Why the fascination with bus rapid transit?

Between form-based codes and bus rapid transit, it is hard to decide which concept is trendier in America at this given moment. On one hand planners have begun to realize that Euclidean zoning codes are, perhaps, wildly out-of-touch. While at the same time, engineers and policy makers can’t find the funds to properly build rapid transit systems. More from NextCity:

In the developing world, labor is cheap and capital is expensive. Buses are more labor-intensive than trains, so it makes sense that they would be cheaper. Indeed, the most advanced BRT systems were built in developing countries in South America and East Asia. But in the developed world, where labor is also expensive, the calculus shifts toward rail.

While European countries that excel at building transit, for example, have started building BRT systems, they generally continue to stick with rail, and the wealthiest East Asian countries are heavily dependent on rail…But the U.S. is no ordinary developed country when it comes to transit costs. While labor costs here are high, as with every other developed country, capital costs — the cost of building transit systems — are much higher than average.

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  • valar84

    From what I’ve seen, the strongest support for BRT comes from people who wouldn’t be found dead in any transit vehicle anyway. Car drivers who never even consider transit prefer buses to anything else because there is a perception that buses are “on their side”, buses need roads too so they think putting transit users in the same position of requiring ever more roads to avoid congestion is the best way to protect their own interests. Rail transit on the other hand creates a competitor for road space by requiring another network completely.

    Of course, we can point out that real BRTs actually do compete with cars for road space, at least on the trunk corridor (but not always on the branches), but the same people who say BRT is better than LRT generally blast dedicated bus lines in the next sentence. And streetcars exist which coexist with cars on the road. Still, I’ve noticed that streetcars receive a lot more hatred from car drivers than buses. I think it’s the mentality that “roads are for cars”, and buses are considered “cars”, but not rail vehicles.

    Often, BRTs are only bandied about to try and derail LRT projects. But if BRT is chosen, the service quickly gets downgraded into BRT-lite, dedicated but not physically separated lanes that allow cars to access them to make turns, no signal priority and the like. The result is a line that is barely faster and has only a bit more capacity than a regular bus line.

  • I recently raised this question with a transit expert speaking at a recent TOD seminar. While her answer was essentially “it depends” (and understandably she didn’t want to advocate for one over the other), I did glean an insight from her answer on the sense of scale.

    In Cincinnati, we have a few areas with great potential for re-using rail lines as commuter rail. (Wasson line probably being the best example.) But otherwise, it would be a stretch to claim we can easily and affordably cover the entire region with rail lines. Even in larger cities like New York and Chicago you still see buses and cars complementing rail transit.

    So, my argument would be this: streetcar lines are great for local roads and local trips (3-5 miles max.). Over that distance, speed is going to be an issue. So, BRT or LRT? Well, I see BRT being more effective on the second tier corridors (such as Metro*Plus’s current route up Montgomery) for people travelling 5-15 miles. LRT can be reserved for corridors where it makes the most sense, to link regional rail and/or provide stop frequency of 3-5 miles. I’m thinking an LRT corridor from the Airport, throughout Downtown, all the way to Dayton (which was what was planned under 3C, except for the Airport link). And some sort of link to the east side, whether via Eastern Corridor, Wasson, I-71, or a mix of those. I just wonder if the returns will be adequate to go with an LRT-only strategy given the tough terrain and infrastructure in much of the city.

    Oh, and that’s not to mention that an LRT-only strategy still doesn’t seem very politically popular in the area.

    • For an area with a number of geographic obstacles like Cincinnati, light rail can offer huge benefits that can never be matched with BRT. With tunnels or elevated rail lines, you can travel extremely fast and bypass a lot of the congestion at street level. Seattle decided to build their LRT system with very few street-running sections and it’s very fast.

      Of course, tunnels and viaducts are more expensive, but cost is an issue that we will face as a new transit plan gets closer to reality. I think most voters would rather use a system that costs a little more but is far faster because of grade separation.

      With that being said, Cincinnati does have a few straight, flat thoroughfares where BRT would work well.

    • JacobEPeters

      While it is true that the geographic constraints of Cincinnati make LRT a better fit for high capacity transit lines, I don’t think it necessarily holds true for transit corridors. Implementing BRT along the most highly used corridors can offer benefits which can improve transit performance, and lay the groundwork for Light Rail. If a lot of bus routes use a stretch of road, and have high levels of boarding along that corridor, then the implementation of dedicated lanes, prepaid boarding, and iconic stations could improve the reliability of the existing buses, increase their speeds, and provide right of way which LRT could use along the corridor when the region finds funding for the tunnels and viaducts needed for the rest of the system.

  • Eugene Carroll

    BRT is “popular” in part because it makes the road paving lobby happy.