New Evidence That Bus Rapid Transit Done Right Spurs Development

More American cities are considering bus rapid transit, or BRT, as a cost-effective method to expand and improve transit. One of the knocks against BRT, as opposed to rail, is that it supposedly doesn’t affect development patterns. But a new study [PDF] by Arthur C. Nelson of the University of Arizona and released by Transportation for America finds that BRT lines can indeed shape real estate and attract jobs — if the projects are done right.

Bus rapid transit can spur private investment in cities, but it needs to have features that help make it "fixed," like dedicated lanes and level boarding platforms. Image: University of Arizona
BRT can spur walkable development and job growth in cities, but it needs to be designed to a high standard with features like dedicated bus lanes and level boarding platforms. Photo: National Institute for Transportation and Communities

Nelson examined real estate investment, commercial rents, and multi-family housing development around BRT routes during the early 2000s and the first half of this decade. He found that in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and other cities with high-quality BRT lines, real estate near the routes tends to be valued at a premium and is capturing an increasing share of development.

For example, in downtown Cleveland, offices within a quarter-mile of the Healthline BRT rent at prices 18 percent higher than downtown office space outside walking distance of the line. In Eugene, Oregon, the premium is 12 percent.

Proximity to BRT lines appears to be growing more appealing over time. Between 2000 and 2007, Census tracts within a quarter mile of BRT routes captured about 11 percent of total office space development in the regions the authors studied. From 2007 to 2015, that share grew to 15 percent.

“This is not trivial,” said Nelson during a presentation at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board this morning. “My sense is that this distribution will keep gaining share.”

BRT corridors are attracting an increasing share of multi-family housing development, as well, the authors found. Of the cities that had substantial BRT systems in place in the early 2000s, the share of new multi-family development within walking distance of BRT routes was about 2 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to Nelson. But during the economic recovery, that share has grown to about 5 percent — more than doubling.

“The market is being transformed,” Nelson said.

Finally, Nelson examined employment change along BRT corridors, finding BRT lines have been attracting jobs during the recovery. Since the recession, areas near BRT are seeing more growth in middle- and high-wage jobs than other areas with similar characteristics that did not have BRT. However, the share of lower-wage jobs is decreasing (though not as fast as it was before the recession), perhaps because rising rents can have the effect of crowding out lower-wage jobs.

Since the recession ended, bus rapid transit corridors have captured an increasing share of high-wage employment. Graph: University of Arizona
Since the recession ended, BRT corridors have captured an increasing share of middle- and high-wage jobs. Graph: National Institute for Transportation and Communities

One surprising aspect of the study was that the manufacturing industry in particular seems to be drawn to BRT corridors, according to a portion of the study lead by University of Utah’s Joanna Ganning. Microbreweries setting up shop along Cleveland’s Healthline are an example of the small-scale, “nontraditional” manufacturing cropping up near BRT, Nelson told TRB attendees.

Nelson says BRT can help meet the growing demand for fixed-guideway transit at a lower cost than rail, especially in smaller metro areas like Indianapolis, Des Moines, Albuquerque, and Fresno. He estimates that by 2050 about 100 million Americans will want to have walkable accessibility to fixed rail transit. But right now it is available to only about 20 million.

BRT can be a powerful tool to help meet the demand with limited resources. More than 20 BRT systems are in the planning stages around the U.S. — about the same number of systems that are currently operating.

But to reap the benefits of BRT investment, Nelson says cities must ensure the systems are designed and operated at a high standard. Rebranding buses isn’t enough. In addition to high frequencies, BRT routes that affect development have features like dedicated lanes, level boarding, off-board fare collection, and signal priority for buses at intersections, he said.

41 thoughts on New Evidence That Bus Rapid Transit Done Right Spurs Development

  1. But it’s so often done wrong. In the U.S., it seen as the “economical” or “realistic” alternative to rail. Because it’s seen as a cost-cutting innovation, the temptation is always to cut costs to lower and lower levels until it ceases to be BRT at all…feature after feature gets cut until all you’re left with is a bus with some new branding. Most U.S. systems don’t resemble the so-called gold-standard like Curitiba, though L.A.’s Orange Line comes close.

    That and BRT is often just used as a rhetorical device by transit-opponents as to why rail shouldn’t be built. These individuals don’t actual support BRT; they just offer it up as an alternative to seem reasonable (“We’re not anti-transit, just anti-rail”). The Nashville case is instructive here. Here a project was offered up as BRT and was opposed anyway.

  2. Correlation or causation? It’s likely that both the BRT and the business boomlet in the serviced neighborhood are the result of larger policies that have encouraged commerce in those particular corridors.

  3. So a few things missing from this analysis IMO, first, how big is the effect compared with an LRT option. Second, a major benefit of LRT over BRT IMO is its much harder to fake an LRT system. There are plenty of “BRT branded” bus routes in North America, with few if any BRT features. This is far more difficult to do with an LRT, where you necessarily have to rebuild every inch of the route to support the train.

    However, I think the bigger issue is, why is LRT so expensive in the US. Seems like the US pays up to several times what other, even developed nations pay. Calgary’s Ctrain ended up costing something like 25 million per mile (in 2000 dollars) which is cheaper than many BRTs today AFAIK.

  4. The point of this analysis is “BRT done right”. BRT-branded “faked” systems are obviously not BRT done right.

    A major downside with LRT is since there’s no faking it; there’s no middle ground. LRT systems require a massive capital investment on many fronts; you’re all in from day one. LRT incremental upgrades are near-impossible and extensions are costly with long timelines. BRT OTOH doesn’t require curb-to-curb rebuilds and intensive construction. There are plenty of cities that don’t require an intense rail investment but can greatly benefit from converting high-ridership bus lines to BRT or even near-BRT.

    Even the near-BRT “faked” systems (which aren’t covered by this analysis), a lot of people are flocking to them because the local bus is unappealing for whatever reason. RapidRide in Seattle is one of the biggest, but it’s 6 lines still have 60,000 daily riders. With the passage of Move Seattle, we can perform incremental upgrades to improve service. Having these RapidRide corridors converted to light rail, we’re learning, would cost billions.

    With Calgary, it helps they’ve built several recent extensions in freeway medians and rail lines, so the right-of-way costs are minimized. A big driver of US light rail is property acquisition and roadway civil works. And their land use policies and environmental regulations are much different than ours.

  5. Is this not true of rail projects as well? Station area planning is a huge deal and tends to cause significant changes in land-use policies.

    If this were a light rail or streetcar project, the response is usually “look what rail did!” But a bus? “it must be something else.”

  6. What are transit advocates to do in a situation where the massive investment in light rail isn’t a reasonable use of public dollars or simply not affordable, but the local bus just isn’t doing the job? Rail isn’t always the answer to every transit problem. Yes, some places use BRT arguments as a way to water down the solution. But this isn’t focusing on those systems; it’s focusing on the systems done within context BRT and the cities they’re in.

    Personally, I’d rather advocate to give people 50 miles of BRT or near-BRT in 3-5 years than 10 miles of LRT in a decade+. It’d help the most people quickly. I’d further argue transit-proponents can become so fixated on rail, their actions delay reasonable and sensible improvements to the existing network to focus on a single line and mode. (Or go as far to start accusing pro-bus people of being anti-transit.)

    In Nashville, it was pretty well documented by this blog that the Koch brothers were behind it’s death and lobbied the Tennessee State Legislature to outlaw the infrastructure required for such a project.

  7. Performance along a transit alignment is a matter of geographic determinism, service frequencies for a given budget, and far less about mode choice. If the local bus system sucks, improve the local bus system and stop fixating on a gold-plated capital funding sinkhole corridor that does nothing to improve the operating budget woes.

  8. Here is the deal.

    1) Get a bus line with good service. After a while…

    2) Add dedicated lanes and signal priority. After a while…

    3) Move to the center and add platforms with level boarding and pre-payment. After a while.

    4) Rip up the lanes and put down track panels, and replace the articulated buses with self-propelled light rail vehicles. After a while…

    5) Electrify.

    The transit system the U.S. once had started with stagecoaches and then horsecars on tracks, and evolved from there.

  9. I would add a #3.5: Upgrade signal priority to signal preemption to ensure transit vehicles do not have to stop for private vehicle traffic. After a while…

  10. That probably doesn’t make a lot of sense when your vehicles last 40 years. You either stick with (self-propelled) buses or you go all the way and do electrified light rail the first time. The latter is probably significantly more energy-efficient anyway.

  11. TBF, a lot of sincerely pro-BRT people probably really are anti-rail. Notably Enrique Penalosa, but it’s discernible among activists too.

  12. I noticed Fresno mentioned in the above article. What Fresno is going to get if it happens at all is BRT-basic. The federal gov’t. has contributed $38 million with either the state or local gov’t. kicking in about $10 million more. Supposedly, there is enough money available to keep operations going for 3 years once up and running – when that finally does happen. The system in all will cover 15.7 miles which means per-mile costs come out to a minimum of $3,057,325.

  13. The overbuilding isn’t that surprising. The way transit has historically been funded is to have the feds spend a lot on the capital, and little to nothing on operating assistance. This creates incentive to overbuild.

    BRT probably appeals to state and federal financing agencies precisely because it drives capital costs down so much.

  14. Many US LRT projects have also built in highway medians.

    In any case, you have a point that BRT can be rolled out more gradually. But I think you’re missing my point on LRT. LRT is much harder to water down. When you build an LRT you get a real mass transit system. Cities which are somewhat reluctant can slap a sticker on a bus, call it BRT, then throw their hands in the air and say, see, transit doesn’t work, we built it, and development didn’t happen. Here’s “proof”. Additionally, users, see BRT, and see that its just a normal bus, and don’t really use it. And developers, well, the study doesn’t cover it but I doubt a bus with a BRT sticker on it does much for TOD.

    I would agree, that well designed, lets call them, enhanced bus services, can in fact, improve transit greatly, but likely only in an area which is already seeing transit growth, perhaps due to an already well designed transit system, and importantly, only when the city is actually trying to improve things. I see enhanced bus services as just that, a better bus. BRT is different, but things called BRT are rarely actually BRT, and it does nobody any good to call them BRT.

  15. Actually, switch 4 and 5, and get 25 m double-articulated trolley buses… Self-propelled light rail vehicles are neither light nor do they have decent capacity.

  16. If your articulated buses still have life left when you are ready to go with light rail, move them to another line that is being upgraded from regular bus.

    If you self-propelled light rail vehicles still has useful life when its line is being electrified, move them to another line that is being upgraded to light rail.

    The idea is not to have a massive up-front cost, but not to end up wasting money on an interim solution that will be abandoned either.

  17. The Stop and Move blog post that you linked to is dated April 20, 2014. Only one mention in it that BRT in Fresno is not gonna happen. I believe the author was editorializing. The other link you provided is to a May 2015 The Fresno Bee article written by George Hostetter. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, develops BRT-wise.

    Oh, and by the way: The term “Bus Rapid Transit” is a misnomer. It’s tantamount to calling a streetcar a high-speed train.

  18. I agree that BRT can be a misnomer, but partly because so many BRT-creep projects have proceeded and really weakened the concept. As a result, the BRT name gets left on projects that really are just quality bus. As for Fresno, this is the same city that killed a bike lane because a councilman didn’t see any bikes. In light of that, I don’t have high hopes at all for their proposal meeting even the misnomer definition; it sounds about the only thing that will be remotely BRT that has survived is the proposal for off-board fare collection. Everything else that would make it more BRT looks to no longer be actually planned and I think we’d have a hard time even considering it to be quality bus.

  19. AIUI articulated Stadler GTWs on River Line hold up to ~240 people and seem pretty (maybe overly?) spacious. The largest bi-articulated buses are comparable in capacity, but only work under the right conditions.

  20. I would say that the GTWs are wider than a bus, and that makes them more spacious (although as I remember the River Line vehicles, with 240 people on board, you get a sardine can feeling (but that’s about the same as a double-articulated bus with that number of passengers…).

  21. If your chances of success exceed your chances of failure, that is an irrational hedge. Locking in understandable upfront costs is usually preferable to unpredictable long-term costs. We know labor always goes up.

    Plus electrification actually cuts vehicle acquisition costs. It increases ROW installation costs, but probably trivially next to track installation.

  22. Yeah, they should be wider. They’d be wasting space if they weren’t!

    What I meant by that was, River Line actually could have had denser seating to allow more standees. Or perhaps, as the case may be, more seats so fewer people would have to stand, ’cause overall it doesn’t seem that busy….

    But I’m not sure I agree with the “decent capacity” comment. It doesn’t seem bad to me. I don’t think LRV DMUs make a lot of sense outside of suburban or at least long-distance commuter settings though.

  23. Actually, the River Line GTWs are among the shortest (standard gauge) ones Stadler ever built. However, from that one single ride I had, the River Line is more a suburban operation, with a very small urban section. Because of the already existing tracks for a big part of the line, the investment was not thaaat big.

    “Decent capacity”… thinking over it again, it looks as if my choice of wording may not have been the best… although, I would not consider the GTW as a “light rail” vehicle; what I had in mind was more something in the range of a dieselized Combino.

    The main consideration in my original comment is that electrifying (for trolleybus) does have lower incremental cost than laying tracks. That means that with double-articulated trolleybus, you get more additional capacity for the buck than with a diesel LRV. And when you finally need rail-based capacities, a decent piece of the investment made before (substations, wiring etc.) can be retained (would probably have to be strengthened for longer trains (in an urban environment, we talk 75 m or so) drawing much more power than a trolleybus).

  24. I am not surprised. Funny, how a concept that would help (no pun intended) pave the way for getting more Fresnans out of automobiles and onto public transportation (i.e., if BRT were to be done the right way like Cleveland’s, Stockton’s, etc. – although Stockton’s program originally started with 40-foot, non-articulated buses but then transitioned to 60-foot, articulated replacements) and in turn help improve local air quality, gets short shrift, while a plan to remove a pedestrian mall and transform it into a two-way street (the Fulton Mall project) has the blessing of the majority on the City Council. That will do nothing but add more lane miles of roadway (something the city and Valley do not need more of), encourage more driving (not less), and if it turns out to be a resounding success it is anticipated by many to be (I have my doubts), by virtue of this, more driving will result, more in the way of air pollution will result (the presumption is more people will be driving around needlessly looking for a place to park their vehicles), further impacting streets (meaning there will be more traffic) downtown. I can only imagine what the impact will be when the high-speed trains start serving the high-speed train station to be located barely a stone’s throw away.

  25. Well, light rail seems to be more service features than a type of vehicle (though modern LRVs are typically low-floor). Stadler GTWs are used in mainline service in Europe for sure.

    Trolleybuses could work fine, but training two LRVs together can provide at least twice the capacity. I still figure you either go all out and do electrified LRVs or stick with buses (trolleybuses or not). Very little point in non-electric rail in the urban setting.

  26. Well, when you need the capacity of two LRVs (and that every few minutes), then you are definitely in the LRV league for that line. Then, there is no further discussion needed…

    That’s also why the used technology should follow the capacity (and other) requirements. And that gets us to the topic of the article: with the according capacity needed, and done right, BRT can be a good choice.

    The really crucial part is “done right”.

  27. I agree, Fresno has proven itself to be incredibly outrageous in recent years. Also, it looks like from the article I linked a post or two back, the 60-foot buses have to get special approvals before being ordered. Which may or may not be a problem, as BRT can work with the normal 40-foot units. But it shows how backwards they are continuing to be.

  28. In those cases, the best initial strategy is to upgrade the signals to have TSP, thin stops or introduce an “express”, and maybe repaint the buses to visually differentiate the service. Doing that alone should elevate service quite a bit, where it should be easier to make the case for LRT. As for financing, it doesn’t have to be solely public dollars. Establishing/extending infrastructure can be part of other development that is occurring, just like road widenings are also conditioned on developers as “mitigation” for increases in traffic.

  29. I don’t believe that this is lower cost than rail over time.

    That’s the thing about BRT — yeah, if done right it can work well, but if done right, it’s as expensive as rail.

    Cleveland’s going to have to replace that pavement. And those buses. Higher maintenance costs. Higher fuel costs. And as they have to add buses to add capacity, more cost for hiring drivers. (Trains can be made longer instead.)

  30. I believe that there are very few markets with the very narrow range of capacity for which BRT would be the right choice.

    Here in the US BRT is routinely applied to projects (Orange Line in LA, Ottawa’s busway which is now being converted to rail, even Pittsburgh’s busways) where the capacity requirements clearly call for rail.

    Projects where the capacity requirements are low enough that BRT is good enough… don’t even get BRT, they just get bad buses.

  31. Oh, god, the refusal to use off-the-shelf systems, REALLY annoying problem.

    Affects BRT too, by the way.

  32. What you really want is “quality buses”, like EVERY SINGLE ONE OF the buses in London, UK. That is what you should do first.

    Then it’ll be apparent where investment in light rail is apporpriate: namely, the places where the buses are crowded.

    But first you have to have Quality Buses or “Better Buses”, rather than the Crappy Buses we have all over the US.

  33. You can have the nicest bus in the world, but if it runs once an hour on alternate Thursdays people aren’t going to take it. If you look at the most common complaints about transit, they are frequency and speed. That’s the problem light rail solves, and the problem BRT solves.

  34. It’s probably less about capacity, and more about street conditions. BRT calls for long, wide, fairly straight boulevards. Otherwise it doesn’t have many meaningful advantages.

    But those routes don’t exactly need to be busy to justify BRT either. In fact, if they’re not very busy and probably won’t be, that is probably the best time to consider BRT.

    Plus, introducing BRT features across a bus network is always desirable. POP, for instance, doesn’t require a dedicated lane (in the event you can’t get one).

  35. I rather doubt it will be that soon, but it could change the economics of transit in favor of buses. Or not, considering labor is probably the one factor of production that ultimately precludes transit profitability for either mode.

    (I think it will actually change the economics of transit in favor of smaller vehicles though. Vehicles too small to be worth financing and operating right now will become viable in normal service.)

  36. The Autonomous Rapid Rail Bus Technology should be used in large cities throughout the United States so they can better handle congested traffic and reduce the carbon emissions caused by densely populated areas. In contrast, Los Angeles and many other cities including Tempe, Tucson, Fort Worth, Austin, Fort Lauderdale, Oklahoma City, and Detroit, are already planning to retrofit rail car lines across their downtown areas. This is an expensive undertaking that poorer cities may not be able to tackle. Cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, and Knoxville won’t have the funds to retrofit, and the rapid rail bus system would be a good option for them to expand their transportation networks.
    Smaller cities will be interested in placing rapid rail bus lines on their streets too because it is cheaper than other options, such as light rails, and can be enlarged if necessary. Dennis Hinebaugh, the director of the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, has reported that the “capital costs for a bus can run lower than those of a light rail”; it actually costs just a fraction of the price (New Times 4). In Los Angeles, the Metro Rapid service could cost an expensive $250,000 for one mile. The rapid transit buses can be efficiently placed on city streets with a government approved “right of way” easement, and there would be no need to dig up any city streets in the process. Arthur C. Nelson of the University of Arizona proved in his research that if the Bus Rapid Transit system is done correctly, it can shore up real estate ventures, attract new business and increase job opportunities. In certain areas, some streets can be turned car-free. The Autonomous Rail Bus Technology would be used for transportation instead of the cars, ,and the areas can become pedestrian-only zones.
    Transportation habits are currently evolving. According to a survey released by the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America, millennials’ perceptions and attitudes toward transportation are changing; almost half of the population, nearly 46 percent, said that they would be willing to give up their personal vehicles if they could rely on a large range of transportation options. In the same survey, 54 percent of millennials said that they would change cities if another city offered better transportation options. This means that not only are they willing to live without personal vehicles, millennials are also willing to move to places that are willing to invest capital to fund new transportation infrastructure.
    Millennials are willing to make sacrifices regarding their personal transportation in order to better serve the environment. Many cities across the United States are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and create sustainable urban areas. They are looking at electrical vehicles for mass transportation in order to reduce the amount of cars on the road, which means less carbon emissions and pollution. With the rapid bus transit, there will be cleaner air for people to breathe, and more room for people to get where they need to go. Millennials are currently leading the way in advanced innovations, economic rivalry, and business growth in major metropolitan cities throughout the United States.

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