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.