ARCHIVES: This is legacy content from before Sustainable Cities Collective was relaunched as Smart Cities Dive in early 2017. Some information, such as publication dates or images, may not have migrated over. For the latest in smart city news, check out the new Smart Cities Dive site or sign up for our daily newsletter.

What Bus Rapid Transit Is and What It Isn't

It isn't too often that mayors of North American cities travel to South America to admire urban planning models. There is one notable exception, and that is Curitiba, Brazil, where forty years ago a new vision for urban mobility was created, revamping the private bus chaos that dominates many South American big cities.

I like the Curitiba example especially, for it was invented by an architect who, once he was elected mayor, immediately began to think outside the box.

He watched the clogged major arteries leading in and out of his rapidly growing mega city, the foul air and the many carless urban poor that couldn't get anywhere, and decided that something needed to be done that was fast, relatively cheap and system-wide. Unlike the one shiny subway line that Chile's Santiago boasts, he gave his Curitiba a whole system of fast buses that operate like trains all across town.

More or less overnight. Nobody had seen such drastic repossession of streets before. Even the buses were unheard of with their double articulation (two accordion elements) and some extra doors. Jamie Lerner and his creative transit planners left nothing untouched that could make the good old bus more efficient: of course the buses had their own lanes and signals (many other cities had that already in place, at least sporadically).

But nobody had before tried bus boarding from elevated platforms, or selling bus tickets in advance of boarding, restricting entrance to the waiting areas to those with tickets like a subway station, elegantly eliminating bus stop loitering. (At the time low floor buses didn't exist yet and lots of time was wasted with people stepping up and down the three steep steps or deploying ramps for handicap access).

Curitiba BRT bus station with boarding tubes and custom double articulated buses

Thus in Curitiba, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was born, and North American transit planners took notice, mostly, though, for the wrong reasons, namely the lower cost compared to rail.

BRT is Bus Rapid Transit – a high quality, high capacity rapid transit system that, in many ways, improves upon traditional rail transit systems. Vehicles travel in exclusive lanes, avoiding traffic. Passengers walk to comfortable stations, pay their fares in the station, and board through multiple doors like a train. Service is frequent and fast. Vehicles can be powered by hybrid electric or clean diesel (source)
Much too much in love with the automobile, North American planners usually strip off some major features before they consider implementation here. For example, the consideration of full network implementation. What we call BRT here amounts to false advertising. Sometimes, cities do little else than add the word "rapid" to existing service, like with Rapid Bus, which isn't the same as BRT.
Key attributes of BRT. In yellow
what LA applied for their Rapid Bus

The U.S. has seven authentic BRT lines in Cleveland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Eugene Ore., and several in Pittsburgh. None achieve the internationally recognized "gold standard" of BRT like Bogota's TransMilenio line. But one planned for Chicago's Ashland Avenue might. (Forbes)
One could argue that one could redefine the term, after all, it didn't come with a copyright. What is the point of being picky about a transit definition? Once we go back to the original problem we will see that the metrics that make BRT real are not a trifling matter but have everything to do with the original issue: how can one transport the masses across a large metro area without going bust?
How can one improve air quality and mobility for everyone at once? How can one get subway-like performance characteristics and without building a subway? And even more importantly, how can one spread the benefits fast over a large metro area?

Seen this way it becomes immediately clear that most of what gets billed as BRT in the US doesn't cut it: a single BRT line doesn't, nor does a system where standard 40' buses can barely transport more than 50 people at a time, nor a system where buses get stuck in traffic or where buses linger at stops until a long line of cash payers has entered through a single door of a bus.
A system where the bus comes only every 20 or 30 minutes doesn't qualify, and one that doesn't serve poor neighborhoods doesn't either. In short, there is a list of criteria that need to be met before anybody can reasonably claim to have a BRT system (Curitiba's system had as many as 13 key attributes).
Real BRT busway in Los Angeles (no other vehicles
allowed on busway). Photo: ArchPlan Inc.

The reasons why so many attributes are often left off are obvious: the lower cost of construction of BRT comes with a high price in terms of surface impacts. To make the bus system complete and efficient, the impacts on the existing streets and the existing traffic are heavy, and in many older cities just not practical because there simply isn't enough space.
As a result many North American cities make do with what they call "express", "rapid", "limited" or "quick" service, bus service one or two steps above the standard service but far from being BRT. Or they put the bus in a tunnel like Boston did with its Silver Line and Seattle with its initial downtown bus tunnels.
Seattle soon saw the light in the form of light rail and now uses the tunnels for bus and trains. Incidentally: Bus tunnels are even more expensive than LRT tunnels due to the larger dimensions that are needed to allow buses in stations to get around each other. (Buses fail much more often than trains). Buses also cost much more to operate and have a shorter useful life, features that add to long-term costs, over time eroding the initial cost savings that may have been there).
Boston Silver Line tunnel station
(Photo: ArchPlan)

The Baltimore Quickbus (QB) may be an example of bus service that is a copy of a copy of BRT. Our QB doesn't even meets the criteria set forth for the LA Rapid, which itself is a slimmed down version of the Curitiba system.
For the QB, the MTA selected essentially only one upgrade from the standard bus: fewer stops. From limiting stops, it gets all its travel speed advantages. Even this crucial element was then further compromised during the implementation phase when constituents demanded additional ones.
Special sign pylons
were designed by Archplan
with 212 Associates NY
for the Baltimore Quickbus
service but were only
installed as prototypes
for lack of maintenance

There is much debate if BRT can attract economic development in the same way that rail investments have shown to add value.
Economists can point to Cleveland's Health Line as an example of BRT successfully spurring TOD. Maryland's Lieutenant Governor, who after the cancellation of the Baltimore Red Line light rail project pronounced that BRT would be "the way to go," pointed to exactly why expecting land use developments around bus service is problematic: he said BRT can easily be moved, should transit needs shift. This statement illustrates the confusion in the BRT and rail discussion. Real BRT cannot be easily moved, so the Lieutenant Governor's comments show that what he envisions as the "way to go" is not really BRT.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, edited by Ben Groff, JD
What is BRT (Transportation Institute)

Performance Improvements on two Rapid Lines (not full BRT) in LA
Indy connect vision of BRT

Related posts