Whither BRT?

The Institute for Transport and Development Policy has joined Brookings in publishing a completely pointless transit system ranking, this time focusing on the quality of BRT, the mode of transit ITDP advocates.

I want to like ITDP for its BRT planning guide tome, but this BRT ranking uses random criteria, with bad weightings. Every system is ranked out of 100 points, with points divided into small criteria and subcriteria. On page 17, we see the following:

Off-vehicle fare collection 7
Multiple routes use same BRT infrastructure 4
Peak period frequency 4
Routes in top 10 demand corridors 4
Integrated fare collection with other public transport 3
Limited and local stop services 3
Off-peak frequency 3
Part of ( planned ) multi-corridor BRT network 3
Performance-based contracting for operators 3
Enforcement of right-of-way 2
Operates late nights and weekends 2
Operational control system to reduce bus bunching 2
Peak-period pricing 2

Bus lanes in central verge of the road 7
Physically-separated right-of-way 7
Intersection treatments (elimination of turns across the busway and signal priority) 4
Physically-separated passing lanes at station stops 4
Stations occupy former road/median space (not sidewalk space) 3
Stations set back from intersections (100 feet min) 3
Stations are in center and shared by both directions of service 2

Platform-level boarding 5
Buses have 3+ doors on articulated buses or 2+ very wide doors on standard buses 4
Multiple docking bays and sub-stops ( separated by at least half a bus length ) 3

Branding of vehicles and system 3
Safe, wide, weather-protected stations with artwork (>/=8 feet wide) 3
Passenger information at stops and on vehicles 2

Bicycle lanes in corridor 2
Bicycle sharing systems at BRT stations 2
Improved safe and attractive pedestrian access system and corridor environment 2
Secure bicycle parking at station stops 2

Those criteria are for the most part not bad, but they’re weighted wrong. Observe that off-peak frequency counts for only 3 points, the same as contracting out the operations. It’s actually worse: a system gets 1 point for having any off-peak frequency, even if it’s worse than 15 minutes; 15 minutes is enough for 2 points. Peak-period pricing, which is absent or all but absent from many well-run rail and bus operations around the world, gets 2 points. The core elements of BRT – level boarding, physically separated median lanes, off-board fare collection, signal preemption – have 36 points between them.

In first-world cities, BRT has two uses. One, lower-capacity, slightly lower-quality transit on corridors with less demand. Two, dedicated guideways that can branch out and make local stops in shared lanes in lower-traffic areas, on the model of Brisbane. The full-fat BRT in Guangzhou and Bogota cited by BRT proponents requires a lot of concrete and many operators, and is best-suited to a city with low labor costs.

Many of the features touted for BRT can and should be used for all buses. Off-board fare collection with proof of payment is practiced systemwide in such cities as Singapore, Paris, Berlin, Zurich, and Florence; in conjunction with multi-door boarding, this reduces bus dwell times and increases speed with zero investment in concrete. Signal priority can be practiced independently of all else. Physical separation of lanes requires barriers only a few centimeters wide, and can be done selectively on the most congested and highest-demand segments.

Buses can be great buses; they make bad trains. By all means first-world cities should increase frequency, procure better buses with low floors and more doors, make sure riders know which routes are frequent and which are not, and give buses dedicated lanes when necessary. But the focus on specially branded rail-like BRT only detracts from this goal.

In American cities, BRT is more often than not an excuse to not implement those features on local buses. In New York, not only does the MTA rule out proof-of-payment on non-SBS buses, but also backroom state legislative dealings banned bus camera enforcement of painted lanes except on a closed list of six SBS routes. All this while SBS service levels are comparable to those of local buses in Singapore and many European cities – in fact lower if those local buses have signal priority. This and not low scoring on an arbitrary rubric is what ITDP should have complained about.


  1. EngineerScotty


    One big problem with “BRT” as opposed to rail, is that many of the things needed for high-quality bus service are at the mercy of highway departments and the like (signal priority), and many of these view the movement of cars and freight as their highest priority, and are loathe to permit modifications of the street network that might in any way disadvantage cars or trucking. With rail (in the US at least), the transit authority can demand, if it likes, gated crossings and absolute priority over cross traffic, simply by virtue of being rail.

  2. Zoltán

    I agree very much that all buses should have a lot of those BRT features. Especially proof of payment and signal priority.

    It’s notable that every single city I’ve been to in Italy (I mention Italy only because it’s the most consistent country I know of on this) has had buses with at least three doors and proof of payment. They just wouldn’t think of doing it any other way. There’s something utterly ludicrous, surely, about a bus standing at a stop while one passenger unfolds a sequence of dollar bills.

    The odd think about BRT that does involve a whole lot of concrete is that having gone to all of that problem, you’ve spent similar money as rail would cost, and your operating and maintenance costs will be much higher. The one reason I see for doing that is if you need a whole lot of branching, and for whatever reason forcing interchange wouldn’t work as well.

    • Wad

      Zoltán, in essence, BRT has become the spork of public transportation.

      The spork tries in vain to do the jobs of two utensils in a single unit, but the tines are too short to be an effective fork and the bowl is the wrong shape to work effectively as a spoon.

      BRT requires the capital intensity and pre-construction study of a train, yet still ends up with the higher operating costs of a bus and higher marginal costs once capacity hits the wall.

      BRT has also been debased to the point where the service can fill in the enhancements like Mad Libs and therefore implies all enhancements are equal. L.A.’s red limited-stop buses and the Orange Line are both BRT, but they’re not equivalent.

      With that said, I hereby move to rechristen BRT as “sporkbus”. L:)

  3. BruceMcF

    I have a spork that I quite like, but its not a fast food plastic spork, its a metal camping spork that is a good spoon and a bad fork but better than no fork at all.

    One obvious application for BRT, which is a dedicated through access to get buses running mass transit connector routes though the infill development surrounding the train station. We know that the connector routes want to head at roughly right angles to the rail corridor through the infill area, and then start branching out from there, and having a high frequency route running across the rail corridor can extend the infill development by several half mile districts. But this is a CityBus+ by virtue of BRT features, not “real rapid transit”.

    Another obvious application for BRT is bringing a bundle of collector/distributor bus routes together to share a dedicated alignment shared with a streetcar. But this is also a CityBus+ by virtue of BRT features, not “real rapid transit”.

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  5. Ian Mitchell (@Iansmitchell)

    BRT can make a lot of sense where you have the option of highway driving (especially where buses are allowed to travel on the hard shoulder) and then have segregated lanes through the city itself. Building parallel rail infrastructure to highways is expensive.

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