Because of its flexibility, bus rapid transit (BRT) allows cities not only to deploy a system in a very short amount of time, but also minimize their project development risks and better manage their costs with an incremental deployment strategy: start small and then expand as fast as the money and politics allow.
No better example of this approach can be found than in Los Angeles. There, a relatively modest demonstration project on two heavily traveled bus routes resulted in impressive ridership net gains of more than 40 percent. So pleased with this demonstration program, which cost the agency less than $400,000 per mile, including the buses which it had planned to order anyway, the Los Angeles County Metro board voted to expand the program by 28 routes by the end of 2008.
The demonstration also gave the agency confidence in going forward with another BRT project, the $300 million Orange Line serving the San Fernando Valley in the northwest part of the county. Implemented in less than five years and opened in the fall of 2005, the 14-mile project incorporates a dedicated “rubber-tired rail line” involving state-of-the-art vehicles, as well as bike paths and lockers and its strategies for transit-oriented development (TOD). The line has steadily defied projections, attracting more than 23,000 weekday riders currently and having a measurable impact on the nearby overcrowded 101 freeway, according to a University of California study.
Now other cities are going Hollywood — when it comes to BRT, at least. Oakland, Phoenix, San Diego, Kansas City and Washington, D.C., are just a few of the U.S. communities that are adopting an incremental deployment of BRT. The typical strategy involves the launch of a modest branded arterial system just as in Los Angeles, followed by a network expansion when success of the concept has been proven, with perhaps part of the expansion involving more extensive infrastructure investments.
We will take a look at why the incremental approach helps to minimize project risks, the down sides to such an approach and implications for others planning such systems. Before this, however, we will begin where and how this idea began in the United States in Los Angeles.
How BRT Began in Los Angeles
BRT began in Los Angeles with two demonstration lines that, at $14 million in reprogrammed capital funds, were virtually no new cost to build and operate. The project started as an investigation into methods of increasing bus speeds, which had declined an average of 1 percent per year since the 1980s. In addition, a delegation of officials from Los Angeles County, including then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, visited the BRT system in Curitiba, Brazil. Riordan especially became impressed with how that city significantly changed the market share for public transportation with much less investment than a rail-based system.
These officials and Metro staff identified 12 elements of BRT’s success in Curitiba: more frequent service, priority in traffic at signalized intersections, headway-based schedules (as opposed to fixed timetables typical of bus service), simplified route structure (again like rail), fewer stops spaced about a mile apart as with light rail service, integration with other modes and types of bus service, level boarding (in South America using high platforms and standard floor buses but in Los Angeles using low-floor buses), coordinated branding that is used on both the buses as well as stations and passenger information, higher-capacity buses, exclusive rights-of-way to take them out of slower traffic flow (again like rail), prepaid fare collection and bus feeder services (common with rail systems). For this demonstration program and the BRT service in Los Angeles to date, Metro planners incorporated the first eight of these attributes.