Quick Note: What a Few Pictures Tell Us About BRT

The Boston BRT initiative is pushing hard for what it calls gold standard BRT in Boston, with the support of ITDP. Backed by a Barr Foundation grant, it launched a competition for pilot routes. Two years ago to the day, Ari Ofsevit already wrote a takedown of the idea of gold standard BRT in Boston, comparing the street width in Boston to the street widths in Bogota and Mexico City. In brief, most of Bogota’s BRT network runs on streets wider than 40 meters, and the rest is still 30-something; in Boston nothing is that wide except streets that have light rail in their medians like Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street, and the key corridors have segments going below 20.

In response to this problem, here is the photo Boston BRT is using to illustrate the technology:

BRT in not-Boston

I am not sure where this photo was taken. Judging by the 60 speed limit sign, it can’t be in the US. What we see in the photo is 4 travel lanes in each direction (2 car, 2 bus), a generous median for the station, generous medians on both sides of the main road, and service lanes. Paris’s 80-meter-wide Cours de Vincennes has in each direction a service lane, two parking lanes, one bus lane, and three car lanes, but no median between the two main carriageways. The depicted street has to be wider, which means it’s wider in meters than most Boston arterials are in feet. It’s very wide by the standards of Mexico City, Curitiba, and Bogota.

BRT station in not-Boston

The BRT Report for Boston depicts another picture in that flavor on PDF-p. 14. It is also painfully misleading about existing BRT lines: its blurb about Mexico City omits the fact that the city has a large, expanding subway network with almost as much ridership as New York’s, and alongside Mexico; its blurb about Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT omits all the internal problems of the line, which make Cleveland urbanists denigrate it as a poor transportation solution.

BRT is a useful tool in cities’ kit for solving transportation problems. But proponents have to be honest about the tradeoffs involves: it is cheaper than a subway but also slower, less comfortable, and more expensive to operate; and it requires difficult choices about how to allocate street space. There are many examples of BRT on streets going down to about 30 meters, and Boston BRT could have also chosen to depict even narrower streets, to be relevant to Boston. Instead, it’s engaging in subterfuge: the report is claiming that BRT is faster than light rail and implying it’s the primary transit mode in Mexico City, and by the same token, the pictures all show wide enough streets for anything.


  1. Ian Mitchell

    I can’t think of a worse city for BRT than Boston- narrow streets, high labor costs, an existing subway and ferry network, adverse weather above-surface much of the year.

    Making bus improvements is great. But the things that we keep calling “BRT” (exclusive lanes, signal priority, off-board fare payment) are what londoners refer to as “the bus”. It’s just how things should work. Take some lanes to move people above ground where moving them underground isn’t a sufficient reality yet. Don’t make people wait in line to pay.

    But this whole dog-and-pony show of branding it “BRT” is a waste of time and effort, and people see right through it.

    • snogglethorpe

      Maybe ordinary people see right through it, but many politicians seem to live in their own special dream-world….

      • newtonmarunner

        Politicians think differently. They don’t think about operating costs, how a Line Extension fits into the entire system and the vision for it, the permanence of the expansion, etc. They think in terms of a political promise and finding the requisite amount of funds. That’s how we get short-sighted transportation projects with high operating costs that that do very little rather than visionary ones that set the stage for decades.

        • Eric

          They think about how they can get their name on a piece of infrastructure, and how picture will be taken of them at the opening ceremony. Doesn’t matter how worthless the infrastructure is, or how much money was wasted on it.

    • Alon Levy

      There are a couple corridors that could use bus lanes, esp. Washington Street from Dudley to Downtown Crossing (which has a double-parking lane pretending to be a bus lane). But there’s zero need for closed BRT, i.e. what ITDP peddles.

      Moreover, every plausible route for a bus lane is also a plausible route for rail, except Mass Ave, and Mass Ave is tempting enough that I have to constantly fend off crayonistas who want to reverse-branch the Red Line.

      • anonymouse

        Mass Ave should be a surface light rail line! Reverse branching is bad, and the Mass Ave corridor may well be busy enough to support rail between all the ridership on the 1 and CT1.

  2. newtonmarunner

    I think BRT could be used (consolidating bus routes) to pave the way for LRT — e.g., Blue Hill Ave in Mattapan, Warren St. in Roxbury, Washington St. in South End, Broadway and Summer Sts. in Southie. Maybe an express dedicated bus on Summer St. stopping at South Station, BCEC, and the Airport Station. But that’s about it for Boston.

    I do struggle with the idea in some cities (e.g., Charlotte) that a bus with 5 minute headways has higher operating costs than LRT w/ 10 minute headways. Boston obviously isn’t one of those cities.

    • newtonmarunner

      ETA: On double-lane dedicated roads, I do like BRT’s resiliency (buses being able to go around a broken down bus) over that of LRT and heavy rail. But that can’t outweigh capacity issues that BRT has in high-ridership corridors compared to LRT.

      • Michael James

        newtonmarunner 2017/06/20 – 20:22

        ETA: On double-lane dedicated roads, I do like BRT’s resiliency (buses being able to go around a broken down bus) over that of LRT and heavy rail.

        Are there any BRTs with truly double lanes? Alon describes that system seen in the first pic like that, but it looks to me that it is only double lane adjacent to the bus station. Look further up the road and they merge to a single lane.
        On full metro systems, unless they are extremely decrepit, there are hardly ever break-downs. I believe the worst disruptions come from suicides at stations though in all the time (10 years) I used the Paris Metro I can’t remember this happening. It probably must have happened but I am having trouble remembering any long unscheduled interruptions to service (not counting gréves). Of course aligned platform doors now prevent that too.

  3. hU0N

    I’m no expert on BRT generally, but as I was reading your comments about BRT being slower than heavy rail, I was walking through the concourse that connects the heavy rail platforms with the BRT platforms at Southbank station in Brisbane, Australia.

    The ironic thing is, I was walking away from the heavy rail platforms and towards the BRT platforms because the BRT gets me to my destination (Buranda station if you are looking at a map) faster than the heavy rail.

    I know this is but one example among many, and granted, BRT in Brisbane is gold standard BRT (and then some probably), with full grade separation from general traffic including at intersections, 50m long level platforms at stations (to accommodate four buses at once), 80kph (50mph) operating speeds in the right of way, and limited flat crossing conflicts with other buses.

    But it does well. With the better acceleration of buses, the BRT outpaces the heavy rail closer to downtown where the close station spacing means that heavy rail rarely even gets halfway to it’s cruising speed of 80mph. And with the four bus at a time, off line platforms (which allows buses that don’t need to stop to bypass the platform entirely) stations can service a maximum of around 5 buses per minute, resulting in each line doing up to 18,000 passengers per hour per direction which is three quarters of the capacity of a heavy rail line (although this rate is only maintained for perhaps five to ten minutes at the height of peak). And of course, because it is open BRT it outperforms the heavy rail at attracting ridership to its ‘feeder’ buses.

    That’s not to say the system is perfect. It cost a fortune because it’s maybe 90% on viaduct or in tunnel. And with all those buses and drivers it is undoubtedly expensive to run. It takes up at least as much space in the right of way as heavy rail, and definitely more than light rail. It’s not perfect, but in my very limited experience, I think it’s far from clear that gold standard BRT is less good than light rail and cost no object, it can even go line ball with heavy rail if your priorities align with it’s strengths.

    • Alon Levy

      The tradeoff with Brisbane is that the buses go in a freeway. Rail is a lot better at being able to maintain decent speed while also making intermediate stops in places with extensive development. In Jarrett Walker’s typology, Brisbane’s BRT is an express bus and not a limited stop bus. (In brief: imagine a route with 20 stops, numbered 1 through 20. A bus that stops at 1, 4, 8, 12, 16, and 20 is a limited. A bus that stops at 1, 2, 3, 4, 18, 19, and 20 is an express.)

      • BDawe

        I thought Walker’s typology was the other way around, similar to the typology used on the Caltrain where expresses only make major stops and limiteds make stretches of local stops followed by only major stops

        • anonymouse

          Caltrain’s “Limited” designation doesn’t mean much other than “doesn’t make all local stops”, so there are some trains that skip a bunch of stops then run local, and other trains that skip 2-3 random intermediate stops, stopping at mostly non-express stations, and yet another category where they just skip Hayward Park, South San Francisco, Bayshore, and 22nd St.

    • kclo3

      In design, it has too many stops (avg stop spacing 0.3 km). The automated TSP installed was also turned off at the complaint of drivers, extending the projected 33min travel time to 38-40m — retroactive BRT creep. Thus, Healthline ridership ’15-’16 actually dropped right along with other buses at 8%, while rail dropped 1.8% in comparison.

  4. Benjamin Turon

    Well, the Bay State is also where they are planning “High Speed Rail” to Springfield were in that the preferred option selected by MassDOT in the “Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative” EIS has a top speed of 79-mph and with a 2:01 travel time Boston-Springfield (average speed: 48-mph) is one minute slower than the New York Central’s Budd RDC “Beeliners” in the early 1950s. Bus Rapid Transit standards like HSR gets water down in the United States. There is the “hype” of the initial proposal and then the “reality” of the finished project… assuming the project actually makes it beyond the planning stage, a big “if” in America.

    A telling example of BRT being water down is the Capital District Transit Authority’s (CDTA) “BusPlus” Route 5 line between the downtowns of Albany and Schenectady. The 15-mile route runs along the dead straight Central Ave but beyond some short special lanes (actually, I’ve never seen any evidence of those, all I see is standard turning lanes) and priority signaling at traffic lights, the buses share pavement with regular traffic. Basicly the addition fancy new buses making fewer stops at dedicated stations cutting 15 mins off travel times of slower buses, but despite the label of “BRT” it really is just an express bus. People obviously pointed this out in the press, but the politicians have stuck with the BRT label as they plan to add addition express bus routes, uh… I meant BRT routes in the region. And to the CDTA’s credit ridership on the Route 5 corridor (their busiest) did increase 14%.

    Ironically the current width of Central Ave was enabled in the 1930s by the elimination of the double-track electrified interurban line of the Schenectady Railway, with streetcars replaced by motorbuses. While the interurban ran with mix traffic within the city limits, outside they ran to the south of a then two-lane highway on a separate right-of-way. A trip between the two cities took 50 minutes, seven minutes faster than today’s CDTA BusPlus. The Capital District (Albany-Schenectady-Troy-Saratoga) once had an extensive interurban system stretching from Warrensburg north of Lake George in the Adirondacks to Hudson NY, a distance of well over 100 miles. But it all was abandon in the 1930s, the last interurban ran Saratoga Springs to Schenectady on December 7th 1941… not even the war and gasoline/tire rationing could save it for a few more years. Much of the ROW today is used by utilities and has a bike path in one segment.

    Central Avenue leaves little room for bus-only lanes

    The Transformation of Central Avenue/Route 5

    I do think for midsize cities of moderate density that the “Higher Speed Express Bus” route is the way to go even if its water down like in Albany. My one caveat is I think that “electric trolley buses” should be considered instead of fossil fuel buses which at least visually with overhead wires combined with stations would create more of a “streetcar vibe” that might attract more middle-class and out-of-town customers. In Rochester NY where there is an abandon yet still maintained interurban subway tunnel in downtown, a radiating system of electrified express bus lines could converge on downtown and run thru the tunnel system, like in Seattle. In Buffalo, NY abandon railroad ROWs could be used in some segments and the existing light-rail corridor down Main Street in downtown.

    Any upgrade of bus service should be done in tandem with changes in land-use to increasing density along the express bus corridors. This is where a “trolley bus” could be helpful since it could have a different image than existing bus service with its diesel fleet. Increase density could be accomplished by encouraging share-use parking so that the large weekday empty lots of shopping centers could support office space or hotels. And new badly needed affordable multi-unit housing should be built within walking distance of express bus stops. Concentrating senior housing along such express bus routes makes great sense too.

    If the Schenectady Railway was still in business in the 21st Century it’s very likely that like the Metro Rail in Buffalo I would use it to get to work at my job in downtown Saratoga Springs from where I live in the Village of Ballston Spa. I also would use it to go to downtown Schenectady or Albany. I like trains anyways. If I lived in Albany or Schenectady within walking distance of the BusPlus, I think I would use it to avoid the hassle of driving in traffic and parking in downtown. I did take the local bus for a few years but when I bought a car I stop riding the bus, it was too slow, infrequent, and had limited hours (no Sunday service) up here in suburbia. This has changed a bit nowadays but driving is still much faster and convenient.

    Of course, if Global Warming in the coming decades rises the seas and flood outs the great cities of the Eastern Seaboard, then perhaps we can consider the Central Ave Subway! LOL!

  5. adirondacker12800

    The trolleys thrived when nobody had automobiles. Small metro areas like Albany don’t have the population or the density to support much more than fairly frequent buses on a few routes.

    • Ian Mitchell

      Laying rail certainly seems a non-starter to me. Is there any academic discourse as to whether stringing trolley wires convinces white people to ride buses?

      • Alon Levy

        White people ride the trolleybuses in Watertown and Belmont all the time, but they also ride the diesel buses in Arlington. (Well, for the most part they drive, but the 71, 73, and 77 get nontrivial ridership, mostly white since that’s who lives in that part of the region.)

        • Benjamin Turon

          It may be kind of silly and uninformed, but do think making express buses on trunk routes look more like streetcars could create a new image that would boost ridership, including among more higher income people. This would have to be part of a strategy of encouraging transit-oriented development along the express bus corridor including offices and residential. Where I live you already see this in the downtowns of Saratoga and Schenectady, and multi-story mixed use housing is also being built in the suburbs.

          Taking a trunk route like the CDTA’s Albany-Schenectady Route 5 Central Ave BusPlus “BRT-Lite” and electrifying it while encouraging TOD along the corridor between the two downtowns would seem to be a go move towards sustainable regional development.

          I know it’s silly, but to me an electric trolley bus is basically a streetcar without tracks, and I think it would encourage more people to ride by mimicking rail with a clear route thanks to the overhead wires and stations. And perhaps even thru design, see image in website below…


          • Alon Levy

            I think there’s a strong case for bus networks going 100% trolley in cities with enough pollution. New York almost certainly counts. (Paris might, too – it’s denser, but the bus network within the city isn’t huge, since the Metro goes everywhere and its only serious lacuna is being addressed with a tram.)

            However, this is not going to turn a bus into not a bus. The development along the trolleys in Greater Cambridge (the 71 and 73) isn’t really different from that along the diesel bus (the 77). In Vancouver, TransLink runs trolleys exclusively on the local routes, so when there’s a limited overlay, it runs diesel, even though it’s way busier than the local on Broadway, 4th, and Hastings.

            The other problem is that trolleys have a tight speed limit. It doesn’t really matter for city buses, but Central Ave might be sufficiently undeveloped that diesel buses can get up to a higher speed than trolleys.

          • BDawe

            It’d be an interesting thing to calculate, but I’d reckon it’s better to electrify the frequent stop locals than the express buses, though the 99 on Broadway is the only express bus that runs completely under wire.

            There once was an express electric trolley service, the 34 Hastings Express, which is why Hastings has four pairs of wires rather than the normal two. Service ran non-stop between Downtown and Kootenay Loop, avoiding any complications from tangled trolley polls. I’m told by bus drivers that you can’t actually reach the curb from the express wires either way.

            This was cancelled in the late ’90s in favor of the diesel 135 which made express stops through East Vancouver and then served as the local bus through Burnaby

          • maxutility

            I get the visual appeal and differentiation of a trolley bus. But it seems like a big investment with large downsides considering that good quality electric drive train buses are becoming available. There’d be a lot more infrastructure to build and maintain and you get the operating limitations of trolley buses.

          • Alon Levy

            Are they really becoming available? They’re certainly being marketed aggressively, but it’s not at all clear the technology is reliable enough for deployment. The range is really not enough, despite Proterra’s claim that trolleys are obsolete technology.

          • maxutility

            Foothill Transit in the Los Angeles area has been testing them on one line for about 2? years. My understanding is that the operations have gone well, but I don’t know about long term performance and cost issues. I believe they are also testing an overhead fast charging system that can charge the batteries in 10 minutes out on the route to address the range issue. LA’s Metro is officially planning to go all electric on their fleet in the next 15 years. But I don’t think it’s clear who is going to supply the buses so it’s a bit speculative right now.

            Given what’s going on with battery development and vehicle suppliers investing into this, it seems likely there will be some good options in the near future. I wouldn’t say trolley buses are “obsolete”. But it’s a pretty big investment and commitment to routes, etc. to set up the overhead wires and acquire vehicles for that system too. I also don’t buy the argument that they have some charm factor because they’re “trolleys” that will make choice riders want to take them when they wouldn’t take a standard bus. I don’t see any evidence of their “charm” when I’ve used them in San Francisco at least.

            We’re in a tough transition point with all vehicles where it seems like battery/electric will be fully realized “soon”. I’d hate to see smart investments put off waiting for a tech that is just over the horizon. But building out a large urban network that could become difficult and costly seems like a risk too.

          • Alon Levy

            That works in a warm city like LA, but not in a cold one like Boston. Temperature changes affect battery life.

            Also, the advantage of trolleybuses over regular buses isn’t charm, it’s noise and pollution.

          • snogglethorpe

            Also, isn’t some long-term commitment to routes (and long-term thinking about them) a good thing?

            One advantage trains have is the long term development that follows the right of way and concentration around stations.

          • maxutility

            Fair point on weather. I’m not sure how much that would affect performance. I’d counter with maintenance on all those overhead wires though. One freezing rain and large sections of your trolley bus network shuts down? I thought one issue with trolleys is that there can be issues with the buses navigating around obstacles (stopped cars, accidents, etc.) I know the SF ones can swing fairly wide, but I think they’re still tied to the wires. I believe some systems are dual powered so the buses can leave the wires when needed, but that’s got to up costs, etc. as well. In a city like Boston, you’re going to have blockages, road closures, etc. etc.

            @snogglethorpe – Sure. And it’s not like any city should be changing around their routes all the time. But if you’re going to build out a network of catenary wires, there is a certain amount of extra commitment and extra cost to making any changes that “could” be problematic.

            CNG buses in Los Angeles seem to be doing a good job of reducing street level pollution at least. They are far nicer to be around than diesels. But they don’t really address CO2 issues of course.

          • adirondacker12800

            Buses are going to be the technology to replace trolleys for a century. I’m sure trolley bus operators will be willing to share their costs. Some of them are even in the U.S.

          • Bjorn

            While it’s true that battery-powered “electric” buses have a more limited range than diesel buses, the range issue shouldn’t be that much of a problem in practice. As noted previously, electric buses can recharge during routine layovers (frequent, small charges are actually better for the life of lithium-ion batteries than empty-to-full charging). Electric buses don’t have to be an all-or-nothing replacement, either. They can be assigned to shorter vehicle blocks initially while the battery capacity is limited with existing diesel buses covering longer vehicle blocks, with electric buses replacing diesel buses on longer and longer blocks when more electric buses are cycled into the fleet as the technology develops over time.

          • Bjorn

            What is likely a more significant barrier to electric buses is the cost difference in locations between diesel fuel and electric power. Electric power prices are more localized and dependent on the power mix generated in the area (ex: hydro in Cascadia is cheap, while oil in Hawaii is more expensive). Additionally, government-ran bus companies can buy untaxed diesel fuel and private bus companies can buy fuel in bulk that is taxed at a far lower rate than fuel sold to consumers.

  6. jiroyamamoto@hotmail.com

    Maxutility, Living in SF, I see the trolley busses lowering the booms and motoring around the blockages. I don’t recall how far they can motor, but it is at least 5 blocks. They have batteries.

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