Why BRT Is NOT A Subway Line

The foundation for a healthy transportation system is a great public transit network.  But public transportation is expensive, so might buses do the job? 

What makes for a good Rapid Transit system?   The basic characteristics are pretty straightforward:

  • A dedicated travel corridor reserved for the transit vehicles, with minimal stops (except at designated passenger pick up/drop off locations), and engineered for a smooth and safe ride at relatively good speeds.
  • The ability to provide limited stop express service as well as local service.
  • Prepayment and vehicle door-level boarding at transit stations so passengers can quickly move on and off the vehicles.
  • Capacity to move large numbers of people.
  • Extended hours of operation across a wide area.

And the best systems also incorporate:

  • Advanced technology to keep passengers informed of wait times or problems, to keep the vehicles moving closely but not dangerously behind each other, and to allow for tight alignment of vehicle doorways with boarding areas.
  • Hybrid or electric engines to minimize pollution.
  • Regular maintenance to sustain reliability and keep fares low.

The problem is that fixed rail systems – trains, trolleys, subways, and light rail – are incredibly expensive to build, and once constructed they are forever frozen in one location.

So creative people around the world have been experimenting with buses.  They’ve discovered that it is possible, through new construction or redesign of existing roads, to create Bus Rapid Transit using special bus lanes and bus stations that use exclusive right-of-way or by-pass lanes combined with traffic signal prioritization and other technologies to gain most of the benefits of Rapid Transit at a fraction of the cost.

In fact, in some ways, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is better than rail.  It has greater flexibility and can zip out of its regular corridor, using regular roads, to service a high proportion of the city and the population.   Or it can tie into the regular bus system — which often needs significant upgrading itself — to create a city-wdie, pay-once-go-anywhere, feeder system.

When LivableStreets Alliance brought Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, to speak in Boston in 2008, he said that the most important place to use car lanes for BRT was exactly where traffic was most congested.  Since building more car lanes will only attract more cars, recreating the congestion, we have to find ways to encourage people to leave their car behind and take the BRT instead – which is easier to do the worse the congestion becomes!

Of course, now that BRT has become a sexy idea in the transportation world, a lot of bus projects are getting promoted as BRT even though they lack some – or most – of the BRT criteria.  Boston’s own Silver Line is a case in point.  It isn’t even an excellent bus line, much less rapid transit.  To be sure, building an inner-city BRT system is a huge challenge, requiring lots of creative design, an extended period of community discussions, and the willingness to take risks.  It also probably requires creating a system that is a combination of true BRT and occasional sections of regular bus service in areas where BRT is simply impossible.

But there are areas where BRT seems like an obvious solution.  Instead of spending hundreds of millions adding more lanes to Rte 128 (I-95), what if a much lower-cost BRT system was implemented that extended out into local towns and corporate campuses as well as into (and out of) Boston on the Mass Pike, Rte. I-93, and Rte. 2?  The original plans for Rte. 128 included a mass transit line running along the median and bicycle and hiking paths along the sides.  As usual, these facilities were dropped during the car-dominant era we are now leaving behind.  But maybe their time has finally arrived.

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