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On the Merits of Bus Rapid Transit

Light rail might have a certain cool cachet, but buses are the way to go

There has always been something romantic about trains. Think of the passenger rail of a century ago and you likely imagine classy sleeper coaches and fancy dining cars. Even the commuter rail of decades past – streetcars and interurbans – seems to possess a glamorous vibe. Maybe it’s just the fact that everyone dressed better back then, but once upon a time commuters rode in style.

Yet I wonder if our sentimentality for rail is keeping public transit stuck in the past. There seems to be a feeling that buses are “substandard” – second class – when compared to “genteel” rail. This is unfortunate – especially in an age in which mass transit funding is stalled. Our cultural bias for rail over busses is especially counterproductive given that, when we carefully examine the facts, buses are a smarter investment.

Just look at the successes of what’s called Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT.

As Earth Island Journal reported in its Summer 2008 issue, BRT systems were pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Colombia, two cities that boast some of the most heavily used yet low-cost transit systems in the world. The basic idea behind BRT is to redesign the street to separate buses from private automobile traffic so that the public transportation moves more quickly and is therefore more attractive than driving. Some Curitiba and Bogota BRT lines have higher ridership than New York City subway lines.

Linha Verde BRT Curitiba, Est Marechal Florianophoto by by mariordo59, on FlickrLinha Verde BRT Curitiba, Brazil

Given that building a light rail system can cost up to 10 times as much as creating a BRT system, why are American cities still so focused on rail?

In recent years there has been something of a rail renaissance in the United States. Los Angeles has a new subway, as well as its Metro Rail surface streetcars. In the last decade new light rail systems (or significant expansions of existing systems) have opened in places like Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, and Houston.

Arguments in favor of light rail usually center on improvements in quality of life, better neighborhood safety, and smarter urban growth. Streetcars like those in Portland’s South Waterfront Neighborhood and a newly planned line in Downtown Los Angeles are seen as tools for economic development. New urbanists and environmentalists like to say that rail spurs the creation of “complete streets” – pedestrian and bike-friendly areas that combine commercial and residential space. True enough. But, as evidenced in Curitiba, BRT can produce the same results. In that Brazilian city, dense commercial development and high-rise buildings are concentrated along its BRT routes.

So there must be something else at work here, a kind of embedded preference for rail. A look at recent mass transit development controversies in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area reveals what LA community organizer Eric Mann calls “transit racism.” All too often, public policy makers prioritize rail projects (which largely serve white and affluent communities) over bus routes (which largely serve poorer communities of color).

The LA experience is a perfect example. The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority has poured millions of dollars into rail projects even as it has cut bus service and raised bus fares. Yet the city also has perhaps the preeminent BRT system in the United States. A study by the Victoria Policy Institute states that its Metro Orange Line BRT system, which began operations in 2005, “is exceeding ridership projections, reducing travel times, easing congestion, and attracting people out of their cars…. It cost $350 million. It was expected to initially average 5,000 to 7,500 weekday boardings, growing to 22,000 by 2020, but it achieved the 2020 goal by its seventh month. Operating costs average $2.17 per boarding.” Notably, the Orange line serves primarily suburban, middle-class areas, a demographic known for avoiding public transit.

In the Bay Area, the demographic divide on public transit is stark. Take for instance AC Transit, which provides daily bus service in the East Bay communities of Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding towns. A 2006 report MTC, Where Are Our Buses? states that its passengers are overwhelmingly people of color and poor. Ninety percent of them do not own cars and depend solely on public transit to reach essential destinations, such as jobs, schools, grocery stores, and social services. Compare that with the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and Caltrain rail systems, whose riders are disproportionately wealthier, whiter, and more likely to drive cars.

Central to the report is the assertion that the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) funding policies have created “separate and unequal” transit systems. It highlights parallels between the civil rights struggle in Montgomery and today’s efforts to win an equitable share of public transit funding for bus riders, 80 percent of whom are people of color. The report details the sizeable funding disparities per passenger and the resulting disparities in transit service between rail and bus. From 1986 to 2006 (when the report was published), BART and Caltrain services more than doubled, while AC Transit service contracted by 30 percent.

Portland LRTphoto by Lightpattern Productions, on FlickrPortland LRT

It isn’t a stretch to say that the race and class associations with buses are factors that have hindered BRT. Because buses became widespread just as public transit ridership went down and automobile ownership went up, little was done to make them an attractive mode of transportation. Gas-guzzling motors with a herky-jerky ride on streets cluttered with cars came to be associated with those without the means to drive, a view that has stuck to present day.

The biases in favor of rail can even be seen in San Francisco, whose public transit is dominated by electrified trolley-buses (thanks mostly to cheap electricity from the Hetch Hetchy Water & Power Project in Yosemite National Park). Transportation policy makers, other city officials, and city residents are in the midst of trying to figure out whether to install BRT services on two of the city’s most heavily used bus lines, on Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue. The 38-Geary and the 47 and 49 lines on Van Ness are notoriously crowded and notoriously slow; with 56,473 daily boardings, the 38-Geary is the busiest bus line on the West Coast. Both lines were supposed to be improved by 2012, but have since been pushed back to 2016 for the Van Ness lines and 2020 for Geary.

Last year transportation officials approved a BRT line for Van Ness. A Geary BRT line remains in the planning phase. But some people continue to insist that, because of its high ridership, San Francisco should instead invest in light rail for the corridor.

Joël Ramos – senior community planner with TransForm, a non-profit that advocates for world-class public transportation and walkable communities in the Bay Area and a board member of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) – argues that BRT is by far the smarter option. Ramos said light rail is something “people are familiar with,” and that there is a certain “sentiment” attached to rail that is not enjoyed by buses. But Ramos told Earth Island Journal that rail proponents have no viable strategy to fund another light rail line. “They need a means to an end,” he said. Ramos said there’s simply no money to build a light rail line – especially with the city already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the Central Subway from South of Market to Chinatown. Ramos stressed that the Geary and Van Ness BRT proposals will provide viable transportation for “tens of thousands” people.

Ramos says that although BRT is looked at as “otherworldly,” once people ride it they love it. Dave Synder, the former transportation director at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), agrees. In a Q&A with the Richmond Blog, he said:

“This technology doesn’t exist anywhere in the Bay Area, so people can’t appreciate how different it’s going to be than the regular bus. Even though it won’t be trains, it will be better than [San Francisco Muni’s] existing surface light rail lines: just as comfortable but more frequent and faster. Where BRT does exist around the world, it’s very popular and beloved. Once we have it, San Franciscans will wonder why we didn’t do it sooner. It’s about time we joined the rest of the world and implemented this new idea to improve transit.”

While Ramos acknowledged that light rail has advantages over BRT in terms of long-term maintenance, he stressed that many people who are in desperate need of relief now are losing out because of the ongoing debate. The persistent clamoring for light rail is one reason why the BRT proposals haven’t been implemented yet. Meanwhile, many commuters remain all-but-stranded.

This is discouraging, especially when you consider statements like those from the Journal of Public Transportation, which concluded in an analysis published last year that BRT is “the best transit strategy for most US cities to reduce transportation-related CO2 emissions.” Here’s how AC Transit makes the case for BRT’s benefits: “While all forms of mass transit are good for the environment, BRT is especially effective as a way to get more cars off the road and decrease carbon emissions, greenhouse gases and fuel consumption. It is faster, easier and less expensive to develop than traditional light rail, while offering comparable performance and ridership capacity.”

Environmental issues are intrinsically tied to social justice issues. The need to increase transportation access for poorer communities comes with positive environmental effects.

“In fact, one of the main reasons BRT is being proposed and supported by so many groups is because of the social justice argument,” Ramos said. “Not only is the quality of the ride improved with less crowding via more frequency and better reliability, but trip times are reduced, allowing people more time with their families, and or time to do other things.”

He said the overall cost of bus operations would be reduced, possibly leading to protection against future service cuts. The savings can also be reinvested to augment service on feeder lines. “These benefits can also be realized with light rail, but at a much greater construction cost, making light rail less viable in the short or even near term,” Ramos said.

Overall, both light rail and BRT have a vital part to play in the improvement of transit in American cities. If our goals is to reduce the number of cars on the road by as much as possible by providing the greatest number of people with fast and high quality transportation, then BRT is the smartest near-term solution. When transit riders get that, perhaps buses will be come to be seen as “classy” as rail.

Daniel Adel, Contributor, Earth Island JournalDaniel Adel photo
Daniel Adel, a former Earth Island Journal intern, is studying Environmental Studies, with concentration in Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice, at San Francisco State University.

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1)  I haven’t heard much about how people GET to the rapid transit (fixed right of way) or railroad station. Do they drive their cars? Does somebody drop them off? Do they hitchhike? Well, this is one of the best arguments yet I’ve heard for bus transit. They’re out there in the neighborhoods, picking up people who go TO the transit station and ALSO people who don’t use fixed rail at all. If a mechanism were found to stop rapid-transit passengers from using their cars to get TO the station, you can bet there would be more buses more frequently and buses would lose their unfashionableness.
2) if transit were free—not as radical a notion as you might think—it would become really popular & more folks would use it all the time.  Funds could be raised somewhere else, such as with the gasoline tax.

By Lynn Atwood on Thu, June 13, 2013 at 4:46 pm

This article makes a variety of assumptions and pulls facts from a variety of disparate places to draw conclusions. I’m not opposed to BRT, but it needs to be properly considered with LRT in each scenario. Saying BRT costs “up to 10x less” is a red herring: in order to build a BRT system that functions at the level of a true dedicated train system in a dense area, you’d need to build a subway. A subway of buses and a subway of trains does not come anywhere close to 10x less, as witnessed by the ultimate cost of building the silver line underground in Boston.

In lower density areas, BRT can be a great solution, but it can also hinder dense development, as the size of infrastructure needed for BRT is often large. In general, most of the surface-level LRT projects being built today in the US could easily be BRT at the same speeds and service qualities.

That said, I really think we have a more fundamental problem. While I have no issue arguing for BRT in instances where it’s needed and useful, particularly in medium to low density areas, it often can represent an inability to adequately fund out nations public transit needs. It’s not that saving money isn’t a good thing, but in dense areas, we need to have a system that not only meets today’s demands, but vastly exceeds them in order to properly manage growth and stress on the system. In San Francisco, an automated subway line was estimated to double or triple ridership on the 38-Geary, and head ways can be as low as 45-60 seconds with 50mph trains in such a system.

So it’s not that BRT can’t be a solution, and it should be considered, but all options should be weighed in transit, and too frequently BRT is used as a stop-gap solution for an underfunded transit system that has its goals set far too low to meet the needs of a true transit network. In situations where it absolutely doesn’t represent that, I support it wholeheartedly.

By Rick on Thu, May 30, 2013 at 11:26 am

Why do people prefer rail over buses? In my experience, the short answer is that we associate rail with having right-of-way and priority, and we associate buses with getting stuck in traffic and stopping at every red light. I agree with Dave Snyder who points out in your article that once people experience BRT, they’ll embrace it.

By Sasha on Wed, May 29, 2013 at 1:21 pm

This article is right on the money.  As evidenced here in Portland - we have received billions (yes, with a “B”) in federal funding for light rail and streetcar projects.  Even a commuter rail line.  But when it comes to buses, TriMet relies on an aging fleet of buses - over one-half of which are greater than 12 years of age (the federal guideline for bus service life), and service cuts of the last five years have all but entirely fallen on the bus system.

TriMet claims that light rail is socially equitable - the Yellow Line (Interstate Avenue) runs through an area that was largely minority race, lower income.  The key word is “was” - thanks to gentrification pushed in part by light rail, many of those residents have moved out of the area.  And every day, we’re seeing rail projects become more controversial - $165 million given to the WES Commuter Rail project, a system that doesn’t even let a cash rider ride the train unless they first ride a bus (because the ticket machines don’t accept cash; TriMet claims this is because the MAX ticket vending machines that have the highest failure rate are those with bill acceptors, but on WES there’s simply no alternative at four of the five stations) and the system that after four years of operation has yet to meet its first year ridership goal.  Of the Portland Streetcar, a system that essentially connects one luxury condo district to another luxury condo district.  Sure, 10,000 riders ride it (instead of walking or biking, which is the only logical alternative), but at a cost to the regional transportation network that has resulted in eliminating essential bus service elsewhere.

A previous commenter makes a good point that we should not pit mode against mode - and he’s right, we shouldn’t.  The problem is, it’s already done.  Rail has been pitted against bus.  The reality is stark and clear, and the only way to deal with it is to acknowledge it, and restore the bus system.  Building BRT lines is a good way to invest in the bus system, where service despirately needs to be upgraded but not quite to a light rail line.  But imagining that the problem does not exist only perpetuates the mode argument, because the default transit mode by planners is light rail.  And nothing else.

By Erik H. on Wed, May 29, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I find this article exasperating. And it’s not because I don’t think BRT is a good thing—much more BRT, in many more places, would be an excellent thing.

It’s that pitting transit modes against each other is the worst sort of circular firing squad behavior that progressives keeps indulging in. I mean, do we WANT to keep losing?

Think of the transit system as a network. In some places (like where BART crosses the Bay, to use the SF Bay as an example), you need metro rail. In other places that are less dense, local bus service makes more sense. (And there are many more of the latter than then former.) If these different pieces don’t work together as a network, then we should be working like crazy to make sure that they do. 

And absolutely—there are many medium-density corridors where BRT is a better choice than LRT. But be careful—for example, concerning the example of the Orange Line in Los Angeles, ridership is getting to the point where the line is essentially at capacity, and carrying more people would require switching it to LRT. That doesn’t mean that BRT is bad, and that LRT is good—it just means that LRT may now be the better choice.

We need more buses. We need more light rail and subway lines (for instance, think of how many jobs on the Westside of LA will be opened up to low income people living on the Eastside with the Wilshire subway). And yes, we should build a lot more BRT than we currently have.

But please—stop pitting different pieces of the transit system against each other. I couldn’t think of anything more counterproductive.

If I agree with you on 80%, then let’s be smart and work together, and not fight each other. Let’s join together and fight against the people with whom we mutually disagree 100%—in this case, the people who want to build more freeways, expand existing ones running through low-income communities, and cut transit or fail to build more transit.

Let’s start acting like we want to WIN.

By Jake Wegmann on Wed, May 29, 2013 at 10:27 am

“Given that building a light rail system can cost up to 10 times as much as creating a BRT, why are American cities still so focused on rail?”

You answered your question. It is all about the money. The more money contractors can suck out of the public, the more government support they get, and the easier it is to fudge the numbers. Who cares about a few millions dollars in costs overrun? They expect that.

The only way to change that is for the voters to cut off the money, which is why the T Party is so popular now. A lot of people have figured it out.

Unfortunately, there is a limit to how far you can go with that extreme. We are seeing it now.

By Sebra Leaves on Tue, May 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm

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