Bus rapid transit (BRT) combines the advantages of traditional bus systems and light-rail systems. BRT preserves the flexibility and lower cost associated with fixed bus routes, but has improved efficiency and amenities like light rail. A successfully implemented BRT system fits seamlessly into the existing infrastructure and its facilities, equipment, and intelligent transportation systems (ITS) components.
BRT operates within an urban core and connects nearby suburbs. It typically operates on exclusive street lanes or high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on highways for smooth, on-time performance.
To improve public recognition and acceptance, a BRT system often uses a special, different brand from other bus services. Brand elements include unique names of services and lines, branded stations and vehicles, and well-designed signage, maps, and schedules.
In order to make BRT a competitive alternative and attractive to riders, BRT routes run at a higher frequency than other bus routes. The time between buses may be as frequent as 5 minutes during rush hour and 12 to 15 minutes during off-peak times.
BRT typically uses larger vehicles that have multiple access points, and their floor height matches the platform height so riders can board and alight easily and rapidly. BRT stops include more amenities to improve passengers’ riding experience, such as:
- Off-board fare payment equipment.
- Closed-circuit television cameras.
- Public pay telephones.
- Route maps.
- Real-time arrival and departure times.
These characteristics are similar to a light-rail system, so BRT is often thought of as rubber-tired light rail.
Large Urbanized Areas
In large cities, BRT can be an important part of an integrated transit system. BRT complements current transit service, improving the reliability and quality of local bus service by using exclusive bus lanes and taking priority at intersections. BRT works well as a substitute for rail transit in places where hills, tunnels, and water crossings increase congestion and make rails and freeways costly and difficult to construct.1 In the United States, good candidates for BRT are urban areas with more than 750,000 residents and a central business district with employment of at least 50,000 to 75,000.2 In areas not dense enough to support rail, BRT provides a cost-effective feeder service to reach existing rail transit lines and can serve as the first stage for a rail transit line.
Suburban and Medium-Size Cities Looking for Cost-Effective Transit Solutions
For many suburban areas and medium-size cities, BRT can be an economical alternative to rail because of its lower development cost and greater operating flexibility. It serves as a high-capacity main line, while other bus routes serve as feeders. Clean vehicles and advanced technology used in BRT promote environmentally friendly development featuring transit- and pedestrian-friendly design.
How Will This Help?
- BRT is a less expensive and more flexible high-capacity transit solution than rail. BRT can take advantage of underused rights of way, such as HOV and parking lanes, to be implemented quickly.
- Passengers save time and money. BRT’s real-time information system minimizes wait and travel time and gives reliable information for passengers to manage their schedules wisely. Passengers, especially those who switch from driving a car to riding BRT, save money on vehicle operating cost, parking cost, and car insurance. For example, MetroRapid saves Austin commuters 95,000 passenger hours per year, equaling $1.5 million in annual value of passenger time.2 In addition, transit-dependent passengers get quick and easy access to more job opportunities and amenities, such as hospitals and activity centers.
- BRT reduces transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions by using clean and alternative vehicles and reducing automobile congestion.
- BRT improves road safety. BRT reduces injuries and fatalities on BRT streets because it uses exclusive lanes and has priority at intersections.
- Communities with BRT, complemented by appropriate land use and zoning practices, attract new property development. For example, the Silver Line in Boston successfully brought millions of dollars of development into inner-city communities.
Application Techniques and Principles
Job and Population Density
Like other high-capacity transit modes, BRT needs enough job and population density to be worth the investment. Although BRT is cheaper than rail, it still requires population density to generate enough ridership to support itself.
According to the Transportation Research Board’s TRCP Report 90, Bus Rapid Transit Volume 2: Implementation Guidelines, a basic BRT line needs service frequencies of at least 8 to 10 minutes during peak hours and 12 to 15 minutes during off-peak hours—equating to a daily ridership of at least 5,000.
Land use influences the development of BRT. For frequent all-day service, land use should be dense to get enough ridership. BRT is well suited to land uses that feature medium- to high-density residential and commercial developments, contain employment nodes, and encourage mixed use.
Agencies considering potential BRT routes should understand where and how urban development is likely to occur, and where activity and employment centers are. Station locations need to match present and future land use. The design and operation of the BRT lanes should match the demands of the land uses, especially when curbside lanes are used as the exclusive BRT lane.
By definition, BRT should be rapid. The average speed of BRT service is 15 to 30 mph,5 depending on the type of BRT service (the speed of a local bus service averages 15 mph or less).6
Various techniques can speed operations:
- Prepaid fares reduce dwell times at stops and allow rapid boarding.
- BRT stops should be limited. Stop intervals are typically 0.5 to 1 mile apart.
- BRT vehicles should be easy to board and alight. Buses should have floor heights 12 to 15 inches above street level and wide, multistream doors.
- ITS technologies should be used to ensure rapid and reliable service. These technologies include automatic vehicle location systems, traffic signal priority systems, electronic fare collection, and LED real-time displays.
During the planning process, agencies should encourage public, state, regional, and local agencies to get involved—early and often. Community willingness to support BRT is also important for successful implementation.
Agencies should recognize and respond to community concerns at each stage in the process. Transit agencies are responsible for clearly describing the costs and benefits of BRT and other alternatives to the public and helping transit planners, traffic engineers, and urban planners work together. A well-maintained dialogue between different parties in the decision-making process ensures that BRT service fits the market served and the physical environment.
Exclusive Bus Lanes
During implementation, agencies should carefully consider where to put exclusive bus lanes. Converting an existing lane to BRT may reduce the space available to general traffic, possibly worsening congestion (though some studies have shown this may not be the case).7 Depending on where a bus lane is located (at the curb or in the median), conflicts may arise with either right- or left-turning traffic. BRT using curbside bus lanes may be interrupted by illegal parking and standing pedestrians.
Some BRT systems, referred as rail-convertible BRT, are designed to serve as the first stage of an eventual light-rail system. BRT facilities for these systems should be designed so that they can be easily converted.
Some believe that it is easier for future conversion if light-rail design standards are applied to BRT lane design. For example, King County Metro Transit laid down tracks in the busway pavement in the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel for conversion to light rail.
Some argue that a BRT system with minimalist design (BRT-specific infrastructures are kept to very low costs) is less likely to be impacted by transit service shutdowns or be disrupted during the conversion process.8
Who Is Responsible?
Generally, metropolitan planning organizations and local transit authorities take the lead role in planning and implementing BRT service. Other major participants include transit planners, traffic engineers, urban planners, and stakeholders.
BRT costs vary depending on the scope and complexity of the project. Generally, capital costs are likely to range from $680,000 to $13.5 million per mile based on where the exclusive bus lanes are located (on busways, HOV lanes, or city streets).10 FTA’s Small Starts program is the major source of funding for implementing BRT; Urbanized Area Formula Grants and highway funding are also potential funding sources.
A solid understanding of the market BRT serves and its physical surroundings will be helpful to establish objectives and criteria for a BRT system. To understand current transit demand, planners should conduct an origin-destination survey. Traffic counts on major corridors will also help quantify existing passenger volumes. Additional data to be collected include the capacity of other transit modes, parking facilities, and the quality and coverage of pedestrian infrastructure.
Project Time Frame
Timelines for BRT planning vary based on political willingness, financing, geographical limitations, and other factors. Typically, a focused BRT planning process can be reasonably completed in 12 to 18 months. A typical progression is as follows:9
- Project Preparation:
- Stage I: Preparation (political vision, legal basis, project team, work plan, and budget).
- Stage II: Analysis (background and stakeholder analysis, data collection, and modeling).
- Stage III: Communications (public participation and marketing plan).
- Stage IV: Operations (corridor identification, capacity, and customer service plan).
- Stage V: Business Structure (institutional structure, incentives, and operational cost).
- Stage VI: Infrastructure (stations and landscaping).
- Stage VII: Technology (vehicles, fare collection systems, and ITS).
- Stage VIII: Modal Integration (pedestrians, bicycles, other transit systems, and land use).
- Stage IX: Impact Analysis (traffic, economic, environment, social, and urban form).
- Implementation Plan:
- Stage X: Implementation Plan (work plan, financing plan, evaluation plan, etc.).
Bus Rapid Transit Best Practices
- Type of location: BRT is well suited for a large urban area, as well as some suburbs and medium-size cities looking for cost-effective transit solutions.
- Agency practices: A successful BRT system is an integrated system that incorporates facilities, equipment, and ITS.
- Frequency of reanalysis: Annual analysis is recommended to evaluate progress and improve programs.
- Supporting policies or actions needed: Transit-supportive land use patterns have an important and complex influence on the development of BRT. These land use patterns can be achieved through transit-oriented development policies, such as mixed-use zoning.
- Complementary strategies: Most travel-options strategies are complementary; real-time displays, aggressive branding, and marketing are helpful.
- National Research Council. TCRP Report 90: Bus Rapid Transit Volume 1: Case Studies in Bus Rapid Transit. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003.
- National Research Council. TCRP Report 90: Bus Rapid Transit Volume 2: Implementation Guidelines. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2003.
- Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. Bus Rapid Transit Service Design Guidelines. 2007. http://www.vta.org/sfc/servlet.shepherd/version/download/068A0000001Fcg2. Accessed June 19, 2015.
- Federal Transit Administration. Peer-to-Peer Information Exchange on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Bus Priority Best Practices. May 2012. http://www.fta.dot.gov/documents/FTA_Report_No._0009.pdf. Accessed June 19, 2015.
- National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, Center for Urban Transportation Research. Bus Rapid Transit. University of South Florida. http://www.go-rts.com/files/brt/nbrti.pdf. Accessed on June 25, 2015.
- Center for Urban Transportation Research. Best Practices in Transit Service Planning. University of South Florida, March 2009. http://www.nctr.usf.edu/pdf/77720.pdf. Accessed June 19, 2015.
- Cervero, R. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT): An Efficient and Competitive Mode of Public Transportation. Working Paper 2013-01, Berkley Institute of Urban and Regional Development. August 2003. http://iurd.berkeley.edu/wp/2013-01.pdf. Accessed June 25, 2015.
- Henry, L., and D. Dobbs. Bus Rapid Transit as a Precursor of Light Rail Transit? Joint International Light Rail Conference: Growth and Renewal. Transportation Research Circular Number E-C145, Transportation Research Board, July 2010. http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec145.pdf. Accessed June 19, 2015.
- Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit GmbH. Sustainable Transport: A Sourcebook for Policy-makers in Developing Cities, Module 3b: Bus Rapid Transit. Version 2.0, 2003. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/112/1/BRT_e-book.pdf. Accessed June 19, 2015.
- U.S. General Accounting Office. Bus Rapid Transit Offers Communities a Flexible Mass Transit Option. 2003. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d03729t.pdf. Accessed June 19, 2015.