BUS SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT IS KEY TO TRANSIT: Local, Improved, Express, and Bus Rapid Transit

Potentially as fast and as scheduled as rail and subways, but costing a fraction as much to construct, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is one of the hot topics in transportation planning these days.  Even MassDOT is looking into it.


Full or Maximum BRT is like a railroad, but without tracks or trains.  The vehicles are air conditioned, the seats comfortable.  BRT buses run within their own corridor, unencumbered by car congestion, able to achieve speeds comparable to (and sometimes faster than) light rail trolleys.   Passengers prepay, wait in comfortable stations, and quickly board from accessible car-level platforms.   There is room for Express lines to pass “local” stops which are, themselves, spaced further apart than typical bus stops, speeding the trip.  Advanced Information Technology (IT) is used to track vehicle location, inform passengers, and facilitate fare collection, administration, and public accountability.

Exemplary BRT systems, such as those in Bogota Columbia and Ottawa, Canada, were all specially built on new right-of-way corridors.  In other cities, such as Los Angeles, BRT systems were carved out of existing roadways.  In every case, the BRT systems were given special branding using intensive PR campaigns to distinguish them from the low-status regular bus system.  Like rail, BRT triggers and channelizes economic growth along the transit corridor, encouraging business development around its stops and raising property values – an effect that can be a powerful tool for city planning, as Cleveland is now demonstrating in its medical district transit.

Massachusetts’ first attempt to set up a BRT service, the Silver Line, is now generally recognized (even by MassDOT) as falling much short of Full BRT.  The second attempt, a last-minute proposal to install BRT on Blue Hill Avenue, got killed by community fury at having the project announced without previous local involvement in the planning process.  Despite the potential benefits the project would bring to adjoining low-income neighborhoods, community distrust of MassDOT was too strong for the proposal’s shortcomings to be resolved in the limited time available for the particular funding source.

Nothing discredits an idea like a terrible first experience. But BRT is too good an idea to die.  MassDOT is now exploring ways to improve and expand the Silver Line from South Station to Chelsea and working with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) to identify other promising corridors.

Expanding and upgrading our fixed rail system (passenger trains, trolleys, and freight) is still an essential foundation for future economic growth – not to mention preventing highway gridlock from getting even worse, improving air and water quality, providing a supportive backbone for smart growth, and making active transportation an easier choice.  But fixed rail is expensive to build and, by definition, fixed in place – as is Full BRT.

We should push for BRT.  But we need to welcome BRT projects which take advantage of bus flexibility by allowing the vehicles to spend some time acting like more a regular bus service to do what fixed systems can’t.  Even more, we also need to push for improvements in the rest of the regular bus system that will pay off in both increased usage and lower operating costs, while reducing some of the lingering inequities of our transportation system.  For example, despite its BRT shortcomings, T records show that the Silver Line surface segment carries more passengers than any other bus line, has a better on time performance, and costs less per rider.

Of course, today, in Massachusetts, unless the state Legislature quickly approves substantial new revenues within the next 8 weeks, instead of exploring BRT options the MBTA will be forced to begin over $100 million worth of devastating fare increases and service cutbacks.  And next year it will have to do it again, while the Regional Transportation Authorities outside the Metropolitan area continue being unable to provide even basic service to their patrons.  Political commentators are now saying that unless members of the public soon start telling their Representatives to say “yes” to new revenue the state’s new 10-year transportation plan, The Way Forward, is dead.  Isn’t it time that we started making our transportation system better instead of fighting to merely keep it alive?

     Full BRT can be created in new corridors or by re-assigning existing road space.  In Massachusetts, full-fledged BRT might be built instead of railroad on the South Coast Rail Corridor from Boston to New Bedford or along the northern half of the long-delayed Urban Ring route from Logan Airport to Medford and back to Kendall Square.  (However, a variety of factors have led both MassDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to favor rail over BRT for the South Coast service, and the Urban Ring is not part of the state’s recently announced 10 year Transportation Plan.)  Using space on existing highways for BRT might be feasible on the Interstates as well as on sections of several state highways.

In either case, building a BRT line can costs much less than fixed rail or trolley – although the long-term operational cost differential may not as large – mostly because BRT  generally only requires an incremental expansion of existing infrastructure.  However, BRT systems tend to carry fewer passengers than rail, at least partly because of its lower status and comfort despite its train-like attributes.   In addition, BRT vehicles tend to be smaller than regular rail, reducing economies of scale for labor practices.

Like trains, BRT routes have to be serviced by “last mile” feeders that gather and distribute passengers to the widespread residences and employment centers that aren’t within walking distance of the station — an added expense and complexity that provides the rationale for providing Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) incentives to encourage adjacent activity.  Employers who choose to locate further away might be willing (or required) to pay for feed buses, shuttles or taxi services (and perhaps shared-bicycle stations as well).  Or else private firms could be encouraged to fill this “tip of trip” gap.  No matter who pays, in a maximal BRT the feeder systems would be integrated, using IT, with the larger system’s schedule and automated fare collection system.

(The MBTA already works with, and somewhat subsidizes, private firms through the HI-RIDE Commuter Bus service, but they are not always fully coordinated with the overall system, consistently listed in MBTA materials, or integrated into the Charlie Card payment system.  In both the suburbs and the city, it would probably be beneficial for public transit to be complemented by much more robust non-profit and for-profit shuttle, taxi, and other local services, as is now being explored for South Boston.)

     If planners are willing to forgo the purity of Full BRT, it is also possible to take advantage of the flexibility of a bus by creating “hybrid” or “BRT-light” systems that combine many of the components of full BRT with short stretches of regular bus service.  For example, a BRT running around I-95 might detour off the highway to a local Industrial Park or transfer center.

In that vein, the MBTA’s “inner” and “outer” Express Bus lines, the 500-numbered routes which speed travel times by having fewer stops, could be upgraded with BRT-like elements as well as using IT to more fully synchronize their fares and schedule with the rest of the transit system.  The best of them already use some hybrid elements.  For example, a number of bus lines go non-stop from South Station and Copley via I-90 to Newton Corner from which they fan out into the neighborhoods.  Both the MBTA region and the areas served by the Regional Transportation Authorities (RTAs) would be well served if more Express lines were created.

     As important as both commuter rail and Bus Rapid Transit will be for the accomplishment of MassDOT’s goal of tripling the amount of transit travel over the next 18 years, it will not be enough.  (MassDOT also seeks to triple the amount of bicycling and pedestrian travel.)  A large amount of the increased transit use will have to occur within cities.  And here, BRT is a more problematic strategy.

It is possible that BRT-like facilities could be carved out of a few long inner-city corridors such as Blue Hill Avenue, Morrissey Blvd, McGrath Highway, and some of the Parkways.  But it will take some creative design to fit the concept into these non-highway contexts.  To avoid creating an incentive for additional car traffic, the state will need to reserve existing traffic lanes for buses (or buses-and-bikes), at least during rush hours. To be effective, this will require physical separators, even if just removable rubber posts, to keep cars from using the lane as now happens on the Washington Street section of the Silver Line.   It will also take some serious work with community leaders who tend to believe that BRT is an insultingly inferior option to light rail, if not a discriminatory mistreatment of their often lower-income and/or non-white neighborhoods – which is what doomed the last BRT effort.

But beyond those larger roads, BRT is simply too big an idea to shove into the existing right-of-way.  The MBTA has a policy commitment to provide transit service — primarily meaning bus service — within a ¼ mile walking distance for all areas with population densities greater than 5,000 inhabitants per square mile. Most of those areas are in neighborhoods with narrow, congested roads and frequent intersections.  BRT won’t work.  And a too narrow focus on creating “true” BRT will shift attention from needed improvements on these lines, especially in previously underserved areas.

     This doesn’t mean that some of the insights and components of Bus Rapid Transit aren’t useful in regular service.  Improved boarding and exiting facilities, better shelters, more use of IT for administrative efficiency and passenger convenience, giving traffic light priority to buses,  creating physically separate bus (or bus-and-bike) lanes during rush hours and  que-jumping lanes so Express buses can pass locals (or avoid some intersection car congestion) — all these are elements of an upgraded transit service.

Back in 2006 the MBTA designated its 15 heaviest-used bus lines as “Key Routes” for improvement.  Three years later, after the financial crash, $10 million of federal stimulus funds (officially called ARRA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) paid for a more intensive set of one-time upgrades — planning was completed in 2012 and work starts this coming spring of 2013.  (The Key Routes include Routes 1, 15, 22, 23, 28, 32, 39, 57, 66, 71, 73, 77, 111, 116, and 117.)  The work includessome combination of curb extensions, better shelters and benches, accessibility enhancements, bus stop consolidation, and (most importantly) some traffic signal prioritization and “jump lanes” that allow buses to pass each other and/or cars.

Other efforts to improve non-BRT bus service, in conjunction with Boston’s Transportation Department, includes exploring the possibility of giving buses traffic light priority on Blue Hill Avenue, along the Silver Line, and on several Key Routes.  But real questions remain – are there more low-hanging, low-cost things that can be done?  Are the proposed changes aggressive enough?  It’s clear that, from the perspective of bus riders, more needs to be done.


We have become so accustomed to the dominance of cars and roads that we forget how thickly covered with trolley and rail systems our region used to be. Nearly every big street in eastern Massachusetts once had an electric trolley!  As for railroads, Massachusetts had one of the densest webs of tracks of any part of the nation.  The good news is that a huge number of those old “right of way” corridors still exist — providing a feasible and relatively lower-cost method of expanding our transit system.  (Take a look at the maps collected by the Transit Rights-of-Way project!)
MassDOT’s The Way Forward transportation plan will not fully realize the potential of these vestigial resources.  80% of the funds will be used to simply keep our current system sustainably operational.  We are not yet at the point where decision-makers are willing to significantly redistribute road space in order to optimize public transportation.   But it’s a beginning.  And it’s better to be fighting over how to best improve the system than how to dismantle it.


Thanks to Doug Tillberg (www.TransitBoston.com) and David Luberoff for their comments on earlier versions – any remaining errors in facts or analysis are my own responsibility.


Related Previous Postings:

> GOVERNOR PATRICK’S FY2014 BUDGET PROPOSAL: A Promising Start To Future Improvement

>  HIGH STATUS BUS RIDES — Does Bus Rapid Transit Make Sense for Us?

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