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Quality Bus ("BRT") vs. Rail Transit – Fitting the Right Mode to the Application

Light Rail Now Project Team · April 2005

Particularly in the context of the ferocious campaign against rail transit waged by Highways, Inc. (the decades-old collaboration among the US highway and motor-vehicle lobbies and federal and state governments), the Light Rail Now Project has endeavored to advance a strong case for rail transit solutions to public transportation needs. But aren't there situations where bus-based transit services, such as so-called "Bus Rapid Transit" (aggressively promoted by the Federal Transit Administration, or FTA), would be the preferred choice?

Serious public transportation advocates emphasize that a multi-modal approach to transit development is the policy most likely to meet public needs – and that no one, single mode can possibly meet all needs. From its inception, the Light Rail Now Project has energetically supported such a multi-modal approach to public transport, and this definitely includes improved and innovative bus service, like Quality Bus (a more accurate and preferable term for the "fuzzy" range of higher-quality bus services commonly designated as "Bus Rapid Transit", or "BRT").

As our article "Bus Rapid Transit" or "Quality Bus"? Reality Check points out, "BRT" actually represents a repackaging of traditional limited-stop, express, and other forms of enhanced-service bus operation – deployed at least since the 1930s – which generally provide faster services beyond the level of common, stop-and-go local buses. (The photo at right shows a bus on the Hodiamont busway in St. Louis – an example of "BRT" from the 1960s.) One of the most important benefits of the "BRT" revival has been to re-focus attention on the value of these enhanced bus functions, and to promote combining them with improved rolling stock, amenities such as stop or station waiting facilities, and technological and logistical innovations such as traffic signal prioritization, queue-jumper lanes, etc.
[Photo: National Museum of Transportation, St. Louis]

Our efforts, including the Light Rail Now! (LRN!) website, have consistently emphasized the value of these transit improvements; but, unfortunately, much of our discussion of "BRT" of necessity is focused on challenging the avalanche of exaggerated and deceptive claims made by its promoters, including some within the FTA and other government agencies. The LRN! website attempts to provide a kind of "reality check" on this issue, while vigorously supporting bona fide, cost-effective improvements to the quality of bus service. Here are some examples.

In our Photo Gallery section "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT) and Quality Bus Service we point out that

"Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT) in North America seems to be applied to almost anything above basic local bus service. In Europe, what's called "BRT" in North America would equate to what is simply widespread, high-quality, attractive bus service – i.e., a "Better Bus" or Quality Bus service. These photos illustrate the wide range of these kinds of services – what innovations and improvements are possible, what kinds of benefits can be gained, and what weaknesses are encountered.

Quality Bus ("BRT") service in London, August 2003. Reserved bus lanes are a common Quality Bus feature in Europe, together with state-of-the-art rolling stock.
[Photo: Stefan Baguette]

In our article "Bus Rapid Transit" or "Quality Bus"? Reality Check we discuss this issue further:

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.
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.

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.

So, what situations are optimal for Quality Bus ("BRT") – and how do these compare with applications suitable for rail transit? it's helpful to keep in mind that rail transit consists of a fairly wide spectrum of possible options – some of them at the lower-cost end of the range, such as regional ("commuter") rail services and a variety of light rail transit (LRT) alternatives, including both modern and heritage-type streetcar modes.

In the assessment of the Light Rail Now Project, Quality Bus services are generally most relevant where capital investment is well under a threshold where some form of rail transit might be competitive, or where the bus innovation can function as a viable precursor to rail – and, in addition, where the bus infrastructure itself will not present a substantial obstacle or impediment to the installation of a rail system, if such appears feasible within a reasonable timeframe. An excellent example is the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority's MetroRapid bus system – basically, a high-quality, limited-stop bus service running on major arterials.

Los Angeles – A Metro Rapid Route 720 Wilshire Blvd. bus boards passenger at station-stop. LA's Metro Rapid system represents excellent level of bus performance offered by Quality Bus ("BRT") service.
[Photo: L. Henry]

However, with regard to high-capital-cost "BRT" investments (which typically include major sections of busway with in-line stations), our experience, based on a number of cases, suggests that, when total costs, performance, ridership attraction, and other key factors and performance characteristics are considered, rail transit (usually LRT) is almost invariably the better choice. Furthermore, a busway often tends to pose a physical impediment to LRT implementation (see, e.g., Ottawa: New light rail system recommended...But "BRT" conversion presents obstacles).

Needless to say, there will be exceptions to this and other "rules". But one of the principal aims of the Light Rail Now Project and the LRN! website is to endeavor to prompt planners, decisionmakers, and the general public to evaluate all the implications of major transit investment decisions.

It's especially prudent to keep in mind that, in these kinds of projects, public transport developers should not be just addressing current problems, but they should also be concerned with building for the future. In addition, they're usually installing a facility with an economic life perhaps in the range of 30-50 years. Within this more extensive perspective, it's critical to consider that a rail transit alternative – such as LRT – often may provide substantially greater flexibility to attract and serve potential ridership growth than does bus-based technology.

Saarbrücken transit system – LRT-Quality Bus interface. European transit agencies have an excellent reputation for deploying each mode in the application where it works best.
[Photo: Stefan Baguette]

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2005/04/30

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