Bus Rapid Transit Better Than Rail Transit

June 2007 Surface Transportation Innovations
by Reason Foundtion

BRT without Billion-Dollar Exclusive Guideways

The evidence keeps growing that Bus Rapid Transit can provide very high quality transit service at a lower capital cost than light rail or commuter rail transit. But many people believe that BRT can be fully competitive with rail only if it operates on an exclusive guideway (such as the relatively new Orange Line busway in Los Angeles). Providing such guideways is very expensive, cutting into the capital cost advantage of BRT. But the real problem isn’t the cost, per se. Rather, it’s the fact that so much of the capacity of an exclusive busway is wasted, because even in corridors where demand will support 60 buses/hour (the equivalent of 180 autos/hr.), that’s less than 10% of the capacity of a highway lane at Level of Service C. The rest of that very expensive lane stays empty at rush hour, when more capacity is desperately needed.

In many freeway corridors in fast-growing metro areas today, right of way is being reserved for future rail systems. Here in Florida, that’s true of at least two corridors where express toll lanes are also being planned: on I-75 in Collier and Lee Counties and on I-595 in Broward County. Most transportation planners (and public officials) still haven’t grasped the synergy between priced lanes and BRT: if you build express toll lanes (ETLs) in a corridor, and use value (i.e. market) pricing, that gives you an uncongested guideway for BRT service. You don’t also need light rail in the same corridor. You can even guarantee a fraction of the total lane capacity for BRT service, as is being done on the new managed lanes on the Katy Freeway (I-10) in Houston.

The usual objection to this is that a rail line will carry more people than a busway. Not necessarily. In a typical urban/suburban freeway setting, where transit demand is generally not high, the bus-on-busway offers greater flexibility, since the same vehicle can pick up people from various origins (bus stops), save a lot of time on the high-speed, non-stop busway portion of the trip, and at the other end make a number of stops at various destinations. Door-to-door, this can be time-competitive with driving in congested lanes, or with the multi-modal trip involving a car or bus to the rail station, waiting for the train, and then getting from the destination station to the actual destination.

But what about a high-demand corridor, such as from O’Hare airport to the downtown Chicago Loop? Peter Samuel provides a fascinating thought experiment on this corridor on his website (www.tollroadsnews.com/node/166). What if the Chicago Transit Blue Line train were converted to a BRT/ETL roadway? Before you recoil in horror, take a look at the numbers in Peter’s discussion, which suggests that the roadway alternative could move far more people per hour than the current rail line. It looks as if the ridership of the Blue Line trains, if shifted to BRT, would use only 1/8 of the capacity of the lane in each direction, meaning the rest could be used for vans, express buses to/from hotels, and ordinary cars—anyone willing to pay a market price for uncongested service. (Among the other caveats in this calculation is Peter’s assumption that the 14 current Blue Line stops would be relocated off-line for the replacement buses, so that nonstop express services to and from the airport would be possible.)

I don’t know if actually replacing the Blue Line with a BRT/ETL route to O’Hare would be taken seriously. But there are some exclusive busways (e.g., in Miami and in Pittsburgh) that have lots of unused capacity; they are certainly candidates for possible conversion to BRT/ETL roadways. More important, in places where right of way in freeway corridors is being preserved for rail lines, transportation planners should be looking seriously at the BRT/ETL alternative instead. In some corridors where HOT lanes are being planned (e.g., the Beltway around Washington, DC, in northern Virginia), it looks as if the toll revenues can fully support the addition of these lanes. In other places, some combination of state and federal highway funds plus toll revenue finance will be needed. The important point is, at a time when there are far more applicants for Federal Transit Administration New Starts rail grants than there is funding (and when FTA is trying hard to get BRT taken seriously, and has funds available for buses and stations), those metro areas that shifted to BRT/ETL could get more transit improvement sooner—and important congestion relief for motorists, too.

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©2007 Coalition On Sustainable Transportation