Bus Rapid Transit

a great new resource on european buses and bus rapid transit

In case you've missed the headlines, Europe's economy is even more shaky than that of the US, with the consequences of the global crisis overlaid with the crisis of the Euro.  So as in the US, it's time to do more with less. But they're doing a lot more with less, as you can see by browsing this great online resource, www.bhls.eu.


26_-_Nantes_-_bus_way_vue_aerienne_BDefBHLS stands for "Bus at a High Level of Service" and it refers not just to Bus Rapid Transit but to a range of other high-frequency, branded bus products.  The site features case studies from all over Europe, and provides numerous PDF downloads where you can read about individual cases in more detail — not just sexy photos but (Gotheburg above, Nantes at right) but also an explanation of the decision process that led to choosing a bus project over rail.

I'm trying to buy a house and pack up my office today, and will be at the Canadian Urban Transit Association conference in Victoria the next few days, so posting may be slow.  Fortunately, there's enough at www.bhls.eu to entertain anyone who cares about urban transit for days.




paris: “the bus stop of the future”

Now that Paris has bus lanes on almost every boulevard, we can expect their transit agencies to continue investing and innovating around their frequent and popular bus services.  Today we get "the bus stop of the future," where designer Marc Aurel has packed in every convenience that will fit in the space, plus a few more.

Paris station de bus du futur 1
Paris station de bus du futur









Yes, it's still a bus shelter, but the idea is to make it both more useful and more of a social space.  People may come here for a range of things other than catching the bus, so that social interaction and the life of the street intermix with waiting to produce a more vibrant, interesting, and safe environment.  It's the same principle by which transferring passengers can help activate civic squaresFrom Bati-journal (my rough translation):

This experimental station at boulevard Diderot is not just a place to wait for a bus. Covering an area of ​​80 m2, it was designed as a multi-purpose public space … .  Here you can buy a bus ticket, get information about the neighborhood, have a coffee, borrow a book, play music, recharge a phone, buy a meal to take away, rent an electric bike, stay warm while eating a sandwich, or set up a bag on a shelf to do your makeup.  Variable light adjusts for day and night conditions. This project will also be the first urban test of materials and technological innovations … such as ceramic furniture invented by Marc Aurel, and a sound design integrated into the fabric of furniture …

I'm disappointed they didn't include an art gallery with some durable lendings from the Louvre, on the model of Louvre-Rivoli station

But seriously:  This is what a major bus stop or station might look like if you really, really valued buses, and also value the principle that uses of the street should be intermixed so that they contribute activation, interest, and safety to one another. 

chicago: a new bus rapid transit plan

A Chicago-area planning nonprofit, the Metropolitan Planning Council, has released a plan for 10 Bus Rapid Transit within the City of Chicago.  The final report is here:  Download BRT TRB Report Final

The work, led by consultant Joshua K. Anderson, is admirably wonky.  It analyzes a huge range of arterial segments to identify those that appear best from a standpoint of both constructibility, demand, and nexus with livability values.  The report is a "screening" study, which means it seeks to narrow the range of possibility and encourage more detailed study of those that remain. 

Bus Rapid Transit is defined quite vigorously:

BRT is 4 defined by four main components: 1) dedicated bus lanes, 2) at-grade boarding, 3) pay-before-you-board stations, and 4) signal-prioritized intersections.

This definition is met by almost none of the things now called BRT in North America, or at least not continuously from one end to the other.  But screening is a time to be ambitious about such things.

Chicago brt map final
The 10 corridors that survive the screening are shown on this map.  They're a mixed bag: portions of segments, some of them maybe too short to be effective as BRT, but also two very long corridors, Western and Ashland Avenues, one of which is probably the most urgent BRT project in the city.

The study appears to be silent on whether these are envisioned as open BRT or closed BRT.  Open BRT means that the infrastructure can be used by bus lines that flow onward beyond it to other destinations.  To take an obvious example, an Irving Park BRT that ends at Ashland, short of the Red Line's connection opportunities and the high density of the lakeshore, is unlikely to be satisfying as a complete corridor.  But if it's an open BRT, usable by buses that continue east, it could well be useful. 

Unfortunately, a presumption of closed BRT, in which buses can't continue beyond the limits of the infrastructure, seems to be implied by the author's decision to discard super-dense Lake Shore Drive from the analysis simply because of the complexity of branching patterns that it requires; this assumption will have to be reconsidered in light of open-BRT best practice.

The study illustrates a common challenge in analyzing large, long transit corridors.  Many of the key issues, including available right of way and "livability" impacts, are segment-by-segment affairs; if these dominated the analysis, the result would be a huge pile of largely disconnected short segments, which could not deliver the intended outcomes.  So the author streamlined, discarding small segments and emphasizing larger continuous ones, which is quite right.

But issues of network integrity and completeness seem not to be fully considered.  The report needed to step much further back and describe the underlying geographic structure of Chicago, which determines the type of services that could be relevant to citywide mobility needs.

Except near the lake, Chicago is an extremely regular grid of arterials spaced 1/2 mile (800m) apart.  CTA follows this grid with a grid-pattern of long bus lines that attempt, as much as possible, to cover the entire length of an arterial all the way across the city.  This achieves the important goal of grid completion.  The purpose of each line is not just travel across that street but to complete a network in which people can travel from literally anywhere to anywhere else through a simple L-shaped movement:

Grid with trip

For more on the high-frequency grid principle, see here.  Obviously this structure only works, in its purpose to serve any origin-destination pair, if its constituent lines flow all the way across the grid to its natural edge.  This is the problem with many of the proposed BRT corridors in the report.

Not everyone sees this grid, because Chicago also has an overlying radial system of rapid transit, which runs along diagonals pointing toward downtown.  The two overlaid elements — radial trains and grid buses — work well together, but if you focus too much on the trains, which are mostly about going downtown, you miss the power of the underlying grid to complete trips on any origin-destination pair by a reasonably direct path.  (The report discusses "network integration" only in the form of integration with rail.  Confusingly, too, it gives heavy emphasis to connections with suburban commuter rail — whose poor frequency makes connection difficult — and little to the bus-bus grid connections that are the essence of the network's anywhere-to-anywhere versatility.)

Given Chicago's grid structure, and how well it already works, BRT needed to be understood as a system of grid accelerators, just like the Metro Rapid and proposed Wilshire subway in the similar grid of Los Angeles.  Obviously, if you can concentrate particularly heavy demand on a few elements of the grid, you can justify an overlay of much faster service, stopping only at the grid connection points every half-mile.

On that score, Western Avenue is clearly a winner.  It is the longest arterial in Chicago, running north-south the entire length of the city.  Its extreme length creates reliability issues on a local-stop service, which has caused CTA to break it into three lines thus reducing its usefulness for continuous movement.  BRT would be an opportunity to recombine these three segments to offer a service that would be understood as an intrinsic feature of Western Avenue over its entire length.   Western is also far enough out of downtown that the direct paths it serves are much faster than riding rail into downtown and back.  A vast range of trips between many parts of Chicago would find a Western BRT line useful. 

None of the other corridors identified in the study can match Western in the utility that arises from extreme length with lots of connection opportunities.  Ashland is obviously close.  Most of the other proposed segments are simply too short, and would be useful only as open BRT segments used by buses that run further.  Effective BRT has to serve long corridors, because the tradeoff that BRT requires of the customer — walk further in return for faster service — makes sense only for a fairly long trip. 

To sum up, the report is very useful and highly recommended.  But it misses (or at least downplays) two points that are missing in many similar studies, and that really matter:

  • Open or closed BRT?  They're totally different, and if you're not clear which you mean, it's impossible to envision the service patterns, and thus the mobility, that your proposal will offer. 
  • Integration with the total network, not just rail.  This requires seeing how the whole mobility flow of the city works, and how each corridor would contribute to that flow.  Localized analysis that asks where BRT would be easy to create or locally beneficial can easily lose this "forest" in its obsession with the trees.  Understanding this principle would have required a much firmer focus on complete corridors that traverse the grid and make many connections, rather than the small fragments that are frequently proposed.

Still, the report can do a lot of good, and bravo to the Metropolitan Planning Council for sponsoring it.  Chicago really needs to start accelerating its bus grid, especially on its busy, high-stakes, versatile corridors like Western.  I hope this study helps to move that along.


cambridge, uk: world’s longest guided busway opens

From our UK correspondent Peter Brown:

The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway finally opens [today], Sunday 7th August, and at 25km will overtake Adelaide's O-Bahn (on which it was partly based) as the world's longest guided busway.  It will be an 'open' BRT as services will not be restricted solely to the Busway.  The guideway consists of two sections.  The longest runs from the northern edge of Cambridge to St Ives, while the shorter southern section runs from Cambridge rail station to Trumpington.  There are three Park and Ride sites on the route.
The buses are standard UK designs (single and double deckers) fitted with guide wheels.  Guideway stops will feature off-bus ticketing.  Guideway stop (prior to opening):

Cambridge busway

Two bus companies (Stagecoach and local independant Whippet Coaches) have signed a partnership agreement with Cambridgeshire County Council for exclusive use of the Busway for 5  years.  Services will operate under a single brand – "the busway".
More info:

If this busway doesn't turn up significant benefits in customer experience, it will probably be the last, or at least the last to be done with guide-wheels.  Adelaide's pioneering O-Bahn is now 25 years old, so one hopes the state of the art has moved on.  (There's also a guided busway in Nagoya, Japan, dating from 2001, where the government classifies it as a railway.)  All of these, including Cambridge, are open busways, i.e. designed so that buses can run off the ends of the facility onto various street-running lines. 

So I'll be curious to see how this goes.

bus rapid transit: two kinds of flexibility


On yesterday's post on the watering-down of Bus Rapid Transit proposals in Bristol, UK, a number of comments seem a little vague about how buses are more "flexible" than rail.  For example, Carl writes:

The two primary justifications for BRT [are]:

1. Like rail but cheaper. …
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.

This a very common way of framing the question, and a very misleading one.

First of all, the notion of "flexibility" used in #2 has nothing to do with the bus/rail distinction, at least if we're talking about surface light rail or streetcars.  You can put streetcars or light rail in mixed traffic and get all the same speed and reliability problems that a bus would deliver in the same situation.  So again, in urban transit:  Speed and reliability are not about vehicle technology; they are about what can get in your way.

But Bus Rapid Transit offers a very different flexibility that in certain situations out-competes rail.  A busway can be designed so that buses from many surface lines can flow into it.  This potentially spreads the usefulness of the busway over a large area without requiring an additional trunk-to-feeder connection.  Connections are unavoidable in good networks, but if there are easy opportunities to eliminate one, it's still worth going for.

This ability to flow through to local lines yields what we call an open busway.  North American open busways include the Ottawa busway network, the Pittsburgh busway, and the Los Angeles El Monte Transitway, but they are much more common overseas, including the developed world's most extensive example in Brisbane, Australia.  This kind of flexibility is impossible to do with rail.

Closed busways, which has none of these benefits but can have more "specailized" vehicles, include the Los Angeles Orange Line.

The flexibility of open busways makes sense only where it matches the pattern of the market. Brisbane is a highly radial city, with a single downtown and densities dropping away as you move away from it.  Outlying nodes of high activity, which could be a strong endpoint for a closed busway or rail line, are scarce.  So the open busway makes perfect sense.  It allows busway service to spread out over a larger area, yielding high frequencies on the inner busway where the demand is higher, and correspondingly lower frequency further out.  It's the kind of flexibility that fits the city.

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. 

light rail “for dummies?”

A polarizing summary of "facts" about a light rail debate in Waterloo, Ontario has popped up in an Atlantic item by Nicholas Jackson.  After an introduction in which Jackson seems to confuse intercity high-speed rail and intra-city light rail, he invites us to admire a graphically rich presentation Waterloo light rail advocates.  It's at the bottom of this post. 

I cite this not to take a position on light rail transit (LRT) in Waterloo.  (I'm certainly open to it, and am following with interest a similar project in similar-sized Victoria, BC.)  I mean only to offer a useful illustration of the dangers of almost all "pro vs con" or "this vs that" or "with us or against us" framings of a question, in which all distinctions are reduced or distorted to fit the quarrel at hand.

Commenters are encouraged to nominate their favourite absurdities out of this piece, or to defend them.  Mine are mostly (but not all) in the table partway down.  Did you know light rail lines seem to cause high-tech companies to sprout decades before the line opens?  Did you know that regionwide populations of Ottawa and Waterloo can be compared to city limits populations of other cities, as convenient?  And what exactly can we learn from knowing the population of San Francisco in 1904, when they opened their first light rail line?  Might the absence of cars in that year make the cases hard to compare?


Snapsort's LRT for Dummies Infographic

This is well-intentioned, and perhaps in late stages of debate it's unavoidable.  Again, my response to it is not a view about light rail but rather about the style of argument, which assumes (contrary to this) that rail-bus distinctions overwhelm all others, and explain so much of the arc of history.

UPDATE:  This post isn't about the Waterloo light rail debate itself, but here are some sources on the subject:

The Region's Plan:

sydney: destroying the bus lane to save it

Why did I leave Sydney?  Partly because of things like this

TENS of thousands of bus commuters face hours of extra gridlock each week because traffic authorities have removed the requirement for an afternoon bus lane during widening of the M2 [the main radial freeway to the northwest suburbs of Sydney].

As part of the conditions attached to the $550 million M2 upgrade, Transurban [the toll road operator] was asked to set up a ''tidal flow'' bus lane to replace two bus lanes removed during construction. The flow of traffic on such a lane is reversed from morning to afternoon to match the heaviest traffic.

The Roads and Traffic Authority [RTA, the state highway agency] and the Department of Planning under the previous government dropped the requirement for a bus lane out of the city in the afternoon peak and agreed with Transurban the lane would be dangerous.

The idea that it's appropriate to remove transit lanes for a road construction project is backwards and upside-down.  Construction inevitably constrains a highway's capacity.  So if you want the economy to move, rather than just the cars, you go out of your way to attract more customers to transit during the construction period.  Instead, customers are being encouraged to drive instead of take the bus, which will make the freeway even slower, thus obstructing all road users regardless of mode and thereby maximizing the construction's negative impact on the local economy.
And this is priceless!
According to the Planning Department, the RTA said it had since done more traffic modelling and the lack of a bus lane would not affect travel times much. The RTA could not provide any extra modelling yesterday.
In other words:  "But mom!  It's not my fault!  Dad told me it was OK to destroy the bus lane!"
UPDATE:  So I was glad to see this today, the new government's much anticipated centralization of transit planning in Sydney that will strip RTA of much of its authority over public transport. 

[New transport minister Duncan Gay] said the RTA knew the public thought it had a ''culture of arrogance'', and that the organisation needed to change. ''You will not see the RTA the same after this process,'' he said.

Could be promising!

seoul: buses that tell you where they go?

Regarding Place has a good article on the recent reform of bus services in Seoul, South Korea. Seoul-buses_tfan

Seoul has done something that I often hear people ask for, a simple citywide color scheme that helps make the structure of the bus system obvious.  The four colors of bus correspond to four types of service:

  • Blue buses run in reserved median busways on major arterials, and appear to be mostly radial (into and out of the urban core.)
  • Green buses are feeders that tend to run locally within a particular area.
  • Red buses are "express" to and from outer suburbs.  It's not completely clear if this is peak commuter express or frequent all-day service (which I usually call "Rapid").  Express is a slippery word.
  • Yellow buses are orbital lines, thus tend to be perpendicular to the blue and red ones.

I have mixed feelings about this sorting.  Usually I prefer to make distinctions about frequency and service span, but if overall frequencies are high I can certainly see the value in this system.  In a city with a clear distinction between radial and orbital directions, which Seoul seems to have, the distinctions can probably help people orient about which direction is which at various points, and to discern the general directions that each bus might go.

The same thinking extends to numbering system.  Traditionally, most big urban areas have had a sub-area based numbering, where in fact it may make more sense to number lines in ways that heighten the distinction between different service types. 

Most big cities, of course, simply don't have the centralized control to do this.  Los Angeles Metro has made an effort with its Rapid vs Local branding, but most color schemes are tied to the brands of municipal operators whose service is entangled with Metro's.  Cities with a single consolidated transit agency could do it.  In Australia, any state government could do it, though it would need to gain ownership of fleets that are currently owned by private operating companies. 

Obviously, you're sacrificing "operational flexiblity" in terms of being able to deploy any bus on any line.  Now and then in Los Angeles you'll see a Local bus on a Rapid line and vice versa.  I think Seoul deals with this by running all buses of one color out of one operating base, often with a separate contract operator, so the systems are functionally separate.

If you've been to Seoul and seen this system in action, please share your impressions.

rail-bus differences: premise or conclusion?

When you think about transit technologies, how do you categorize them?  And why?

Have a look at this first table, which sorts services according to the exclusivity of their right of way.  The terms Class A, B, and C are from Vukan Vuchic, describing the basic categories of "what can get in the way" of a transit service.

Is this table two rows, each divided into three columns?  Or three columns, each with two rows?  Which distinction is more fundamental, and which is secondary?

Right-of-Way Class vs Rail-Bus Distinction


Class A

Exclusive right-of-way and separated from cross traffic

Class B

Exclusive right-of-way,  NOT separated from cross traffic.

Class C

Mixed with traffic, including mixed with pedestrians.


Most rail rapid transit, using “third rail” power sources.  Most classic “subway” and “metro” systems.  

Most “light rail” in surface operations.  Parts of some European and Australian tram networks.

Most North American streetcars.  Many European and Australian trams.


Separated busways:  (Brisbane, Ottawa, Bogotá, and segments in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh)  Freeway bus/HOT lanes.

At-grade busways:  Los Angeles Orange Line, Western Sydney busways, etc.

Buses in mixed traffic.

Well, if your objective is to get where you're going fast and reliably, the Right-of-Way Class tells you a lot about a services's potential to do that, while the rail-bus distinction, in isolation, tells you nothing.  The fact is, both rail and bus technologies are capable of the complete spectrum of possibilities.  Both can average 6 mph (10 km/h) in Class C situations, and both can run Class A at 60 mph (100 km/h) or more.

RIght-of-way isn't the only thing that matters for getting you where you're going.  There's also stop spacing, with its inevitable tradeoff between speed and local access.

Stop Spacing vs Rail-Bus Distinction


Rapid, Limited

(faster = fewer stops)


(slower = more stops)


(one long nonstop segment)


“Subway”, “Metro”, some commuter rail.

 Tram / Streetcar

Some commuter rail.


Bus Rapid Transit,
“Rapid Bus”, “limited-stop” bus

 Local bus

Commuter express bus (often on freeway)

 … and of course there are other essential distinctions like frequency, which are also entirely separable from rail and bus technologies. 

UPDATE:  Please note, yet again, that contrary to early comments I am NOT claiming that these are the only distinctions that matter.  As I laid out in some detail here, there are several distinctions that matter.  In fact, one of the reasons that people cling so hard to the rail-bus distinction is that the other crucial distinctions are a little more complicated and require some thought, and it's hard to think about this stuff in the political space where decisions get made.

Rail services do tend to be presented in ways that "package" the various crucial dimensions of usefulness.  Typical metro systems, for example, are guaranteed to be frequent, with rapid stop spacing, and Class A right of way, because all three are intrinsic to the metro technology, so there's a psychological "packaging" effect when you see a metro map; you can be confident that this means a certain level of service. 

I think these tables are interesting because now and then I meet someone who divides the world rigidly into rail and bus, often aligning these categories with a rigid class distinction (William Lind, say) or simply claiming that rail does beautiful things and buses don't.  In that view, the different columns of these tables are secondary and interchangeable, while the rows express something absolute. 

Patrick Condon, for example, proposes that instead of building one rapid transit line (Class A, rapid stops) we could just build lots of streetcars (mostly Class C, local stops).  That can make sense if you judge technologies entirely on their influence on urban form, and prefer the kind of form that seems to arise from streetcars.  But it will be just incoherent to a transit planner who's been trained to help people get places, and wonders if he's being told that nobody cares about that anymore.  Because if you do care about personal mobility — people getting where they're going, now, today — you have to care about the columns.

I hope to leave this topic for a while, but I do think it's worth coming back to tables like this to ask yourself:  Do I tend to divide the world according to the rows first, or the columns?  If so, why?  Is my way of slicing this table something I've discovered about the world, or something my mind is imposing on it?