Metro Local Bus by So Cal Metro
Metro Local Bus by So Cal Metro

What has signal priority, some exclusive ROW, real-time arrival information, next-stop message board, and significant stops?

Answer after the jump

Scania Bus by So Cal Metro
Scania Bus by So Cal Metro

Route 59, 44, 40, etc. in Stockholm and other similar buses in cities across Europe. They are the lowly city bus, the runt of the transit family to be nice. A good number of the buses on these routes are over 10 years and feel homely at best, with perennially fogged up windows and tired looking seats. Not flashy or aerodynamic looking.

In other words, they are in no way BRT, yet they have most of the characteristics associated with BRT in America. And this is the failure and promise that American BRT holds. It falls far short of it’s high-capacity South American predecessors and high-quality international peers, while for the first time giving transit agencies the ability to justify treating buses as, dare I say it, special. It doesn’t hurt that there is lots of federal money supporting it either.

To Americans BRT seams like something special only because we treat normal buses so horribly in the first place.

And this is the irony of the whole situation. In one breath transit advocates have to push back against those that see BRT as a way to undermine rail based transit, while at the same time push transit agencies and city DOTs to take steps to improve the quality of existing bus transit. And then there is the name: Bus Rapid Transit. Such a misnomer. Should we call all other transit Bus Slow Transit or Train Medium Transit? What is slow or rapid anyways? It’s a subjective question without established benchmarks. Just look at the definition of BRT as defined by TCRP Report 90:

While a precise definition of BRT is elusive, it is generally understood to include bus services that are, at a minimum, faster than traditional “local bus” service and that, at a maximum, include grade separated bus operations. The essential features of BRT systems are some form of bus priority, faster passenger boarding, faster fare collection, and a system image that is uniquely identifiable.

That sounds pretty open ended, not to mention that very few BRT systems actually have all of those characteristics. Names like Trunk Bus, Core Route, Bus with High Level of Service (BHLS), or even maybe BRT-Lite are more appropriate for most systems. In my mind Swift is BRT, Rapidride is something else.

With ST2 the region finally decided that we will have a rail transit backbone; but BRT or rail transit isn’t a binary question, and it shouldn’t be. BRT in America isn’t some panacea but it is a path towards higher quality bus service. So in the end what really matters is building a higher quality transit system, one which utilizes each transit mode in a context sensitive manner.

51 Replies to “BRT and the Lowly City Bus”

  1. BRT is such a vague term. It’s difficult to accurately define, and based on several metrics, one could argue that we already have, and have had, BRT here since ’96 with several of the ST routes. While it’s true that 550 and 554 are the only routes with semi-exclusive transit ways (Downtown to Rainier Valley), many of the other routes have designated lanes (bus only lanes downtown and HOV lanes) with their associated direct access freeway ramps. I’ve always thought that a key element to improve the system would be to create flyer stops at freeway interchanges. Given that most park and rides exist adjacent to a major freeway exit, this would seem to make sense. Say you live in near Brikyard P&R and work in Seattle, I believe if you need to get back to the Brickyard P&R during non peak hours, your only direct choice is 255 which can be agonizingly slow through kirkland. You could also take 550 to Bellevue and then 532/535 which is express but would certainly take a while. If an “interchange flyer stop” was constructed at 405/520, you could take a 545 bus and transfer at the station to a 535/532 bus any time. Just a thought.

    1. Hey, don’t forget the mother of all American BRT, the DSTT! If that thing’s not grade-separated, I don’t know what is… it’s just that the routes lose their BRT status pretty quick when they leave the tunnel.

  2. Good observations, but keep in mind that American transit agencies typically have a lot of budget constraints. It costs money to figure out which stops to eliminate, upgrade coaches, etc. Over the last decade or so there have been a lot of improvements with express buses and certain local routes.

      1. Yeah, but having taken a number of mostly-empty buses in Stockholm suburbs last year (without having had to wait long, I might add), I’m willing to believe Sweden, or at least greater Stockholm, sees transit as a higher priority than most of the US does.

      2. Yes but efficient operations of transit service can save BIG money over the long run. That is actually one of the major benefits of BRT. Because buses are moving faster along the corridor you can provide more service at the same cost or the same service at lower costs.

  3. I agree that much of the movement to re-brand some city bus routes as “enhanced” is really not BRT but more of a attempt to establish a decent core network of service throughout the city. Service at least every 15 min, better signage, and priority lanes in choke points could be called BTDNS “bus that does not suck.” Designating and expanding these types of routes to cover as many neighborhoods as possible should be a priority in Seattle and elsewhere.

    1. Preferably w/ off-board payment and enclosed driver’s areas – while it is lovely that our drivers give out lots of mostly correct information, it slows the bus waaaay down unnecessarily. Since even luddites have cell phones today, the transit info numbers/websites can be posted at each stop with the advisory that drivers are unable to dispense information as their job is to drive the bus safely and efficiently.

      1. While I agree in theory, I will forever be in debt to that nameless bus driver that took pity on a bunch of privates, first day out of Basic Training, that not only took the time to explain how Seattle was layed out, but took himself out of ‘Out of Service’ to drive us to the Kings Inn, then explain where those of us with no civilian clothes could go buy some. Wouldn’t even take our money. One cool dude. :D

  4. Is there somewhere we can see the exact list of features for RapidRide? I’m unclear on how it’s compromising vs. higher quality bus services.

      1. Hey Jim thanks for that link. There is a nice Word document that talks about the BRT running ways.

  5. Lots of good comments here. Seems to me that the various road agencies could take on some of the needed improvements like signal priority and improved bus stops, rather than leave it all to the transit agencies.

    While it’s hard for some of the roads people to grasp, the entire street network really does benefit from a well-functioning transit system.

    And isn’t the very terminology, Bus Rapid Transit, an invention of anti-rail folks to help sell it as the cost-effective equivalent to rail transit? That history doesn’t make it a bad idea in and of itself, however. There are corridors like Aurora Ave. that don’t have large activity centers along their spine, and they are probably good candidates for BRT (or whatever we really should be calling it…)

  6. It would appear that Americans look down upon bus services so much that planners are forced to dress them up as train services in order to attract new customers. PR and marketing types have discovered a niche with this new-fangled ‘BRT’. The real question is how effective are branded BRT services at attracting people from their cars and shaping land use patterns? Are people attracted to these services by perceived or actual benefits and improvements over ‘regular’ services? Maybe it is worth the extra expense of the sexy buses and flashy branding if people who otherwise wouldn’t take ‘regular’ buses are attracted to the service.

    1. I think if the same improvements were offered up by non-branded buses, riders might take a smidgen longer to discover them but the end result would be the same. The better you make the service the more people will ride it; labels and marketing hype won’t make that much difference over time. In fact, I’d like for Metro (and other local transit agencies) embark on a 12-year program to upgrade ALL their routes with signal priority, off-bus ticketing (simple now with ORCA) and so forth.

      1. Marketing attracts riders
        Service distinction helps riders understand the systems
        Quality service keep riders

      2. Exactly. So improving the quality of existing services without the other two elements you identify runs the risk of retaining existing riders without attracting enough new riders to justify, in the eyes of the public and law-makers, the cost of the enhancements.

        It may also be difficult to communicate the benefits of things like signal priority to a car-driving public that has been subjected to countless hours of marketing by auto-manufacturers. Existing habits, perceptions and prejudices are hard to break, particularly in adults.

        So these new branded ‘BRT’-type services may be helpful in getting people to look past their existing prejudices in relation to public bus transportation. However, as you say, they will only keep using the service if it continues to meet their quality expectations.

        I’m not sure if there’s been any research into this, but these branded BRT-like services could be more effective at directing development effort towards transit-oriented development than enhanced existing services are.

      3. “I’m not sure if there’s been any research into this, but these branded BRT-like services could be more effective at directing development effort towards transit-oriented development than enhanced existing services are.”

        Check the BRT documents Adam Parast posted a couple of weeks ago. There’s definitely discussion of BRT and TOD in there.

  7. BRT reminds me of what Churchill said about destroyers back in 1914- that if you keep making the ‘next’ destroyer a little larger, you end up with a ship that’s as large as a cruiser, takes as many men to sail, but has none of the capabilities of the cruiser.

    These days, every discussion of BRT starts with a ritual obeisance that of course, it’s not rail transit. Then the adding-on starts, with suggestions for dedicated lanes, special offramps, better stations, larger buses, and so forth, until you find, if you add it all up, that you’re spending as much as you would for rail but not getting the performance.

    And no pinball table ever got tilted like these discussions. Adam, for example, refers to “high capacity South American predecessors” when what he means is articulated buses carrying 300 passengers in full SRO crush loading, running bumper-to-bumper (and spewing pollution) in a corridor where rail should have been (and now will be) built. That “high capacity predecessor” was perhaps the most uncomfortable transit since British passengers road in open gondolas, and failed in a corridor where there was never any shortage of passengers.

    What they’re doing in Europe is not BRT, but just common sense- giving priority on city streets to the public investment in a public good. We could, and should, do that here, not with the goal of avoiding investment in rail transit, but with the goal of making bus service good where buses are appropriate.

    For a number of different reasons people seem desperate today to have flashy buses that will “attract” riders. The real changes, however, will happen as people move closer to their work and closer to reliable transit. If a lot of people move close to the BRT line and then the line becomes too expensive to operate, we haven’t solved anything. And the longer we go without realizing how much peak oil and AGW are going to cost us, the worse that problem becomes.

    1. If a lot of people move close to the BRT line and then the line becomes too expensive to operate, we haven’t solved anything – do you have any examples of this actually happening?

      Regarding South America, I suspect they would have gone with rail in the first place if they could have afforded it. They went with BRT, the mobility of thousands of people was improved significantly without sending the state broke, and now they are adding more capacity using rail. Where is the failure in that?

      1. First of all, all bus routes are too expensive to operate even when they’re full. In some countries labor is so cheap that this problem is mitigated a little. But it’s a very real problem that there simply is no break-even point for buses.

        Secondly, yes, Curitabo is an illustration of this problem. They intended to build a rail transit system, but the IMF/World Bank blackmailed them into using buses by threatening to pull other loans that were outstanding in Brazil. Now the busways run bumper-to-bumper in rush hour, losing money and polluting the city. Of course, in that example the ridership was there from the beginning, rather than moving to the line, but the principle is the same- you lose money carrying bus passengers, and the more passengers you carry, the more money you lose.

        And, BTW, Brazil did go broke following the advice of the IMF/World Bank and paying the interest on projects the IMF insisted on that never worked out as well as they were supposed to. Maybe if they had ignored the IMF and built the rail lines they already had the ridership for they would have lost less money.

      2. I doubt Brazil would have taken money from the IMF if they had any other choice, especially with the heavy-handed restrictions.

        Not sure about about the IMF forcing Curitabo to choose buses. I thought Curitabo chose buses itself as a cost-cutting measure (i.e., the upfront capital costs). Can anyone else confirm this comment about the IMF?

        And what was the IMF’s motivation? Blindly looking at upfront costs? Controlled by rabid bus enthusiasts? Ties to the oil companies?

      3. To put the best face on it, the IMF/World Bank believed that the best road to development was, in fact, a road. They believed that railways were too expensive for developing countries and that developing countries should build roads for trucks and buses and cars.

        A slightly more jaundiced view notes that railways in developing countries are either imperialistic, that is to say, funded by outside investors and built to serve the interests of the outside investors rather than the interests of the country, or socialistic, that is to say, owned and built by the government to serve the nation.

        This can be easy to see on a map, where most of the ‘imperialist’ railways run from a mine to a port, for example, but there is no lateral line that runs the length of the country (and often no coordination between the small lines running from producer to export shipping).

        Well, actually, you just need to know more about how the IMF/World Bank acted, and how that played out with the dictators we supported in South America in the 70s and 80s, the debt load of the developing nations, and the eventual bankruptcy of the nations and refutation of their outstanding IMF/World Bank obligations. Too many moving parts here for me to put it together for you here.

        But basically the answer is yes, the IMF was idealogically opposed to government-owned railroad systems (and eventually, in their final insanity, even opposed to government-owned water systems), and when the city of Curitabo planned to build a rail transit line the IMF said if they did that, the IMF would pull other loans outstanding in Brazil and destroy the Brazilian economy

  8. Being a middle-class person, I won’t ride a bus no matter how gussied up it is to look like a train. And I certainly won’t ride Metro buses with their current environments.
    I *will* ride a train, however.

    1. Okay, I feel like a total chump for not knowing, but for some reason I am completely incapable of figuring out if this comment is sarcastic or not…

  9. Bus services in most European countries, esp. Scandinavia, Germany and Benelux, are much higher quality than most North American buses, and we ought to support bus improvements here. But all too often BRT is used as an alternative to investment in rail, and in fact it is used to reduce transit investment in total. If it were called quality bus and positioned as improvements to buses, rather than alternatives to rail, it would be more honest and easier to support.

  10. One thing that i liked about the buses i rode in switzerland, was the stops were farther apart than US stops. Infact, most even had names for being little more than a pole in ground in spots. The buses ran fairly frequently, but the overall journey was short and the wide spacing of the stops not only made them more productive, but helped expedite service.

    If its not one thing the US could learn is if we started to respace stops the service would get inhearantly faster and more productive and friendly. Also nearly all the buses i rode had an AVL/AVA system installed in them, many with LCD screens showing the buses relation to upcoming/passed stops and some even showed advertisements/information on the screens as well.

    1. How far apart are the stops.

      I rode buses in Duesseldorf and suburbs in 1998. The stops did have names, which seemed kind of pretentious. The stops were wider than Metro’s every other block, but may not be that different than Metro’s new standard. The driver did not seem to collect fares. I had a weekly pass so I didn’t have to deal with daily fares. My friend who was living there (but not German) insisted we get on and off at the back door. I assumed it was to avoid giving the driver an opportunity to scrutinize us about our fares, but other people used the front door too so I’m not sure. The buses ran on regular streets and the Autobahn. The streets were widely spaced and not congested, but I assume that was that particular suburb and not a transit-mitigation measure.

      At first I was turned off by the 1950s suburban newness of everything. Then I realized Duesseldorf had been leveled in the war and had to rebuild from scratch, and naturally followed the contemporary style of the time. This is not to say there were single-family houses everywhere because Germany isn’t like that. Our apartment was a block from the Duesseldorf bus and a ten-minute walk from the cross-suburb and airport bus. Bus service was every half hour, and it took half an hour to get to the suburban center or S-bahn station. Good by US standards but I’d want a better location if I lived there. Those lucky enough to live near an S-bahn station had 24 hour service that was faster than the bus.

      I was amused that there was nobody doing 130 mph on the Autobahn. It was congested at rush hour just like in the US, so the fastest people could go was 40 or so. There were no HOV lanes in that area so the bus went in regular traffic. There was an S-bahn station along the way (3 stops from downtown), but it was on the Duesseldorf side of the freeway so we couldn’t avoid the freeway. The train and bus both left Duesseldorf at the same time from adjacent stations, but the train got to the station several minutes before the bus, so I prefered to take the train three stops and transfer. My friend prefered to take the bus all the way, which I found boring.

  11. In San Francisco, every Muni bus stop with a shelter (but strangely not every Muni train stop with a shelter) has realtime, and the buses all have automated stop announcement and everything. However, Muni buses also have hard plastic seats and many buses stop in the middle of the street so you have to squeeze between parked cars to get to the bus… so there’s tradeoffs. If only we could have the perfect system…

  12. Am I the only one who thinks the whole idea of a “Business Access/Transit Lane” makes as much sense as a “Driveway/Express Track Lane?” If the idea is to keep transit moving fast and smooth, how can you put it in the same lane with cars and trucks which by definition are either decelerating or accelerating from a stop? A streamlined bus with traffic in the way is still slow.

    1. Nope you aren’t the only on. The reason they have it is because it is the cheapest and easiest option, not because it provides the best service.

  13. I am not sure that the general populace in the USA would accept riding on the crush loads of a South American BRT system, and yet it is precisely that which the asphalt-heads wrapped themselves in back in the mid-1990’s.

    We need qulaity bus service, frequent, with no need for a schedule (though I want one published so I can plan my connections). In other words, we need (your favorite European City here) -like service of the 1970’s

    But remember always: BUSES GET STUCK IN TRAFFIC!

    (And they are bumpy-at least the orange-colored 8th Grade Hungarian Shop project pictured above sure is. Makes me long for the Bredas Tunnel Busses-and that takes a lot!!)

  14. As Erik shouts, buses get stuck in traffic, and as SCO hints, when peak oil arrives, how silly will we look having put busloads of our “scarce” resources into diesel powered buses instead of electrically powered rail transit?

    1. Buses can run on electric motors. If the decades old peak oil crises occurs there’s no reason rail has an inherent advantage over buses. In fact, the exact opposite. A crises is a sudden change and you can’t adapt to that with long term capital intensive rail transit.

      1. Come on Bernie. Steel on steel rail is substantially less energy intensive per passenger mile than rubber-tired buses. Further electricity can be generated in a dozen ways, including hydro, wind, solar, coal, nuclear – as well as from carbon fuels like oil, gas and ethanol, which are the only ones that can be transported efficiently on a bus

      2. Steel on steel rail is substantially less energy intensive per passenger mile than rubber-tired buses.

        And maglev is more effient than steel on steel but doesn’t make rail obsolete. Rail is more cost effective per passenger mile only if the demand exceeds the threshold of what can be provide by a bus. It’s more expensive to build and more expensive per hour to operate than a bus. Rail has it’s place, buses will always have far more places.

      3. Always is a very strong statement. Buses will only rule as long as most of the population either lives in rural areas or sprawl badlands. There will always be rural areas, but as the age of cheap petroleum comes to end so will the reign of sprawl.

      4. Buses don’t even work in rural areas or “sprawl badlands”. As long as we have cities we’ll have city buses. London has a great rail system but it’s still chock full of buses. And there will be cities too small for rail but large enough for some type of transit. Oil is cheap and it’s not unlimited but there’s no reason to think buses won’t continue to run on alternate fuels and/or electricity (they used to get pulled by horses). I don’t think bio-diesel is a great idea but Brazil has shown alcohol is very viable. A micro turbine can run on alcohol and drive a generator resulting in staggering efficiency and virtually no emissions since the CO2 gets recaptured in the next crop used to produce the alcohol. We’re not watching TV in the dark because we ran out of cheap whale oil.

      5. The only way you run electric buses is with overhead wire, and that’s a long-term capital investment.

        You have to put the steel in the roadway to support the weight of the buses and you have to hang wire to make them electric. You might as well use the steel in the form of rails and get the advantages of rail transit.

        And, wake up and smell the coffee, Bernie. The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones and the oil age won’t end because we run out of oil. But rising world demand makes $200/bbl oil almost a certainty within five years. There’s nothing “sudden” about this change- everyone in the industry knows we’re in peak oil already. The “sudden” part is when you try to make in a few years the changes you should have made in the previous decades.

        Most of us learned in college that you can’t get good grades by only studying the night before the final. Well, guess what, real life is like that too.

      6. Wired vehicles of any sort are more environmental than self-powered vehicles, because there are more ways to generate renewable electricity for them. Perhaps someday there will be batteries that aren’t heavy and aren’t metal-intensive to produce, or solar panels on the top of buses. But for now the best bet for mass transit is wired vehicles.

      7. Wired is great and an ETB doesn’t have to be continually tied to the wire. Super capacitors or limited range battery packs can extend their reach and overcome the “bunching” phenomenon. I don’t know how much further battery technology will take us but it’s already feasible to use plug-in hybrids or all electric for a range that covers the majority of trips. There’s also hybrid technology that can be a big improvement over conventional diesel and gasoline engines. The only thing keeping them from widespread use is cheap oil.

      8. How about we design a bus where instead of a PugetPass you buy a battery pack, and you put it in its place when you get on the bus. Your employer subsidy is the electricity you charge it with during the workday. If a route doesn’t have enough ridership to get enough battery packs from passengers, Metro cuts it.

  15. Have you ever read Vukan Vuchic’s most recent book, “Urban Transit Systems and Technology”? The folks on this blog would like him, he’s pro-LRT. Though I don’t always agree with him, he makes some excellent points about these so-called BRT projects (that are merely improved bus service) degrading the name of BRT. Basically, if folks see something like RapidRide called BRT and it doesn’t improve bus service much, then they balk when Metro wants to put in real BRT.

    I would love to write more about BRT on this blog when I have time one day. There are some definate misconceptions going on here already. Unless you’ve been to someplace like Ottawa, you haven’t seen the power of BRT. Buses do not get stuck in traffic if they truly have exclusive right-of-way. The argument should never be LRT versus BRT overall. It is a decision transit planners should make between all possible transit modes specific to the corridor at hand.

    BRT works best when you build an exclusive transit corridor into a city and allow it to enter the downtown keeping that priority (such as in the bus tunnel here). However, unlike LRT, you can save construction money by only building the exclusive corridor where the congestion exists. Once the buses reach the edge of congestion, they can travel on any roadway and no rails need to be built. It is perfect for communities that value a single seat ride into downtown (AKA I hate to transfer). LRT can only provide a single seat ride for people who live within a mile of the station. In a place like Seattle, a mile from the station covers a pretty big portion of the population. Outside Seattle or in cities like LA or Houston, it doesn’t cover much.

    1. I used one of his books for my public transit class. It’s actually kind of funny because my professor is pretty involved in BRT so we would always quote parts of the book to our professor and he would get a laugh out of it.

    2. Ottawa’s converting to LRT because:
      (1) In Ottawa they failed to build busways in the congested downtown, building them only in the less-congested outside-downtown area;
      (2) When they finally realized they needed an express route through downtown, it turned out to be a lot cheaper to build a train tunnel than a bus tunnel.

      Bleh. There really are very few good examples of BRT being worth it. Try Adelaide — where the only reason BRT seems to be worth it is that it can share the roadway over a single bridge and its approaches.

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