Bus Rapid Transit and the Law of Multiple Intentions

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.

30 Responses to Bus Rapid Transit and the Law of Multiple Intentions

  1. Alon Levy November 24, 2009 at 2:37 pm #

    Okay, but BRT isn’t particularly cheap – per rider, it can be as expensive as light rail. And it costs much more to operate, since a 75-meter train can carry the same number of people as 5-6 articulated buses with just one operator.
    The possibly lower construction costs of BRT only translate to lower actual costs including operations in cities with low transit ridership. But by then, the investment in BRT rather than local buses isn’t justified. BRT occupies an awkward niche where by the time it works better than local buses, it doesn’t work as well as light rail.

  2. EngineerScotty November 24, 2009 at 3:34 pm #

    I wouldn’t go quite that far, Alon.
    BRT (or better put, dedicated bus infrastructure) can frequently be a good investment in places without enough volume to justify rail, if the infrastructure improvements improve the performance along a line such that one can run fewer busses along the route and still provide the same level of service. If a bus running on local streets takes two hours to make a round trip between hither and yon, and you want a fifteen minute headway… you’re talking 9 or 10 busses (and drivers) to serve this route, assuming slack time and breaks and all that. If by adding even simple things such as bus lanes or signal priority, you can shave the round-trip time to 90 minutes or so, the transit agency can remove two busses from that service–either deploying them elsewhere, or pocketing the savings. Or keep them on the line, but improve frequency.
    Note that even if the cost savings are pocketed by the transit agency, the mobility still improves, by virtue of the fact that the hither-yon trip is now shorter.
    If, that same infrastructure improves the lot of MULTIPLE bus lines–say, a transit mall, or a dedicated bus lane down a wide urban boulevard, the savings or operational improvements can multiply.
    BRT as “light-rail-light” is useful if the goal is to shorten trips (and increase frequency) of a well-travelled local route, but the volumes don’t justify rail. EmX in Eugene is a good example again–the service is more popular (and much faster) than the local busses it replaced, and the line is a sweet spot in the market (serving the Eugene and Springfield downtowns, as well as the University of Oregon). Right now its fare-free, which doesn’t hurt its popularity one bit–but even without that, the dedicated bus infrastructure makes possible a level of service that entirely-street-running local service could not match. (A LRT would be way out of scope for this market, though).
    And combining the two applications of dedicated bus infrastructure–trunk lines which operate entirely within the infrastructure, and local services which use it to operate more efficiently–is where you get the biggest win.
    So the useful niche of BRT is certainly not the empty set. Unfortunately, it does occupy several niches that would be better served by rail–longer, high-volume corridors. But even there–if you can limit your rail speed (which you can often do with shorter distance between stops), mixing rail and bus in the same transitway can work.

  3. Alon Levy November 24, 2009 at 4:31 pm #

    But there’s a big difference between Curitiba- or Brisbane-style BRT or even the LA Orange Line, and better dedicated bus infrastructure. A city can decide to improve its bus infrastructure, independently of how it arranges its transit network – for example, it can transition to off-board fare collection on all buses/streetcars, and give buses signal priority. It can also build a few dedicated structures like exclusive lanes and transit malls. None of these requires building elevated bus-only freeways.

  4. Alon Levy November 24, 2009 at 4:31 pm #

    But there’s a big difference between Curitiba- or Brisbane-style BRT or even the LA Orange Line, and better dedicated bus infrastructure. A city can decide to improve its bus infrastructure, independently of how it arranges its transit network – for example, it can transition to off-board fare collection on all buses/streetcars, and give buses signal priority. It can also build a few dedicated structures like exclusive lanes and transit malls. None of these requires building elevated bus-only freeways.

  5. EngineerScotty November 24, 2009 at 4:46 pm #

    Agreed. (With both your posts). 🙂

  6. darrell November 24, 2009 at 5:05 pm #

    Jarrett, I tried unsuccessfully to post this comment to your “abstract city” post, but it is still relevant. I’ll also add a link.
    Relating to Los Angeles, haven’t you omitted light rail as a middle ground between high-cost subways and Metro Rapid bus service?
    The majority of Los Angeles’ new lines are largely-at-grade light rail, and rail as built in every other U.S. city that started rail service after 1980 is light rail, for the same reasons of building many more miles of track for the same cost as subways.
    Los Angeles’ Orange Line busway also documents the speed and capacity limitations of busways with signalized intersections vs. light rail with gated crossings.
    I’d also offer a photo tour of Eugene, OR’s BRT – third post down on my http://light-rail.blogspot.com .

  7. One of the things I worry about in regards to BRT is the compromises needed and the tough choices. I can’t help but describe this in terms of what I know best, the Central Corridor here in Minneapolis/St Paul. There have been some tough choices on this line, like how to run it through the university, how to cross some busy intersections like Snelling Ave, etc. I’m worried that if this plan were being done with BRT, the tough choices wouldn’t have been made. BRT buses would get forced into mixed traffic through the University and when crossing Snelling. These are the kind of lazy decisions that can’t be made when you’re forced to build something new along the entire guideway.
    Now of course this is purely a political concern, but as you posted earlier, the networks we build are purely political. Of course it would be great if we could say ‘here’s the projected ridership, here’s the system that moves that many people,’ but even that is political because it’s politics that says that X people is enough to build anything anyway.

  8. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 24, 2009 at 9:46 pm #

    < !DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    There's no question that BRT is easier to compromise, especially in the USA, where so many policies and bureaucratic cultures work to reinforce a bus-rail distinction.  Engineer Scotty noted in an earlier comment, for example, that LRT easily pre-empts signals crossing intersecting streets.  This is partly because it invokes legislation designed for heavy trains that always get right of way because they physically can't stop on short notice.  The example on University Avenue you cite, where BRT would be compromised, should be a loud area of debate when BRT options are scoped.  Brisbane would not have merged their busway just to get a difficult spot.  If they'd been willing to do that, they'd have done it here:  http://www.humantransit.org/2009/11/brisbane-bus-rapid-transit-soars.html

  9. Alexander Craghead November 24, 2009 at 9:53 pm #

    Jarrett:
    Thanks for the quote, but no “i” in my last name. That’s all for now, will read and digest this later tonight.

  10. Alon Levy November 24, 2009 at 10:29 pm #

    The bus-rail distinction causes another problem – light rail and buses aren’t very well integrated in the US. American light rail builders don’t reorganize local bus systems to feed rail, but instead conceive of rail as a corridor by corridor replacement for buses, which means both that fewer riders find it convenient to use light rail and that bus riders complain that they’re getting the shaft.

  11. EngineerScotty November 24, 2009 at 10:39 pm #

    Of course, when you do re-work bus lines that used to run downtown as feeder lines for rail, bus riders complain about the transfer when they used to have a one-seat ride.
    This is particularly true one one or the other service (typically the bus) is infrequent. With modern transit-tracker applications, it’s not hard to meet the bus at the office door; but if you ride the train to a transfer station, you can’t do anything productive while you wait for the bus to show up. (In addition, many LRT stations are fairly inexpensive affairs, with no staff, no amenities beyond a ticket machine and a couple benches, and minimal shelter from the elements–not pleasant places to wait during a rainstorm).
    If you have lots of good trunk lines, a grid or dartboard topology can work well. But if you are going to require transfers, it should be between frequent service lines whenever possible.

  12. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 24, 2009 at 10:40 pm #

    < !DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN">
    This depends on the corridor.  Portland's Tri-Met did major redesigns when opening the long Blue Line LRT segments from Portland east to Gresham and west to Hillsboro.  These redesigns mostly affected areas more than about 6 mi from downtown, which is where it starts to make sense to ask someone to ride a bus to rail instead of a through bus.   More recently, Portland's been adding shorter segments, and these just don't affect the bus network as much.  Similar dynamics can be observed in other LRT cities that I know well, including Seattle, Sacramento, Salt Lake, Denver, and San Jose. 

  13. Alexander Craghead November 24, 2009 at 10:57 pm #

    Okay, reply time.
    First, I kind of wish you’d quoted some of the rest of my earlier comment, if only to point out that although I get a knee-jerk reaction to BRT, that doesn’t mean there can’t be meaningful BRT.
    Second, I don’t think we need to de-interlace “rail” and “quality.” We need to de-interlace “rail” from “BRT.” So long as BRT is marketed and promoted as being akin to LRT it will continue to be designed as LRT light, thus missing genuine service improvement opportunities. I think the best hope for that is with agencies that already have LRT and are still committed to expanding that LRT system, as it is more likely those agencies would understand what makes the modes different and why one ought to be used rather than another. Or at least that is my hope.
    I love rail, but the times that BRT vs. LRT bristles me is when BRT is sold as being the same thing as LRT but cheaper. I fear that there will be cities that ought to be building rail systems and that will instead use BRT, thus getting not the best of both worlds, but the worst — worse ride quality, more emissions, slower speeds, and fixed routes. I have come to believe that there are very legitimate potential uses for BRT in North America, but to reach them it needs to be what it is — BUS Rapid Transit — not a pretend train.
    Side note: it is ironic twist of history that BRT has been marketed as a bus looking like a rail car, as in the 1930s, streetcars were built to mimic busses, thus giving the world the PCC car.

  14. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 24, 2009 at 11:35 pm #

    @ Alexander. The average citizen has never thought about rapid transit, so if their city already has a rail transit line, all they know is whether that meets their mobility needs or not. So when introducing any other mode, we have to explain it in terms that everyone understands, and that means comparing it with what they know. That’s really the source of why BRT is always presented in comparison to light or heavy rail. I don’t see how you can avoid that.

  15. J.D. Hammond November 25, 2009 at 7:10 am #

    The fact that a sprawl and freeway advocate supports Project A is never sufficient reason for me to oppose it.
    Well, unless it’s a monorail. So I suppose rubber-tired transit technologies aren’t really acceptable unless they’re at-grade? Why is this?

  16. Art Advocate November 25, 2009 at 9:41 am #

    In response to Alex’s remark that BRT is “light rail in drag” and fake, pretend, or mediocre, let me remind him that when cars first came out, they resembled horse carriages. Many considered cars the unreliable, noisy fake, pretend, mediocre version of horse carriages. Perhaps they might have considered cars horse carriages in drag. Fact is, when you want to change the mind of millions of people, you do so in stages, with image as important as substance. After the masses adopted cars as a reliable alternative to horse carriages, cars developed their own unique, aerodynamic, metallic style distinguishing them from old-fashioned horse carriages.
    Buses are undergoing the same evolution. If you look at car designs today, I see cars that look like moving cubes. Perhaps one day BRT design will bypass LRT design making LRT’s look old-fashioned. For now, we need to exploit the public’s favorable impression of LRT and make buses look like light rail vehicles. Once the public accepts BRT as fashionable or at least popular, BRT can then evolve its own unique style just as cars did. If you think we cannot change the image of buses, you live in the past.

  17. Art Advocate November 25, 2009 at 9:43 am #

    BTW there’s nothing wrong with anything being “in drag.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  18. Alexander Craghead November 25, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    @Art Advocate, sorry, but we’re not going to agree on the appearance issue. I care about function, and I think any appearance change that is meant to make people think that busses function the same as LRT is dishonest. No need to argue though, you’re not going to convince me any more than I’m going to convince you on that point so we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that point.
    @Jarrett, sure there are ways to differentiate BRT from LRT. For one, as someone else pointed out before, stop calling them “lines.” For another, the term “busway” can also be used. Lastly, if BRT is really a useful mode (and I believe it can be) then shouldn’t transit advocates proposing it point out how it differs from LRT, and on a basis other than cost?
    The idea of a BRT trunk with “branches” on surface streets, for example, is a rich concept and one that LRT rarely does/does well. Another BRT advantage I can see is that it could be implemented using the existing bus equipment on hand and in some cases coupled with line revisions that improve existing routes without needing a transfer, e.g. with commuter and express routes. Looking at the maps of the Portland metropolitan area, I can see a number of places BRT of this sort might work, including in my own community.
    Promote BRT based on BRT’s qualities. BRT is *not* LRT on the cheap, and its promotion as such limits its potential. If a community chooses BRT rather than LRT, it ought to be a fully functioning bus system that maximizes the mode choice, not a pretend train.

  19. Joel November 25, 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    I know where I live (Pleasanton, CA), the transit authority here will be starting BRT service within the year. It will be following the same route, for the most part, that our most popular busline uses. This line transverses three cities, and through several high density (for the suburbs) areas, links with regional rail, and several popular shopping and job sites. I personally think a streetcar would be a better fit, but that’s jsut my $.02.

  20. Alon Levy November 25, 2009 at 3:38 pm #

    EngineerScotty: yes, people may complain. But they’ll ride. When you say,

    In addition, many LRT stations are fairly inexpensive affairs, with no staff, no amenities beyond a ticket machine and a couple benches, and minimal shelter from the elements–not pleasant places to wait during a rainstorm,

    you’ve just described the C-Train’s stations. January temperatures in Calgary average -9 degrees. You’d expect that with those waits and transfers, the C-Train would be a colossal failure.

  21. Alon Levy November 25, 2009 at 3:46 pm #

    Art, your history is wrong. You say,

    Many considered cars the unreliable, noisy fake, pretend, mediocre version of horse carriages. Perhaps they might have considered cars horse carriages in drag. Fact is, when you want to change the mind of millions of people, you do so in stages, with image as important as substance.

    What actually happened is that people considered horse dung to be an environmental crisis and welcomed the car almost instantly, modifying existing street and bridge infrastructure to accommodate it. Then came the wave of auto-specific infrastructure, such as mechanically ventilated tunnels. It took about 10 years from when the Model T came out to when the government started building massive automobile infrastructure.

  22. EngineerScotty November 25, 2009 at 4:05 pm #

    @Alon: Oh, I’m sure they’ll ride, especially in a market where the other option (a painful commute on 16th Avenue followed by expensive and scarce parking) is highly unattractive. They ride in Portland… but many bus riders complain bitterly about the transfer nonetheless, and accuse TriMet of neglecting bus service.
    And the charge isn’t entirely unfounded–new transit projects seldom come with operational funds, and LRT operations gets funded by cutting out or re-arranging bus service. While redundant lines get cut first, usually something else needs to be cut as well to pay for the higher costs of operating frequent-service rail. Often times, the real source of the complaint is that inner-city service is cut and replaced with greater amounts of service to the outer parts of the city and suburbs. Overall transit efficiency and ridership may increase, but if its your line that gets axed, rerouted, or reduced in frequency…

  23. Cap'n Transit November 25, 2009 at 8:41 pm #

    Jarrett, I’m not convinced that you’ve got good reasons for hanging onto “BRT.” You essentially give three reasons: (1) Americans should just get over it, (2) ‘I like words that say what they mean, and “Bus Rapid Transit” says exactly what I mean.’, and (3) the term Bus Rapid Transit is not going away. Of those three, only (2) is an actual positive reason; the other two are counter-arguments to objections to the term.
    “Bus rapid transit” has always seemed awkward to me. Could you imagine yourself spontaneously using the term if you’d never heard it before? I would talk about a “busway,” “dedicated lanes,” or something like that. I’ll point out that as far as I can tell, the term is almost never used in the canonical cities: Curitiba calls them “linhas expressas” or “canaletas,” and Bogota calls its Transmilenio a “sistema de transporte masivo” – no mention of buses, just “mass transit.” If they got by without it, so can we.
    With regard to (1), I haven’t had much direct contact with the FTA; most of my exposure to “BRT” comes from New York bike advocates who took on the role of transit advocates because the rail advocates were weaker than they were. With regard to (3), I recognize that we transit advocates will have to use the term, but why do we have to use it with each other?

  24. Cap'n Transit November 25, 2009 at 8:43 pm #

    Speaking of which, does anyone know who came up with this term, if it wasn’t Jaime Lerner?

  25. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 26, 2009 at 12:21 am #

    @ Cap’n Transit. A city that doesn’t have rail transit can introduce Bus Rapid Transit and just call it “rapid transit,” or the local language equivalent, at least for local consumption. But to have a conversation about it in a city that also has rail rapid transit, well, either it provides the same rapid transit outcomes in terms of frequency, speed and reliability or it doesn’t. And in the (perhaps rare) cases when it really does, it would be absurd not to claim the “rapid transit” mantle, no?
    I do think we’re reaching the end of hyper-compromised BRT and that some kind of re-invention is in order. How do you feel about the Australian term “Transitway”?

  26. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 26, 2009 at 12:28 am #

    @ Cap’n. My reason #1 is not “Americans should just get over it” but rather “My audience here is not exclusively American, so I can’t be governed exclusively by American sensitivities and history.” I appreciate, though, that the term BRT is promulgated more forcefully in America than anywhere else, and that it’s become a real problem there.

  27. Nathanael November 29, 2009 at 12:28 am #

    “But if what you want is reliable, attractive, and affordable rapid transit,”
    Add the adjective *lower-volume* to that. Due to the inherently smaller vehicles and wider vehicle spacing, as well as wear-and-tear issues (asphalt requires replacement quite often if it gets high traffic; concrete also doesn’t last as long as steel), truly high-volume applications pretty much demand rail.

  28. calwatch November 29, 2009 at 12:37 am #

    On the other hand, how often do you need to move 20,000 passengers per hour? If not often, than bus may be the answer. Grade separated BRT is comparable to exclusive ROW with at-grade crossing LRT in terms of passenger capacity, while nothing can surpass classic heavy rail transit (or LRT with exclusive, grade separated right of way) in terms of sheer capacity, length of trains, and minimum headway.

  29. M1EK November 30, 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    ” 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.”
    This is just ludicrous. Really, really, ludicrous.
    If you switched “ride quality” and “reliable” in your statement, it would be a little less ludicrous.
    BRT as ‘reliable’ is a pig in a poke. The only time rail is ever as unreliable (or even slightly less reliable) than bus is in stupid shared-lane streetcar running.
    And as for the “get over it” message, the reason Europe “got over it” WRT buses is that they pay $6/gallon and up for gas and have done so for long enough that even the more recent cities have not been built on the assumption everybody would be driving.
    Here in this country, we have to compete for the business of people who own cars – period – so many of the lessons from other countries, especially those where BRT supposedly made such headway, are absolutely irrelevant – unless all you want to do is further cement the image of transit as always for the poor and nobody else.

  30. EngineerScotty November 30, 2009 at 4:35 pm #

    I’m becoming more and more convinced that it’s very difficult to say something conclusive about “bus rapid transit”, simply because you need more context to describe what you’re talking about.