Bus Rapid Transit: The high-quality, lower-cost alternative

Kurt Weinrich, P.E.
Director, Pima County Department of Transportation
Tucson, Arizona
Member, APWA Transportation Committee

The population of the United States has continued steady growth and dispersal across the nation. Urbanization and suburbanization of communities that once were rural have increased both density and geographic coverage of that population. Increasing transportation congestion and delay, together with skyrocketing costs and key environmental concerns, have caused metropolitan areas to look for alternatives in meeting their local and regional mobility needs.

Congress developed a program to allocate federal transit assistance to both heavy and light rail transit projects through the New Start program initiated in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991, which was continued through passage of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). However, by 1998 the funding available for rail New Starts was only sufficient to build the first 15 to 20 projects in the planning or construction pipeline. By that time there were already over 200 communities that had completed, or were conducting, major investment studies with an eye toward entering the competition for rail New Start money. The competition has become so fierce that, in addition to all the technical and economic benefits required of a project, its measure now turns on how much below the 80% maximum federal share the amount that is actually requested by the sponsor falls to make the project attractive to Congress.

In many communities, regrettably, there is a stigma in the public image of the "bus." Whether it is the noise and smoke of diesel engines, lumbering speeds of local service routes, social class perceptions, being stuck in traffic tie-ups, or long waits between connections, many communities do not seriously consider urban transit buses as an effective tool for mobility.

Bus Rapid Transit
But, that may be changing! Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) combines the high quality and capacity delivered by rail transit with the lower cost and greater flexibility of buses. It can operate on exclusive transitways, HOV lanes, expressways, or arterial streets. A BRT system can combine intelligent transportation systems technology and traffic signal priority. Increasingly, BRT involves cleaner, more fuel-efficient, and quieter vehicles. To achieve the capacity and service performance of fixed guideway transit, BRT integrates high-commuting capacity, rapid and convenient fare collection, full accessibility, and may be tied to progressive land use policy. Compared to fixed rail systems, BRT offers unlimited route flexibility, significantly lower costs, and much shorter implementation time.

BRT offers something between bus and rail transit, but it is not yet clearly defined in the public's eye. Consequently, the process of "branding," or creating a new identity, should be a fundamental part of the development of this transportation mode in any community, right alongside the planning of service, routes, and fares, and an integral part of the design of vehicles and stations.

Bus Rapid Transit systems have been implemented successfully in a number of different forms in other nations, which can serve as encouraging examples for this country. Brazil, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, France, and Italy are just some of those lands where BRT systems have been successfully deployed.

Federal Transit Administration
By 1997 the Federal Transit Administration noted the growing interest in Bus Rapid Transit. After an initial assessment of BRT implementation in other countries, the Federal Transit Administration offered its first national support by sponsoring BRT demonstration projects in a number of communities. Much information is available about these projects, as well as BRT in general, on the FTA's website at www.fta.dot.gov/brt/.

Meanwhile, other communities, facing the same intense competition for New Start funding, have taken the initiative to explore BRT technologies on their own. One notable example of this movement is the Metropolitan Area Express, or MAX, demonstration project undertaken by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) in Las Vegas. It is perhaps one of the most ambitious Bus Rapid Transit initiatives in North America and is truly international in scope. The vehicle, CIVIS, is being manufactured in Lyon, France, by IrisBus, a Spanish-headquartered consortium, which includes Fiat, Renault, and Volvo/Ford. The first demonstration/test vehicle was delivered to Las Vegas late in 2002. Revenue service is planned to begin by the end of 2003.

Essential Elements
The following are offered as the essential elements to not only establish an efficient and effective BRT system, but also to attract the attention and support of the public and of riders. Many of the elements are aimed at "branding" the service as something that is comfortable, convenient, reliable, affordable, and above all, a premium transportation service. These are the factors that cause travelers to choose to leave their autos at home on at least some of their trips, just like on the successful rail transit systems.

  • High speed and capacity is assured by using HOV or reserved lanes, plus traffic signal priority schemes.

  • Vehicle design is perhaps the focus of "branding" BRT—sleek, modern, high capacity, short stop time, safe, and...not your ordinary bus.

  • Properly-designed stations offer an architecturally stimulating experience to both BRT passengers and others alike; they extend the "brand" icon while being context sensitive, and they provide passenger functionality.

  • Off-board fare collection minimizes delay and allows a more relaxed environment for waiting passengers.

  • Accessible low-floor vehicles aligning precisely with the station platform, like in subways, yield effortless boarding and alighting by both the disabled and the non-disabled, providing the minimum stopped time.

  • Optical guidance system for both accurate and repeatable longitudinal and lateral placement of the BRT vehicle, monitored by a qualified on-board human operator who can steer, accelerate, or brake instantaneously in the event of an unexpected intrusion into the vehicle's path.

  • Traffic system integration is essential to provide that premium, preferential level of service.

  • Flexibility in rapidly growing areas assures that existing streets are not physically disturbed and that BRT routes can be extended or relocated quickly and inexpensively.
Bus Rapid Transit offers transportation and urban planners yet one more tool with which to address the myriad of issues arising from growing traffic congestion and travel delays. BRT projects will undoubtedly become even more popular as the American public becomes acquainted with it as a cost-effective travel mode and accept its "branding" as a premium level transportation service.

Kurt Weinrich previously led the Regional Transportation Commission of Clark County, Nevada, during the time that agency initiated the planning activities for the Bus Rapid Transit project called MAX. He can be reached at (520) 740-6410 or by e-mail at kweinrich@dot.pima.gov.