Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has become, in the space of less than a decade, a fixed and growing part of the American transit landscape. However, in too many American metro areas, BRT is still seen as the “consolation prize,” if that, in the intense competition of local cities and neighborhoods to be the focus of the next light rail line or other transit improvement. Likewise, some of the support — perhaps too much of the support — for BRT comes from those who view BRT as “light rail on the cheap,” as a means to placate transit advocates without spending too much money.
In contrast, those international cities with the most impressive BRT results — measured in terms of ridership gains or modal split — did not view BRT as an “on-the-cheap” approach to service, nor was their goal that of mimicking a light or heavy rail plan. Rather, these cities invested heavily in the development of a mostly grade-separated infrastructure that could support a range of services, some resembling light rail, others express, limited-stop, branching, direct or even streetcar routes in terms of station spacing, frequencies, travel speed and route behavior.
Federal Transit Administration sponsored a recent study, published by the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, which compared these international examples with current BRT practice in the United States. This report — Advanced Network Planning for Bus Rapid Transit — focuses on what it was these foreign cities did that make their experience of BRT not merely different from that of most American cities, but arguably superior to anything yet attempted in this country. Along the way, these cities put to rest many misconceptions of BRT.
That it is an “intermediate capacity” mode (all three cities routinely move as many or more people than any light rail line in the United States).
That it is a stepping stone to light rail (some BRT systems clearly are, but the international examples go beyond the limitations of light rail in significant ways).
That its capacity to promote, attract or support transit-oriented development (TOD) is limited (all of these cities have impressive and growing amounts of investment made around BRT stations).
That bus-based systems are limited in their ability to attract choice riders from their cars (it turns out that many people value significant time savings and convenience more than they value vehicle type).
What did these cities do that was different? In the United States, planning for BRT is dominated by the “Light Rail Lite” (or “Rail Emulation”) model, in which a bus route is configured much like a traditional light rail line: a single “BRT” route serves each corridor, enjoying at least some measure of transit priority (ranging from signal priority systems and queue-jumping lanes in mixed-traffic environments up to fully dedicated busways), stopping at widely spaced stops or stations, and using distinct branding for the service thus provided. It has been widely embraced because it permits cities to offer a service level which emulates that of light rail, but at reduced capital investment.
The international cities followed a different model. They focused on the creation of grade-separated bus guideways, or “Quickways,” that support not just a “light rail-like” service, but a variety of express and branching services that extend the benefits of the infrastructure far beyond the guideway itself.
The Quickway model is not merely an incremental step on the continuum of BRT, but represents a distinct mode of BRT, much in the same way that streetcar and heavy rail are two distinct modes of rail transit. The Quickway model imposes its own planning, cost and operating logic, leading to fundamentally different transit networks than does the more traditional Light Rail Lite model.
The Quickway model has not yet been fully exploited in the United States, but as lessons are learned from global practice, it has the potential to help American cities achieve major “phase shifts” in the role that transit plays in those cities.