Ben Ross has a nice long read in Dissent about the history of Bus Rapid Transit, noting all the ways it’s succeeded, failed, and been co-opted by various non-transit agendas. He’s especially interested in the way various petroleum-and-asphalt interest groups have supported BRT as an alternative to rail for reasons that probably don’t have much to do with their love of great public transit. All this is worth reading and knowing about.
But what, exactly, should we do with this history? Practically everything that breaks through into the public discourse has private public relations money behind it, and that money always has different goals than you and your city do. That’s why you should always lean into the wind when reading tech media. But just as it’s wrong to fall for everything you read in corporate press releases, it’s also wrong to reflexively fall against them. (Cynicism, remember, is consent.)
Galileo paid the bills, in part, by helping the military aim cannonballs correctly. Does that mean pacifists should resist his insight that Jupiter has moons?
So while I loved Ross’s tour of the history, I reject his dismissive conclusion:
Buses will always be an essential part of public transit. Upgrading them serves urbanism, the environment, and social equity. But a better bus is not a train, and bus rapid transit promoters lead astray when they pretend otherwise. At its worst, BRT can be a Trojan horse for highway building. Even at its best, it is a technocratic solution to a fundamentally political problem.
The term technocratic is really loaded here. Given the new “revolt against experts” trend in our politics, we urgently need to recognize hard-earned expertise and to distinguish it from elite selfishness, but technocrat is a slur designed to confuse the two.
There are some great bus rapid transit systems out there, and not just in the developing world. The mixed motives that underlie BRT advocacy don’t tell us anything about where BRT makes sense, any more than the mixed motives behind rail advocacy do.
A light reading of history can help you recognize the prejudices that may lay behind advocacy on all sides. But then you have to set that aside, and think for yourself.