ITDP: American Bus Rapid Transit Can Catch Up to the Rest of the World

In ITDP's BRT rating system, the SDX route in Las Vegas eked out a bronze-standard rating, one of only five American routes to pass the threshold of "true BRT." Image: ITDP

Attempts by U.S. cities to build Bus Rapid Transit systems tend to get stymied by a Catch-22: Most Americans have no experience riding great BRT, so mustering the political will to build full-fledged systems — and reallocate the necessary street space from cars to buses — is often fiendishly difficult. The results — incremental bus improvements sold to the public as BRT — are too watered down to showcase the full extent to which bus-based systems can attract riders and get people to switch from driving to transit.

In Boston, for instance, bus speeds for one route on the Silver Line Waterfront corridor actually decreased despite the project’s $619 million pricetag. Meanwhile, cities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa are rolling out new, high-capacity BRT systems at a rapid clip, leaving American transit networks behind.

Cities can get away with calling half-measures “BRT” in part because there are no standards in place to define what truly qualifies as BRT. If all it takes is pre-paid boarding and longer spacing between stops, then the term loses meaning. In a new report, “Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit” [PDF], the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy sets out to fill this void with BRT standards that American cities can shoot for.

ITDP is proposing a scoring system to grade bus-based transit corridors, which would work much like the LEED certification system for green buildings. The authors say their scorecard has yet to be perfected, but it already spits out results that make intuitive sense — like the fact that no U.S. city has ever built a first-rate BRT corridor. While American attempts to build bus rapid transit systems have shaved travel times and attracted new riders to transit, ITDP concludes that every single one has failed to meet the highest standards for BRT design.

“Based on what we’ve seen in our work in cities around the world, we think there’s still more that could be done,” ITDP director Walter Hook said in a statement accompanying the report. “Getting at least one truly world-class BRT system built in the U.S. could inspire cities around the country to rethink the way they use buses in the fight against increasing traffic congestion and rising fuel prices.”

More than 20 American bus projects have claimed the BRT mantle, the authors report, but only five even qualify as true Bus Rapid Transit: Cleveland’s HealthLine, Los Angeles’s Orange Line, Pittsburgh’s East Busway, Eugene’s EmX, and Las Vegas’s SDX. Those corridors all distinguished themselves by running buses in the center of the roadbed and physically separating them from regular traffic — two characteristics that factor heavily in ITDP’s 100-point scale.

Even the best American systems barely make the cut as “true BRT.” The top-rated bus line in the states, the HealthLine, scores a 63. That’s good enough for what ITDP calls the bronze-standard BRT rating, but far short of the gold-standard systems in Bogota (a 93) or Guangzhou (an 89) that use BRT infrastructure for several routes and carry tens of thousands of passengers per hour. Boston’s Silver Line and New York’s Select Bus Service, meanwhile, scored below the 50-point threshold ITDP has set for projects to qualify as BRT.

To break free from the BRT Catch-22 in the United States, some city will have to go out on a limb and build a gold-standard system that other American cities can look to as a model. With Rahm Emanuel signaling his interest in building BRT with a full complement of features, Chicago might be that city. ITDP also identifies upcoming bus projects in the Bay Area and Montgomery County, Maryland as candidates to raise the standard for American BRT. (The full report goes into tremendous detail about the hurdles that stand in the way of building these projects as robustly as possible, including antiquated engineering guidelines that prioritize traffic flow.)

Once someone decides to build world-class BRT in the United States, it shouldn’t be long until Americans see what it can do. The ability to move quickly from design to implementation is one of the chief advantages of BRT. If an ambitious new Midwestern mayor set his mind to it, the nation’s first gold-standard BRT system could be up and running by 2014.

  • I live in New York and frequently ride the SBS bus lines on the east side. I rode Bogota’s Transmilenio system two years ago and there is absolutely no comparison. On New York’s SBS, you still feel like the bus is a second-class vehicle, slowed down by double-parked cars, left-turning cars, etc. On the Transmilenio, you feel like like the cars are the second-class vehicles, stuck in traffic while the bus glides past them.

  • I disagree with their rating system.
    Take the Boston waterfront silver line and Seattle transit/bus tunnel. Those are absolutely BRT, and use BRT in the best way, that is, unlike rail it’s much easier to serve a central link with 2 minute frequencies and then have the buses break out and serve multiple routes.

    If your first reaction to a line is “it would be better as rail” then you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about, because these buses are doing things that rail simply cannot do.

    Also, why does the report mention Curitiba a dozen times but not give it a rating like the other cities…?

  • jooltman

    The service may be iffy, but this Vegas bus gets major points for style.

  • Don’t settle for Bus Rapid Transit, which seems to be the favorite of oil and automotive corporate interests! Light rail is far superior to BRT, and their comparative performance has been extensively studied. Bottom line: it is more expensive than streetcars and light rail in the long run. Here’s why:

    1. Light rail vehicles are less expensive in the long run, with useful lives of 40 to 60 years. Reconditioned LRVs from the 1950s are still running in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Where do you see a 60 year old bus in regular service?

    2. Light rail vehicles have better acceleration than buses do, and can run a route much faster than buses. This means that you need fewer LRVs and fewer drivers to cover the same route. This is a major factor. San Francisco’s MUNI says that if it raises average transit vehicle speed by just 1 mile per hour, it saves $72 million a year in operating expenses.

    3. Light rail vehicles can run in much narrower lanes than buses can, so they take up less space. This is especially important in crowded urban areas.

    4. Light rail vehicles only use energy when they are accelerating. When they decelerate, the momentum is turned back into electric energy. When they’re at rest, their motors use no energy at all. Most buses use energy continually, whether they are accelerating, decelerating, or standing still.

    5. Light rail vehicles give a smoother, bump-free ride far superior to the bouncing around bus passengers are subject to.

    6. Operating expenses for light rail vehicles are significantly less than for buses, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s 2001 National Transit Database. Boston’s light rail line had costs of $1.25 per trip vs. $2.04 for buses. If you want the figures expressed as costs per passenger mile, Boston spent $0.51 for LRVs and $0.71 for buses.

    7. In city after city (St. Louis, Denver, Phoenix, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas ……) people prefer light rail to buses. Ridership on the entire transit system increases when even a single light rail line is opened.

    8. Light rail stations often spur development around them that doesn’t happen around bus rapid transit stations.
        
    For extensive information about the benefits of light rail, go to http://www.lightrailnow.org.

  • Alon Levy

    Meh. The rubric for this study is silly. Peak-period pricing gets 2 points out of 100; to put things in perspective, off-peak frequency is 3, and having any off-peak service at all is enough to get 1.

  • Bob Davis

    Someone brought this up in a previous discussion: The difference in personnel costs between a bus (even an articulated coach) and a three-car light rail train.  This is one point that makes is hard to compare US with South American systems, where presumably, operators’ wages are much lower.
    And regarding the “stylish” Las Vegas bus: notice how it has “fender skirts”.  Are these to reduce air resistance, or cover the fact  that it has rubber tires?

  • What a misleading list.

    Lets start with 1. So if the reader cant name an old bus, then by golly, they dont exist? And suddenly old is good? Ask anyone riding the orange line in Boston how much they love their 40 year old trains! And just so you know, the Cambridge trolley buses lasted 35 years before being replaced. generally, newer = better. I see 50+ year old buses all the time in central america. I guess it’s the pinnacle of transit if old is good.

    2 is false again. ELECTRIC engines accelerate faster than diesel engines. You ever seen a freight train accelerate? Nothing to do with steel vs rubber at all. There are many diesel light rail lines in this country. There are many electric bus lines in this country.

    3. Not really. A guided bus doesnt take any more space than a rail car. And again, narrow = better? Ask the customers how much they love being squeezed in.

    4. Again, nothing to do with buses or rail, but to do with the engine.

    5. Clearly you never rode a Boeing light rail vehicle doing 55mph. It was like being at the rodeo. It seems like once again, youre taking YOUR experience to mean ALL situations.

    6. Youre comparing a lower ridership route with a higher ridership route. Of course the higher ridership ones cost less per passenger.

    7. False, in city after city people prefer transit with an exclusive right of way. Just as the LA orange line.

    8. Have you seen the rail lines in dallas? Desolate wasteland. Have you seen how development is growing above the boston silver bus line? Like weeds.

    For extensive misinformation about the benefits of light rail, go to http://www.lightrailnow.org!

  • Anonymous

    I was just in Las Vegas this week and had the opportunity to ride the RTC’s two types of buses near The Strip. Here are my impressions:
    1. The at-stop ticketing (to speed boarding) worked very well
    2. Both the UK-style double-decker and hybrid-electric diesel “stylish” articulated bus were clean, fully-functional, and welcoming.
    3. Wheelchair access was proven with at least one gentlemen in his, and had no apparent difficulty getting on or off the bus along the flat Strip.
    4. These buses were as much novelty for tourists, as important inexpensive transit for casino workers. They seemed to be crucial for lower-income younger adult tourists who wanted a night out on the town.
    5. Bus timeliness was good and frequent, despite a lack of dedicated bus lanes.
    6. Bus overcrowding was a problem at night, but bus frequency was good enough to confidentally take up the slack – and better than I was expecting from my urban bus experience.

    In short, Las Vegas has invested in an effective bus transit system for their local needs, maximizing their primary industry’s profit, and are already a good model to consider for other similar sprawl cities.

  • Anonymous

    I should add that these buses were remarkably quiet and emissions-clean. None of the deep rumble of classic diesel engines torquing up to 10mph.

  • Anonymous

    I should add that these buses were remarkably quiet and emissions-clean. None of the deep rumble of classic diesel engines torquing up to 10mph.

  • Anonymous

    This San Franciscan had to conceed that his experience on Las Vegas’s buses was *way better* than his typical MUNI experience, and for the same ticket price. Granted, MUNI probably handles more riders overall every day.

  • Anonymous

    This San Franciscan had to conceed that his experience on Las Vegas’s buses was *way better* than his typical MUNI experience, and for the same ticket price. Granted, MUNI probably handles more riders overall every day.

  • Except for one major problem: The ludicrous ticket prices. They gouge tourists, but also hurt the thousands of hotel cleaning and kitchen staff that may want to use the bus.

  • Anonymous

    @Jass – I paid $2.00 to catch the 202 from way out Flamingo to the Strip, one-way. That’s on par with SF MUNI’s single-ride fare.

    The RTC site describes cheaper fares for longer time-periods: http://www.rtcsouthernnevada.com/transit/fare_passes.cfm

    So I don’t particularly see “ludicrous ticket prices” or tourist gouging.

    If you mean the $5 for the main Strip lines, that’s on-par with what SF charges tourists to ride the cable car, so again seems fair to me.

  • The cable car is priced at $5 because tourists overcrowd it, and it’s demand control.

    Las vegas buses are actual public transit, so they should encourage ridership.

    $5 a ride, per person, each way….vs 100% free parking in the entire city. $17 a day to rent a car. A family of 4 would be foolish to ride the bus.

  • Anonymous

    @Jess – I still don’t quite see your point. To me, the ‘going rate’ for a tourist-oriented journey is $5, so LV’s “BRT” is on-par with SF’s cable-car.

    If having to deal with the throng of people to get to a “complimentary” parking spot to avoid the valet fee, and the congestion along the Strip is worth the $3 difference (ignoring the price of fuel, insurance, and possible rental premiums), that’s entirely up to that hypothetical family of 4.

    You want tourist price-gouging, look no further than the food services on LV’s Strip.

    In the meantime, the price for the rest of the RTC is cheaper, and those longer-period passes a worker might buy may cover the hybrid-electric reticulated buses too. Similarly, SF’s MUNI is a flat fee of $2.00 per ride. Again, the “going rate.”  

  • ZA_SF, most valet parking in vegas is actually free (well, tips are expected). And with 8 story parking lots (sadly, not an exaggeration), its never difficult to find a spot right by the door.  The strip is congested…but thats where the deuce and ace run! No bus lanes for them along the strip. In a private car, you can detour behind the hotels. Vegas almost seems like they make a concerted effort to screw over the pedestrian in every possible way. From the tiny sidewalks, the detours to the pedestrian bridges, and the $5 bus fares.

  • Rob

    We can catch up – all we have to do is throw ‘er in reverse and floor it. “Getting at least one truly world-class BRT system built in the U.S. could inspire cities around the country to rethink the way they use buses in the fight against increasing traffic congestion and rising fuel prices.” Just like highway engineers always believe the next add-a-lane will solve congestion, the next U.S. BRT – “gold-standard BRT” – will overcome the shortcomings of the other existing U.S. systems.

    Rethink the way they use busses? Yes, the city that pays gold for bus service will definitely be doing some rethinking. Other than throwing money away that could be better spent on a known quantity in a big rail city like Chicago, there’s a big problem with “going out on a limb” . . . care to guess what it is?

  • Rob

    Vegas SAS Global Forum 2011 attendee: “BRT in Las Vegas was slow, incredibly expensive ($5 on the strip for two hours or $7 for 24 hours), and the preemption and bus only lanes really did little to decrease the amount of time it would have taken to walk or bike that same route.”

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