Bus rapid transit, often abbreviated as BRT, refers to a system of buses that operate more like a conventional rail system than the traditional local buses we are all accustomed to riding. Although express and limited stop bus services have been around as long as buses have existed, the combination of declining public transit dollars and an increased interest in providing better quality public transit has thrust BRT to the forefront of transit discussion throughout the world as an alternative to light rail projects.
Characteristics of BRT
A typical BRT line consists of conventional, although often articulated, transit buses stopping at much greater intervals than would be the case for local buses. Typically BRT stops are located 1/2 - 1 mile apart. Most BRT lines are branded as different from regular buses in some manner; these brands could include a unique bus design, a different color scheme, and the reference to the line by a subway-style nomenclature such as the "Red Line" instead of a traditional bus route number. Depending on the amount of money spent, BRT lines can operate in mixed traffic like other bus routes, in reserved bus lanes, or even in segregated rights of way. BRT stops can range from simple traditional bus stop signs to extensive shelters featuring real time arrival and departure times and off street ticketing machines. BRT lines usually operate very frequently compared with other bus routes operated by the transit provider; usually buses come equal to or more often than every ten minutes, although in some cities with less robust transit BRT lines operate on a fifteen minute frequency. Night and weekend service is sometimes but not always provided.
Advantages and Disadvantages of BRT
Traditionally, the main advantage of BRT, as opposed to rail, has been the lower initial cost of implementation. Buses are cheaper to buy than rail cars, and can be stored at the existing garage instead of a new facility that rail lines require. In addition, BRT does not require the laying or rail or acquisition and construction of private rights of way. Furthermore, certain elements of BRT (like fancy bus stops) can be implemented at a later date rather than be required at the start. An additional advantage not always employed is the ability for other bus routes to use the BRT infrastructure for at least part of the journey, thus greatly increasing the flexibility and reach of the BRT network.
Two frequently cited disadvantages of BRT are that it cannot attract discretionary riders and its construction will not lead to redevelopment of its service area. It is argued that discretionary riders, who own cars but may choose to take transit if it suits them, will not ride buses because of the negative connotation of the bus with the poor. Another argument is that since BRT is not permanent, unlike rail (it is easy to change the street the bus travels down but not easy to pick up and relocate rail tracks), it is unlikely to cause developers to develop around it - after all, why spend the money on building near something that enhances the value of the development when the enhancement possibly can move away?
Implementation of BRT
Many advocates of BRT cite the case of Curitiba, Brazil, who built one of the first BRT systems in the late 1970's. Amongst other things, Curitiba's BRT system features off street fare purchase and segregated lanes. Since it's construction the system has been extended numerous times.
Arguably the best example of BRT in North America is the system of transitways in Ottawa, ON. Frequent service is provided along segregated rights of way and freeways both by routes that only traverse the transitway and express routes operating from outlying suburbs to downtown. Wildly successful since its introduction in the early 1980s, the system is constrained from a short street running section in downtown Ottawa. The extremely large number of buses that operate on the transitway causes congestion along this short stretch, especially during peak periods. Due to this congestion the city is considering converting the transitway to a light rail line.
In addition to Ottawa, Los Angeles has wholeheartedly embraced the concept of BRT. Los Angeles exhibits two kinds of BRT - traditional and BRT "light". Los Angeles's traditional BRT line is the Orange Line. Opened in the mid '00's, the Orange Line operates through the San Fernando Valley from North Hollywood to Warner Center. The corridor, which was initially slated to be a rail line before intense opposition to the concept by residents along the proposed line forced its conversion to bus, features a combination of private right of way, segregated lanes on an arterial, and a short section of street running. Although the Orange Line has been a large success, further expansion is hampered by its lack of right of way segregation. For example, the signal priority it has at grade crossings will not work if the line operates more frequently than every four minutes.
Los Angeles's extensive network of "rapid" bus routes represents a BRT "light" network. The rapid routes operate in mixed traffic with stops every 1/2 - 1 mile, and have for the most part standard bus stops. As the vast majority of rapid routes (and all the most successful ones) are former limited stop routes operating along the same route, one could fairly say that the differences between the rapid routes and the old routes is merely cosmetic. After an extensive roll out of rapid routes in the past few years, Metro (Los Angeles's countywide transit service provider) has plans to scale back the service by eliminating some of the lower performing lines.
Future BRT Trends
The flexibility and low cost of BRT seems to be good fit with the vast majority of decentralized American cities who will never need the additional capacity rail can provide over buses. However, as long as politicians yearn for photo ops at newly constructed light rail lines light rail may continue to have the edge. One thing is for certain: American cities need a combination of different kinds of public transit working together to ensure a vibrant future.