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.

How Portland’s light rail trains and buses share a transit mall

LRT train on Portland's 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

LRT train on Portland’s 5th Ave. transit mall swings to the curbside station to pick up waiting passengers. Photo: L. Henry.

♦ How can both buses and light rail transit (LRT) trains share the same transit-priority paveway or street? There are numerous examples that answer this, but certainly one of the best is in Portland, Oregon — the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls.
Recently, the Austin Rail Now (ARN) blog posted an article focusing on Portland’s transit malls, and because of the more general usefulness of this information for many more communities, we’re re-posting it here with the kind permission of ARN. (It’s also been re-posted by the Light Rail Now blog.)
The opening context for the article is the urban rail planning project currently under way by the City of Austin, Capital Metro (the transit authority), and a transit planning consortium called Project Connect. Transit priority lanes are now being installed on two major downtown north-south streets, and it’s been expected that urban rail trains would share these with buses, including the MetroRapid premium-bus services now being implemented in several major city corridors. However, some transit advocates are noting that these lanes may have insufficient capacity to handle all the bus routes plus MetroRapid, much less adding LRT into the mix.
Portland’s experience thus provides an illustration of how LRT trains and buses can share a priority alignment in a way that works well.

Capital Metro and the City of Austin have a project under way to designate “Transit Priority Lanes” on Guadalupe and Lavaca Streets downtown between Cesar Chavez St. and MLK Jr. Blvd. It’s mainly to expedite operation of the planned new MetroRapid bus services (Routes 801 and 803), but virtually all bus routes running through downtown will also be shifted to these lanes, located on the far-righthand side of traffic on each street (i.e., the righthand curbside lanes).

According to a 2011 study funded by the City of Austin, the Official (City + Project Connect) Urban Rail route is also envisioned to use these lanes downtown. Alternatives to the Official plan have also assumed that these routes would be available for alternative urban rail lines serving the Guadalupe-Lamar corridor.

However, there are legitimate questions as to whether these two lanes could simultaneously and effectively accommodate the two MetroRapid bus routes (10-minute headways each) plus all other Capital Metro routes (various headways) as well as urban rail (10-minute headway), all running in both directions.

Experience with both light rail transit (LRT) trains and buses sharing the same running way is rare in the USA, but one of the best examples can be seen in Portland, Oregon. For years, 5th and 6th Avenues through the downtown have been used by multiple bus routes as a transit mall, with a single lane provided for general motor vehicle access. In September 2009 LRT was added with the opening of the new Green Line; see: Portland: New Green Line Light Rail Extension Opens.

The integration of LRT with bus service in the 5th and 6th Avenue transit malls has worked well. Here’s a brief photo-summary illustrating some of the configurational and operational details.

• Buses and LRT trains share transitway

This illustrates how both bus services and LRT trains share the mall. Tracks, embedded in the pavement, weave from curbside to the second lane over. A third lane is kept open for mixed motor vehicle traffic.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT routes cross

This photo shows how the Green and Yellow LRT lines on the 5th Ave. transit mall cross the Red and Blue LRT lines running on 5th St. You’re looking north on 5th Ave., and just across the tracks in the foreground, the LRT tracks on 5th Ave. weave from the middle of the street over to the curbside, where a station-stop is located. This allows LRT trains to access stations but otherwise pass buses stopped at bus stops on the same street.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

• LRT train leaving station

Here an LRT train has just left the curbside station, following the tracks into the middle lane of the street. This track configuration allows the train to pass a bus boarding passengers at a stop.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• LRT train passing bus

Another train moves to the street center lane and passes the bus stop. Meanwhile, other buses queue up at the street behind.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: Dave Dobbs.

• Bus bunching

Buses are prone to “bus bunching” (queuing) in high-volume situations because of their smaller capacity, slower operation, slower passenger boarding/deboarding, difficulty adhering to schedule, etc. However, notice how they’re channeled to queue up in a lane off the LRT track.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Portland 5th Ave. transit mall. Photo: L. Henry.

Can and will Austin and Project Connect planners learn anything about how to create workable Transit Priority Lanes from examples like this? Time will tell…

Walkable City book applauds John Schneider for “single-handedly bringing streetcars to Cincinnati”

[Graphic of book cover: CNU]

by Lyndon Henry

My Urban Rail Today colleague John Schneider is given some much-deserved kudos in Jeff Speck’s acclaimed book on urban livability and new urbanism, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

A review posted on the website of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) describes Speck as ” a city planner who advocates for smart growth and sustainable design”; he’s also the author of Suburban Nation, depicted as a “landmark bestseller”.

“Bursting with sharp observations and real-world examples, giving key insight into what urban planners actually do and how places can and do change, Walkable City lays out a practical, necessary, and eminently achievable vision of how to make our normal American cities great again…” reports the review.

One of the “real-world examples”, cited on page 140 in a chapter titled “Let Transit Work”, is “John Schneider of Protransit, who is single-handedly bringing streetcars to Cincinnati, someone out there hunting down federal and state dollars, leading fact-finding junkets, and otherwise fighting the good fight for mass transit.” (Protransit is a Cincinnati-area group advocating rail transit alternatives for the city.)

John (known locally as “Mr. Streetcar”) declines credit for “hunting down federal and state dollars”, but he’s certainly forged new paths in terms of “leading fact-finding junkets” — through organizing enlightening trips, year after year, from Cincinnati, Ohio to Portland, Oregon, for groups of various regional civic officials and community leaders to visit Portland and inspect the metro area’s globally acclaimed rail transit systems first-hand. Those eye-opening excursions have clearly played a key role in persuading local community leaders (and similar participants from other communities) to back rail transit in Cincinnati and elsewhere — and represent a highly effective model for urban rail supporters to nurture local support in their own cities.

The CNU review includes excerpts from Speck’s book and a link for ordering a copy from Amazon.

Urban Mobility: Know Your Objective

Portland: With the objective of repopulating the city’s older neighborhoods by making them more car-light, electric streetcars are helping to connect work, housing, entertainment, and recreation so that a personal motor vehicle is no longer needed. [Photo: L. Henry]

by John Schneider

Ask yourself: What problem do you want to solve? And is the problem worth solving, or able to be solved, given the resources available to your community?

It would be nice to rid your town of congested highways, but the truth is, as you convert motorists into transit riders, other motorists are quick to fill up the empty roadway, so you never really get ahead in this game. A broad regional system of frequent, car-competitive transit designed to eliminate highway congestion will be very expensive to build and operate.

If you are focused on improving mobility in a particular corridor because of increasing jobs or strong housing growth in the corridor, then you need to consider the level of transit service that’s appropriate. If most trips in the corridor are short ones, adding buses may serve to meet the demand. If trips are longer, and if there is steady demand for travel many hours a day, rail solutions may be more appropriate.

Much of the recent interest in transit technologies is associated with the repopulation of dense city neighborhoods. This is happening in two out of three regions in the U.S. — even if the core city as a whole is losing population. So if your objective is to repopulate older neighborhoods by making them more car-light, electric streetcars can connect work, housing, entertainment and recreation so that a car is no longer needed in these neighborhoods. The money saved can be redirected toward better housing, better health care or for a child’s education. This sort of turns the transit for mobility argument inside out: less mobility can often mean greater savings and greater prosperity.

Once your objective is clear, make sure it is in sync with the aspirations of your city’s political leadership and leading institutions. Show them how achieving your objective can make their jobs easier.

Finally, can your objective be achieved in other ways? This is a very important question to answer. Your critics will always be insisting that other solutions are better and cheaper! You need to be able to show them they are wrong.