New Generation of Bus Transit a Viable Solution to Traffic Congestion

With congestion on America’s highways increasing fast, many cities and counties are looking very seriously at the mass transit improvements to provide relief. Although successful, many of the projects, including light rail or streetcars, can be cost prohibitive, but moving commuters using conventional local bus systems is no longer adequate. Transit agencies must find viable ways to attract non-traditional riders by getting them to their destinations quicker if we hope to persuade them to leave their cars at home. Luckily, there are good solutions.

Across the country, more and more agencies are turning to bus rapid transit as a way to relieve congestion, reduce pollution and support job growth. The definition of BRT can vary depending on the objectives of a specific project. In many ways, it’s similar to rail-based commuter systems, but can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost and finished in a fraction of the time. Like rail, bus rapid transit offers more frequent and more predictable service than conventional local bus service. Routes are laid out clearly and simply, and buses can be given priority in traffic to get riders to their destination on a reliable schedule. These systems offer riders additional services that increasingly make mass transit a very good alternative for commuters, including conveniences like automatic payments; updated real-time communications about arrival and departure times; fewer overall stops but added stops at park-and-ride facilities; buses with lower floors for easier entry; and traffic signal priority to give buses an advantage over regular traffic.

HNTB Corp. has recently been involved in the planning and design of several bus rapid transit operations in a number of states, including a recent study for Miami-Dade Transit and the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization. The project involves decreasing transit times in a 15-mile corridor along US-1 from Aventura Mall to Downtown Miami. A similar project in the metropolitan Kansas City, Mo., region called MAX bus rapid transit began operating in 2011 and has been widely acclaimed by the community for providing faster, more frequent service and the latest in technology. In just the first year, ridership increased 30 percent and the system has received an unprecedented 90 percent customer satisfaction rate. Bus rapid transit also is taking shape in many other forward-thinking urban areas throughout the country.

Even in rural settings, BRT can be a congestion reliever and valuable time saver. The Roaring Forks Transportation Authority in Colorado is in the final stages of completing a BRT system along a congested 40-mile corridor between Aspen and Glenwood Springs. This new project has just nine stops along the route, and includes passenger convenience features like Wi-Fi, real-time signs showing arrival of the next bus and electronic fare collection. The program comes with a price tag of under $50 million, compared to $300 million for a light rail system. BRT projects also can be implemented in a significantly shorter time frame than a light rail project, creating a more immediate solution.

One thing has become clear about the increased traffic on our highways: America must find alternative innovations to solve our growing congestion problems. We must embrace a new generation of proven mass transit concepts aimed at attracting drivers off our highways to keep America moving smoothly. Now is the time to implement bus rapid transit and enjoy quicker commutes, the use of low-emission vehicles, off-board fare payment and real-time information.

Elizabeth “Liz” Rao serves as HNTB’s national public transit services chairperson. With more than 25 years in the transit industry, Rao has gained experience in transportation planning and program development including transit systems planning, alternatives analysis, NEPA documentation, preliminary engineering, final design and construction.

Prior to joining HNTB, Rao was assistant general manager for planning and development for the Regional Transportation District in Denver.