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November 30, 2005

Bashing Bus Rapid Transit

The Stranger takes a crack at Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)--an alternative to fixed-rail technologies like light rail and monorail--and finds it wanting. Severely wanting. And while the short article isn't the paragon of balanced issue analysis, it raises some compelling objections. Among them: BRT tends to have lower ridership, longer travel times, and fails to create incentives for land-use changes. There may even be reason to think that BRT's oft-touted cost-effectiveness may be illusory. 

The debate between BRT and fixed-rail is extensive and even somewhat acrimonious. Personally, I'm undecided (and, in truth, I'm unacquainted with the quantitative claims of BRT proponents) but I have a hard time believing that BRT is preferable.

Fixed-rail transit is not only good for transportation (where it probably out-competes BRT), but it can also catalyze and focus development strategically, just as streetcars once did. BRT, on the other hand, cannot act as an agent of smart-growth development because it lacks the permanence of a rail stop. To get that permanence, BRT must assume its most extreme form: grade-separated, exclusive right-of-way lanes, with large well-designed stops. But then BRT has sacrificed its main selling points and become expensive and inflexible, just like fixed rail. And it's slower and less attractive to new riders too. So where's the beef?

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink


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Hi Eric,

I think the preference for BRT comes from the areas (geographically, the majority) unlikely to be directly connected by rail, who are justifiably looking for ways to optimize existing bus service. For instance, have you ever tried taking the #8 from the Seattle Center to Capitol Hill during commute time? I have literally walked the whole distance faster than that bus.

Just try to get from Fremont to Capitol Hill (two miles?) on a Friday after 7pm in less than an hour.

Neither of these routes would be served by rail (so far as I know). Bus service is the only alternative, but it's currently laughably slow at exactly the times it's most used. BRT represents an attempt to solve that kind of failure. (If you redefine it, with magical thinking, as buses that share car-clogged roads with no priority for their travel and STILL go fast, that's a failure of political will, not concept.)

After all, it's not either/or is it? I happen to love rail travel. But rail isn't going to go everywhere. And the bus service is going to get slower and slower on these kind of routes, providing less ridership fed to rail nodes, too.

Posted by: Michael | Nov 30, 2005 1:29:15 PM

Yeah, thanks for pointing that out, Michael. Of course you're right: it's not necessarily either/or. Or at least it shouldn't be...

But in practice, partly because of limited resources, fixed-rail and BRT are often inimical to one another's interests. For instance, the Stranger article that inspired my post was written about nascent proposals to use BRT along the would-have-been monorail route. That's better than nothing I suppose, but it's wrong for proponent's to suggest that BRT will accomplish for land-use or carrying-capacity what the monorail would have. (Unless BRT becomes nearly as expensive and inflexible as the monorail would have been...)

By the way, I'm a Seattle bus-rider too and believe me, I share your frustration with the snail's pace -- the 44 in particular makes me insane. (For just one example: At rush hour I can run from the office downtown to my former house in Ballard/Fremont in about the same amount of time than in takes to walk to the bus stop, wait for the 28 express, and walk home. With a bicycle it's no contest. That's almost 5 miles and that is not effective transit even on an express route.)

Posted by: Eric de Place | Nov 30, 2005 1:56:16 PM

The 44? Ugh.

But an underlying issue, Eric, is the geographic restriction (gravity) placed on rail. BRT would be a good option if flexibility were built into the plan, but since it is not, BRT is a non-starter. The non-starterness of rail is that the flat ground around here is already built upon.

But, only having lived here for a scant few years, an outsider's view is that the train has left the station [ahem] and rail shoulda been built years ago, and now it's problematic at best. This city needs transit, but I don't know how it's going to get it without someone at the top strong-arming everyone thru the process, beginning to end (but that's not the Seattle way...).

Posted by: Dan Staley | Nov 30, 2005 4:16:46 PM

I'm intrigued (and a bit mystified, in truth) by the notion that BRT could connect Fremont and Capitol Hill. Could someone describe how such a segment would work? What it might look like? Its configuration? Thanks.

Posted by: David Sucher | Nov 30, 2005 9:00:50 PM

BRT as an alternative to light rail seems to be most feasible on wide streets where it's politically possible to spare a lane for transit (e.g. in Los Angeles).

Seattle proper doesn't have very many of those streets: only Aurora really stands out off-hand, though you could argue for Lake City Way, Ranier, maybe Roosevelt/11th. The suburbs have a lot more multi-lane streets, but they have much lower densities.

So the BRT being proposed for the area comes out looking a lot more like a bus-based version of commuter rail (i.e. a one-way-oriented trip picking up passengers at park-and-rides and dropping them at business centers) than a bus-based version of light rail (i.e. a neighborhood-connecting service that moves people all day). And that's too bad, because a neighborhood-connecting service is much more desirable from a smart-growth development perspective.

Posted by: Steve Mooney | Dec 1, 2005 1:25:12 AM

The one certainty, it has to be planned as a whole.
San Jose light rail required high density housing at the South end, but the South Enders didn't want it. Packages only, please.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Dec 1, 2005 8:34:07 AM

Vancouver has a number of BRT routes called B-Lines, running articulated buses on major arterial corridors with approximately 1 km. stop spacing. On the Granville Street B-Line at least, the stops are named as they would be with a LRT, have slick shelters with electronic route information displays including notice of how long one has to wait for the next bus. This particular route runs along a dedicated centre median corridor along No. 3 Road in Richmond. The B-Lines seem to be very successful as an express option along major corridors that are still served by slower local buses that stop every couple of blocks along the same roads. Victoria is planning a similar system running along Douglas Street from downtown north to the Swartz Bay Ferry terminal with cross town routes as well connecting major centres and the University of Victoria. We will likely be running double deck buses rather than articulated buses. The advantage of BRT for a mid-sized city such as Victoria is that we can get ourselves into a high capacity rapid transit service at a fraction of the cost, and much more quickly than with a rail based system, allowing us to build the dedicated right of way networks towards ultimate light rail conversion when ridership and funding can support it.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 1, 2005 8:53:43 AM

I think some great points are being made here. Development of higher densities, and the investment associated with such a large project, is only possible when there is a corresponding public investment. In other words, when the public shows it's commitment to transportation infrastructure at a particular location, developers will show their commitment at that location as well.

This doesn’t apply only to rail. This also applies to highways. That is why developers have been willing to make a commitment to far-flung development with three- and four-car garages, and huge parking lots. That has been happening for so long (public infrastructure commitment for automobile support) that many developers interpret that as “the market” and any change to that course as social engineering. I would argue that highways and transit assets are exactly the same in that respect. The market will respond to whatever we put on the ground. For decades we have built freeways. Humbly, I would propose that a few light rail lines might be in order, if merely for balance.

Here in Spokane, we’re thinking in terms of building light rail where the corridor is underutilized (it’s ready to increase its density, and growth can be focused on the stations) and that BRT would be useful in corridors which are unlikely to redevelop in the next 20 years, but are currently experiencing congestion issues which affect a regular bus’ ability to remain effective.

LRT is good for smart growth and creating new transit markets, and BRT is good for reacting to uncoordinated growth and sustaining current transit markets. At least, that’s our operating theory here.

So, it’s not impossible to have BRT and LRT coexisting in the same area. It’s just a matter of what your intent is in constructing it: reaction to growth, or activating smart growth. For many cities, there is a mixture of these issues. I would expect a mixture of modes as well, but never in the same corridor. They have to remain parallel or perpendicular.

Why? Because the mode change is a killer for transit. One of the reasons why cars are so attractive is that, despite the fact that roads can be congested and you might have to park a long way from the front door of your destination, you are not required to get out of your car and get into another car. Transit use will be severely impacted if they have to change from rail to bus, and vice versa on the return trip, just to go in a straight line.

So, just remember that if you convert your BRT to LRT, you have to convert the entire line all at the same time. That is difficult and expensive, and you will have wasted the investment in the BRT. Please make sure your public is willing to accept that before it becomes your community’s policy.

Posted by: Brian S. | Dec 1, 2005 10:47:01 AM

An Austin friend of mine, Lyndon Henry, says that BRT would be more correctly described as "Better Bus", an evolutionary improvement, not the kind of revolutionary improvement that might get people out their cars. A city bus averages about 12 MPH; BRT systems are averaging about 15 MPH. Big deal. A more appropriate descripton might be "Bus Vapid Transit."

Oh, and remember, labor wages and benefits are about 75% of the cost of running a bus system, and the buses don't drive themselves. A city bus with one driver carries about 50 people including some standees. A three-car light rail train with one driver carries 270 people. LRT is more expensive to build, but the trains more or less last forever and they're cheaper to operate. And they can be scaled-up.

Understand BRT for what it is: the highway monoculture's lame effort to deflect investment away from the one mode of transit that is car-competitive -- rail transit.

Posted by: John Schneider | Dec 1, 2005 6:49:29 PM

John, great numbers and your conclusion suffers from a narrow premise: it doesn't consider that buildable, flat available land is needed for rail. Seattle is hilly and largely built up.

The reason why monorail had legs for a while is that Seattle has limited flat, empty land and monorail would just go over some stuff, saving time.

If land is not available, lots of buildings have to be demolished for the ROW room, which is a heavy initial sunk cost, and time wasted for negotiation and eviction.


Posted by: Dan Staley | Dec 1, 2005 7:16:49 PM

To understand the benefits of BRT you must understand what Jaime Lerner (ex Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil) and Enrique Penalosa (ex Mayor of Bogota, Colombia) have done to their cities. At less than 10% of the cost of Underground Metro a well planned BRT system can satisfactorily meet the mobility needs of majority of commuters. It is more flexible, needs less time to implement, needs no major construction to put in place the rails etc and most important of all, if planners are wise and introduce automobile restrain measures, it can free the city from the clutches of auto-dominated urban planning. Many BRT systems are integrated with pedestrian and bicycle paths which further help to improve the ambiance of the city and enrich its community-life, which the automobile has nearly killed in most US cities. If reclaiming streets and public spaces for pedestrians (particularly the young, the elderly, the infirm) and the cyclists is seen to be desirable, BRT is the only way to go.

Posted by: Sujit Patwardhan | Dec 2, 2005 2:16:14 AM

Jitneys make excellent feeders to any mass transit system, but to be really effective they need to be private and comparatively unregulated.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis | Dec 2, 2005 8:00:16 AM

I was at a recent conference in Salt Lake City (Rail~Volution) where Curitiba was discussed glowingly. It's true that the BRT has had a strong land-use effect. However, this is due greatly to the transit-supportive nature of the population. It's clear America can learn a great deal from it, but it's a negative example.

In most areas of the United States, pedestrian-orientation is only possible in small areas precisely because no business will cut off its access to auto-oriented customers in order to achieve mode change. BRT doesn't have the permanence that's necessary to cause the private investment needed for land use changes, unless it has an exclusive right-of-way. Once that happens, it loses its cost advantage.

That's not to say that we've lost the battle when it comes to auto-dominated land use practices. As more and more small spaces are created, connected by redundant and robust transportation systems, the small spaces will start to dominate. Not because they have blurred together and eliminated all the other types of spaces, but because these spaces will have such greater densities that even though they are small, they contain large populations and high activity.

Posted by: Brian S. | Dec 2, 2005 9:11:30 AM

DAN STALEY said: "John, great numbers and your conclusion suffers from a narrow premise: it doesn't consider that buildable, flat available land is needed for rail. Seattle is hilly and largely built up."

-- It wasn't really meant to be a Seattle-centric comment, and I understand the problems with First Hill. I'm in Cincinnati, and we have very narrow streets, elevation changes and the Ohio River, but our planning was able to deal with these obstacles. Portland, San Diego and Pittsburgh all have topography (and rivers)for their LRT's to deal with, and they do. In many cases, you'd be taking a lane of traffic on each of a street pair, but that seems to work pretty well.

SUNIT PATWARDHAN said: "To understand the benefits of BRT you must understand what Jaime Lerner (ex Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil) and Enrique Penalosa (ex Mayor of Bogota, Colombia) have done to their cities."

-- Of course, it helps a lot (in the case of Curitiba)when you ban cars from vast areas of downtown, when few of your citizens even own cars and when they tolerate on-board crowding condtions that most Americans wouldn't. Not to be discounted also: the influence of a large number of bus manufacturers in Brazil.

I'm still waiting to see the first example of a U.S. BRT system that posts continuous ridership growth for four or five years.

Posted by: John Schneider | Dec 2, 2005 2:34:45 PM

David Sucher writes, "I'm intrigued (and a bit mystified, in truth) by the notion that BRT could connect Fremont and Capitol Hill. Could someone describe how such a segment would work? What it might look like? Its configuration? Thanks."

Challenge accepted. I'm actually funded to work on this!

Such a BRT line would be an all-day express bus with ten minute headways minimum, and shorter if demand warranted in peak periods. The size of the vehicle would depend on passenger demand, and would be increased over time. The stops between Fremont and Capitol Hill would be no less than 1/2 mile apart.

Transit signal priority (TSP) would be in effect, which is NOT like an ambulance or a Tacoma Link light rail trolley turning traffic lights red in all directions as it goes through intersections.

In the future world of Seattle BRT, every stop on a BRT line would have its own telephone number, and dialing that number on your cell phone would display the minutes until the next bus arrives. (See www.busmonster.com for a hint of the future.)

Let's see, what else -- off-bus fare payment, like on the BRT lines in Paris, probably SmartCard based in Seattle futureworld.

Now, I need some help from you on routing. In what other places (neighborhoods) would you like your BRT to stop between downtown Fremont and (say) Seattle Community College on Broadway? Then I'll go away and study a map with traffic densities to find a route.

I'm going to need a strong, green mayor and SeaDOT boss to get this done (Nickels and Crunican will do) and some money (what will be left over when the Seattle Big Dig -- five mile light rail tunnel from Pine Street to NE 75th -- finally goes toes up will be enough to do arterial BRT all over town!)

I may need to kick some curb parking off the street in peak, like is already done in world class cities like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.

So give me some help on intermediate stops you'd like to see. This is not going to be a helicopter ride or flying magic carpet! Provide me with a target travel time while you are at it, but let's not try to change arterial speed limits.

Posted by: John Niles | Dec 5, 2005 11:37:41 PM