What is BRT?

Visitor Question: I'm a new planning commission member. At my very first meeting last week, the commission was talking about BRT, and I was too embarrassed to say I didn't even know what it is. I think it must have something to do with public transportation. Can you help?


Editors Reply: The initials BRT commonly stand for bus rapid transit. Much less frequently, you also might hear BRTS, bus rapid transit system.

The idea behind BRT is to make bus transit faster and more reliable by building part of the total bus system to a higher standard.

BRT incorporates some of the fairly permanent features and advantages of more popular transit modes such as light rail, in that it includes some "dedicated" facilities that are not shared with automobiles, trucks, and so forth on regular roadway lanes.

BRT commonly includes at least the idea of this dedicated lane, which cannot lawfully be used by other vehicles. Usually this lane is built or set aside toward the center of the roadway, eliminating bus slow-downs due to on-street parking and turning movements.

To be more systematic in our description, a BRT system commonly includes:

1. A lane set aside for the use of these particular BRT-designated buses only, usually physically separated from the rest of the roadway as well as separated by regulation,

2. A system in which no turns across the bus lane (called a busway) are allowed or possibly even physically possible,

3. Collection of fares before boarding, so that time is not subtracted from the journey while people fuss with their spare change,

4. Building on the previous point, specially constructed platforms for waiting for the bus, paying fare, and boarding the bus at the exact same level of the platform, which facilitates quick and safe wheelchair and bicycle boarding,

5. Increase in frequency of service and sometimes in cleanliness and other quality of service measures, and

6. Priority for the BRT buses at traffic signals, whether this is accomplished through longer green lights pertaining only to the bus lane only, or whether, as was predicted early in the adoption of BRT in the U.S., through an onboard sensor that actually can turn the signal green for the bus as the bus approaches the intersection.

In some cases what is called a queue jump is built. This is a physical alteration to the roadway allowing the bus to pull around and pass traffic that is stacked at a signal. Other road rebuilding requirements include the installation of underground electronics to sense bus speed and movement.

Because of the permanent nature of some aspects of the system, notably the platforms, fare collection boxes, and special facilities and lanes, BRT offers the same advantage as light rail (or heavy rail commuter trains) as a spur to economic development. While a conventional bus route can be changed rather quickly through administrative action, the BRT system can be changed only slowly and through construction or demolition of aspects of the system. This gives BRT routes greater predictability, and therefore inspires developers and investors that BRT will be a lasting property enhancement rather than a short-term advantage.

BRT systems are becoming widespread both worldwide and in the U.S. Cities as disparate as Sydney, Istanbul, Bogota, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seoul, Vancouver, and many others have experimented with BRT long enough to build a record of what works and what does not work.

Time savings for the BRT routes are estimated at 29 percent in Los Angeles. The Boston Silver Line reduced bus transit time from 20 to 40 minutes, down to 15 minutes through BRT methods. These statistics come from the Federal Transit Administration.

Ridership is higher than for conventional buses, but typically lower than for the much more expensive light rail systems.

Disadvantages include cost of the infrastructure, possible reduction of on-street parking, and some folks would cite the frequent loss of a lane of single-occupancy vehicle traffic as a disadvantage.

Most cities can afford the BRT approach only for the most popular routes, so it is a partial solution but often a good one. Benefits in terms of lower air pollution, better adoption of transit use for regular rides such as the commute to work, and even moving buses out of the fastest traffic lanes are worth considering.

We applaud the discussion of this topic at a planning commission meeting. Commissions often are too insulated from the transit planning process.


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