BRT or no BRT?

On Wednesday, Jarrett Walker gave a shout-out to Metro Transit for planning an eventual system brand for its rapid transit system regardless of the technology of the line
(i.e. rail or bus).  He referenced a Star Tribune article detailing a presentation that a Met Council transportation plan gave to the Dakota County board.  I was dismayed.

My problem was not with the branding concept – if I’m getting from station to station fast and on time, I don’t care if it’s a bus or a train taking me there.

But the article focuses on the Cedar Ave BRT line that is currently under construction in Dakota County.  This line will connect to the Hiawatha Light Rail line at the Mall of America – but will the rider’s experience on the two lines be comparable?  I don’t think it will, but the difference will have very little to do with rubber vs steel.

BRT means a lot of things to a lot of people, most of which are mentioned at the Wikipedia page for BRT.  However, almost no BRT includes all of the characteristics mentioned there:

  • “Bus only, grade-separated (or at-grade exclusive) right-of-way
  • “Comprehensive coverage [I think that this is trying to distinguish it from intra-urban transit]
  • “Serves a diverse market with high-frequency all day service
  • “Bus priority
  • “Vehicles with tram-like characteristics
  • “A specific image with a brand name
  • “Off-bus fare collection
  • “Level boarding
  • “[High-Quality] Stations”

I’m not aware of a comprehensive, objective effort to define and categorize the types of BRT (except maybe this one, but sorry I don’t have time to read 800 pages right now), so I’m going to attempt to outline it here in an effort to explain why the Cedar Ave BRT will likely differ from the Hiawatha line.  There is going to be a lot of simplification here, and many lines could be classified as different types by looking at different segments.  But I think it will be useful as a framework for understanding how riders will use a line – and useful for deciding which lines to include in a system branding.

So let’s start with a basic distinction: BRT vs. busways.  Sometimes you’ll see politicians or even academics say BRT when they’re referring to a busway.  They are confusing a transit line with a transitway.  One is a means of conveyance, the other is infrastructure.

Put simply, BRT is the transit; it is what people buy a ticket it for and climb on to.  The busway is the infrastructure that BRT lines often, but not always run on.  A busway is a stretch of road that is designated primarily or exclusively for buses. There are too many types of busways to list them all:  they can be bridges, access ramps, tunnels, viaducts, etc.  As long as it’s paved and used mostly by buses, it’s a busway.  Here are examples in Minneapolis:

  • The U of M transitway is a busway because buses have the exclusive use.
  • The Nicollet Mall is a busway because buses have the primary use.
  • The Hennepin Ave bus-bike-right turn lanes are busways, but don’t functions as such due to failure of enforcement.
  • Freeway shoulders that are designated for bus use are marginally busways because buses can use them, but they exist to serve single-occupancy vehicles.

It is important to make this distinction because busways are easy to build and provide a transit advantage.  They can be as extensive as LA’s silver line, but they can be as short as a driveway:

The driveway curving around the parking lot to the Uptown Transit Center is a busway.

So don’t intimidate people by calling it BRT; it’s just transit-supportive infrastructure, like a bus stop.

BRT, on the other hand, is the line itself.  It’s what you ride, and it typically takes a lot of work to come about, but it also provides significant advantages to its riders, and is typically worth the time (and money).  However, not all BRT is created equal.  When a county commission announces a new BRT station at a freeway overpass, it doesn’t mean that you all of the sudden have a rapid transit system.  That’s because there are three types of BRT:

  • Enhanced Bus Service
  • Commuter BRT
  • Bus Rapid Transit

Sometimes called Arterial BRT, Enhanced Bus Service is just that: a city bus that has been improved to run faster, more reliably or more comfortably.   Albuquerque opened an enhanced bus service called Rapid Ride in 2004 that includes high-quality stations (including better shelters, real-time displays and recognizable architecture), wide station spacing, high frequency and high capacity vehicles.

But Enhanced Bus Service doesn’t have to be a branding technique; it can be as simple as upgrading principal stops in your transit system or spacing your stops more widely.  It is an inexpensive means of improving bus service because it doesn’t have to all be done at once.  In a sense, the recent removal of half the stops on Nicollet Mall was an implementation of Enhanced Bus Service; it certainly improved travel time through the corridor.

Commuter BRT is more typically called Freeway BRT, but because it doesn’t have to be on a freeway and because it shares characteristics with the type of bus service called Commuter Buses, I decided on Commuter BRT.  A Commuter BRT line typically has a long segment without stops where it travels on a grade-separated highway or busway through an area that is close to a CBD but served by local buses.  The classic example is Houston’s Transitways, which run on freeways and connect park-and-ride lots with ramps designated for bus and HOV use.  Interestingly, Houston’s system doesn’t have a strong brand, and is illustrated by maps for its HOV users.

The difference between Commuter BRT and commuter bus service is that BRT typically has multiple station stops before running to a CBD, while commuter bus usually runs from a single park-and-ride facility (sometimes more, but rarely more than three).  However, both share the characteristics of running primarily at peak times, and Commuter BRT should always, while commuter bus only sometimes, has high-quality stations and high-occupancy vehicles.  I would add that Commuter BRT should have ticket machines so you don’t have point-of-payment in the vehicle, but I don’t know that that’s always the case.

The most rapid transit-like type of BRT is Bus Rapid Transit.  This is the type that is associated with Curitiba, Brazil (which the Wikipedia article calls the first BRT system).  It is the least distinguishable from traditional rail rapid transit.  It is also the most rare in North America – Los Angeles opened two lines in the last decade (the Orange and the Silver) and Pittsburgh has three lines, but anything else you hear referred to as BRT in North America is one of the first two types (or a hybrid thereof; Ottowa has the most rapid-transit-like hybrid I know of).

So which type is the Cedar Ave BRT?  I’ll leave that for a later post…



2 comments on “BRT or no BRT?

  1. Adriana says:

    I thought that I would weigh in with some visuals on what full BRT looks like. IMHO it is worthwhile to let the public know what the high quality systems look like so that they can hold (transit) authorities more accountable.

    FF to 0:50

  2. Thanks Adriana. A fully enclosed waiting platform like the one in the video should be a goal of BRT infrastructure in Minneapolis – I’ve already heard complaints about how cold the 46th St station is. I wonder how platform doors work when the stations service both regular and articulated buses?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s