In the US, in particular, a generation of activists has been taught that Bus Rapid Transit means inferior rapid transit, because there’s no will to insist on design choices that protect buses from delay as completely as trains are usually protected.
When I talk about Bus Rapid Transit with US transit advocates, they visualize, at best, something like the Los Angeles Orange Line, which is Bus Rapid Transit except that (a) it mixes with traffic near its endpoints and (b) the signalized intersections every mile or so along the route don’t give adequate priority to the buses, causing significant delay. Europe’s limited adventures in BRT tend to include similar compromises.
A simple way to think about American BRT is that so far it has only attempted to imitate light rail, which also can suffer from the same compromises around exclusive lanes and signals (though in practice it usually isn’t compromised as much as BRT). Brisbane, by contrast, is trying to imitate heavy rail or “metro” styles of rapid transit.
Brisbane’s busway network consists of bus roadways that are not just exclusive (not shared with other vehicles) but also largely separated (not intersecting the path of other vehicles). The original South East Busway (toured in this post) ran mostly in a spare strip of land along a freeway, so took advantage of the freeway’s grade separation. The downtown segment is underground, while other segments follow bits of old rail line. One especially exciting segment is a “green bridge” (transit, bikes and peds only) over the river into the University of Queensland, providing dramatically shorter trip distances than are possible by car. Stations throughout the network are consistent with the design quality you’d expect on a modern heavy rail system in a developed country.
With the completion last year of its underground segment through downtown,
Brisbane’s busway has now outgrown its original inspiration, Ottawa,
which never built a downtown segment and is now planning to convert its
busways to rail. Although Brisbane’s busways are also designed to be
convertible to light rail, no such plan is on the horizon; the long-range transport infrastructure plan envisions more extensions to the busway network.
With that in mind, here are some rather confronting images of the newest segment, which opened a few months ago.
At the new Royal Brisbane Women’s Hospital (RBWH) Station, the busway soars, rising to a third-story level on a viaduct that largely obscures the huge medical complex behind it. This obtrusive structure was the only way to get around a particularly constrained intersection without (a) taking surface traffic lanes or (b) going underground at dramatically higher cost or (c) compromising speed and reliability in the busway. So they did it.
I would be outraged, aesthetically, if the building had been much to look at beforehand. It wasn’t ugly, but it was a typical modernist complex (Street View image here) so I’m not sure it’s devastating that our children will never see this side of it unobstructed. (The front door of the building faces a different direction, so still looks the same.) The buildings across the street are all industrial and office, all modern, some probably redevelopable.
A quick tour. (As always, click any pic to enlarge.) The top level is the busway itself, with side platforms. As you’d expect at this height, there are views out to the east from the platform.
The middle level is a typical mezzanine, which includes direct pedestrian links into the hospital building. Again, the infrastructure is exactly what you’d expect in an elevated rail transit station.
Looking down from the mezzanine to ground level, the building directly under the busway is the new Cycle Centre, not yet open. This large facility that will provide bicycle storage and repair, allowing people to leave their bicycles here and take the busway into the city. (Although the immediate surroundings are industrial, dense inner-city residential areas begin less than 1 km to the north.)
North of the station, the structure begins a gradual transition to the surface, but at the hospital’s new pedestrian entrance, it’s still so high as to be not very obtrusive. (Whenever someone tries to horrify you with the height of a proposed viaduct, remember that higher often means less visually oppressive.) A square archway encloses the pedestrian in a welcoming way, so that the overhead structure is turned into an aesthetic advantage.
There’s an unapologetic frankness to this station, perhaps
fitting the hospital that it serves. The underside of the busway is
undisguised, looking just like the underside of a freeway ramp. You
wouldn’t make these choices in a visually sensitive area or one that’s
important to tourism, but that’s not what this is. Yes, it’s a huge viaduct, and nobody is going to mistake this for one of the great transit viaducts of Europe.
But this isn’t Europe. Brisbane is a young New World city, and
while it has areas of great architectural character, we’re not in one
of them here, so the frankness makes sense.
Again, you don’t have to like it, and I’m not sure I do. But it is important to know that cities can choose to treat Bus Rapid Transit exactly the way they’d treat heavy rail rapid transit, as fundamental civic infrastructure where speed and reliability cannot be compromised just to get through a difficult spot. This viaduct isn’t just about serving the hospital. About half of the bus services into the city from the north will eventually flow through this station, so any compromise on reliability through this point would have affected the viability of a large part of the city’s network. So they took reliability seriously, just as you’d do with heavy rail, and built something that works.
UPDATE: Plenty of lively comment on this one! The most common question is “if you’re going to build all that infrastructure, why not just put rails on it? Answer: Because Brisbane, like Portland, has a single very strong downtown but no major centers of activity outside of it. For that reason, the demand pattern spreads out as you go out from the city, and the route network spreads out to follow it. So the high frequency through this inner busway segment is made of routes that branch out to serve several different corridors further out, without requiring a connection.
If you know Portland, imagine that instead of building eastside and westside MAX, they’d built a busway from Beaverton to Gateway, with a subway segment crossing downtown Portland. Buses flowing through the busway would branch west of Beaverton and east of Gateway to each cover several suburban corridors beyond those points. I’m not saying for a moment that I’d have advocated that, but its benefits would have included (a) very high frequency in the busway all day, because buses are cheaper per-unit to operate and don’t pile up as frequent trains do, since they can easily pass each other, (b) direct no-change service from downtown Portland to a much larger are of outer suburbia, and (c) a fast ride across downtown for people going from one side of the city to the other, and (d) the possibility of nonstop express services on the peak, again because buses can pass each other in the busway. Again, I’m not saying Portland should have done that, but I do want Americans to understand why Brisbane made that choice and is pretty happy with it.
Keep comments coming. I’ll pull the threads together in a few days.