Back to BRT

I haven’t delivered on my promise to follow up my earlier BRT post with an analysis of the Cedar BRT line, but I have a good excuse.  In the interim I came across Jarrett Walker’s treatment of BRT classification, and I wanted to take some time to read it and think about it.

Walker is a good writer with a real talent for concise explanations that get to the heart of a matter, but in this case he doesn’t really organize well.  Unlike his classic Be on the Way, which presents his concept plainly and sequentially, he takes 4 posts to explain BRT, often repeats himself and frames it as a response towards his perception of antipathy towards BRT by American transit nerds.

But I think I can summarize his points, apply them to my earlier definition, and get you home in time for dinner.

Before getting into Jarrett’s classifications of BRT, I think it is useful to look at his definitions of stopping patterns (from this post, which he puts after the BRT classifications):

  • Local means stopping frequently all along the line.  Locals are designed on the principle that if you’re on the line, you should be very close to a stop.  Local stops are usually no more than 1/4 mile (400m) apart, and often much less…
  • Limited or Rapid means stopping at a regular but widely-spaced pattern.  The spacing is usually at least every 1/2 mile (800m) or sometimes wider, but the point is that the spacing is fairly regular along the line…
  • Express, in these terms, really means “serving a very long nonstop segment.”  The classic express bus may run local or limited-stop for a while, but then it has a long segment, perhaps on a freeway, where it doesn’t stop at all…

Any BRT line can have any of these stop patterns for segments of its route, but it really should run Limited or Rapid for most of its length to be called BRT.  If it runs express or local for most of its duration, then there is not enough there to distinguish it from everyday bus operations.  Certainly local and express buses can take advantage of certain characteristics of BRT, for example high-quality stations or bus priority, but it would be confusing to riders to call it BRT, because there wouldn’t be the coverage of rapid transit (in the former case) or the speed (in the latter).

Jarrett’s classifications (from this post) are him in his shining form – slicing through obfuscations to distill the subject to its essence.  In this case he also gives examples, which I will refrain from truncating:

  • Exclusive and grade separated like Brisbane.  (Harbor Transitway, though the aesthetic standard is far below Brisbane’s)
  • Exclusive but at-grade with signals.  (Orange Line)
  • Non-exclusive, at-grade, in traffic, but with wide stop spacing and signal priority (Metro Rapid)

Ultimately they are not that different from mine:  His first and second categories correspond with my Bus Rapid Transit category, and his third category corresponds with my Arterial BRT category.  He leaves out the Commuter BRT type, which can be just an upgrade of commuter bus facilities, but can be more, for example in Houston where they run in traffic with non-exclusive lanes, but have exclusive, grade separated facilities when they stop at park-and-rides.

The difference, I think, is that I was looking more at the purpose of the facility, whereas he was looking at the physical categories.  And that is something I could have emphasized more:

  • Arterial BRT is meant to upgrade local bus service so it covers an extensive area at higher speeds
  • Commuter BRT is meant to serve a high-density job center at peak periods
  • Bus Rapid Transit is meant to serve a wide variety of trips (i.e. for employment and personal uses) in areas with a high rate of transit usage

Jarrett doesn’t go into the distinction between busways and BRT – he seems to take it as a given that his audience knows that a busway is what BRT runs on.  He implicitly makes this distinction when he restates his classifications in another post:

  • Fully grade-separated busways, with no intersections.
  • At-grade exclusive busways with signalized intersections with cross-streets.
  • Buses in mixed traffic, with signal priority and wide stop spacing.

By creating a third type of BRT that doesn’t utilize a busway, he is differentiating between the type of transit service and the infrastructure it runs on.  He does something similar in this post, which details a great method for determining which type of BRT a particular service is.

Jarrett Walker’s posts also bring up the term “Quickway,” which is a way of describing a “fully grade-separated busways, with no intersections.”  He credits Alan Hoffman for coining the word, but he doesn’t like it because it “feels like a marketing word.”  I concur with Jarrett, because the word merely conjures association and doesn’t really describe what Bus Rapid Transit does.  But my phrase is also bad, because the other types of BRT are still Bus Rapid Transit, as Jarrett explains:

sometimes “rapid transit” is provided by buses, and if we can’t call this “Bus Rapid Transit,” I’m not sure we can talk clearly about it.

Maybe we can’t talk clearly about it regardless; maybe each author, in each essay, will have to define exactly what he or she means by “Bus Rapid Transit.”  I’ve tried to do that here, but I think I’ve failed to coin a term for the fully grade-separated type that is meant to serve a wide variety of trips.  All I can do is keep brainstorming and maybe the right word will come to mind.

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