Beware the “BRT” snake oil


Just about anyone who’s raised the possibility of light rail transit (LRT, the most popular form of urban rail) for their community has probably encountered a familiar pitch for “bus rapid transit” (BRT): Why not try “BRT” instead? It’s just like light rail, but cheaper…

The problem with this isn’t that better bus service is a bad idea. Upgraded buses, upgraded bus stops, traffic signal priority, high-tech innovations such as “next bus” passenger information systems at bus stops and onboard wi-fi, and other improvements, are all important ways to attract more ridership to public transport.

But the problem is that a collection of “BRT” promoters — from the motor bus industry to highway enthusiasts to some self-proclaimed transit supporters, have been claiming that, somehow, “BRT” has all the advantages of urban rail at much lower cost. And that’s just plain wrong. It’s false, and in many, perhaps most, cases, it’s deceptive. In effect, it’s a kind of snake oil being peddled in the field of urban transit.

An awful lot of cities and transit systems worldwide that have been vigorously installing new LRT systems (including streetcars) haven’t been ignorant or oblivious to the “BRT” option. Instead, they’ve reviewed and analyzed the pros and cons of this and other alternatives, and concluded that, for their own needs, LRT — and other forms of urban rail — is the best choice.

Let’s briefly consider a few of the most familiar claims that “BRT” proponents try to promulgate.

► “BRT” is truly “rapid transit” — Mostly nonsense. The “BRT” promotion campaign typically presents images of buses on special exclusive guideways (the so-called “Gold Standard” of BRT) to seduce public support (mainly from local civic leaders). But the reality of most purported “BRT” systems is … buses running mostly in mixed traffic like “regular” buses, but perhaps in limited-stop modes, with somewhat fancier stations … but a far cry from fully grade-separated rapid transit.

This has become an issue in Austin, Texas with perhaps the most recently opened so-called “BRT” system (funded as “BRT” under the federal Small Starts program). Called MetroRapid, the system is being widely ridiculed in the community for attracting daily ridership of only 6,000 and resulting in a net ridership loss of 11% in the corridor it serves. See: Why MetroRapid bus service is NOT “bus rapid transit”.

Austin's MetroRapid "BRT" systems runs in mixed traffic, and has become the object of local ridicule. Photo: L. Henry.

Austin’s MetroRapid “BRT” systems runs in mixed traffic, and has become the object of local ridicule. Photo: L. Henry.

► “BRT” is a lot cheaper than LRT — Well maybe, maybe not. When total lifecycle costs, expressed as annualized capital costs, plus operating and maintenance (O&M) costs are considered, LRT is often the more cost-effective investment, particularly through the essential metric of cost per passenger-mile.

This issue is analyzed in a number of articles on the Light Rail Now website; see, for example:

Light Rail Lowers Operating Costs

How Light Rail Saves Operating Cost Dollars Compared With Buses

Streetcar vs. Bus: Operating cost comparison

“Free” buses vs. “expensive” rail?

Portland: New Yellow Line LRT on Interstate Ave. covers capital investment from operating cost savings and benefits

Brisbane Reality Check: The high cost of “cheap” busways

► “BRT” attracts as many riders as LRTCertainly not on average. Overall, LRT systems beat all types of bus systems in meeting ridership goals and attracting “choice” riders (who have the option of using private motor vehicles). Some evidence is provided in the following articles:

Rail Transit vs. “Bus Rapid Transit”: Comparative Success and Potential in Attracting Ridership

Research Study: Riders Prefer Light Rail to “Bus Rapid Transit”

Motorists prefer light rail over buses, reports UK poll

► “BRT” has the capacity of LRTDefinitely not in terms of ultimate potential capacity. As “BRT” systems attempt to cope with increasing ridership (which may happen not because “BRT” systems are so attractive, but because of rising population and the increasing costs and congestion of private motor vehicle systems), the number of buses required to try to provide capacity starts to overwhelm road systems and station passenger-handling capacity.

Massive bus traffic jam in Brisbane, Australia illustrate problem of fitting "BRT" into a high-capacity application. Photo: James Saunders.

Massive bus traffic jam in Brisbane, Australia illustrate problem of fitting “BRT” into a high-capacity application. Photo: James Saunders.

► “BRT” attracts development, just like LRTFalse. This claim by “BRT” advocates is based predominantly on cases in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, In both cities, the real estate development attributed to “BRT” was overwhelmingly attracted by rail transit systems, both existing and planned.

► “BRT” is just like LRT, but cheaperDefinitely, totally false. Basically, you get what you pay for. “BRT” fails to offer the speed (for similar routes and station spacing), ride comfort, reliability, accessibility, lower energy consumption, lower environmental impact, cost-effectiveness, and urban livability of LRT. Here are some articles that provide evidence for this:

New light rail projects in study beat BRT

Reality Check: Breakthrough Technologies Institute’s Dubious Claims on “Bus Rapid Transit”, Electric Rail, and Global Warming

LA’s “Orange Line” Busway – “Just Like Rail, But Cheaper?” A Photo-Report Reality Check

There are other issues in this comparison which merit being covered. We’ll examine some of them in future posts. ■

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line "bus rapid transit" (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

New light rail projects in study beat BRT

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line "bus rapid transit" (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

Phoenix light rail transit (LRT, left); Los Angeles Orange Line “bus rapid transit” (BRT, right). Photos: L. Henry.

by Lyndon Henry

New light rail transit (LRT) projects came out ahead of new bus rapid transit (BRT) projects that were included in a research study I presented last November (2012) to the 12th National Light Rail Transit Conference in Salt Lake City, sponsored by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Dave Dobbs, a longtime colleague, helped me conduct the study.

In part, this research was a response to the assertions of critics of rail transit who maintain a constant barrage of attacks on rail, trying to convince the public at large and decisionmakers that public transit (especially rail) is just a waste of money … and that, if you must install something fancy, so-called “BRT” is invariably cheaper and better (or “Just like light rail, but cheaper…”). However, these attacks rarely appear in independent professional forums like this one, co-sponsored by the TRB (an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences).

All papers accepted by the TRB for publication/presentation — including this work, titled Comparative examination of New Start light rail transit, light railway, and bus rapid transit services opened from 2000 — must undergo a rigorous peer-review process critically examining their methodology and conclusions.

My PowerPoint presentation to the conference has been placed online by the TRB and can be found here:

In addition, I discussed the study — both the methodology and the results — in several articles published in my online blog column at Railway Age:

Research study: New LRT projects beat BRT [26 November 2012]

Research: BRT can truly be pricier than LRT [14 January 2013]

Study: LRT ridership gains are spectacular [18 February 2013]

Here are some summary results, excerpted from the Railway Age articles:

How well did LRT and BRT final costs compare with budget estimates? LRT again did better, exceeding budget by only 2% on average, while BRT averaged 35% above budget.

In terms of capital cost, for “substantial” installations (5% or more of route length involving heavy civil works), LRT was a clear winner, with an average cost per mile of $80 million, less than a fifth of BRT’s average of nearly $452 million. (All costs in 2012 dollars.)

Where electric LRT really excelled was in achieving ridership goals. On average, LRT projects seemed to meet their ridership targets at about twice the rate of the BRT projects, using the “ridership achievement index” we developed for the study (which accounted for the pace at which projected ridership was being achieved).

It should be noted that some BRT projects didn’t do so badly — Cleveland’s “HealthLine” project (Euclid Avenue) was achieving its target at a 60% faster pace than expected, while Los Angeles’s Orange Line busway was reaching its ridership at nearly 3 times the projected rate.

But some of the LRT results were really spectacular. St. Louis’s St. Clair Extension of Metrolink, for example, was racing towards its ridership goals at over 7 times the predicted rate; Minneapolis’s Hiawatha line at six times; and Denver’s Southwest LRT at more than 6 times. (It should be noted that 3 out of the 20 LRT projects studied were failing to meet projected growth rate targets; nevertheless, the overall LRT average still exceeded BRT’s.

There’s a lot more, both in the PowerPoint presentation, and in the full Railway Age articles.