Bus Rapid Transit

What is Bus Rapid Transit?

Well, the short answer is:  bus, in the form of rapid transit…

The long answer depends on who your audience is.  Everyone from transit authorities to enthusiasts to advocates alike have their own ideas of what bus rapid transit is.  For many, bus rapid transit, or BRT for short, is a flexible bus system or network that combines the speed and comfort of a fixed guideway rapid transit system with the flexibility and mobility of a bus.  For others, BRT is a way to speed buses up in busy corridors with frequent bus service without resorting to massive upfront capital costs of a rail system.  Either way, BRT is supposed to make bus service faster for riders, more comfortable and inviting for people who would have otherwise chosen to drive or take a train, and cheaper for cities to implement sooner.

Why Bus Rapid Transit?

Most cities want to jazz up their bus service, mainly because the majority of people who ride buses are those who cannot afford to drive or cannot drive, and those who have a choice to drive or take public transit would rather drive.  If there is an option for transit, it is believed that rail transit is preferred over bus transit simply because of the comfort of riding the rails, possibly the nostalgia that rail transit brings to the U.S. due to the demise (buyout and dismantling) of many rail systems prior to World War II and bankruptcy of many railroads in the 1960s and 1970s, and even the fixed aspect of railroads (rail systems cannot be moved or eliminated overnight) over buses which use roadways and streets and can be rerouted or cancelled.  In some cases, to mimic rail but at a cheaper up-front capital cost, Bus Rapid Transit is built with special structures that appear to be rail-like but are suited for rubber-tired vehicles with the bells and whistles associated with BRT.

Where did this concept come from?

Most BRT supporters and transit advocates will point to the City of Curitiba in Brazil as the father of BRT as we know it.  Curitiba, a city of half a million people around the time BRT was “invented,” was experiencing rapid urban growth coupled with increasing car ownership.  There needed to be a way to reduce traffic in the urban core as well as provide better transportation than the jitneys and taxis that roamed the streets and eventually clogged the streets along with a growing number of private cars.

Then architect-turned-mayor Jaime Lerner had a different idea.  Why not build a road system that connects and traverses every corner of the city with the city center, using the outer lanes of a street for private cars, and the inner lanes for high-capacity buses with their own dedicated space?  The vehicles will be buses with their own lanes, much like rail lines with tracks, and adapted to serve special stations, much like light rail or metro stations.  Why not transform the main boulevards into corridors where buses have the priority over private cars and are much more visible than other modes of transportation?   Why build a multi-billion-dollar underground rail line that may not be successful when you can built a bus network that can be more tailored to ridership needs?  He did just that.

After seeing the progress with their BRT system (characterized by its red double-articulated buses serving the main trunk lines and silver articulated buses serving arterials, tube stations, bus-only roadways, level boarding at all stations, ticket machines and turnstiles at every station), and the rapid growth to about 2-3 million, Jaime Lerner was credited with providing a super cost-efficient rapid transit system for the city, was subsequently elected mayor twice, and put Curitiba on the map in the eyes of transit planners, big city mayors, transit advocates, and transit justice groups alike.

The choice to think outside the box influenced Bogota mayor Enrique Penalosa to create Transmilenio under similar circumstances to obtain similar results but tenfold due to the sheer complexity of Transmilenio compared to Curitiba’s rather simplistic network.  Bogota’s issue was the debate on whether to build a major highway network to traverse the city but potentially displace many residents or to spend the money on a rail system.  Due to sheer capital costs, BRT was chosen and built out to serve as much of the city as possible with advanced buses and transit priority.  The argument was that building a rapid transit network like a rail system but with buses which are more flexible and cheaper upfront than a light rail or metro was an easier way for Bogota to move millions of people per day with limited funds that could have gone towards building better transit and access to the city via biking and walking.  Transmilenio has its system of red buses for the trunk lines and green buses for feeders to the main trunk lines, providing access from the outer suburbs to the city and across the entire city, all with one system and one set of fares.  Other cities followed in Bogota’s example, which was a modern take on Curitiba’s concept, such as Quito, Guayaquil, Lima, Beijing, and Johannesburg.

What does Bus Rapid Transit look like?

It’s a rather complicated answer because it all depends on who you ask.  Most people feel that BRT is a system independent of local/commuter transit with its own set of standards, while others feel that BRT is a line or series of lines that complement local/commuter transit to give riders better options.  Some feel it should have its own identity, while others don’t necessarily see any significant reason why it can’t be integrated into local/commuter transit.  Probably the best way to answer this question is this:  outline the many possible ways that BRT has been or will be implemented worldwide, whether it can be considered a “true” BRT or not.

  • BRT Type #1: This type of BRT, if you will, consist of physically separated lanes exclusively for buses and/or taxicabs, some bus-only roadways, highly visible bus stops or “stations” for faster,level boarding, an overall service branding or route branding to distinguish it from regular buses, and provisions for alternate forms of fare payment, namely anything other than waiting in line to enter through the front door to pay the fare.  Do note that not all BRT systems of this type have everything listed here, but most BRT proponents still might call it “true” BRT.
    Curitiba’s RIT system (Rede Integrada de Transporte), with its red biarticulated buses for express, tube stations, exclusive bus lanes, ticketing via turnstiles, and extensive network
    Bogota’s Transmilenio, with red trunk buses, green Alimentadores feeder buses, high-capacity glass and steel stations, ticket booths and turnstiles, multiple bus lanes for local and express buses in the medians of wide boulevards, and a massive route network with a plethora of service patterns based on risership needs
    Ottawa’s Transitway network, with bus-only roadways throughout the east, southeast, west, and southwestern portions of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa, high-capacity stations, proof-of-payment for monthly and weekly pass users, and numerous levels of service available at most stations.  Note:  Ottawa has what are called Rapid Transit Routes, which provide frequent service to most Transitway Stations along the bus-only roadways, but no special branding is used to differentiate these routes from local, rural, and express routes that also use portions of the Transitway.  All buses use the standard OC Transpo livery.
  • BRT Type #2: This type of BRT, often called “BRT Lite,” features dedicated bus lanes (not segregated or physically separated as in most BRT systems in Latin America) primarily for buses with some other restrictive permissions, highly visible bus stops (sometimes called stations) that may or may not have level boarding, special branding of buses in most cases, varying forms of payment including ticket machines, varying types of buses but predominantly sleek low-floor articulated buses, and a route system that often overlaps local bus routes or even replaces Limited-Stop bus routes.   Some BRT routes are replacements of local routes with less stops and some are lines created in lieu of a rail line, but overall it is believed to be a faster service for a particular bus corridor.Examples:
    New York’s Select Bus Service (SBS), with red-painted dedicated (again, not segregated) curbside and offset bus lanes, low-floor articulated buses (except for one route), off-board fare collection via ticket machines at bus stops (except for one route), less stops than even the Limited-Stop bus service it often replaces*, special bus and stop branding, and bus bulbs which extend the sidewalk to the offset bus lanes.  SBS is scattered around the city with three Manhattan bus routes, two Bronx bus routes, a Staten Island bus route, and a Brooklyn bus route, with varying aspects of BRT applied where most applicable.
    Los Angeles’ Metro Rapid system, with red-painted low-floor articulated buses, frequent service, less stops than the Limited-Stop routes they replaced, far more frequent service with more buses, and a more simplified route pattern for frequent riders and new riders alike.  Unlike the Orange Line, which is a busway in the San Fernando Valley given a rail designation due to the rail-like characteristics, Metro Rapid runs entirely on city streets with general traffic and very few bus lanes (the only ones are on Wilshire Boulevard near Downtown LA) but has Rapid bus beacon signs to distinguish Metro Rapid stops from other bus stops.
    Cleveland’s Health Line, with center-median bus lanes, sleek low-floor articulated buses that are level with special stations with ticket machines much like light rail, left-side and right-side boarding for added flexibility in regard to station placement, and special branding sponsored by the many major institutions that line the Euclid Avenue Corridor.
  • BRT Type #3:  This type, which probably isn’t really a type of BRT but nevertheless is noteworthy, is reserved for those systems which transit properties might not openly call “BRT” but will still make the sell that it makes commutes faster or easier and more convenient.  These networks might include special bus or route branding, sleek low-floor or standard-floor buses, high frequency, special bus stops, pre-boarding ticketing, or a combination of the aforementioned.Examples:
    Phoenix’ RAPID bus network, with sleek extra-long low-floor buses with motorcoach-like amenities, service every 10 minutes in the peak direction during peak hours, and a simplified service pattern which is park-and-ride-based (as opposed to the Express buses with door-to-door commuter service), meaning that buses collect passengers from several Downtown stops and run non-stop making only one or two stops at major freeway Park-and-Ride lots.  Buses carry a special Rapid livery to distinguish from regular Express bus service, though the Rapid and Express fares are the same.
    New Jersey’s GO Bus, with distinct colors strikingly different from other NJ Transit services, to “pop out” at riders wanting a quicker, easier ride through Newark.  Though there is no fare pre-payment, level boarding, or high frequencies like other “BRT” service, GO buses make less stops than their local counterparts and run a different, relatively simple service pattern as to cater to different markets along two of Newark’s heaviest corridors.
    Washington, DC’s Metro Extra, with a special blue version of the Metro livery (Red and silver), far less stops than local counterparts, special recognition as Metro Extra on system maps, and route numbers mostly ending in “7” or “9” to denote a special service in relation to the local routes they are grouped with (.e.g. X9 is Benning Road’s Metro Extra counterpart to the X1, X2, and X3, 79 is Georgia Avenue’s Metro Extra counterpart to the 70 and 74).  The buses used on Metro Extra are the exact same models used on Metro Local routes, but the livery separates the two services.

So how much does Bus Rapid Transit cost?

It depends on the model chosen for Bus Rapid Transit.  Some BRT models, like Metro Extra, probably didn’t cost more than tens of millions of dollars due to buses repainted or already being delivered in the new Local and Extra/Express schemes and the mere use of main thoroughfares as is.  Other models, such as Ottawa’s Transitway or Bogota’s Transmilenio, were built for hundreds of millions of dollars over several years due to physically segregated rights of way and enhanced stations coupled with rapid growth of the network due to increasing service needs.  Within the two extremes lies BRT models such as SBS in New York and the Jump in Chicago, which are rolled out with existing or new buses and with minimal changes in streetscape in contrast to grade-separate road structures strictly for high-capacity bus services.

What do I like/dislike about Bus Rapid Transit?

It really depends on the system and how the concept is applied.  Each system tailors BRT to their needs and their budget.  One isn’t better than another if you compare each system based on the overall experience knowing that a system like the Transitway was conceived in a totally different way than Select Bus Service.  It would be like comparing apples to oranges.  I will say, however, that there are things about the Transitway I really like, such as the high-capacity roadways and the idea that all bus routes have access to at least one Transitway station, and there are things I like about Select Bus Service, like the off-board fare collection and wrapped buses to add a bit of vibrance to an otherwise dull blue-and-white MTA paint scheme.  To address all of the likes and dislikes of each BRT system (at least those I have ridden or researched) would mean a whole series of blog posts, possibly tied to this post.

Stay tuned.

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