BRT Update

Recent years have seen remarkable progress for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the United States. A small number of operational systems have been joined by a plethora of new projects that vary dramatically in terms of size and cost. Attracted by high potential ridership gains in exchange for relatively low capital investments, many transit agencies are now assessing which of the wide-range of BRT treatments are most suitable in meeting their service needs. It is important to understand the current status of the mode, including the achievements made to date and the major concerns and challenges that are currently being faced. This article attempts to provide such an overview, including a summary description of the mode in terms of elements, performance and benefits, a discussion of current issues under investigation, and a profile of three implemented projects that illustrate the wide range of possible BRT treatments.

Characteristics of Bus Rapid Transit in the United States

The seminal guidance documents on Bus Rapid Transit (see CBRT, 2004 and TCRP 90, 2003) define it as an integrated system of high-performance and cost-effective transit elements that are designed and implemented to best fit local conditions. The National Bus Rapid Transit Institute (NBRTI) is currently updating the "Characteristics of Bus Rapid Transit" document for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This document identifies the major elements of BRT as the following:

  1. Running ways – BRT systems can operate on a variety of running way types that range from mixed-flow arterials and freeways, dedicated arterial and shoulders lanes, exclusive at-grade busways, to fully grade-separated transitways above or below the surface.
  2. Stations – Aesthetically designed stations enhance the permanence and attractiveness of the system and station areas with passenger amenities such as shelters, benches, lighting, ticket vending machines, security features and next vehicle arrival information.
  3. Vehicles – Stylized and specialized buses provide comfort, modern design, accessibility, maintainability, good passenger circulation and environmentally friendly propulsion.
  4. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) – Applications such as transit signal priority (TSP), advanced communication systems, automated scheduling and dispatch and real-time traveler information at stations and on vehicles allow faster and more convenient trips.
  5. Fare collection – Electronic fare cards, off-board fare collection or proof-of-payment options allow for shorter dwell times and shorter overall travel times.
  6. Service and operations plan – BRT systems generally include rapid transit features like more frequent service than local bus service, all-day service spans and greater spacing between stations. The flexibility and lower-cost of BRT allow it to provide greater network coverage.
  7. Branding and marketing – Distinctive logos, colors, styling and technologies for vehicles and facilities help develop a system identity. BRT services can be marketed as a new tier of service or as part of a multi-modal rapid transit network.

The selection and integration of these elements and their implementation over the length of the alignment, and over time, is also an important consideration in BRT planning. As with any truly integrated system of elements, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

System Performance

Among the most important measures of performance for a BRT system are:

  • Increased capacity – The maximum number of passengers carried by a critical segment of the BRT system in a period of time is a function of the size and design of the vehicles, stations, running way and the level of service. For instance, the maximum number of passengers carried per hour per direction typically ranges from 10,000 on arterials to more than 30,000 on exclusive running ways, which is comparable to the capacities of some rail-based transit systems.
  • Decreased travel time – Exclusive busways have been shown to operate at an average of 30 miles per hour or more with travel time savings as high as 55 percent compared to regular bus services.
  • Increased reliability – The use of exclusive running ways, level boarding, off-board fare collection and automated vehicle location technologies allow for greater service reliability in terms of running time, dwell time and recovery.
  • Improved accessibility – The design of vehicles, stations, ITS and fare collection systems can greatly influence the accessibility of a BRT system to the mobility impaired and the general ridership as well.
  • Increased safety and security – The combination of modern technologies, facilities and personnel can improve the customer perception of safety and security and reduce the number of incidents.
  • Enhanced identity and image – The effective integration of the various elements can foster a quality image and unique identity for the BRT system as measured by public perception.

Benefits of BRT

The potential benefits of a BRT system depend on the element and performance, and can be characterized by the following measures:

  • Increased ridership – BRT systems have been shown to attract choice ridership and increase total corridor ridership. As much as one-third of BRT riders have been shown to previously use private automobiles. Corridor ridership gains of 20 to 96 percent have also been recorded.
  • Improved capital cost-effectiveness – BRT systems can use less costly or existing infrastructure compared to other rapid transit modes. BRT can also reduce fleet requirements with better vehicle utilization.
  • Improved operating cost-efficiency – Indicators of operating efficiency such as passengers per revenue hour, subsidy per passenger mile and subsidy per passenger can improve when BRT service is introduced to a corridor.
  • Improved environmental quality – By attracting choice riders and using advanced vehicles with cleaner propulsion systems and emissions controls, BRT may improve air quality, noise level and help reduce overall congestion.
  • Transit-supportive land development – Investments in BRT infrastructure and related streetscape improvements may result in positive development effects much like other high-quality transit modes.

Funding Sources

The SAFETEA-LU legislation created a new funding category within New Starts, which expands the eligibility for capital funding (specifically to include arterial-type BRT) and simplifies the evaluation process. This new category is called Small Starts and applies to projects with a total capital cost less than $250 million with a New Starts share less than $75 million.

The demand for such funds traditionally has far exceeded the supply, and even with Small Starts this will not change. Several projects have already applied to compete for a share of the limited pool of funds (up to $200 million) to be made available each year. Eligible projects must include either an exclusive running way or fixed guideway for at least 50 percent of the alignment during the peak period or contain substantial investment in specific types of project elements such as stations, signal priority, low-floor vehicles or level boarding, branding and operating service levels. The evaluation process involves an assessment of the local financial commitment and plans for capital and operating expenditures and also assesses the merits of the project itself, including cost-effectiveness, land use, economic development and reliability of forecasts. While the final details of the process are undergoing review by FTA and the industry, the proposed guidance documents on policies and procedures are available online through the USDOT docket management system, (see http://dms.dot.gov).

Federal funding is only one of a number of potential funding sources, which include state and local funds as well as joint development and public-private partnerships. Indeed, there are several examples of U.S. BRT projects that have proceeded without federal assistance. It should also be noted that the federal, state or local sources for system operating costs or subsidies are typically distinct from sources of capital assistance and agencies must carefully consider how to cover the cost of operating a new BRT service.

Congestion Mitigation and Managed Lanes

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Transportation published the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America's Transportation Network (USDOT, 2006). The document identifies traffic congestion reduction as one of the federal government's top priorities, and highlights public transit as a crucial element in achieving this goal. However, transit's usefulness as a congestion reduction tool rests on its ability to attract "choice riders" away from their cars, a task traditionally viewed as requiring some form of rail-based transit. Tailored to providing the high quality service and image characteristics that attract choice riders to rail transit, but at a more affordable cost, BRT has an important role to play in congestion mitigation.

Fiscal constraints, in addition to the high environmental and social cost of highway construction, have made it increasingly clear that addressing future traffic congestion will require more efficient use of existing road capacity. In recent years, the term "managed lanes" has emerged to describe a new generation of highway lane management techniques that combine road pricing, access control and vehicle eligibility measures in real-time to guarantee efficient, free-flowing traffic conditions throughout the day. Free access to the managed lanes, often situated in the median of an existing highway facility, is typically granted to transit vehicles and other high occupancy vehicles, while single-occupant vehicles are required to pay a toll that varies according to levels of demand. As a highway-based rapid transit mode, BRT is ideally suited to exploiting these free-flow conditions to achieve the high commercial speeds and levels of reliability more typically associated with dedicated busways, but without the large capital investments associated with such facilities. Further mobility benefits may also be realized by using the tolls collected on these "virtual exclusive busways" (Poole, 200X) to fund the BRT service. Encouraged by the success of two pioneering managed lane projects in California (I-15 near San Diego and SR-91 in Orange County), planners across the country are now exploring the potential for managed lane applications on their congested highways.

Image and Perception

It is no secret that public transportation in the United States suffers from a severe image problem. Bus service in particular is perceived by many as an inefficient social service completely at odds with the mobility, convenience and personal freedom afforded by the automobile. Though there are many dimensions to this problem, the central theme can be summarized as the perception that "only poor people ride the bus." As discussed above, choice rider attraction is crucial if BRT is to be successful in reducing congestion and addressing urban mobility problems. Transit must perform at an extremely high level if it is to even be considered by car owners as an alternative means of travel. Research has shown that high quality service must be complemented by a service image that is attractive to choice riders. The image of a BRT system can play a crucial role in dispelling the perception that public transportation is an inferior form of travel. A well-crafted BRT "brand" leverages the image of clean, modern and efficient transportation to promote BRT as an innovative new "mode." In addition to logos and design schemes, effective branding should imbue a product with personality — that extra "zing" that provides the mental basis for consumer discrimination.

BRT, like all forms of public transit, provides a service. Services, by their very nature, are intangible and consequently are often perceived as high-risk purchases (Dibb and Simkin, 1993). Thus, the development of a desirable image is extremely important for service marketing because it can provide the customer with confidence, security and a higher guarantee of consistent quality. An integrated BRT system with a quality image and unique brand identity can help potential customers get a "mental fix" on its product, convey important customer information such as routing and stations served and help infrequent customers understand how to use the system (Zimmerman and Levinson, 2004). To distinguish BRT from regular transit service, the vehicle livery and icon should be different from regular buses, but should also solidify the identity of the BRT system as a whole by complementing BRT stops, stations, terminals, signs, maps and other sources of information.

Furthermore, since BRT service consists largely of the interface between the provider and the customer, a heavy emphasis should be placed on creating a pleasant service environment and training customer contact personnel to interact well with customers.

Physical components such as vehicles and stations can impart a tangible quality to the image of BRT service, setting it apart from competitors. Sleek, rail-inspired vehicles with modern interior designs can distinguish BRT from older "shoebox" styled buses and project an upscale identity. Examples of advanced vehicle features include larger sizes for greater carrying capacity, aerodynamic designs, panoramic windows, multiple sets of doors with level boarding platforms, covered rear wheel wells, comfortable seats and roomy, open standing areas. Discussions with transit officials indicate that the overwhelming popularity of rail-like BRT vehicles plays a strong role in increasing the use of BRT services, particularly by choice riders (Federal Transit Administration, 2005). This supports the idea that vehicle design is central to conveying a service that provides the style, amenities and capacity of rail.

Clearly, BRT offers numerous different opportunities for creating a positive image. However, there is limited research knowledge regarding the impact and cost-effectiveness of BRT in terms of image improvement. Current research at NBRTI aims to (1) quantify the impact of different BRT system design elements on overall image and (2) assess the extent of the relationship between positive image and ridership gain. It is hoped that this will allow agencies considering BRT to determine how best to convey a quality image in the most cost-effective manner. In order to discern the role of image in mode-choice decisions, the research will assess differences in perceptions between BRT and other modes, particularly rail transit and the private automobile. Because the success of BRT in reducing congestion depends heavily on attracting choice riders, the NBRTI study intends to examine the image perceptions of this group to determine the extent to which image plays a role in their mode-choice decisions.

Technology *

Assist and automation technologies provide automated lateral and longitudinal control of the BRT vehicle, either to assist the driver in safely operating the vehicle or to directly control the vehicle. The different automation technologies are described below:

  • Collision Warning and Avoidance

Collision warning alerts the vehicle driver to the presence of pedestrians or other obstacles, while collision avoidance directly controls the BRT vehicle to avoid hitting these obstructions. Collision warning and avoidance technologies comprise forward, rear or side impacts, or 360-degree system integration. Driver notification devices and infrared, video or other sensors are required for both technologies, while collision avoidance requires the added provision of automated controls within the vehicle. Although collision warning systems have some limited commercial availability, collision avoidance systems are still being tested and are not yet on the market.

  • Precision Docking

Precision docking uses either magnetic or optical-based methods to assist BRT drivers in lateral and longitudinal positioning of vehicles at stops or stations. These technologies require magnets or paint markings to be installed on or in the pavement, vehicle-based sensors to detect the markings, and connections to the steering mechanism. The Civis vehicle used by the Las Vegas MAX BRT system is equipped with an optical guidance system that enables precision docking at station platforms. The availability of these systems is currently limited to international suppliers as an additional option for new vehicle purchases. Commercial availability from U.S. suppliers as an add-on option is expected in the next two to five years.

  • Vehicle Guidance

These systems use a variety of technologies to guide BRT vehicles on running ways. Also known as "lane assist technologies," automated guidance systems allow BRT vehicles to operate safely at sustained speeds on limited right-of-way. There are three primary vehicle guidance technologies: magnetic, optical and GPS (global positioning systems). As with precision docking, the magnetic and optical technologies require magnets or paint markings every few feet along the roadway, vehicle-based sensors and a steering actuator. GPS methods rely on wireless communications, highly accurate GPS-based maps, on-board software and a steering actuator to guide the bus. Magnetic, optical and GPS guidance methods are comparable in terms of cost. However, magnetic and optical systems appear to be more reliable than GPS, which is vulnerable to wireless signal failure due to uneven terrain or other natural and man-made obstructions.

Vehicle Prioritization Technologies

This class of technology enhances operational efficacy through the provision of preference or priority to the BRT vehicle. By reducing the traffic signal delay experienced by the BRT vehicle, these technologies can achieve increased operating speeds, decreased travel times and greater schedule or headway adherence. Signal retiming, synchronization, phasing and transit signal priority (TSP) help BRT systems to minimize delays caused by having to stop at controlled intersections. Access control provides BRT vehicles with unencumbered entrance to and exit from dedicated running ways and/or stations.

Ongoing research by NBRTI, the University of California PATH, and others has focused on:

  • Developing recommendations on TSP warrants and updates to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices to address traffic engineers' concerns about TSP.
  • Developing and demonstrating operational standards such as the NTCIP (National Transportation Communications for ITS Protocol) Standard 1211, adopted in December 2005, which defines a method of granting priority to one signal while maintaining coordination with adjacent intersections.
  • Assessing the applicability of intermittent bus lanes (IBL) in the United States. Developed by Prof. Jose Viegas and others at the Instituto Superior Tecnico in Lisbon, Portugal, the concept involves changing the status of a regular traffic lane to buses only when a bus is approaching. Advanced technology is required to monitor bus location in real-time, provide information to drivers via variable lane signage and lighting (Viegas et al, 2007).

Land-Use Impacts

The ability to regenerate urban corridors and stimulate economic growth is often a primary reason for proposing investments in rapid transit systems. However, the recent nature of most BRT applications in the United States limits the extent to which their long-term impact on land use can be understood, and BRT is often criticized as being inferior in this respect in comparison to other fixed-guideway modes such as heavy and light rail. Such modes are often perceived as more attractive to land developers due to the sense of permanence conveyed by the major capital investments in rail infrastructure.

Though relatively rare, initial signs of BRT's influence on land use in the United States are beginning to emerge. Boston claims that more than $650 million in development has occurred along the Silver Line corridor, while Pittsburgh has witnessed the addition of 53 new developments between 1983-1996 along the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway.

While evidence of the impact of BRT on land use is only just beginning to emerge in the United States, more significant impacts have been observed in other North American cities. More than 1 billion Canadian dollars has been spent on new construction around stations along Ottawa's BRT Transitway, including six new office buildings, a cinema and expansions of an adjacent shopping center and hospital. The regional planning department found that between 1998 and 1996, more than $600 million was spent on the construction of 3,211 residential units and 436,858 square meters of institutional and commercial buildings near Transitway stations. While important differences exist between Canada and the United States in terms of planning legislation, the Transitway remains a good example of the potential for transit-oriented development (TOD) in a North American urban context.

NBRTI is currently conducting a research study to obtain a better understanding of the relationship between land use, development and BRT. This research will focus primarily on the impact that fixed-guideway projects have on existing and future land uses and economic development. The research will include an effort to quantify the positive and negative impacts of BRT on surrounding land uses, attribute the measured impact to potential causes and compare the results to findings from other transit modes (particularly rail). Completion of the project is expected in fall 2007.

Project Profiles

The Metro Rapid – Los Angeles, CA**

The Metro Rapid is a network of arterial rapid bus routes incorporating a variety of BRT treatments and operating in mixed traffic. The Rapid began operation on the Wilshire-Whittier and Ventura Boulevards in 2000, and now a total of 28 corridors have been identified as part of the Metro Rapid Program, to be completed in 2008. Once complete, Metro Rapid will operate a network of 450 miles throughout Los Angeles County. Delays are minimized on Metro Rapid routes through the use of low-floor buses, headway-based schedules, more widely spaced stops and bus signal priority. The total capital cost of implementing the Rapid Bus on the Wilshire-Whittier and Ventura corridors (42.4 miles of service) was $8.3 million, equating to a capital cost per mile of $195,000 (Transportation Management and Design Inc. 2002). Other elements that the Metro Rapid provides include stations with real-time information, lighting and canopies. The Metro Rapid bus is painted red, and Metro Rapid stops are easily identifiable. High-capacity 60-foot articulated buses have recently been introduced on six lines.

Metro Rapid implementation has reduced passenger travel times by as much as 29 percent and ridership has increased by 40 percent in the initial two corridors (Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 2007). In addition, nearly one-third of the ridership increase is patrons that previously did not ride transit. The Metro Rapid provides evidence of what can be achieved using low-cost BRT treatments on urban arterials that are typical across the United States. Its success has led to the Metro Rapid "model" being applied in other cities, such as the San Pablo Rapid in Oakland, Calif.

EmX – Eugene, Ore.

The four-mile EmX Green Line links two of Lane Transit District's (LTD) major hubs in downtown Eugene and downtown Springfield. Approximately two-thirds of the EmX service uses exclusive lanes. Transit lanes have been constructed in concrete to differentiate these from the general traffic lanes. The route employs a combination of single and dual exclusive lanes, and vehicle entry into the exclusive right-of-way is controlled by a series of block signals approximately three city blocks long. The route was provided for a total capital cost of $24 million, equating to around $6 million per mile.

EmX service is provided by specially designed 60-foot articulated vehicles featuring multiple doors on both sides. Eight new EmX stations utilize raised platforms, display a distinctive shelter design and provide customers with real-time passenger information. Stations are located predominately in the median of the street, emphasizing the "rail-like" nature of the service.

Station platforms provide level boarding to decrease dwell time and increase accessibility. Other time-saving measures that are employed include transit signal priority and queue jump lanes. The combination of these measures is expected to save LTD 40 percent in travel time savings over the next 20 years.

Since beginning service in January 2007, ridership has increased by approximately 70 percent, with an average weekday ridership of more than 4,600 boardings. Public acceptance is also high, with a recent survey yielding an average rating of 7.4 on a 10-point scale.

A second EmX line, the Pioneer Parkway Extension, will be added in Fall 2009, providing service to a new $350 million regional medical facility and to one of the region's fastest growing business, hotel and retail centers. This linking of EmX to a major new development site demonstrates the way in which LTD intends to use the EmX service to stimulate economic development in Springfield and Eugene. City planning agencies have begun planning exercises to encourage higher density development around EmX stations and in December 2006, a 13-acre parcel adjacent to the EmX route was sold for $5.8 million. Commercial interest in the property is high, largely due to its location along the EmX route. It is hoped that more widespread economic, mobility and environmental benefits will be experienced once plans for a multi-corridor network of BRT routes around the city have been implemented.

Metro Orange Line – Los Angeles, Calif.***

In October 2005, the Metro Orange Line began service. The Orange Line is one of the first "full-service" BRT systems in the United States, featuring a dedicated busway (running on a disused rail corridor), high-capacity articulated buses, "rail-like" stations (incorporating level boarding and off-board fare payment) and headway based schedules. The 14-mile route connects the western terminus of the Red Line subway at North Hollywood with Warner Center, the third largest employment center in Los Angeles County. The total capital cost of the system was approximately $350 million, equating to $25 million per mile (Callaghan & Vincent, 2007).

Ridership projections were estimated at 5,000 to 7,500 average weekday boardings for the first year of Orange Line service and 22,000 average weekday boardings by 2020 (11). By May 2006, only seven months after opening, the Orange Line had already achieved its 2020 goal, attracting 21,828 average weekday boardings. Subsequent surveys found that 62 percent were existing transit users, and 17 percent were new riders. More than one-third of riders have a car available for their trip (Callaghan & Vincent, 2007).

A study by the California Center for Innovative Transportation (CCIT) found that the Orange Line has reduced the average time spent in traffic congestion on the parallel U.S. 101 by about 14 percent, resulting in the peak hour congestion starting about 11 minutes later in the morning. These findings are corroborated by a ridership survey, which found that 18 percent of Orange Line riders previously drove, either alone (14 percent) or in a carpool (4 percent). About 79 percent of riders who formerly drove said they had used U.S. 101 (Gomez & Benouar, 2005).

Initially, the Orange Line experienced several collisions with private vehicles, primarily due to red-light running. In response, running speeds were reduced to 10 mph and enhanced signage and warning signals were added to the route. These measures succeeded in reducing accident rates to below the average for Metro's transit services, and intended running speeds averaging 35 mph have now been restored. Another issue to have emerged, both on the Orange Line and on other BRT projects within the United States and abroad, is that of pavement durability. Unusually high summer temperatures during the initial months of operation (in excess of 100 F for a period of several weeks) resulted in the deterioration of the rubberized asphalt to the point where several sections needed to be replaced. Irrespective of whether the source of this problem lies at the design or construction stages, or with the materials themselves, it does underscore the need for additional engineering guidelines for BRT pavement design.

Despite these issues, the Orange Line is widely regarded as a great success, and a good example of the mobility benefits made possible by "full-service" BRT. In a recent study, the Orange Line was compared to two other new rapid transit modes in the Los Angeles region; the Gold Line light rail service and the Metro Rapid BRT service. The study found that the Orange Line is outperforming the Gold Line, which costs significantly more, in terms of both capital and operating costs, yet carries fewer riders. It appears that Metro Rapid may have some cost-effectiveness advantages over the Orange Line but lacks the features, such as travel time consistency and a premium transit service image, that are required to attract significant numbers of "choice riders." The Metro Board has recently approved a plan to extend the Orange Line six miles north, which would further increase ridership, and is studying the feasibility of further extensions (Callaghan & Vincent, 2007).

Concluding Remarks

This article has attempted to illustrate the significant progress that has been made in cementing the status of BRT as a viable rapid transit mode within the United States. The strength of the mode lies in its diverse range of treatments, allowing agencies to tailor their BRT system to local conditions and local budget constraints. For example, agencies with more limited budgets may consider a BRT system based on the Los Angeles Metro Rapid "model," using low-cost treatments such as traffic signal priority and queue-jump lanes to maximize commercial service speed and reliability on mixed-use urban arterials. If more substantial funds are available, agencies may want to consider implementing services on dedicated bus lanes within existing roadways, such as the EmX service in Eugene, Ore. At the upper end of the funding spectrum lie "full-service" systems based on exclusive running ways, such as the Metro Orange Line in Los Angeles. Such systems offer the greatest potential for achieving the high commercial speeds and levels of reliability required for choice rider attraction and congestion mitigation. All of these treatments are likely to benefit from the various advanced technologies that will become available in the near-term.

It seems probable that the next decade will see BRT becoming a key element in transit systems throughout the country. If current trends observed in pioneering cities like Los Angeles and Eugene continue, the next major challenge will be transitioning from individual BRT corridors into integrated networks of BRT routes. Such expansion offers urban planners the opportunity to magnify the benefits of BRT from the corridor level to the city-wide level, including area-wide improvements in mobility, congestion reduction and economic growth. Careful integration of such networks with existing bus services and other transit modes will be crucial to achieving a successful transition.

By Alasdair Cain, Georges Darido, Cheryl Thole, Jennifer Flynn, National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, Center for Urban Transportation Research, University of South Florida. The National Bus Rapid Transit Institute was created in 2001 to work in partnership with the FTA to serve the BRT community in the United States. The institute's activities are based around three core program areas: providing technical assistance and support to agencies in the U.S. considering BRT implementation, performing research to address the issues faced by the BRT industry, and maintaining an up-to-date clearinghouse of information on BRT in the U.S. and abroad.

 

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