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.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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