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In the U.S., Poor Communication and Poor Choices Plague Bus Rapid Transit
Many American cities’ BRT systems are destined to flounder when one of the key elements of BRT, the exclusive lane, is omitted. Image by Erik Weber.

BRT systems are destined to flounder in American cities when a key element of BRT, the exclusive lane, is omitted. Image by Erik Weber.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is still a relatively novel mode of public transit, particularly in the United States. And because the definition of BRT is flexible, this form of public transit often suffers from miscommunication that continues the cycle of misinformation that spurs poor transit investment choices and disappointment among public transit riders and personal vehicle owners.

Earlier this week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered the opening of the new BRT lines in Atlanta, Ga.  While this new public transit service is certainly a step forward for Atlanta (one of the most congested and car-dependent cities in the U.S.), the system is not terribly remarkable in the world of BRT. Instead, the media coverage in the Journal is interesting for several reasons.

As the AJC explains, the routes Q Express and Q Limited run along a main corridor on the east side of the metropolitan area and connect at their west terminus with Atlanta’s MARTA rail system. The lines feature queue-jumping lanes at two major intersections and signal priority, allowing buses to get ahead of traffic at red lights and holding green lights until they pass through an intersection. The lines have significantly fewer stops, placed at least three-quarters of a mile apart, a feature which even some light rail systems have not managed.

The article continues:

[The Q Lines are] not like the gold standard of BRT, routes like those in Ottawa and Cleveland, which have their own dedicated lanes. That’s because the gold standard costs its weight in gold to build, considering the land that has to be bought and the construction required to create an extra lane.

In that short paragraph lie both confusion in BRT communication as well as progress in how American media portray this form of transit.

First, the good: the author acknowledges that the moniker BRT includes varying level of investment.  All too often, “American BRT” has failed because cities have over-hyped and under-delivered the benefits that can come from the key features of BRT.  Many cities tout BRT as being rail-like yet at lower costs, but then they don’t actually invest the money necessary for the rail-like elements of BRT.  Then, when the service begins, riders are often left thinking: “It’s still just a bus!”

The Journal-Constitution article acknowledges up front that the Q lines in Atlanta are not the highest level of BRT. This tempering of expectations helps prevent the disappointment that has soured transit advocates to BRT in many cities where benefits were oversold. Small investments in BRT infrastructure certainly won’t deliver all of the benefits of full-fledged BRT likened to rail, but they cost significantly less.

An even more important point that the AJC did not directly emphasize, though, is that BRT investment is scalable: Initial investments can be built upon incrementally as funding, political will or ridership necessitates to produce better service.

The benefit of most BRT infrastructure is underscored by the fact that it can combine and streamline projects, reducing costs. Atlanta added queue-jumping lanes to the intersection because there was already a streetscape project underway at these junctions. Other cities would do well to learn from this.

Moving the BRT vs. Rail Debate to Focus on Scaling up Investment

The growing American focus on BRT has become mired in a heated “rail vs. bus” debate that often pits transit advocates against each other, allowing bus rapid transit to be hijacked by budget hawks who care very little about delivering good quality transit service.

This debate has come to focus almost solely on judgments around whether buses can be as comfortable as rail, whether they spur development equivalent to rail and whether buses carry some stigma that rail does not. These questions cannot be answered definitively given the variables involved.

Instead, we should be focusing on the objective differences between bus and rail infrastructure. Possibly the most important of these is the scalability of bus systems. With buses, cities can do as Atlanta has with a small initial investment on technological improvements and minimal road space reallocations.  Once these improvements attract additional ridership, you can begin to build support for further investment, perhaps rush-hour restricted bus lanes that allow mixed traffic during other times. Some time thereafter, an agency may be able to budget money to add nicer stops, or even stations, with arrival time displays, ticket vending machines, and so on. Eventually, support and ridership is such that you can justify large investments in high-capacity buses and curb-separated lanes, creating truly high-level bus rapid transit. Going a step further, Brisbane, Australia has even designed its busways to be easily convertible to light rail in the future.

With a rail system, this incremental investment is much more difficult, if not impossible. You can’t put rails in the street without also installing the overhead catenary infrastructure. Unless a city already has surplus rail cars, those must be purchased simultaneously.  Installing rails usually requires full-depth reconstruction of right-of-way.  Long story short, there are a lot of major investments, most of which must be made simultaneously. Of course, in many cities where there is large pent-up demand for transit service, these large investments are likely worthwhile. In far more cases, though, cities have only marginal additional demand that don’t merit huge one-time investments.

Reclaiming Road Space Through BRT

Far too many American cities still miss the point about road space priorities. In that one paragraph she wrote in the Journal-Constitution article, Ms. Hart says that the high-level BRT systems are costly because “land has to be bought” and cities must “create another lane.”  High-level BRT can be an inexpensive alternative to rail precisely because it doesn’t require a new lane.  And there-in lies the problem: Because most U.S. cities lack the political will power to reallocate road space from cars, they are left finding new space for transit, and suddenly costs skyrocket.  After all, “gold standard” BRT isn’t expensive because of new right-of-way. (Cleveland’s Health Line, which the article cites as high-level BRT, used existing road space.) It’s expensive because cities are willing to invest in a lot of infrastructure at once which results in truly high quality transit.

Taking a lane away from private vehicles and allocating it to transit vehicles is politically challenging and not just in the US.  In Britain, the government recently removed the dedicated bus lane on London’s M4 highway, opening it back up to all traffic. The government capitulated to motorists who complained that they sat in traffic while buses zoomed by in a mostly empty lane. Human Transit’s Jarret Walker laments:

Yes, from behind the wheel of your stopped single-occupant car, a well-functioning bus lane looks empty most of the time.  But at high-demand times, bus lanes easily move far more people than traffic lanes.  The question is: do all the users of the road matter equally?  If so, it should be a no-brainer to provide faster travel times to people who use limited capacity more efficiently.

One traffic lane can accommodate approximately 60 buses or 1,800 automobiles per hour.  Assuming a capacity of 60 passengers per bus, and an average occupancy of automobiles of 1.59 passengers, bus lanes can carry 3,600 passengers per hour, while a mixed traffic lane will only achieve about 2,900.  If you add articulated buses, which have a capacity of 110 passengers, the capacity of a bus lane is even higher.

If these efficiencies aren’t fully communicated, it will be next to impossible to justify to policy makers taking a lane of road away from private vehicles, and even harder to justify such changes to the drivers.  New right-of-way is indeed expensive, leaving many cities to implement their BRT systems in mixed traffic, to the ultimate disappointment of customers who are often promised “rail-like” priority.

Rapid bus service still suffers from communication problems. It’s been around since the 1970s and its time we start accurrately depicting the costs and benefits of these systems. These problems range from the misunderstanding that BRT requires new right-of-way, to the little trumpeted benefit of accommodating smaller, incremental investments, and the misconception that anything labeled BRT will automatically run like a “train on tires.”  More in-depth reporting will help alleviate this problem. Even the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, despite slightly misrepresenting the issue, will result in better communication by cities and transit agencies.

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  • JM,

    Thanks for your comments!

    You’ll see here that numerous BRT systems around the world operate at least 60 buses/hour. Many of these have passing lanes at stops, allowing expresses to bypass stopped buses. Furthermore, off-board fare collection and multiple door boarding in high-level BRT systems reduces dwell times significantly to anywhere from 40 seconds to as little as 20 seconds.

    Additionally, the capacity stats are provided to give readers a context of physical roadway capacity for moving vehicles, not necessarily stopped ones. In the context of London’s M4, where there are no stops, the capacity of busway doesn’t have to account for any dwell times. The vehicles/hr capacity of a traffic lane is also highly hypothetical as traffic control devices, on/off ramps, intersections, etc. will all reduce real-world capacity. For the sake of argument, I presented the two hypothetical maximum capacity statistics.

  • My coworker pointed out that 36,000 passengers per hour is unlikely because 60 buses coming in one hour equals one minute headways. Given that buses actually have to stop, which can often take more than a minute, the system would suffer a lot of congestion. Do any existing BRT systems operate with one minute headways?

  • Eric,

    It is certainly true that we operate in a cost constrained environment, but I don’t see the problem as a classic case of the ‘best’ being the enemy of the ‘good.’ Some costs can be justified because they reduce long term operating costs while improving customer services, while other investments may actually increase long term operating cost burdens on already fiscally constrained state and local governments.

    The starting point, surely, has to be to target our scarce urban mass transit investments into those changes that reduce operating losses the most.

    Many of the non-gold standard ‘brt’ light interventions are at least speeding up existing bus services and therefore reducing operating costs. This is extremely important whether we call it BRT or not.

    More aggressive interventions can be justified when they increase speed and ridership even more, as these improvements should ideally translate into even greater reductions in operating losses. At level boarding platforms, pre-paid boarding, transfer-free direct service links, and various measures to protect the right of way from turning vehicles and double parked vehicles, all elements which should be part of a ‘Gold Standard’ BRT in the US, may increase marginally the infrastructure costs, but they also should significantly reduce operating losses. The question for these types of investments is whether we can afford to not make them.

    The current ‘cost effectiveness’ criteria that is required by the FTA New Starts Program is intended to at least capture some of this effect, however imperfectly and non-transparently. The worrisome thing about many of the LRT projects around the country is that they will end up competing for the same passengers with existing bus services, increasing the operating losses on the existing bus system while imposing new operating losses from the new LRT system.

    The fiscally constrained environment makes it even more imperative that our scarce transit investments deliver in terms of reduced transit system operating costs. The Administration’s efforts to weaken the cost effectiveness requirements in the New Starts program therefore strikes us as heading in the wrong direction.

  • Annie,

    I would agree that Atlanta’s Q lines don’t quite make the cut for being properly termed BRT, but the confusion over the term BRT was a point of emphasis of this article. Rather than bicker over what is and isn’t BRT, though, I accepted that MARTA is calling the Q lines BRT and wanted to concentrate instead on the importance of publicizing benefits that are commensurate with the level of investment.

    Fundamentally, I agree with your point about going for “home-runs.” Unfortunately, your point is not particularly applicable in a world of cost constraints. Many cities simply cannot afford “home-run” transit investments like heavy rail metros, light rail or even gold-standard BRT, or if they can, it comes at the expense of stagnant or deteriorating quality of service in other parts of their cities. Were cost a non-issue, I honestly think very few people would advocate for BRT over rail. But very few places in the world are this fortunate, thus we have to face various trade-offs, particularly in the bus vs. rail debate. Scalability of bus systems is one of the most underappreciated positive trade-offs of BRT. If a city only has $1M in a given year for new capital outlays, better to spend it making incremental bus improvements, than to give it up, hoping to secure a big enough investment to build a rail line one day.

    It’s a classic case of allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

  • Thanks for the note, Aaron, I’ve corrected the post!

  • You have an important mathematical error in your article. You wrote:

    One traffic lane can accommodate approximately 600 buses or 1,800 automobiles per hour. Assuming a capacity of 60 passengers per bus, and an average occupancy of automobiles of 1.59 passengers, bus lanes can carry 3,600 passengers per hour, while a mixed traffic lane will only achieve about 2,900. If you add articulated buses, which have a capacity of 110 passengers, the capacity of a bus lane is even higher.

    It is true that 1800 automobiles * 1.59 passengers per automobile = 2862 passengers.

    On the other hand, 600 buses * 60 passengers per bus = 36,000 passengers per hour.

    Your calculation says bus lanes can only carry 3600 passengers per hour, which suggests they are barely more efficient that car lanes, when in fact then can carry more than 10-times as many passengers.

    Otherwise, good post!


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  • Having just completed a tour of US transit agencies looking to implement BRT, I agree fully that the image of BRT in the US has been degraded by bus systems that hardly resemble BRT but which are billed as the next wave in public transportation. And it’s nice to see that there is a reporter out there who gets that.

    But I do feel that there is a bare minimum of infrastructure and features which must be present in a bus system before it can start to be called BRT. It is debatable what this minimum is but it does not seem like the Q lines in Atlanta have it. And calling such a system BRT but acknowledging that it is not the gold standard is not enough. The public at large is not likely to hear this caveat and then the only thing that gets through is that this moderate improvement in bus service is what America is calling “BRT.”

    Further, I disagree with the point in this entry which claims the importance of scalability. While it is most certainly the case that bus systems are more scalable than rail, I believe that planners need to aim for the home-run right from the start – otherwise, people feel that they are getting the poor second cousin to rail and the image of BRT gets degraded once again.

    Despite these minor differences of opinion, it is great to see someone on nearly the same page as myself and my organization, ITDP. We all especially enjoyed the section “Reclaiming Road Space Through BRT.” Keep up the great posts!

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