In recent posts on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) I’ve been dealing with the widespread feeling among US transit advocates that BRT proposals are designed to serve the interests of people who want transit to be cheap to build and don’t care whether it works. But of course, there’s a contrasting stream of intention also built into BRT, well described by commenter Alexander Craghead:
It must be remembered that most US BRT applications mimic light rail because they were sold on the premise of being a budget option for
light rail. They were not then, and generally are not now, looked at as being an improvement to the bus system. Many are planned from the start to include the notion of conversion to light rail at a later date, if traffic warrants it.
For a great visual of this, pic up a copy of METRO and check out the bus advertisements. Most of the major ones will be for BRT articulated busses. Note they have streamlined noses, sleek styling, and skirts to hide the tires. These aren’t busses, they’re busses in light rail drag. The manufacturers themselves are essentially marketing their BRT oriented products as pretend light rail for the budget conscious agency.
This is why many — myself included — have an instant visceral reaction to BRT. The immediate words that come to mind are “pretend,” “fake,” and “mediocre.”
Obviously, if what you want is a train, then BRT is a fake, and not a very convincing one. But if what you want is reliable, attractive, and affordable rapid transit, and you’re a bit flexible on ride quality, BRT may be an option. The vehicle design trend that Alexander notices reflects the belief, by proponents of BRT, that lots of people want reliable, attractive, and affordable rapid transit, and are used to calling that “rail” because rail is the only kind they’ve ever seen. If bus designs that look more rail-like help people consider BRT, I don’t have a problem with that, especially because buses really are becoming more rail-like in much of the amenity they offer. At its best, BRT has the effect of separating the idea of “rail” from the idea of “reliable and attractive,” so that each citizen can decide whether she wants to be a rail advocate first or an advocate of a certain quality of service.
As with any new transit concept, if BRT is succeeding, it’s because it’s capable of being advocated from many points of view, by people who don’t all have exactly the same intentions. So it’s important not to reduce any product to the intentions of particular people promoting it. Yes, BRT can be useful to freeway advocates who just want to spend less on transit and more on freeways and like BRT because it’s cheap. But they are one of a large spectrum of intentions at work. We may fear they are co-opting us by selling us transit while they make sure it’s inferior. But we could just as easily co-opt them, by taking advantage of their advocacy even as we intervene to advocate for attention to the basics of good service, things like frequency and reliability as well as the overall level of amenity and comfort.
Anything that gets built is the result of a spectrum of different and even conflicting intentions on the part of different people advocating it. The fact that a sprawl and freeway advocate supports Project A is never sufficient reason for me to oppose it. If it is, I’ve given him way too much power.