The not-so-rapid rise of bus rapid transit

busplus stationThere's an interesting article in Governing on the growing popularity of bus rapid transit systems (BRT) -- like CDTA's BusPlus. A short clip:

Generally, the thinking among U.S. transit officials is that "choice riders" -- those who don't have to take transit but opt to because of its convenience -- are willing to ride subways, light rail and streetcars, but not buses. Advocates of BRT argue that bus service itself isn't the problem; it's the way the service is implemented. Offer riders buses that are fast, clean and safe, they say, and passengers will embrace them. "If you build it right, people will come," says Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City's transportation commissioner. "People aren't going to get on dirty buses that are slow."

The article hits on the potential of such systems, but also their problems and critics -- including those who say that BRT is just a decision to "cheap out" on building more robust systems like light rail.

When transportation issues come up here, people often call out for light rail. But here's the thing: the chances of that ever happening in the Capital Region are very small. Building such a system would cost a ton of money (that Governing article mentions the projected cost of 7 miles of light rail in Cleveland was $1 billion). And it would be a political nightmare -- any worthwhile system here would cross numerous municipal lines, requiring the cooperation (or at least non-opposition) of a long string of county and local governments. It'd be like setting off an atomic NIMBY bomb.

BusPlus isn't perfect -- far from it. CDTA needs to keep adding features and make the system faster in order to at least fulfill its initial promise. And it will have to expand the service to make it more than a Albany-Schenectady express line. There's a long way to go. But it's probably the closest thing we'll get to a transit rail system.

[via @drewbkerr]


The CDTA BusPlus system makes a lot of sense, but if they want to encourage more riders, wouldn't they want people who live in the suburbs to take the bus? The only park-and-rides they have are in cities. Even with an Albany to Schenectady bus, they don't seem to want to attract people from Colonie (who can't walk to the Central Ave) to ride the bus.

I am a major proponent of light rail but I must say that this article makes some good point against its likelyhood here. Yet I still believe LR or something like it's going to be essential in the next decade if we want to be going anywhere outside our own neighborhood. The sad truth is that there will be no political will whatsoever until we've got absolutely no other f*cking choice but to get something like it up and running. That aside, I'm up for hearing more about what BRT has to offer because I now very little about it.

You're right that light rail is supremely unlikely around here. It's massively expensive and massively inflexible, and given the way we've developed I can't imagine where or how it would work. But still people who wouldn't get on a bus call for it all the time. So maybe we (and CDTA) need to think about what it is about getting on a train/subway/trolley or anything else that travels on tracks that people see as superior to getting on a bus.

One thing is that in most cities, you wait for light rail under cover. There's a station, a roof, an overhang, something. That something is not usually an enclosure like a bus shelter.

Another is that you can usually get on quickly. Getting on a bus involves waiting while people are surprised to find they need to pay or swipe, or waiting while they swipe the card 5 or 6 times before it works, waiting while they pick up the bags they put down to work the swiper. It's pretty frustrating, especially when you're standing in the rain.

Another is that the stops are regular and predictable. I've been on buses where the driver didn't notice the "stop" call (most often because of chatting with passengers or, worse, friends), and I've been left to walk back blocks from my destination. I've also seen people think they've pulled the stop signal but it hasn't registered. It's insanely frustrating.

I wonder what other elements of rail could be incorporated into bus travel to make it much more attractive to people who simply won't consider it now.

@Carl: The more evolved BRT systems have a lot of features that are similar to light rail. Here's an account of the one in Curitiba, Brazil, which is one of the most famous systems. BusPlus is still a long way from that.

Not that I'm a light rail advocate (I'd rather see CDTA have more reach with more flexibility), but that $1bil number likely ignores many hidden costs. Specifically, buses run on already established roads paid by, you guessed it, taxes -- and CDTA itself is somewhere around 75% publicly funded, last I checked. Yes, building light rail would be expensive, but it would shift usage off of existing infrastructure, and the savings from that isn't calculated in that cost.

Personally I do see buses as the best short-term public transit option in the area, considering how well they can get people to their jobs and retail destinations given our existing infrastructure, but ignoring the benefit they gain from existing infrastructure is naive at best.

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