High Status Bus Rides — Does Bus Rapid Transit Make Sense for Us?

Imagine that you wanted to invent a better public mass transit system.  Like a railroad it would run on an exclusive right-of-way, have weather-protected stations where people with already-bought tickets could wait, and multiple cars with comfortable accommodations.  Like a subway, each car would have lots of doors so that large numbers of people, standing or in wheelchairs, could quickly get on and off from a platform that is level with the doors.  Electronic signposts at every station would display the waiting time before the next pickup. Like a bus it would change its route and stopping locations as changing need requires.  It would be clean and safe and fast and high-status enough to attract both rich and poor.  It wouldn’t cost nearly as much nor take nearly as long to build as rail.  And it would work best where traffic congestion is worst.  Pretty good, right?

What you want to invent already exists.  It’s called Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT.  I’m not talking about Boston’s Silver Line – which is no more BRT than Amtrak’s Acela is a true high-speed rail line.  Both use a label that they don’t deserve to cover up their basic failures.  They are a sad reminder that the most powerful way to undermine a good idea is with a bad first example.  But true BRT already exists in a few cities in this country and many more around the world.  We in the Boston area need to erase our negative impressions, start again learning about BRT as if the state hadn’t already spoiled the concept.  In fact, there are several places in our own region that could be well served by such a system.

The most important feature of BRT is the “busway” which gives the bus uninterrupted right of way.  A busway is a separate, limited access lane for the BRT; exclusively, as was done for the MLK Busway in Pittsburgh, or shared with car pools of three or more people as with the El Monte Busway in Los Angeles.  It can be a reserved lane on an existing highway, as happens in Honolulu’s City Express, or it can be an exclusive lane on a city street with limited intersections.   The most advanced BRT systems are actually found in the developing world, with the exemplars of “full BRT” being the TransMilenio in Bogotá, Columbia and the Rede Integrada in Curitiba, Brazil.  The Curitiba system is so effective, and high status, that even though the city boasts the second-highest rate of car ownership in Brazil, 75% of the population choose to go to work by bus.

(Curitiba built its system incrementally over the past 30 years, using a careful combination of land use, zoning, and transit initiatives to concentrate housing and commercial development along desired corridors even as the population grew four-fold.)

A huge advantage that BRT has over rail-based system, in addition to enormously lower construction and maintenance costs, is flexibility.  If a feeder system of mini-vans is unavailable, the buses can veer off the busway and extend the system to nearby sites such as hospitals, schools, and elder centers.  Or a stretch of ordinary road can be upgraded to an “Enhanced Route” and used to connect two busways.  The roads along these secondary routes can be made more bus-friendly by the creation of bus turnouts, bus boarding islands, and curb realignments.

BRT systems, like rail systems, run as a limited stop express or as an every-stop local, or combine the two at different points of a single run.  To speed boarding and exiting, as well as provide wheelchair access, BRTs have several wide doors in each vehicle and either raised, door-level platforms or low, curb-level floors.  They have [KEK1] methods of pulling close enough to loading platforms that passengers in wheelchairs can simply roll on, or include quick-extending ramps under each door that cover any gaps. They also require passengers to pre-buy tickets to avoid time spent collecting onboard fares.

BRT stations protect waiting passengers from the weather and are often located in the middle of the road.  The median position makes it easy for passengers switching from one route to another or reversing direction to a local stop.  It also lowers system costs by reducing the number of required stations.  In situations where the BRT lane is carved out of an ordinary road, the median location increases traffic speed by reducing contention with turning traffic.

A good BRT system is fully integrated with other modes, with easy transfers to rail road and subway lines, secondary feeder routes covered by vans, taxi services for even broader distribution, and lots of parking facilities for bicycles.  Modern BRT systems replace the noisy, polluting gas engines historically used by buses [KEK2] with hybrid, clean diesel, CNG, or fully electric motors – sometimes using overhead wires.

Of course, BRT is not always appropriate.  If a travel corridor has exceptionally high ridership surface-based light rail might make sense in the long run even if the initial construction costs were higher.  Sometimes the road system simply can’t handle buses, and there is no alternative to an extremely expensive subway.  And if a separated busway can not be built along a major portion of a system’s routes, a more modest Enhanced Bus Service approach, running on regular city streets, might be all that is possible.

In any case, creating a BRT system requires an enormous amount of community consultation and participation.  They can not be quickly imposed from above, as was disastrously shown by the state’s effort to meet a short federal deadline by suddenly announcing it was going to create a BRT on Blue Hill Ave – a plan which turned out to be full of embarrassing flaws and wasn’t really a BRT anyway. 

But what about Route 128, sections of I-95 and I-93 and the Mass Turnpike?  The state is already spending $48.5 million to add two lanes along a five mile stretch on the southern section of Route 128.  (For some reason, MassDOT has also spent $1.3 million adding new signs to emphasize the road’s federal highway identity.)  Rather than spend the estimated billion dollars needed to expand the entire semi-circular road, why not invest much less in a BRT system that extends into the surrounding suburbs and uses the Mass Pike Extension, Rte 9, I-93, the Big Dig, and other “spokes” to speed travel into Boston?

A regional BRT project might support the efforts of towns between the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 3 to deal with 15 major new developments that will dump an estimated 100,000 additional daily trips on to I-95.  The towns are trying to create a traffic and environmental “mitigation bank” with funds provided by developers.  BRT might help.

A regional BRT would not only help suburban drivers, but also relieve traffic congestion (and air pollution) inside Boston, eliminate the need for additional parking spaces, and make it easier to justify using some road space for improved pedestrian and bicycle safety.

Another example of what could be done with BRT to serve now-difficult moves would be to imagine a single bus running from points in Newton that could get on an exclusive or queue-jumper lane on the Mass Pike and then go crosstown to Longwood or MIT.  Similar runs from Waltham origins with Longwood or MIT destinations are also possible.  I-93, both to the north and south of Boston, provide other opportunities.  And all of this might tap into certain parts of the state’s plans for an again-delayed Urban Ring bus system.

The MBTA has already committed to using federal stimulus money for up to 15 regular bus lines through its Key Busline Routes Key Routes Improvement Project.  This will utilize a few “BRT-like” elements to improve customer service.  And the idea of enhancing the 28 bus line, down Blue Hill Avenue, with additional BRT aspects deserves to be revisited and revived through a much more participatory process.

But, except for the highly visible Blue Hill Avenue possibility, these are relatively small and non-transformative steps.  A regional BRT would allow the new MassDOT to make a definitive statement about its commitment to a more innovative, cost effective, and truly multi-modal approach to transportation planning.  There might even be some federal money to pay for it.  The Federal Transportation Administration just announced it will support the construction of a 9.6 mile long busway between Hartford and New Britain, Connecticut with a $569 million grant.

One way to learn more about BRT possibilities is to explore what’s happening elsewhere.   The BRT Institute at the University of South Florida contains links to many BRT websites(http://www.nbrti.org/systems.html).  And the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP)where the former Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Penalosa, now works, recently published the BRT Planning Guide which draws from the extensive BRT design experience of Latin American transit planners. The guide is currently available in EnglishPortuguese, and Chinese, and is free for download in .PDF format from ITDP’s website.  Other information can be found at the Federal Transit Administration (http://www.fta.dot.gov/assistance/technology/research_4240.htmland Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_rapid_transit).

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