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"Bus Rapid Transit" or "Quality Bus"? Reality Check

Light Rail Progress · January 2004 (Rev.)

A transit alternative increasingly counterposed to light rail transit (LRT) as an option for new and better transit service is so-called "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT). While improvements in basic bus transit services, by whatever name, are direly needed in North American cities, what is actually meant by "BRT"? The concept seems to be applied, by some of its most ardent proponents, to a wide swath of concepts – in effect, virtually any type of long-haul bus transit above regular local service in mixed street traffic or slow circulator/connector services. Examples offered by "BRT" promoters include:

· Limited-stop service in mixed traffic (Honolulu), in some cases with traffic signal prioritization, and perhaps passenger stops upgraded with shelters, amenities, good signage, and even realtime information systems (e.g., Los Angeles's MetroRapid services).
[Photo of LA's MetroRapid "BRT" from Transit Rider website]

· Limited-stop circulator service in reserved lane (Orlando).

· Express bus service connecting suburbs with a central city (Orlando).

· Express buses operating on HOV lanes (Houston, Dallas, San Diego).

· Buses operating in dedicated busway, reserved lanes, and mixed traffic (Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Miami, Curitiba, Bogota).

· Buses in busways or reserved lanes with some form of guidance (Adelaide, Essen, Leeds, Nancy, Caen).

Fuzzy "BRT" concept

The Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE) acknowledges this problem, noting

One of the problems with defining BRT is that there is no one kind of Bus Rapid Transit. Boston's Silver Line [see photo, right], hailed as one of the nation's largest BRT examples to date, utilizes standard bus vehicles on a mix of shared-use and dedicated busways. Curitiba, Brazil's Bus Rapid Transit system uses low-floored articulated buses on exclusive roadways, coupled with intensive supportive land-use development patterns along its corridors. Other significant variants that fall under the umbrella of the BRT definition include express bus service, traffic signal priority technologies, and faster passenger boarding techniques.
[CFTE website,, 2003/12/15; photo: C. Szabla]

Obviously, "BRT" is being applied to a very broad spectrum of quite diverse kinds of services (and, because of this fuzziness of the concept, we prefer to place the term in quotation marks). Moreover, there seem to be inconsistencies and contradictions among the conflicting definitions of what constitutes "BRT". For example, while some "BRT" proponents assert that such services must be characterized by new, innovative, comfortable rolling stock, new, upgraded passenger stops with shelters and amenities, and similar features, clearly this is not uniformly the situation in actual practice.
[Photo of Miami-South Dade Busway by Jon Bell]

A number of services identified as "BRT" use older, relatively spartan shelter facilities, with none of the modern amenities and "bells and whistles" publicized for "BRT". Some supposedly "BRT" operations even use nothing more than simple bus stop markers in lieu of stations. Furthermore, ordinary older buses, many of them well worn in service, are commonly found in operation on several busways and in other "BRT" applications.

"New" spin to an old concept

While "BRT" is marketed as a new, revolutionary, innovative transit concept, this application of bus technology has actually been in use for a number of decades. "Bus rapid transit", as both a term and concept, apparently was first proposed in Chicago in 1937. it was later promoted aggressively by General Motors beginning in the 1960s.
[Source: Wilbur Smith & Associates. Transportation and Parking for American Cities, 1966, p. 217; Light Rail Progress]

And this early "BRT" proposal was not ignored – indeed, by the characteristics defining "BRT", virtually every major city in the country has long been operating some form of this service mode, from limited-stop and express bus services in mixed traffic, to HOV lanes, reserved street lanes, full busways, and traffic signal prioritization ... and this has been happening for the past several decades. initially, "BRT" (in concept if not in name) was implemented as a substitute for various levels of electric surface railway service – streetcar and interurban electric railway services, in particular. (in St. Louis, some former streetcar lines were converted to "BRT" busways, such as the Hodiamont line in the photo, above right, seen in 1966.)
[Photo: National Museum of Transportation, St. Louis]

While "BRT" has clearly been implemented in cities throughout North America for many decades, what has been the result for public transit? Empirical evidence suggests that "BRT" has never fully met the original claims of its proponents as a superior "rapid transit" mode to, and a replacement for, rail transit service.

Far from even a modest increase in ridership and public acceptance, public transit experienced a relentless decline, both in public use and community image. The real surge in national transit ridership has occurred only after the major investments in rail transit, especially LRT, mainly since the early 1980s. This in itself would tend to suggest that "BRT", in its variety of manifestations, has been something less than a phenomenal success as a supposedly "cheaper" substitute for rail transit in bolstering the fortunes of North American public transport.

"BRT" = better quality, but not "rapid transit"

But "BRT", in an effective, usually multi-modal transit context, interfacing with various levels of rail transit service, has clearly demonstrated its value internationally. in terms of a somewhat higher-level bus service, with limited stops, attractive, modern vehicles, well-defined stations with various amenities, reserved bus lanes, prioritized or preempted traffic signals, and other significant transit improvements – de facto "BRT" is widespread in European cities.

However, are these services truly "rapid transit"? in almost all cases, applying "rapid transit" to bus operations all or partly in non-grade-separated alignments – indeed, even mixed general traffic – seems a misnomer, with the potential of public deception and loss of credibility by the transit agency. in a wide range of cases, including LA's famous MetroRapid service, and Boston's much-celebrated Silver Line "BRT" pictured earlier, the "rapid transit" seems to consist of nothing more, really, than buses competing with private motor vehicle traffic. What's "rapid transit" about that? if transit professionals question this, the public surely are doing the same. The reality is unavoidable: in established usage, "rapid transit" has identified fully grade-separated transit services – such as the Washington Metro (photo, above right).
[Photo: L. Henry]

Dr. Vukan R. Vuchic, for example, an internationally acclaimed transportation professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in his classic textbook Urban Public Transportation (1981), applies rapid transit to modes which operate in "a fully controlled R/W [right-of-way] without grade crossings.... in exceptional cases the R/W may have widely spaced grade crossings with signal override and gate protection of the track ... since such crossings have little effect on line performance." Dr. Vuchic further emphasizes that "Strictly, bus rapid transit neither exists nor is it a viable concept..." (because of capacity and operational issues). (pp. 66, 62) The CFTE website also notes that Professor Vuchic "challenges the word 'Rapid' in the name Bus Rapid Transit, instead offering the term 'Bus Semi-Rapid Transit' and arguing that 'Rapid' should only be used when referring to exclusive-right-of-way rail transit."

Similarly, the institute of Transportation Engineers, in Transportation and Traffic Engineering Handbook (1976), differentiates "rapid transit lines" as "grade-separated" (p. 227). The ITE goes on to note that

In corridors where no grade-separated rapid transit exists, surface transit may perform limited and express functions as well, although often with reduced speed in congested mixed traffic during peak periods. [p. 227]

Quality Bus? Good idea!

Thus, it is evident that, in virtually every case in North America, and even in world "model" cases such as in Curitiba, the term "Bus Rapid Transit" is misapplied. Light Rail Progress suggests that "QB" – Quality Bus service – would be a more descriptive term for such bus service improvements than "BRT". (indeed, Europe, which has far outpaced North America in aggressively implementing and expanding such services, has all but ignored the "BRT" epithet in vogue in North America. instead, Quality Bus service appears to be the preferred, and more accurately descriptive, term applied in Europe to these services.)

And certainly, such Quality Bus services are an essential element of the total mix of modes – including LRT and even grade-separated rapid transit and innovative "gadget" systems in some cases – which contribute to making public transport a truly attractive, effective, and significant component of the mobility system, and mobility choices available to the community, in today's urban areas.

"BRT" a substitute for LRT?

It must also be recognized, however, that, in North America, Quality Bus service (marketed as "BRT") has, in effect, become a concept often manipulated in a heated and ongoing political conflict – the continent's somewhat exceptional ideological battle between some elements of the motor-vehicle, petroleum, and highway industries on one hand, and various partisans of public transportation, including rail transit, on the other. (This struggle is well documented in books like Jane Holtz Kay's Asphalt Nation and Stephen Goddard's Getting There – The Classic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century.)

Thus, in this partisan context, not only is "BRT" frequently applied to encompass almost any level of bus service above basic, local street bus service, but also the term seems to be used somewhat deceptively, often in a transit-focused form of "bait-and-switch". in this ploy, the service level and appearance of a full, dedicated busway is first advanced, but then the cost of simple, street-bus limited-stop service (such as LA's MetroRapid bus operations) is associated with it. For this reason, it is difficult to ascertain precisely what kind of bus transit service is meant when the term "BRT" is used.

However, "BRT" is commonly presented as a kind of interchangeable (but supposedly lower-cost) substitute for electric LRT. For example, the US Federal Transit Administration's "BRT" website proclaims "Think Rail, Use Buses – That's the quickest way to describe Bus Rapid Transit. BRT combines the quality of rail transit and the flexibility of buses."

This appears to be a highly misleading conception, ignoring the vast differences in performance and public appeal between the two modes – and potentially leading to imprudent planning decisions. An avalanche of credible evidence suggests – for most comparable service levels in the same corridor – clear advantages of LRT, particularly in terms of total cost (capital plus operating), environmental impact, attractiveness to potential riders, and influences on land use and transit-oriented development.

LRT vs. "BRT" comparison

These differences have been exhaustively analyzed by Edson L. Tennyson, PE, former Deputy Secretary of Transportation of Pennsylvania and a consulting transportation engineer with decades of hands-on experience in the transit industry – much of it acquired in several systems operating LRT streetcars and interurbans as well as buses. Tennyson presents hard evidence of the greater power of LRT to attract passengers, and fulfill ridership forecasts, compared with busways. In an analysis based on FTA data relating to recent LRT and "BRT" busway new starts, Tennyson concludes that "busways have attracted only one-third of the riders promised, but LRT has attracted 122 percent...."
[E. L. Tennyson, "New York considering light rail", personal discussion paper (edited), 9 Nov 2003]

Tennyson also points out, for medium volumes of passengers, that LRT can achieve greater operating cost savings, primarily though reducing labor costs by running larger vehicles, entraining vehicles, or both – something not available to buses within current technology. (The photo at right shows a 3-car San Diego Trolley train.) As a result, he noted in a 2002 analysis, "Light rail averages 175,000 annual passenger-miles per employee, but buses only 125,000."
[Photo: Transit Rider website]

The stark differential in LRT operating cost vs. that of bus is evident from published FTA data – see, for example, our analysis How Light Rail Saves Operating Cost Dollars Compared With Buses. Tennyson argues that LRT has an inherent cost efficiency compared with bus. in a 2002 analysis, responding to arguments promoting "BRT" presented by transportation consultant Sam Zimmerman, and using Zimmerman's cost data, Tennyson notes that

Light rail cars are larger than buses .... If you take a typical quoted cost of $90 per bus-hour and divide by 57 passengers, you get $1.58 as the cost per passenger [all US dollars]. At the same six square feet per passenger, light rail at $160 per car-hour will carry 120 to 135 passengers depending upon the size of the car ... so the cost per passenger is $1.19 to $1.33 per passenger using Zimmerman's data. Light rail is 16 to 25 percent less costly for operations.
[E. L. Tennyson, "Sam Zimmerman on BRT...", personal discussion paper (edited), 26 Oct. 2002]

Of course, this analysis applies primarily to peak or other heavy-volume conditions. Offpeak and less intensive weekend ridership tends to reduce the advantage of LRT's higher capacity and thus raise average costs. Nevertheless, LRT has tended to demonstrate higher offpeak ridership than bus, including "BRT" – thus the FTA data, averaging both peak and offpeak, year-round, suggest a decisive operating cost advantage for LRT.

Tennyson also argues that, when the logistical needs of "BRT" busways are accounted for – as they have been done in recent "BRT" busway projects – the unit capital cost of busways has tended to be much higher than the unit capital cost of LRT. in an analysis reported in the fall of 2003, Tennyson reports that

...exclusive busways are in no way less costly than light rail.... Boston, Los Angeles, Ottawa and Pittsburgh have about 50 [total] miles of exclusive busway. At today's updated construction cost, they average over $50 million per mile plus a million a mile or two for buses and garages. The buses only last 15 years....

Light rail for [total] 46 miles in Denver, to Portland Airport, in Salt Lake City to Sandy, and east of Saint Louis, cost only $23 million per mile including both cars and shops ([except] no shop at Portland Airport) The cars last for 35 or 40 years.
[E. L. Tennyson, "$3.3 billion Freeway proposed for Honolulu", personal discussion paper (edited), 12 Sep. 2003]


The evidence from actual operating experience seems compelling. Bus services improvements, including low-cost Quality Bus, or "BRT", are essential – but they are not "cheaper rapid transit" substitutes for LRT or other rail. in transit as elsewhere, "you get what you pay for."

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2004/01/22

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