watered-down bus rapid transit: the u.k. edition

We often hear that proper Bus Rapid Transit [BRT] is impossible in the US because any such proposal gets watered down by the defenders of traffic lanes until it's nothing but a fancy bus stuck in traffic.  I don't believe in surrendering to the inevitability of that, but there's no question that it's a political challenge in many cities.  Meanwhile, US readers should be assured that this isn't a particularly US problem.   Our reliable UK correspondent Peter Brown reports:

It would seem that [Bristol's Bus Rapid Transit] scheme has gone from medium to low end BRT due to central government latching on to the ease in which economies can be made by deleting the features that make it rapid – i.e. dedicated busways, and continuous bus lanes.  We are now reduced to short stretches of kerbside bus lanes approaching junctions, but no traffic signal pre-emption.  Where there were going to be median bus lanes, they are now going to be kerb running. 
This will make the BRT little different in the eyes of the (already sceptical) public to the separate package of conventional bus corridor improvements branded 'Showcase Bus Routes', several of which have been rolled out over the last few years.  In order to distinguish BRT in the eyes of the public I think the BRT stops are going to have to look much different from standard bus shelters, and the vehicles are going to have to have some eye catching branding, and have hi spec interiors. 
It troubles me that much of the BRT busways were to be located in the North Bristol fringe, an area of low density cul-de-sac esatates, out-of-town business and retail parks, all connected by dual carriageway roads and multi-lane roundabouts which cannot handle existing peak hour traffic, and would have made a real statement about better public transport.  There are also plans  for further massive housing development, and new roads that will add to the traffic load and threaten BRT reliability.  This is the latest newsletter that has got me so worried:
Meanwhile I continue to defend the principles of BRT in the local press web comments!

Is this problem less likely in continental Europe?  I haven't toured the great BRTs of France, but the Amsterdam Zuidtangent certainly has gaps where, even in the judgment of the transit-loving Dutch, keeping an exclusive lane for the BRT was Just Too Hard.  (I'm not talking just about the narrow streets of Renaissance Haarlem, where the limitations are understandable, but also the quite modern southern suburbia where the line runs.) 

It would be great to hear stories about how BRT has fared in other developed countries, against inevitable demands to compromise reliability because it might get in the way of cars. 

9 Responses to watered-down bus rapid transit: the u.k. edition

  1. Tristram August 4, 2011 at 1:15 am #

    I think that France is developing many BRT lines. The most famous example is the Busway of Nantes (that is represented on the maps as tram line). The branding is so good, that many people know it’s a plain old bus. Dedicaced center lanes, no ticket sold by the driver, high-frequence (up to 3 minutes), high commercial speed, and large working hours.
    The Paris area is planing 4 lines (plus the existing TVM) and brands it as T’Zen http://www.tzen.com/
    Some smaller cities are also going in that direction like Perpignan that is building a line they call Bus-tram (but curb-side lanes open to bikes)

  2. Max Wyss August 4, 2011 at 3:45 am #

    FWIW, Zürich has the tram network as the main city transport network. However, in many places the tram right of way is also a bus lane, and there are several stops served by bus and tram. According to Swiss traffic law, bus lanes are banned for private vehicles (except where marked otherwise), so there is minimal interference with private traffic.
    Bus lanes are installed in many places. Often they are a few hundred meters long just before busy intersections, providing a fast access to a stop before the intersection or to the intersection for most of the time. Together with traffic light priority, the schedules can be held pretty well.

  3. Steve S. August 4, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    The problem with BRT is that the “high end” version is really close to light rail in practice and–especially in developed countries–at least as expensive to build, while offering few (if any) tangible benefits to using buses, while the “low end” version is too close to the issues facing average bus networks to be a real improvement.
    Personally, I think BRT works best as a “medium-end” transit solution linking communities without adequate space for a rail solution in a rail-like manner (that is, with distinctive stops and equipment, and strong scheduling) following (relatively) fast-flowing traffic arteries. The lack of new infrastructure construction makes it cheaper than light rail or interurbans to implement, while having one station in a community (municipality) helps decrease stop time, and the use of optimal arteries for transit keeps things quick.
    Just my $0.02.

  4. Tim (in Brisbane) August 4, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    ^ Come to Brisbane and see BRT working at a high-end design where light rail wouldn’t suffice. A hilly geography and post-WWII suburbia combine to make BRT very useful.
    You would need heavy rail + feeder buses to get the same effect which would make it much more expensive and slower to build.
    I imagine Bristol could have similar issues with its hills and suburbia.

  5. Rob August 4, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    How frustrating this is! It is manifestly true that most people feel it’s not worth spending the number of dollars for bus reliability that one might spend for any rail investment, even though the same reliability can be achieved for fewer dollars in most cases. And in many cases significant bus improvements might be possible in places where rail is not on the table.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that transit planning is an art of devining what is politically achievable, given the opportunities and constraints. Technical arguments are not effective in today’s political environment, but opportunities and visions can be. If one detects a gleam in the eye of policymakers when rail is discussed, there will be no priority to bus rapid transit. But if it’s clear that rail is unaffordable, or if there is a right-of-way ripe for bus priority, then maybe there’s an opportunity to spend what’s needed to make rapid bus service work.

  6. Carl August 5, 2011 at 7:17 am #

    The two primary justifications for BRT over rail directly cause these problems:
    1. Like rail but cheaper. The cheaper gets you because to be cheaper there are all the compromises that makes it less reliable and lower capacity
    2. More flexible. More flexible means it doesn’t need exclusive right of way everywhere (usually the chokepoints), that other traffic can use the lanes, etc.
    I’m most familiar with USA but all the so-called BRT systems whether Boston Silver line, NY Select Bus, or LA Rapid are really just improved regular bus. They aren’t particularly rapid or reliable. For the most part they don’t have exclusive lanes and/or the lanes are extremely poorly enforced. LA’s Orange line suffers from the “cheaper” bit. They should have grade separated the crossings (at which point they might as well have built rail) and now they are limited in capacity by the crossings and stops – with the level crossings had rail been used they could have had more capacity at the same headways.

  7. CroMagnon August 5, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Is there even a real definition of BRT? The cost differences are mostly in grade separation, not mode–a point confounded by both rail and bus promoters. High grade separation for BRT can still make sense if the geography supports a feeder-branch and trunk system, with the bottle-neck area with full grade separation. This beats rail in terms of time and money so long as the demand isn’t extremely high. Unfortunately, only so many cities have the geography to make this type of system appropriate.

  8. Rational Plan August 5, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    Unfortunately bickering between Bristol City Council and the suburban Northavon council let the Dept of Transport have an excuse to cancel funding for a proposed tram line. This BRT system is all that is left. Bus lanes in the UK are kept pretty clear of obstructions because of our very vigorous parking enforcement combined with bus lane cameras. So, as long as the bus lanes approaching the junctions are long enough, then they should work okay.

  9. Andre Lot August 7, 2011 at 7:07 pm #

    I know it is not the main subject of the article, but as it was cited, it is good to know the “gap” in the Zuidtangent exists because it involves one of the 5 most busy highways in the country, and highways are no places for bus lanes at all.
    In any case, an ongoing, multi-year € 2,1 billion expansion project is ongoing in the freeways on that area (A10, A9, A1 and the new elevated sector of A5). This project includes new bus lanes, completely segregated from the highway but parallel, that will close the major gap.