractive. Moreover, when the projects are higher in cost and take longer to build, the advantages of BRT over light rail become narrower, and thus become more politically vulnerable to pro-rail factions. Indeed, the Government Accounting Office estimates that high-end BRT projects can average about $12 million per mile, compared with a recently opened light rail project in Portland, Ore., that is estimated to cost roughly $18 million per mile. This is not to say that American cities will have to settle for less. On the contrary, whether officials want to offer higher-quality service to choice riders, change the modal split and mitigate congestion or stimulate economic development, the forthcoming FTA guidance document will demonstrate how a mix of the previously mentioned eight elements will achieve these rationales without spending the highest possible sums. Promising results
    Rex Gephart, director of the Metro Rapid program at Los Angeles County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, says that each new route introduced has consistently shown a 30% to 40% new ridership gain above the existing local service (one-third of the new riders previously commuted by auto). Seven Metro Rapid corridors are now open in L.A., and 22 more are scheduled to be rolled out by 2008.
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