Bus Rapid Transit: Everything old is new again
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is growing more popular as a mode of public transportation. Pittsburgh and Orlando, Fla., are successfully operating what could be considered forerunners of today’s more complex BRT systems, which are in various stages of development in Cleveland; St. Paul, Minn.; Charlotte, N.C.; Eugene, Ore.; and Boston.
BRT systems are as distinct from conventional bus transit as heavy rail is from light rail. BRT is, at a minimum, faster than conventional local bus service and, at a maximum, includes grade-separated bus operations. The essential features of a BRT system are bus priority, fast passenger boarding and fare collection, and an image that is unique from other locally available modes of public transportation. For local governments that want to increase bus ridership and public transportation passenger satisfaction, BRT offers an alternative to traditional bus and light rail transit in the form of electronically guided, rubber-tired vehicles that operate on exclusive transitways with the same quality of ride, safety and reliability as rail-guided vehicles.
BRT systems can range from the simple to the complex. A simple system could be totally on-street with reserved lanes marked with painted diamonds and signs, “super” bus stops and limited stop/express service during peak hours. Over time, a simple system could be improved incrementally by permanently separating BRT lanes with a rumble strip and special pavement; constructing larger, more elaborate stations with interactive information kiosks; purchasing low-floor buses of a special color/livery; using an honor fare system to allow for multi-door boarding; and increasing vehicle stop frequencies to permit random passenger arrivals.
A complex system could have a dedicated BRT facility in the median of a boulevard or on an abandoned or under-used railroad right-of-way. The system could have stations equipped with a full complement of mode-change facilities, information resources and high-platform boarding for single- or double-articulated, hybrid vehicles. Additionally, a dedicated right-of-way, all-stops service could be operated all day on a 10-minute-or-better headway, with fares collected off-board with smart cards. A complex BRT service could be complemented by market-driven peak express and combined collection/distribution services.
Either system could be implemented with the capital costs of purchasing buses and constructing roadways. Operating costs — dictated by speed of operation and work rules — are relatively low. BRT costs much less than rail transit because it uses multiple vehicles, which is more efficient than using a few rail cars, and the system costs less to operate and maintain than a rail system.
The ingredients of a successful BRT system are:
Modern, rail-like vehicles. The vehicles must offer an attractive exterior and modern interior with large windows.
Exclusive rights-of-way. Signal priority helps, but it is usually not sufficient to achieve the speeds needed to attract riders. The exclusive rights-of-way can be underground, elevated or grade-separated.
Attractive infrastructure. To a large extent, the aesthetic quality of the system’s environment, including landscaping, public art and stations, should distinguish BRT from traditional busways.
Streamlined fare collection. Fare collection can be via free-fare zones, self-serve media at stations or even on board vehicles. Pay-as-you-go fare collection inhibits the rapid pace needed for BRT to compete with other forms of transportation.
Strong “brand identity.” BRT must be marketed as a fixed guideway line to gain acceptance among residents. The same marketing message will interest real estate developers who are drawn to investing near traditional rail systems.
Fast “dwell” times. Guidance technologies speed docking times and help BRT compete with light-rail transit. Level boarding is essential, whether accomplished with low-floor vehicles or high platforms.
Orlando’s head start
Orlando’s no-fare BRT system, named Lymmo, has been operating downtown since 1996, and it has been gaining popularity among residents and city leaders. Lymmo is a free bus in the central business district that runs on exclusive lanes for its entire 2.3-mile, circular route.
The lanes are identified with distinctive pavers and are separated from general traffic lanes either with a raised median or with a double row of raised, reflective ceramic pavement markers embedded in the asphalt. In the middle of the route, which has loop sections at each end, the two directions of Lymmo service are on the same street, with one running opposite the flow of traffic.
Because Lymmo operates in places and directions that are counter to other traffic, all bus movements at intersections are controlled by special bus signals. To prevent confusion with regular traffic signals, the bus signals use lines instead of standard red, yellow and green lights. When a bus approaches an intersection, a loop detector in the bus lane triggers the signal in the intersection to allow the bus to proceed.
In addition to dedicated lanes and signal pre-emption, Lymmo includes stations with large shelters and route information; automatic vehicle location; next-bus arrival information at kiosks; low-floor compressed natural gas buses; and a unique brand, which is communicated with vehicle graphics, advertisements and business tie-ins. The Lymmo route replaced an earlier downtown loop circulator, Freebee, and was a substitute for the proposed use of historic trolleys.
In its first year of operation, Lymmo averaged about twice the ridership of Freebee. Its total capital cost, $21 million, was at least half the cost of the trolley proposal. The design of Lymmo’s facilities and the quality of the system have made the BRT competitive with other modes of transportation.
Going a step further
While Orlando’s Lymmo represents a forerunner of the true BRT system, other cities are taking the concept quite a bit further. Cleveland, for example, is designing one of the most sophisticated BRT systems in the country.
The Cleveland BRT is part of a broad redevelopment program for the Euclid Avenue corridor, one of the city’s oldest areas. The redevelopment includes a building-to-building reconstruction of Euclid Avenue with enhanced pedestrian zones, sidewalk and center median landscaping, new street and sidewalk lighting, new center median platform stations with distinctive shelter architecture, and exclusive bus and auto lanes. Designated the Euclid Corridor Transportation Project, the construction of the BRT line will connect the region’s largest employment center (the central business district) with the second largest employment center (the University Circle area) approximately 4.5 miles away.
The goal of the project is to improve the operational constraints of the existing downtown street network and increase the flow of bus service during peak periods. Motorcoach bus traffic will be directed into and out of the corridor on two north-south streets with auto traffic directed to a third north-south street. The main east-west street of the corridor will have exclusive curbside bus lanes, which will allow better distribution of bus riders to destinations within the central business district.
The project includes construction of an intermodal transfer facility at Public Square in downtown to integrate Euclid Avenue bus service and other suburban bus routes with the rail rapid transit line, which connects to the central business district and, from there, to the airport. A significant percentage of the new ridership in the corridor is expected to come from the bus/rail transfers at that facility.
The system will consist of an exclusive center median busway on Euclid Avenue and median lanes and center platform stations along most of the length of the street. The city plans to purchase 24 hybrid-electric trolley buses and six spares for the system. The buses are low-floor, 60-foot-long articulated, rubber-tired vehicles with left- and right-side doors. Fare collection will occur onboard the transit vehicles. Reduced-fare and free-fare zones are being considered to encourage ridership.
The project also includes the creation of a new radio communications system to incorporate wide-area coverage, automatic vehicle location (AVL) and emergency alerting. Thirteen of 16 channels will be dedicated to voice communication, and the other three will be data channels, which will provide automated passenger count information and fare collection monitoring. In addition to onboard emergency alerting, the AVL system will include a traffic signal/bus priority system, passenger on-board schedule information, bus stop passenger information displays and a passenger transfer management system.
The city is installing new traffic control striping to conform to the busway design and a new traffic signal system to give priority to buses on Euclid Avenue. A two-foot utility chase will be constructed on both sides of the avenue for traffic signal wiring, street lighting, pedestrian lighting, signs and spare conduit for future growth.
The project involves removing the Euclid Avenue roadway and reconstructing it with a busway and landscaped median, bus stop platforms and a rumble strip to separate the bus and automobile lanes. Sidewalks will be replaced with upgraded treatments, including backfilling and/or reconstruction of underground vaults. Construction of the $220 million Cleveland BRT is expected to start in 2003, with completion scheduled for 2005 or 2006.
Getting on board
When considering BRT, cities must weigh all the benefits and challenges of rapid transit. Besides costing less than constructing a rail system, BRT is easier to expand than rail. A BRT system can be constructed in successive phases, adding scope and features, such as additional stations, grade separations and electric power, when conditions warrant.
However, changing the image of bus transit to one that lures people out of their cars the way light-rail transit has over the past 20 years is not easy. Opposition to BRT comes from many sources. The public often perceives anything associated with buses as being second-rate — a transportation option to be used only when no other option exists. As a result, municipal officials sometimes discourage consideration of bus options for fear of losing public support for a rail transit investment.
Also, many planners do not know the capabilities of BRT and incorrectly attribute the high performance and customer acceptance of rail rapid transit to rail characteristics, such as tracks. In reality, exclusive guideways, stations and service quality are the features of rail rapid transit that attract most riders, and those features are offered by BRT. As BRT systems increase in number and sophistication, they will continue to gain wider acceptance as an effective mode of public transportation.
Craig Amundsen is principal of urban design for Minneapolis-based URS, prime consultant for the Cleveland BRT.