Beyond 'Light Rail Lite'

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.

The Quickway model emerged from the specific need of different cities to meet ambitious ridership or mode share targets which were imposed on the transit system. It was initially developed in Ottawa, but two subsequent examples — the TransMilenio system in Bogota, Colombia, and the new Busway network in Brisbane, Australia — have pushed the model to demonstrate its power for achieving significant results and benefits for urban areas and transit operators.

At the heart of the Quickway model is the physical infrastructure of a Quickway. A Quickway, by definition, is a specialized bus guideway incorporating a number of essential elements.

It is fully segregated from automobile and pedestrian traffic; neither cars nor people cross its path nor do private automobiles operate along the right-of-way.

The geometries support high-speed operations between stations.

Stations are equipped with passing lanes, so that express vehicles can continue through without needing to stop.

The full segregation of a Quickway from conflicting auto or pedestrian flows is essential to achieving not just the highest reliability — crucial for retaining transit riders — but to changing, in fundamental ways, the costs of moving a passenger. The Quickway model is not a distinct mode of BRT merely because it relies on a more expensive or optimized guideway; rather, the guideway itself dictates a particular cost and service logic which favors express and branching routes and which lowers the incremental cost of adding services.

How do Quickways enable such fundamental shifts in the economics of transit operations? By their impacts on the five major factors influencing operating costs.

Travel time. Time is money for transit operators, who must pay drivers to operate vehicles. While it is common to hear of “Light Rail Lite” BRT projects cutting travel times by up to 25 percent, the elimination of grade crossings, pedestrian conflicts and even intermediate station stops allows some Quickway routes to radically cut travel times by as much as two-thirds or more, significantly reducing time-related operating costs.

Mileage. Fuel consumption, maintenance and even vehicle life are all functions of the miles a bus traverses. Quickways by themselves may shorten some routes or lengthen others, but they generally change the conditions over which most buses operate. Just as with cars, “highway miles” are cheaper than “city miles,” saving wear-and-tear on brakes, tires, transmissions and other mechanical systems, and burning less fuel per mile traveled.

Peak buses. As Quickways enable more trips to be produced for a given sized bus fleet, the productivity of that fleet is heightened, and the number of peak buses required per given service level decreases relative to other options.

Revenues. Faster services, on the whole, attract more riders. Cities with new Quickway infrastructure have all seen impressive ridership gains, and the higher the ridership, the more fare revenue generated and the greater the opportunities for leveraging that ridership (e.g., for advertising revenue or rider-related business services).

Routing. Brisbane operates an extensive network of “CityXpress” services, routes which use one of its Quickways (often in express mode) for some distance before leaving the guideway and operating along an arterial in either local or express bus mode. What Brisbane has learned is that it can double effective service not by merely doubling frequencies on these routes, but by short-lining. In doing so, the original route may stop taking on passengers at a certain point as it proceeds along the arterial to the Quickway, creating a more express ride for passengers (attracting even more riders and reducing total round-trip times). Meanwhile, the new, shorter route ensures that people living closer to the Quickway can still find seats (attracting even more riders); in effect, service is doubled, but at significantly less cost than that of just doubling service on the original route.

The double-play of lower costs and higher revenues can be used to drive a “virtuous circle” and lead to a phase-shift in the role of transit in a given area. Taken together, these changes favor the development of extensive express networks and branching services. The result? More riders have a one-seat ride for their trips (or make fewer transfers), and most riders bypass most en-route stops.

The Quickway model differs from Light Rail Lite in a number of other key factors.

Running ways. Though the Quickway model builds off of grade separation, many routes leave the guideway at some point, operating in city bus mode (as a local or express service) along arterials. By way of contrast, most Light Rail Lite implementations go to considerable efforts to maintain a dedicated BRT right-of-way or a consistency of treatments along the entire length of the route. Then, too, Quickways are rarely located within existing roadways, but may parallel them, so as to ensure adequate space for stations as well as optimum station location.

Stations. Stations are at the Quickway model’s heart. They are the customer experience focal point and the primary means of branding the service. Quickway stations are designed for higher passenger and bus volumes than equivalent Light Rail Lite stations. Grade-separated pedestrian crossings minimize potential conflicts with buses.

Vehicles. The Light Rail Lite model favors the use of specialty BRT vehicles which more closely mimic light rail vehicles in terms of design and passenger comfort. As implemented to date, the Quickway model has been based either on standard transit buses or, in the case of Bogotá, high-floor transit buses with wide, level-boarding doors, but which otherwise are standard articulated transit buses.

Intelligent transportation systems. Most implementations of Light Rail Lite depend on advanced signaling systems to give transit vehicles some measure of priority at intersections; these systems are not required for Quickways. Advanced passenger information systems may be deployed, but have not proven essential to Quickway operations. In general, the major travel time savings made possible by grade-separated Quickway infrastructure renders many technology-based BRT treatments redundant.

Fare collection. Most implementations of Light Rail Lite employ off-board fare collection as a means of minimizing vehicle dwell times: Only Bogotá among the Quickway examples relies on this technique (but in doing so more resembles heavy-rail systems by using stored-fare media and a barrier system); other Quickway cities rely on grade separation to reduce total travel time. This is slowly changing, especially where bus and passenger volumes warrant shorter dwell times.

Service patterns. Quickway-based cities use the infrastructure to create a range of services which take people directly to major employment sites, both on and off the guideway, often eliminating intervening stops and transfers in the process. The Light Rail Lite model generally produces single routes per corridor serviced, imposes additional modal transfers, requires all vehicles to stop at all stations and in a number of cases delivers people not to employment sites but to a rail station for an additional modal transfer.

Identity and branding. Quickway-based systems are more likely to brand the infrastructure (the guideways themselves and the stations that serve them) than any particular service using them. In contrast, most Light Rail Lite implementations of BRT focus on branding the vehicles and the particular routes they serve.

Strategic intent. Quickways, by changing the underlying economic performance of transit services, allow operators to significantly “ramp-up” service in order to meet ambitious mode-split or ridership targets.

International Case Studies
Three international cities represent the state of the practice in implementing the Quickway model.

Ottawa: Transitway. Ottawa, Ontario, was the first city to develop a network of grade-separated Quickways — the Transitway — which it used to operate a range of local, branching and express services. Ottawa developed its Transitway as a cost-effective means of meeting ambitious mode-split targets which were dictated by its long-range land use plan and adopted transportation policies.

Ottawa’s Transitway system has been limited by at-grade operation using bus lanes through its relatively dense downtown core, leading to congestion, travel delays and political pressures to convert its Transitway to light rail. Nonetheless, the Transitway at its busiest point matches the highest-volume light rail line in Canada or the United States and gives Ottawa the highest per-capita transit mode share by far of any midsized city in Canada or the United States.

Bogotá: TransMilenio. Bogotá’s TransMilenio planners didn’t start off with the Quickway model. Rather, they backed into it after confronting the limitations of the Light Rail Lite model to meet crushing passenger demand. Though Trans­Milenio’s busways are only partially grade-separated, grade-crossings are still relatively minimal for an urban system, and the system was designed to support both passenger and vehicle volumes normally associated with high-volume heavy rail systems.

While Bogotá’s BRT infrastructure (busways and stations) has been copied world-wide, its service plan — its real innovation — is mostly unknown. It features an extensive series of all-stops, express and “super express” routes linking different groups of stations based on actual origin-destination travel patterns. These routes, serving 114 stations along more than 50 miles of guideways, carry 1.4 million daily riders using a fleet of just more than a thousand vehicles.

Brisbane: Busways. Brisbane, Australia, represents the current state-of-the-art in implementing the Quickway model. It has been developing a system of Quickways — the Busway network — including extensive tunneling and bridging in order to maintain full grade separation, even through the busy Central Business District (the Inner Northern Busway), portions of which are essentially a downtown bus subway, opened for service this May. Brisbane also has an extensive electrified commuter rail network that behaves, in practice, like a hybrid heavy rail system. The Busway strategy has allowed Brisbane to reverse declining transit ridership and register impressive systemwide gains (close to 40 percent over the past three years). The Southeast Busway, at its busiest point, is now moving significantly more peak-hour passengers than any light rail line in North America.

Busway stations in Brisbane are architecturally significant and give the Busways their corporate identity. They integrate in many cases into surrounding land uses and can comfortably handle heavy passenger loads while providing effective protection from the elements. The extensive network of branching and express services that use the Busways create significant travel time savings for many passengers and give buses a sustainable competitive advantage over all other modes of transport for a key set of regional trips.

How do American cities stack up against these foreign examples? We looked at four domestic BRT cities, two of which followed the Light Rail Lite model, two others of which partially implemented the Quickway model.

Light Rail Lite: Eugene and Los Angeles
Eugene, Ore., and Los Angeles, Calif., are two widely cited examples of the Light Rail Lite model. In both cases, planning began and ended with this model. In the case of Eugene, that decision was consonant with projected levels of passenger demand; in the case of Los Angeles, that decision may have precluded a more effective solution in the Orange Line corridor, though it did establish the viability of BRT.

Eugene, Ore.: EmX. The Emerald Express is the new Eugene, Ore., BRT service, the first segment of which, the Green Line, opened in early 2007. EmX features specialty vehicles and a range of guideways, including an innovative “trackway” and on-street operations. Passenger acceptance has been high, with significant gains in corridor ridership, though some of this increase may be due to fare-free operation for the present.

Los Angeles: Metro Rapid and the Orange Line. Los Angeles has implemented BRT at the two poles of the Light Rail Lite model: Metro Rapid, which as “BRT Lite” improves on general purpose lane-based express bus service, and the Orange Line, a full attempt to replicate light rail service using rubber-tired vehicles. Metro Rapid relies primarily on vehicle branding, simplified route design (with widely spaced stops) and signal priority measures to reduce vehicle run times. It has been credited with measurable ridership increases in the 16 bus corridors in which it operates.

The Orange Line, in contrast, uses specialty vehicles (some of which are also used for Metro Rapid service) on a dedicated at-grade busway serving specialty stations along a 14-mile corridor. The history of that corridor was one of many failed attempts to create some form of rapid transit and much political posturing. BRT — and the Light Rail Lite model in particular — was chosen for that corridor out of political expediency: the desire to “get something built” within a given pot of money. It has proven highly successful at attracting riders, greatly exceeding projections, but as a result is also running into capacity and operational limitations which have planners scrambling for solutions.

Beyond Light Rail Lite: Pittsburgh and Miami
Pittsburgh and Miami each partially incorporate elements of the Quickway model, and both have demonstrated the power of those elements to attract riders and reduce operating costs.

Pittsburgh: Busways. Pittsburgh is by far the American city that comes closest to the Quickway model in terms of its physical infrastructure and service plan. Its three Busways are largely grade-separated (but are crossed by pedestrians) and support a range of services, and have proven highly cost-effective compared to other transit services (including its light rail system). The lack of infrastructure in the downtown, as in Ottawa, has limited the effectiveness of its Quickways, though (as an example, it can take a bus as long to make a relatively short loop downtown as it does to then run the entire length of the MLK East Busway), and Busway stations are not nearly to the standard established by Brisbane, creating both operational issues and lowered perceptions of the system.

Miami-Dade: South Miami-Dade Bus­way. The South Miami-Dade Busway is an at-grade guideway that connects far suburbs to the terminus of Miami’s single heavy rail line. Even with these limitations, it supports a range of services that more closely resembles the Quickway model, and has attracted healthy ridership in a cost-effective manner (though with noted operational issues). Its success begs the question of how well an improved infrastructure could attract additional ridership (and provide even greater operational cost benefits).

Can a full implementation of the Quickway model work in an American city? One nonprofit transit advocacy group, Move San Diego Inc., sponsored a feasibility study of a Quickway-based plan for San Diego, the preliminary findings for which are encouraging. The FAST Plan built off the experience of Brisbane, and the capital and operations analysis demonstrated that an intelligently planned Quickway system could be built in San Diego within existing capital resources, attract large numbers of new transit riders, and perform with greater cost-efficiency than existing services.

What can we learn from international experience with the Quickway model?

The role of passenger demand. Quickway infrastructure is expensive. It can only be justified if sufficient passenger demand can be generated. In many cases, this demand is generated off-corridor, and is captured through careful service planning. As Brisbane demonstrates, the Quickway model can push transit over a “tipping point” in which passenger demand rises significantly not just for Quickway-based services, but for all transit services.

The role of existing services. The Quickway model has proven especially useful for transit agencies that already operate a variety of express services. In all cases, it implies network-level analysis, not merely the kind of corridor-level analysis typical to the Light Rail Lite model, and implies a greater degree of service redesign if all of the benefits of the infrastructure are to be realized.

The role of strategy. In contrast to the Light Rail Lite model — which is a service strategy — the Quickway model is an infrastructure strategy. The idea is to create an infrastructure that can then support the organic and evolving deployment of a range of transit services, all while conferring the benefits of fixed infrastructure. Quickway infrastructure also is inherently scalable, meaning that it has impressive capacity to absorb future demand. In contrast, most Light Rail Lite implementations have limited scalability; if ridership grows too much, then operations are compromised and service begins to break down.

The role of targets. In every case, cities that adopted the Quickway model did so as a strategic response to their need to achieve ambitious ridership or mode share targets. In contrast, targets as such are generally not a major factor in much traditional transit planning.

The role of branding. The Quickway model tends to put more emphasis on branding of the infrastructure than of vehicles, and in the best practices example treats stations as the primary means of creating a “rapid transit” corporate identity, raising the profile of the system significantly.

The role of example. Most cities learn from other cities when attempting to implement a new transit mode. The importance of the experience of cities such as Brisbane is therefore crucial, as is knowledge of the elements that contribute to the success of that model.

The match between models and urban form. When is the Quickway model most appropriate for a city? In general, it emerges from a network-level, not corridor-level, analysis, taking into account factors as diverse as corridor types and locations, residential and employment densities and the location of demand, dispersion of origins, conditions along potential Quickway corridors, total demand (including potential demand for express services), passenger volumes and overall transit network design. Corridor-level alternatives analyses make the most sense when a Quickway alternative has already been identified at the network level.

Recommendations for Practice
BRT is a relatively new mode in the United States. It has come to mean many different things to different people, ranging from an enhanced express bus service to a cheaper alternative to light rail; for some, all it means is a fancier bus. However, as understanding grows of the different modes of BRT, the more transit planners and funding agencies will be able to take advantage of the benefits Quickways can deliver.

Quickway planning in the United States can be abetted by a number of concrete steps. Corridor-level planning, taken alone, tends to favor the Light Rail Lite model, but encouragement and support for network-level planning and projects — including the consideration of network-level effects and operating cost benefits in project ranking — could identify major Quickway opportunities. Even as policy and funding mechanisms catch up with the emerging understanding of new BRT modes, growing metro areas looking to achieve ambitious mode share targets might wish to begin undertaking initial network feasibility studies.

For transit funding agencies, interest in the Quickway model should be driven by that model’s demonstrated ability to cost-effectively attract and carry massive ridership. The development of appropriate physical and service standards would help produce those results.

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and transit agencies interested in exploring the Quickway model should pay special attention to Brisbane’s example. Brisbane developed ridership targets based on its land use goals, then configured infrastructure and services to meet these goals. High-level and ongoing market research can help zero-in on those aspects of service most likely to attract and retain new transit riders.

Planning and engineering firms — who perform the bulk of the alternatives development and analytical work in this country — can and should become more familiar with the Quickway model as a means of helping regions meet their long-range goals.

Quickways are not merely a graduated step-up in BRT-supportive infrastructure; they imply their own logic on system design and operations and make possible services that otherwise would not be cost-justifiable. They mesh well with other modes and create far more useful transit networks, extending systemwide benefits beyond individual corridors. They can create economies of scale for transit operations, virtuous circles that can support wider-reaching mobility goals, economic development, and sustainable urban form. They should be treated as a distinct mode, particularly for network and corridor-level planning, and one with great potential for helping American cities achieve phase shifts in the role that transit plays in their daily lives and long-range growth.

Alasdair Cain is a senior research associate at the National BRT Institute, housed at the Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida, in Tampa.

Alan Hoffman is the founding principal of The Mission Group, a transportation and land use planning firm that specializes in working with agencies to develop effective and far-reaching long-range market-focused network strategies and plans.

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