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Towards a Better BRT Taxonomy

Referring to high-end BRT systems as ‘Quickways’ could clear up confusion regarding what is — and what is not – a true BRT system.

Busways vs. BRTs

Bus Rapid Transit (a.k.a BRT) is a hot topic in sustainable transport. In Latin America alone, dozens of new BRT systems have recently come online or are under development, and numerous transport experts are hailing BRT as a cost-effective means for improving mass transit and fostering socially and environmentally sustainable transportation systems.

In the broadest sense, BRT refers to the systematic combination of infrastructure (e.g. busways, stations, terminals) and vehicles, with well-organized operations and ‘intelligent transportation’ technologies. By combining these various elements, BRT is able to provide better service and greater efficiency than is possible with traditional bus operations.

While accurate, this general definition encompasses an extremely diverse set of applications. Thus, BRT as it is currently defined can refer to anything from simple improvements in bus technologies and user information systems, to so-called ‘high-end’ applications replete with features such as: exclusive bus lanes; frequent bus services; advanced bus ‘stations’ with electronic prepayment and level access to the buses; centralized control centers for efficiently managing routes and pick-up times; and a distinctive branding image for the system.

As a result of this ambiguous BRT taxonomy, wildly different systems, such Delhi’s controversial new Busway and Sao Paulo’s Expresso Tiradentes, are both referred to as BRTs. But Delhi’s new system does not have stations that allow level boarding (i.e. the station floor height matches the floor of the vehicle, and passengers are not required to take a step up or down to board the vehicle). These stations also lack a prepayment system, which forces users to spend time purchasing tickets on the bus. Furthermore, Delhi’s exclusive lanes are open to all types of public transport vehicles, not just specially designed, high-capacity buses like in a true BRT. Finally, a good BRT system must have an organized, centrally planned and supervised bus dispatch and control system, as well as clear and consistent signage and user information systems – all things that are conspicuously absent in Delhi.

Sao Paulo’s new BRT, however, is quite comprehensive, with fully segregated lanes, plied exclusively by advanced, high-capacity hybrid buses, and advanced, high-capacity stations.

More than just semantics, this confused nomenclature can lead to real-world policy problems, diluting the concept of BRT and undercutting efforts to promote it with skeptical populaces and politicians. (see an article that I recently wrote with Madhav Pai on the negative image that BRT has received in India after being associated with Delhi’s Busways system).

Well aware of these problems, experts in the field (including myself) have engaged in endless discussions on what is and what is not a BRT system. Our solution, so far, has been to divide the concept of BRT into a continuum, with ‘soft applications’ on one end and ‘full applications’ on the other (see, for example, the definitions in FTA’s CBRT for Decision Makers). Even this continuum, however, has not solved the problem, and the need for a better BRT taxonomy is still required.

To clear up some of this confusion, Allan Hoffman and Alasdair Cain may have come up with a solution. In their recent feature in Mass Transit Magazine, entitled “Beyond Lite Rail Lite”, they coined the term ‘Quickways,’ and use it to describe high-end systems like Ottawa’s Transitway, Bogota’s TransMilenio and Brisbane’s Busways — as oppossed to the term ‘Light Rail Lite’ applied to projects like those in Eugene, Oregon and Los Angeles. According to the authors:

“The Quickway model is not merely an incremental step on the continuum of BRT, but represents a distinct mode of BRT, much in the same way that streetcar and heavy rail are two distinct modes of rail transit. The Quickway model imposes its own planning, cost and operating logic, leading to fundamentally different transit networks than does the more traditional Light Rail Lite model.”

Their proposed definition of Quickways involves fully segregated infrastructure and bus services design that are more advanced than a simple corridor, along other high-end features in the previous classifications of BRT.

We know that an important part of the political decision-making process involves adequately packaging the concepts we are advocating. I hope that using “Quickways” as a term for high-end BRT reduces the clutter in an already confused BRT field.