Although I’ve done some Bus Rapid Transit planning, my Canadian colleague, Steve Schijns, has been doing it for decades, including important work in both Ottawa and Brisbane. He’s also up to date on a lot of the BRT happening around Toronto. In response to my previous post, he sent along these thoughts, which I thought I’d share verbatim:
I would note that the “dedicated facility” type of BRT project is relatively rare – not that it should be, but in many cases agencies are trying to enhance bus operations without either the demand, the money, or the planned corridor to create a busway. Even when the opportunity arises as in Brisbane it is common for there to be a segment of on-street operation.
Therefore I wouldn’t discount on-street BRT facilities as being “low end” and nearly irrelevant; in fact those are the types of facilities that really need the help, intense planning, and visioning to overcome their inherent flaws and constraints. How to make on-street BRT work as well as off-street lines is the real challenge out there.
[JW: Steve’s on-street/off-street distinction is almost the same as my distinction between exclusive (e.g. Orange Line) vs. non-exclusive (e.g. Metro Rapid), but not exactly. It’s possible for an on-street BRT to be in an exclusive right-of-way if you can take that much of the street. But it’s certainly challenging for the reasons Steve’s discussing.]
In my experience (Brisbane, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Mississauga), off-street busways have been created by a dedicated PT [public transit] team and are fairly straightforward in that respect; you can create BRT design guidelines from scratch and apply them to a new facility. On-street BRT facilities, on the other hand, are typically put together by an uneasy and conflicted group of road / highway engineers who are responsible for the roadway and who don’t “get” the transit imperatives, yet are unwilling / unable to hand the corridor over to the transit folks to let them lead the design because they might mess up the (car) traffic operations too much. The streetscaping / urban design folks also seem to get more excited about (and hence interfere with) an on-street project than one in a separate corridor. Since on-street BRT is therefore harder work with a poorer outcome than off-street, no wonder the professional preference is to pursue off-street facilities even when there is greater value to be had in optimizing the utilization of scarce infrastructure through on-street transit measures.
If you wish your BRT were a train, I have no quarrel with that, but please keep in mind that even imperfect, compromised on-street BRT is the result of a lot of diligent work by professionals who are in the business because they really want transit to work. Like any great process of cultural change, transit must advance on a broad front: Some people work on the expensive, high-stakes projects like subways, others on surface rail, others on many kinds of improvement that can be done with buses.
For the reasons Steve describes, the bus planner’s work is often the hardest, because he has to work in a territory — the street — that car advocates, merchants, and streetscape experts all think they own. He’s often made to feel like an invader when he tries to demand space for transit, just as bike advocates often are. He has to fight long battles over every signal, every bit of exclusive lane, every parking space, all to piece something together that will make a real difference to a lot of people’s access. And it doesn’t help that a big chunk of the transit advocacy world just doesn’t care about what he’s doing.
Even imperfect, compromised bus services like the Metro Rapid in Los Angeles do tremendous good compared to what was there before, and large chunks of the population really appreciate them. It’s inevitable that there are rivalries between rail and bus advocates, who are working on different parts of this broad front of cultural change. But perhaps we should aspire for a rivalry more like that between the Army and the Navy: spirited competition for prestige and resources, but all in the knowledge that they’re fighting the same battle.