A basic duty of transit consultants like me is to show each city what other cities are doing, and help cities figure out which of those models are right for them. For example, most people have never seen Bus Rapid Transit done in a way that provides the complete “rapid-transit” experience that we expect from urban rail transit, with complete separation from traffic. So I thought I’d offer a tour of Brisbane’s South East Busway, which does exactly that.
When assessing your options for a particular transit market, it’s important to realize that many of the features that attract us to rail rapid transit can be provided in a busway setting, including an attention to design that’s too often absent from bus transit facilities.
The term Bus Rapid Transit is used to mean almost any way of speeding up bus service along a corridor, so let’s clarify the features of Brisbane’s high-end example:
- Fully separated bus right-of-way, with almost no interaction between buses and other traffic.
- Stations built to the level of amenity that would be expected of rail transit stations.
- Very few signalized intersections, because the busway runs mostly along segments that were already grade-separated, as parts of freeways or rail lines.
The third element is hard to replicate in other cities. Brisbane was fortunate to have segments of right-of-way already protected, notably the space along the southeast freeway that had been reserved for future road expansion. As with most first-introductions of new service concepts, Brisbane started with this corridor because it was the easiest and cheapest place to build a high-impact facility.
This means, of course, that each new extension will be harder, and involve
more compromises, than the initial one. A future busway to the east,
for example, will be largely at-grade in the median of a boulevard, so
it will involve more at-grade intersections. Starting with the easiest
corridor is a common strategy in first-introductions, whether of busway
or rail, because the political future of any technology in a city is always based on the performance, cost and public opinion of the first line.
The two large pieces of the system that are already complete (shown in red at right) are the South East Busway and the Inner Northern Busway. These segments are now connected end-to-end through downtown to form a complete bus-only right of way extending for just over 20 km (14 miles). (Translink’s drawing at right is out-of-date in showing a small unfinished segment downtown, just north of the river; that segment was finished last year.)
The downtown segment is mostly underground and features two key stations: King George Square, described earlier, which is under the major civic plaza, and Queen Street, which is under the major pedestrian mall.
The underground platforms at Queen Street form an unphotographable labyrinth entangled with the surrounding multi-level shopping centers, but the pedestrian mall above the station is a great space, bustling for many hours after most of the stores have closed. Note the interesting canopy structure, which makes the mall a surprisingly nice place to be during Brisbane’s warm tropical thunderstorms.
Proceeding out the South East Busway from Queen Street, we come to the surface and cross the Victoria Bridge into Cultural Centre station. The bridge has two separate two-lane roadways, one for buses and the other for cars, side-by-side, with separate signal phases.
Cultural Centre station is on the bridge deck right at the west end of the bridge, with great views of the city skyline from its platforms. It sits in the midst of Brisbane’s major museums and performing arts venues, all part of the elaborate South Bank redevelopment — an extended parkland studded with civic attractions on the site of the former Expo. Cultural Centre handles a massive volume of buses, including many routes that use only the downtown segment of the busway and then branch off to other lines. So it’s always bustling.
The view of the skyline, of course, is also what greets arriving passengers on the buses. It’s a great aesthetic experience that you won’t get in a subway, though of course that’s not, in itself, a reason to build on the surface. Operationally, this segment is the busway’s Achilles Heel. On both sides of this station are two complex multi-phase signals, where competing traffic is so substantial that there’s no way to pre-empt them for buses.
Pictured here is the Melbourne Street portal just west of Cultural Centre, where the outbound buses must turn left to proceed into the rest of the busway. (Since we drive on the left, the bigger delay is to inbound buses such as the one in the picture, which must turn right at the signal.)
These signals are the limiting factor for bus capacity all through this crucial segment. The only way to avoid them would have been to put the busway in a tunnel under the river, an option whose expense would have doomed the entire project. When the busway outgrows this capacity constraint, the most likely solution is to create new busway branches leading into different parts of downtown.
Once we’re past this signal, we won’t encounter another for the rest of the busway’s length. From here on we have the pure rapid transit experience: frequent service, at a high speed, serving widely spaced attractive stations, and with no delays apart from the time it takes to stop at each station.
The next dramatic moment on the busway is two stations later. Mater Hill Station is in the midst of one of Brisbane’s main medical centers: the typical mass of hospitals, medical schools, clinics, specialists and labs that you find clustered, often on a hilltop, in most cities.
The busway puts you right into the middle of it, at a station that
seems to be wrapped with high buildings on all sides, but still gets
plenty of light. It’s a remarkable massing, putting a huge number of
jobs and medical appointments right on the busway. Much of this
hospital complex predated the busway, but construction of new buildings
continues, taking advantage of the rapid transit access that the busway
After Mater Hill, the busway turns south and heads out of the city alongside the main freeway. For the rest of the way, the stations look much as a light rail station would look in the same setting.
In most cases the busway is in an open cut one level below the street. At street level there’s a simple structure that welcomes people into the busway and provides the necessary lifts (elevators) and stairs to access the correct side of the busway for their direction of travel.
One clever design feature — impossible to photograph — is that although the platform is down in a cut with concrete walls on both sides, there is an additional transparent wall about one meter (3 ft) out from the concrete wall, and the space between the two walls is filled with plants. The effect is that a waiting passenger is in a glassy enclosure rather than a concrete one.
These outer stations are all necessarily next to the freeway, so there are some limitations on their ability to interact with the urban fabric. Griffith University station, for example, is a few minutes walk from the active part of the campus. Some of these stations, notably Eight Mile Plains, are mainly Park-and-Ride. But there’s also a station at Garden City, the main regional shopping center for southern Brisbane.
The urban fabric you encounter on leaving Garden City’s station is not ideal, but there are clearly a lot of jobs and opportunities within walking distance. The next round of redevelopment will provide an appropriate entrance here for rapid transit customers.
So that’s the South East Busway. It has been, by all accounts, an immense success, helping to drive the spectacular ridership growth that Brisbane has seen in the last few years. It’s important, I think, as a contemporary example of a high-end busway in a fully grade separated setting. My goal here is not to sell you a busway: it may or may not be the right thing for your city. I’m not even claiming that the architectural choices here are the right ones. But I hope it’s clear that busways can be done to a high standard of design, the same level that you’d expect in any new rapid transit system.