Since I began seriously reading US transit blogs about a year ago, it’s been apparent that many US activists have a problem with the term “Bus Rapid Transit.” My goal in my recent post on the Brisbane busway system was to illustrate a dramatically different vision of BRT from what Americans are used to, and thus to help US activists stretch and broaden their notions of what BRT can mean.
Some of the comments that came back suggested that US activists are just too traumatized by the way “Bus Rapid Transit” has been used in US planning, especially during the Bush administration. Commenter “Engineer Scotty” claims that in the US, “Bus Rapid Transit is frequently a Trojan Horse proposed by those who would prefer to not fund reasonable public transit at all.” He goes on:
You seem to forget, Jarrett, just how many powerful political forces in the US are opposed to mass transit in ANY form, especially rail transit, and simply want to build freeway after freeway after … freeway. … Oil companies, Detroit. Right-wingers who view any public transport as “socialism”. Rural voters who view big cities as Sodom and Gomorrah, and who don’t want to spend a dime on urban infrastructure projects of any sort. … State departments of transportation, many of which have HUGE auto-centric cultures. And for the past eight years, the USDOT under Bush.
For these folks, the whole point of pushing BRT instead of LRT is that it can be done on the cheap, effectiveness be damned. That’s why
BRT systems in the US are all half-assed–these systems are political compromises to begin with. They’re not designed to be useful especially to choice riders), they’re designed to be cheap. They’re designed to let the hippies and greens and such ride the bus and feel they’re Doing Their Part, while Real Americans™ drive to work in their Hummers as usual.
This is the political context in which transit supporters in the US operate.
Another frequent commenter, in an email to me, suggested:
The problem is not the improvements, it’s the idea of “BRT”, the idea
that transit advocates should stop wanting trains. It’s what Lakoff
calls a bad frame, like anti-poverty advocates lobbying for aid to
welfare queens, or peace activists talking about whether they hate
The only reason to ever use the term “BRT” is to win over the small
subset of transit advocates and government officials who’ve become
convinced that it’s the wave of the future. As a buzzword it can open
doors. But outside the trendy it’s a bad idea.
It’s just a word. Try making the exact same arguments without it and you’ll get a different reaction.
Wise advise, probably, but I have three discomforts with it:
- While I’m American by birth and training, I’m not in the US, nor am I writing exclusively to American readers. I would like all readers to be able to come to this blog for a relatively global view — or at least a view that’s aware of developed-world practice. The trauma that US readers report about the term “Bus Rapid Transit” seems to be an American thing, rooted especially in recent experience with Bush administration FTA policy, though there’s a longer history of road-dominated thinking behind it. I know that it’s pointless to reason with trauma, and that the people who would use Bus Rapid Transit as a stalking-horse for freeway or anti-transit agendas are still with us. But I also want to gently remind American readers that the Bush administration is history, and it may be a good time to unclench our fists a bit.
- I like words that say what they mean, and “Bus Rapid Transit” says exactly what I mean. This blog has a specific definition of the word “rapid.” Here it always means “frequent, with widely spaced stops for relatively fast operation.” It is one of several words that I use carefully to try to define clear and meaningful categories of service that do not specify mode, i.e. bus or train. The authority for my use of the word comes from the common phrase “rapid transit,” which usually has this meaning. Well, sometimes “rapid transit” is provided by buses, and if we can’t call this “Bus Rapid Transit,” I’m not sure we can talk clearly about it.
- Whatever I do, the term Bus Rapid Transit is not going away. There’s a point in many political struggles where you accept that a key word used by your opponent is actually worth fighting to control, rather than just suppressing. I suspect that the apparent clarity of the term “Bus Rapid Transit” will keep it in the discourse, so we might do better to demand higher standards of BRT rather than trying to change the subject, or even change the word. We can do that by insisting, whenever it’s mentioned, that the speaker clarify what kind of BRT they mean. Exclusive lane or mixed flow? Separated or at grade with intersections? (For that matter, we need to ask such questions when discussing light rail as well, because as we just saw in Los Angeles, it’s possible to create a light rail line that’s slower than a rapid bus in mixed traffic.)
The real challenge with the term Bus Rapid Transit is that it’s a big category, too big really. We need other words for the different products within it, all of which can be good options in some situations. As I mentioned in the last post, there are at least three fundamentally different “tiers” of quality that all fall under the term:
- Fully grade-separated busways, with no intersections.
- At-grade exclusive busways, with signalized intersections with cross-streets.
- Buses in mixed traffic, with signal priority and wide stop spacing.
For the first of these, perhaps I should surrender to Alan Hoffman’s term Quickway, but that feels like a marketing word to me. While marketing jargon is unavoidable in dealing with the public, I’d like to think we can be a little more precise here as people who care about transit, talking together. So I’m going to continue using the term “busway.”
For the second, I sometimes say “surface BRT” or “at-grade BRT,” or I’ll generally just clarify “exclusive, at-grade” where that’s what I mean.
For the third, well, as I argued here the mixed-flow “Rapid” can be an extremely useful and important product. It’s a bus, its stop spacing is rapid by this blog’s definition, and it’s transit, so I can’t really deny it the name “bus rapid transit.” But I respect the views of those who argue that buses in mixed traffic are so compromised that to call it Bus Rapid Transit is to oversell it and perpetrate a kind of fraud. Los Angeles County MTA, which operates one of the world’s most extensive networks of this product, the Metro Rapid, is careful not brand it in ways that would create confusion with exclusive-lane products. The industry sometimes uses various forms of “rapid bus,” though that’s too like “bus rapid transit” to carry us far.
All I know to do is reference the Metro Rapid directly. I often say something like “mixed-flow rapid bus service, like the Los Angeles Metro Rapid.” But although the Metro Rapid is a bus, and rapid, and transit, I don’t usually use the BRT moniker when talking about it. The best term is yet to be invented, I think.
To sum up, I do respect the fact that the term “Bus Rapid Transit” has some traumatic content, especially for Americans. I’m open to new words if they’ll help us have a clearer conversation. So keep the comments coming.