Bus Rapid Transit: Notes from a Pro

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.

13 Responses to Bus Rapid Transit: Notes from a Pro

  1. Rajan R November 29, 2009 at 7:09 am #

    Prrf, the Navy? How are they even comparable with the Army? Switzerland doesn’t have a Navy, why should America? Personally, I think the Navy is just a Coast Guard front, pretending to be fighting wars and all that. Whenever we bring up investment into the Army, those coasties always bring up things like aircraft carriers. Its still a ship, no?

  2. Joseph E November 29, 2009 at 8:05 am #

    Rajan, what? Are buses the Navy and trains the Army, or the other way around?
    Jarrett, while we are talking about on-the-street BRT, today is the opening day for Swift BRT in Snohomish county, Washington state. This is a suburban county just north of Seattle.
    Community Transit will open a 16.5 mile BRT route from Everett to Shoreline, mainly along Highway 99. Stations are very widely spaced, every 1 to 2 miles, which made if affordable to have TVMs, next bus signs, rain and wind screens and big, monumental markers. The buses are single-articulated with 3 wide doors; the front door accomodates wheelchairs/electric scooters, and the back has room for several bikes in an interesting diagonal rack.
    According to the schedule, the 12-station route will take 38 minutes at 5 am or midnight, but up to 46 minutes in the AM and PM rush hours, for an overall speed of 21.5 to 26 mph (41.5 to 34.5 kph) end to end.
    Community Transit has some nice videos, as seen on Seattle Transit Blog:
    The official website is quite useful: http://www.commtrans.org/Projects/Swift.cfm
    I wonder if this route would not benefit from more frequent stations. Bike riders and “park-and-ride” riders probably benefit from 1.5 mile (2.5 km) station spacing in most of the route, but most people getting to the line on foot will probably have to transfer from a local bus. If your destination is not right next to a station (a real posssibility with the wide spacing) you will need to transfer again. I believe they may expect many people to transfer to king county buses at the south end or Sounder commuter trains at the north end of the line. It might have been better to continue the service all the way to downtown Seattle, but politically this might be a problem.
    Anyone here from the Seattle area with more thoughts about Swift?

  3. damnitjanet November 29, 2009 at 3:48 pm #

    I live in Los Angeles. I really don’t see why the region (led by transit advocates) is building all of this additional rail infrastructure. It has always struck me as much cheaper to just convert some of the existing freeway lanes into exclusive bus lanes, than to spend billions of dollars ripping up streets to build subways. LA has earthquakes, large pockets of natural gas. (think la brea tar pits) and fairly temperate weather year round. Its not like the transit needs to be underground to avoid bad weather, but building tunnels here makes it really expensive. I really don’t see any reason why transit in LA should be underground.
    LA isn’t Manhattan. Its spread out with multiple and diffused business districts (Century City, West LA or LAX are probably as big or bigger than downtown LA). It has also spent a good part of the last 60+ years building out a huge freeway network, all of which is accessible to buses. If the region didn’t have all of this freeway network already built out and if there was one really strong central business district, I could see the merits for rail, but in LA the expansion of the rail system really just seems to be cannibalizing the bus network, which has the effect of making mass transit in LA less effective for all of the people who don’t live or work in downtown LA. (I need to go from Sherman Oaks to Santa Monica)
    I supported the transit tax in LA because I thought it would be used to expand the number and frequency of the bus lines.
    Its not that I don’t think LA needs more transit. It does. But I also don’t see why it needs or will benefit from the rail network its building. When I read about how the goldline is projected to have only 13000 riders a day, it galls me about we spent 900 million dollars to serve so few riders. Really how expensive would it have been to just repaint a traffic lane in each direction on a freeway and turn it into dedicated bus lane? How many buses and how many bus drivers could you have paid for with just the interest on that 900 million dollars?

  4. EngineerScotty November 29, 2009 at 5:54 pm #

    Many here would love to see freeway lanes removed and replaced with transit lanes; especially in the LA basin which has freeway lanes to spare.
    But as you are probably aware, the politics for that won’t work.
    While LA the city has a strong political consensus for transit; CalTrans isn’t about to tear down roadworks for transit, and anything that is Interstate-badged is further subject to federal regulations. Even something as trivial as putting in a HOV lane (of which LA has many) requires lots of bureaucracy to implement.
    One other thing to note is that while Los Angeles the city is interested in transit development, many other parts of the region are not. Orange County is famously hostile to it.
    But how is the bus network being cannibalized? Is bus service being reduced to fund LRT operations (ignoring lines which are made redundant by LRT?) A well-placed LRT can often free up funds for additional bus service in other corridors (not all LRTs are well-placed, obviously).

  5. calwatch November 29, 2009 at 7:51 pm #

    On the other hand, Orange County did build up its transit system to providing owl service, 15 minute service on major routes during rush hour, etc. It’s just that no one was paying much attention when they did so, and all of that was curtailed when the funding dried up.
    As far as Swift, you are lucky that they even got into the City of Everett. Everett and Community Transit have historically had a very antagonistic relationship towards each other. The existing local service requires a transfer at the city limits because of this antagonism. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/snohomishcountynews/2004065957_bus12n.html I wouldn’t count on more of this cooperation any time soon.

  6. Pantheon November 29, 2009 at 10:29 pm #

    I find it interesting that the two most heated and sensitive debates on this blog (streetcars, and now BRT) are both over technology. I presume that all of us are advocates for better transit and mobility, so why is the technology such a hot button topic?
    I think both sides believe passionately in their cause, and both believe that the other camp is overlooking something critically important.
    I find it passing strange to have been shoehorned into the “BRT” camp, because I don’t actually see myself as an advocate of one technology or the other. I love rail. I rode the Link to Seatac for the first time today and it was great. But I only like rail when it is done right – I intensely disklike most of the MAX system, for example. And I recognize that doing it right costs a lot of money.
    So I see my approach as fundamentally practical. I vary my opinion based on the individual city in question (though I am far from knowledgable about all facets of every city). As I see it, building a rail network makes sense in a city like Seattle because
    a) there is a lot of money from the sales tax increase earmarked for transit
    b) the compact size of the city means less space to cover, and
    c) the existing bus network is really good, so nobody is suffering over the next couple of decades waiting for rail
    In Portland, I am acutely aware of the fact that the bus system has fallen into disrepair while the city has pursued its rail adventures. As Jarrett pointed out in a prior post, the bus system is less today than it was in the 1970’s when Portland instituted its frequent service lines. And the rail investments have been of limited usefulness, and seem to be geared more to gentrification and development purposes (the yellow line in particular) than to mobility. The most tragic part of the story is that in the case of the yellow line, the anticipated gentrification has not happened. Will the green line result in development along the freeway, or will it be yet another Portland failure?
    I am far from an expert on Los Angeles, but I think there are several factors that make rail less attractive there than in a place like Seattle. Most obviously, the enormous geography of the place. Secondly, the more desperate spot that transit users there are in. But then maybe I’m wrong about the latter. How would Angelenos characterize their situation – are you reasonably happy with what you have? Does it meet your needs pretty well? Or are you desperate for some improvement of any kind?
    Of course there is no reason why we can’t do both rail and BRT. And in just about every city, both will be done. In Seattle for example, the coming ‘A’ line of the RapidRide service duplicates a future planned extension corridor for the Link. In an online interview, Karen Rosenzweig of Metro was asked why they are building a BRT route that duplicates a future light rail route. This was her response:
    “One of advantages of RapidRide implementation is its relatively short implementation timeline, and future flexibility to modify the service. Whether light rail is implemented in this corridor in 10, 15 or 20 years, there is a long period of time where bus service can meet mobility needs in a corridor that has high demand and HOV/BAT facilities already in place. It integrates with the initial segment of Link to SeaTac Airport and spurs transit demand in what may become a future rail corridor. BRT is often used as a precursor to rail, creating the market for the larger, future investment.”
    Source: http://seatrans.blogspot.com/2008/03/rapid-ride-answers.html
    So what I think the so-called “rail” people (I hesitate to pigeonhole people like that) are missing is that BRT is not the enemy of rail. It is part of the bigger picture that includes both. It can accomplish a lot today at a lower cost than rail. And while it may not be perfect, it is far better than what exists currently for the people who need it.
    So what am I missing?

  7. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org November 29, 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    @ Pantheon. Yes, that’s pretty much the view that’s arisen from my experience.
    The added complexity is that you really have to evaluate things corridor by corridor. Lots of people think that Los Angeles is really spread out and Portland really compact. Really, Los Angeles is just massive in every dimension. Certain chunks of it are quite dense, and those chunks create enough of a market to support rail transit in my view.
    So many of the comparisons you cite actually apply within urban regions. Yes, Seattle is really dense, but Snohomish County isn’t so much, so I’m glad they’re moving ahead with BRT while waiting, another decade or more, for light rail. And the constant pressure to push LRT outward from Seattle as fast as possible means it will never cover a lot of the densest parts of Seattle itself.
    Great cities end up needing several complementary systems, each fitted to a certain group of corridors. And that’s politically hard because of the political logic of extensions. It’s way easier to extend an existing system than create a new one, because the existing system is something people can already visualize.

  8. EngineerScotty November 30, 2009 at 10:28 am #

    I would disagree that the purpose of the yellow line is primarily for redevelopment–right now, the line passes through existing urban fabric (and an active industrial zone on the north end). The true “purpose” of the line–service to Vancouver, WA (at least downtown, given the low density north of the river, as well as greater hostility to transit there) will need to wait until a new bridge is built across the Columbia. Some infill development is expected (and some has indeed occurred), but I don’t think anybody was hoping to see an Orenco Station sprout up along Interstate Avenue.
    Of course, the Yellow Line’s stop spacings (about 1000m in the stretch between Expo Center and Rose Quarter) aren’t entirely optimal for a regional connector, and are only competitive with driving (or an express bus on the freeway) during rush hour. And it’s another 15 minutes to get to Portland State. But other than via a dedicated busway in the corridor, bus-based service is not likely to offer better performance or reliability. (And for what its worth, given that trains along Interstate seldom get up to speed, I’ve wondered about converting the Interstate Avenue stretch to dual-mode operation).
    Long term, it would be nice to see more metro-like service in Portland. Right now, the main source of crosstown trips is probably west-siders looking to get to the airport.

  9. Peter Smith November 30, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    @Pantheon – i think you’re missing a couple of things:
    1. it’s not a ‘technology issue’ — it’s a ride quality/experience issue. people are not robots, so they recognize that rail-based travel is inherently different, and better, than bus travel. they don’t need statistics to tell them that buses suck — they’ve ridden the buses and they want nothing to do with them. no mathematics necessary.
    2. BRT certainly does kill rail. it may not happen in theoretical/fantasy-land where all transit planners are good-natured and politics are not involved, but in the real world it happens all the time. witness DC’s huge fight over Purple Line Light Rail vs. BRT. most people wanted light rail, of course, but one of the Shell-funded BRT propaganda outfits recommended, surprise!, BRT. we don’t have to like that it’s BRT vs. LRT, but that’s the reality. BRT can kill LRT and/or delay it for generations — as it did in Curitiba, Bogota, etc. there’s a reason that Alfred Sloan, former head of General Motors, declared that railroads (along with the legislatures) were one of his and his partners’ two enemies. wishing that BRT didn’t compete directly LRT won’t ever make it true, and repeating the ‘technology’ mantra over and over again won’t change folks’ minds, either. make the bus experience remotely similar to riding a train, and then we can talk about ‘technology’ and other fun theory and statistics. but we know that will never happen until you put a bus on rails, as some are trying to do with guided buses and all sorts of other wacky technology in a seemingly-futile attempt to get buses to emulate rail. hey — i’m not hating — more power to them. innovation is good. just don’t pretend that buses are rail — they’re not, but that’s how they’re sold here in the US. again, we don’t have to agree with it, or like it, but that’s reality.

  10. damnitjanet November 30, 2009 at 10:57 am #

    The build out of light rail is affecting the bus network in two ways. First its just absorbing a lot of money that would otherwise go to the bus network. So when budget cuts come, it falls mostly on the bus lines.
    But the second issue is that the bus lines are being redrawn to feed to rail network and that is hurting transit ridership too. When the old pure bus lines are replaced by bus transferring to rail, the overall length of the commute is extended because now the route needs to build in time for a transfer. What is happening is that the riders who have the means to drive to the park and ride lots, drive to the park and ride lots. That reduces the number of people on the bus portion of the route and then because there are no longer enough riders on the bus portion of route, they cut back/eliminate the bus portion of the service as a budget measure.
    That is means that a lot of residents have less access to the transit network and a lot of destinations that were formerly served by the transit network are getting dropped by the transit network because the connecting bus service is getting dropped.
    In Los Angeles, the biggest employment destinations are built near freeway interchanges (such as Warner Center). These skyscrapers aren’t going to be moved. They have parking lots/structures around them and are spread out, where they really are going to be in walking distance of a rail stop.
    So when these feeder bus lines are dropped, it dropping access to these transit destinations.
    As a result I really fail to see how the build out of the rail network is somehow an improvement of transit access, or transit frequency. I just see it as massive financial black hole.
    In the Netherlands the rational for building out the bike lanes was that if you wanted to encourage people to shift from cars to bikes, you needed to shift how the road space was allocated. In Los Angeles, I think the same principal applies to the freeway network. If the goal is a serious transfer of share from cars to transit, then you need to take space away from the cars and give it to the bus lines.
    Given how this region is already laid out, I really see rail as a poor means for providing transit to the region. Neither the majority of ridership nor the transit destinations are ever going to be in walking distance of the rail network. But when you are cannibalizing the bus network to build the rail network, ultimately you are just shrinking the overall transit network.

  11. Dan Wentzel November 30, 2009 at 11:09 am #

    “it’s a ride quality/experience issue. people are not robots, so they recognize that rail-based travel is inherently different, and better, than bus travel. they don’t need statistics to tell them that buses suck — they’ve ridden the buses and they want nothing to do with them. no mathematics necessary.”
    Thank you, Peter for some common sense. People aren’t as dumb as rumored. They know the difference between riding a real train and riding a bus pretending to be just as good as a train.

  12. Dan Wentzel November 30, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    “Given how this region is already laid out, I really see rail as a poor means for providing transit to the region. Neither the majority of ridership nor the transit destinations are ever going to be in walking distance of the rail network. But when you are cannibalizing the bus network to build the rail network, ultimately you are just shrinking the overall transit network.”
    I cannot disagree with the “L.A. is too big for rail” arguments of discredited organizations like the so-called Bus Riders “Union” more.
    London is also a sprawling city like Los Angeles and they have a comprehensive bus system and 12 underground lines, an new overground network, dozens and dozens of commuter rail lines from mutliple “Union Stations” going in every direction, and a growing streetcar/tram network as well.
    This is not a case of bus or rail. We need BOTH. Buses do not have the capacity to handle Los Angeles transportation needs themselves, not to mention the high operating labor costs per rider on buses. Paying for those operating costs of the type of bus-only transportation network that a group like the BRU envisions would truly be a black hole in annual transportation budgets.
    We need to grow the transit pie for both bus and rail.

  13. Dan Wentzel November 30, 2009 at 11:18 am #

    People need to find out more about the discredited Bus Riders “Union” themselves. Kymberleigh Richards, a local transit advocate, has a page dedicated to exposing the myths about the so-called Bus Riders “Union”.