Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Back to the future – Bus Rapid Transit

with 5 comments

San Fransisco Chronicle

Henry Gardner is the executive director of the Association of Bay Area Governments and former city manager of Oakland.

And he is trying to advance the cause of BRT by re-awakening memories of the old Key System. I am at all sure that this is wise. Firstly because a lot of people who are young or new to the area will not understand the references, an dthose that do may be misled. Yes we all used to ride the interurban once upon a time but modern transit systems are a lot better than that was.

But the reason I wanted to quote the article is this gem

Critics point to the effects on automobile use as reasons to oppose the project. But some difficult trade-offs will need to be made to improve public transit and improve traffic flow, even if there are impacts on motorists.

Effects on automobile use are precisely the point. And the greater the impact the better. The automobile and its excessive use is that cause of the problem – and that covers a whole range of issues including local air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion, road safety and human health. Take cars out of most urban environments and the neighbourhood improves overnight.

A lot of what is wrong with transit in general is that far too much accommodation has been made for cars, but that is changing slowly. Bus stops that stick out into the travel lane as opposed to those that require the bus to get out of the cars’ way are a good start. So are exclusive bus lanes – especially when they are taken away from other traffic not used as an excuse to widen roads.

The Richmond Rapid Bus (that became the 98 B line) that I worked on should have been much better than it was – or is now. And that could have allowed for the Canada Line to be put off for a while, itself a worthwhile aim, I think. But is was sunk by traffic engineers obsessed with vehicle capacity who refused to allow the use of people carrying capacity as the metric. And, of course, most of the public outrage was carefully manipulated. What had really upset the residents of the most expensive area of Vancouver was that people from Richmond were driving through it! They had accepted the Arthur Laing because they used the airport too, but the Number Two Road bridge was a betrayal. And restriping Granville to three narrow lanes “without consulting us” was unforgiveable. That is why the opponents used the terms “Say No to Granville Highway” – because even they could see that opposing better bus service was elitist. Indeed the only really bad faux pas in transit discussions in recent years was that silly woman who talked about “la crème de al crème“. She deserved to get a tram up her Arbutus for that if nothing else!

The bus rapid transit system along Insurgentes Avenue in Mexico City, a project of EMBARQ – The WRI Center for Sustainable Transport.
EMBARQ website
Photo by Robin Murphy, 2007.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 7, 2008 at 8:40 am

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

Tagged with

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I agree that BRT has much untapped potential, especially for North America… but I also feel that in North America there has been too much generosity in bestowing the BRT moniker on what, compared to international best practice, are enhanced bus systems, not rapid transit systems.

    After travelling a bit in Colombia and researching the stellar TransMilenio system in Bogota while there (it really is amazing), I am firmly of the mind that a similar system could do wonders here and even generate developement nodes (with sufficient investment in stations). Interestingly in Spanish they call TransMilenio a “Sistema de Transporte Massivo” (STM) or “Mass Transit System”.. there is no equivilant term for “Bus Rapid Transit”.

    To me, the stations were the most impressive part of the system.. They are fully enclosed, have station entry with smart-card turnstiles, and if anything feel like skytrain stations, and set the system well apart from “the bus” thus making it appealing even to car owners.

    Numerous other countries are now building systems after the TransMilenio model (Malaysia, China, and *three* cities in South Africa), they’re looking to the best and it isn’t in North America… I even encountered a delegation of politicians, planners and engineers from Capetown who were on a study tour of international best-practices in BRT. I believe their stops were in Guayaquil, Pereira, Bogota, somewhere in Brazil and Leon Mexico.

    BC ought to follow suite, in a globalising world there really are no excuses for ignoring international successess simply becuase they are someplace “different”. As costs of land and oil rise beyond the reach of larger portions of the population we may begin to have more in common with many of these places and can learn from them.

    Clip of a BRT station in Bogota:


    April 7, 2008 at 4:01 pm

  2. You should have been at the meetings in Vancouver when we were talking about rapid bus shelters. The final design owed much to the arguments of retailers who said it was essential that people driving past could see into their windows! I had this idea that people driving were supposed to be looking out for pedestrians, stray dogs and vagrant motor scooters, but apparently they were really supposed to be comparing the price of frocks.

    The final design, mostly glass, did not keep out the wind or the rain. The ticket machines and all door boarding were conceded to the bus drivers union – and budget constraints. The final production models didn’t work, but they looked pretty. And they had lighting!

    Stephen Rees

    April 7, 2008 at 4:21 pm

  3. Yes, they leak hideously in the rain, don’t they?


    April 7, 2008 at 7:32 pm

  4. There has been great debate about BRT and/or guided bus for many years and despite the hype and hoopla, the mode really hasn’t achieved anything near its promoter’s expectations.

    The best of BRT systems are guided bus and there are several proprietary systems, the oldest being the German O-Bahn system. O-Bahn has been a disappointment. Adelaide’s O-Bahn is typical of BRT systems; despite the large extra outlay of expenses for the enhanced bus service, Adelaide’s O-Bahn service did not attract new ridership and ridership increased at the same rate has non O-Bahn bus routes. Adelaide is now upgrading it’s 80 year old Glenelg tramway (with 80 year old cars) to LRT standard and instead of new O-Bahn routes, it is LRT that is being planned for.

    The problem is that buses, including BRT don’t seem to attract new ridership. With BRT systems costing near that of new light rail, with just a bit more outlay of cash, one can get a whole lot more benefits with LRT.

    There is another problem with BRT, wages and BRT is employee intensive. One bus driver can carry about 125 passengers, where as one tram driver can carry over 600 passengers has light rail vehicles have a greater capacity, being both longer and able to run in ‘multiple units’. With wages being about 70% of operating costs, in north America and Europe, labour intensive transit systems are very expensive to operate, resulting in higher fares, smaller systems, and less service. It is for this reason that new guided bus systems have had a hard sell in Europe and where they have been built have proven somewhat disappointing in operation. To the transit consumer, a bus, is a bus, is a bus.

    I don’t want this to be an anti-bus rant, but much of the BRT debate has come and gone, with a few pockets in North America, still planning for BRT. The failure of the German O-Bahn guided bus system to gain a market share in the 80’s and 90’s has, I think, doomed BRT.

    The following is from the Light Rail Transit Association and may shed more light on the subject.



    As readers of this fact sheet take the time to ponder the merits of the three basic transit modes (commuter rail, light rail and bus) , commuter rail stands out as having the highest capacity and speed but conversely the highest costs with the lowest number of pick-up locations, and often in places somewhat inconvenient for foot passengers to reach. At this point enter the bus, able to serve the railway’s “no-go” locations and often at a better frequency. Later though, technical developments to the humble tram not only made it very efficient but paradoxically helped also to bolster patronage on local bus services. In its own right the bus has also experienced some technical developments, in some respects close to re-inventing the wheel and in the case of a kerb-guided bus, two very small wheels.

    This fact sheet will now take a fairly, close look at some of the points raised by Kenneth G Sislak in his discussion paper (1) as well as some random opinions contributing to this BRT/LRT debate.


    The paper considers that with the current shortage of funds BRT is to be preferred to light rail as its lower costs would enable funds to be spread more widely. Certainly many a technically-sound light rail project has “bit the dust” during a budget squeeze only to re-emerge later as a guided bus scheme. This approach although common ignores the full life costs which could tip the balance in favour of light rail. Doubts about bus technology though have often “dogged” ambitious bus proposals, usually on a value-for-money basis, a not unexpected response considering the image problem (2). The need for this caution was apparently justified because of the way that passengers in the past have voted with their feet (3). This downward spiral has continued to be of concern to politicians in general and consultants in particular especially in making that vital comparison between BRT and LRT. An extract from one particular consultant’s report (4) gave the tram (L=2 X 30m, W=2.65m) a capability of carrying 21 000 passengers/hour/direction and an articulated bus (L=18m, W=2.5m) with the lower figure of 7 500. The importance of these figures becomes apparent when viewed alongside two controversial studies in Seattle (Washington), one praised the virtues of BRT and claimed it to be equal or better than LRT whilst the other recommended keeping the long-standing LRT proposals alive by making an early start, but with a smaller and more affordable initial segment. Although these views have emanated from the opposite ends of the transit spectrum, it is interesting to record that Seattle’s Sound Transit Board has overwhelmingly voted to take the first positive step with what so far has been a very troubled LRT project.


    The paper lists busways, which vary from little more than reserved lanes to full blown guided systems, as an indication of their acceptability but, like many BRT advocates, does not indicate that their success is limited and in some cases not yet operational.

    Sydney, despite LRT’s international reputation for operational success, has almost turned its back on light rail by spending large sums of money on an accelerated programme of bus transitways (5). In justification of its decision, the NSW Government has been quoted as suggesting that Ottawa’s extensive bus system carried more than any comparable system in North America. Ottawa is on record though as experiencing between 1991 and 1996 a ridership decline of 18% which probably played a major part in that city’s decision to stop building busways and to concentrate in future on diesel light rail expansion.

    Curitiba, also quoted by NSW as an example of extensive busway operation, appears now to favour a partly elevated rubber-tyred metro system. Of the proposed busway network for Northampton (UK) and guided busway systems in Birmingham, Ipswich and Leeds, quoted as adequate reasoning for busway expansion in Sydney, only the latter two are operating as Northampton is only in the planning stage while Birmingham closed its bus guideway in 1987 to concentrate instead on light rail.


    Recognised as the birthplace of the O-bahn guided bus system, Essen now appears to be turning away from any further development. The most obvious indication of this is the continued expansion of both its standard and metre gauge light rail networks with little or no development of the O-bahn system.

    At international level, the outlook for kerb-guided busway development is showing signs of slowing down with Adelaide no longer going ahead with O-bahn expansion and Edinburgh deciding to drop its CERT guided bus contract but persevere with its light rail plans and review a guided bus solution for the west of the city.


    Sislak includes the French systems of Nancy and Caen in the list of busways despite neither being open at the time of publication. Since then the TVR (BRT) in Nancy has been through a traumatic time having had to close for some 12 Months due to safety problems. Although expected to resume commercial service shortly there are still concerns as it is reported that consultants have advised the undertaking in Nancy that it is an “impaired” form of guided mode (6).


    An obvious benefit gained so far from BRT operation can be observed in Leeds, a city now with two guided bus corridors and the operators pleased with the initial results. Buses now pass lines of stationary cars held at traffic lights and when ahead of the queue often revert to normal operation. As an average bus passenger may well usually be unaware of the change, to or from the guided mode, the necessity and associated cost for a continuous guideway is sometimes questioned. Whether continuous or not the vehicle is still a bus with its inherent image problem, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in the discussion paper by Kenneth D. Sislak as shown by this quote…”Bus systems are not overly appealing to people who value comfort, convenience and speed – – – the attributes of BRT must appeal to those people who now choose to drive an automobile and at least be equal to LRT” (7). It needs to be remembered that this will increase the busways cost.


    Disabled passengers, parents with prams or just shoppers carrying parcels would quickly notice if (for economy reasons) the Supertram services in Sheffield were suddenly changed to BRT. Markings on the platforms showing where the doors would be could become redundant because as bus passengers know, buses in city centres often cannot stop to pick-up in as orderly a fashion as the trams, and anyone waiting for a bus has to remain vigilant and be ready to walk two or more bus lengths to board – no need to rush though because loading a bus is usually slow. Making a change from one bus route to another is also a difficult procedure when compared with a tram to tram change. The all-weather reliability of a tram service ensures it will be available when needed most, such as in snow conditions. Other LRT benefits include a lack of exhaust fumes, a safe pedestrian mix in precincts and a low energy demand per tram passenger compared with bus passengers (8). As is well known, one only gets what one pays for.


    This was the sub heading of the discussion paper by Kenneth G Sislak, which was actually drawing attention to two vastly different locations and the totally different reasons for applying BRT to their respective transit plans. Cleveland regarded BRT as a substitute for LRT whereas the Nashville (Tennessee) proposal was for BRT as a precursor to LRT.

    The existing patronage level in Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor is close to justifying light rail (over 27 600/day), and considering the 20-25% gain normally anticipated with a new LRT service this tends to demonstrate a potential need for LRT to be seriously considered. To do otherwise tends to suggest a lack of confidence in the future prosperity of the corridor, a commercial decline that would better fit the lower passenger flows usually associated with bus operation. The switch from low-floor electric trolley buses to diesel electric buses using a fuel cleaner than ordinary diesel (9) could be a first step in this thinking. To a certain extent, this supposition is backed up by the reported 50% patronage loss since 1980 (10).

    As this fact sheet was being prepared a news item arrived that could, if proved accurate, have some serious consequences for the Euclid Corridor. A large bus operator has discovered that natural gas buses have higher operating and maintenance costs and suffer more frequent breakdowns than electric trolley buses (11). Although the change proposed in Cleveland is from electric trolleybuses to diesel engines using low-sulphur fuel, there are certain cautionary signs that should be noted.

    The decision to go for a bus solution seems to have been taken on cost grounds in comparison with light rail partly in tunnel rather than a streetcar type of operation as in Portland which could have helped to raise the profile of the city. The comparative costings show no track costs for the busway despite the changes needed to provide the segregated busway and one could assume that these costs will end up against a highways budget.

    In the case of Nashville the comparison is made between BRT and LRT with and without subway. Although seen as a possible precursor to light rail no account seems to have been taken of extra costs that would be required to implement the changeover nor the long term costs of operating a busway.


    The Euclid corridor project in Cleveland proposes the elimination of some on-street parking (12), a restriction that appears to accompany many bus-only schemes. For example, the busway scheme in Brisbane (Queensland) has apparently failed to attract the motorist, and future plans there include road tolls to enter the city centre (13). The extra funding needed to provide an integrated tram and bus network will, because of the nature of the tram, make it easier to allow footpaths to be extended outward at tram stops and thus provide parking bays between stops.


    Seattle though (referred to earlier) made the important decision to proceed with LRT after many years of procrastination and in doing so applied some transit logic: Design the initial segment to suit the funds available. The incentive to make this start was also probably made with the knowledge of a well known fact in transit circles: Bus ridership has risen in almost every city that has built a new light rail system (14). While there may be instances where BRT is the right answer for a particular location it is important that the decision is made in a comprehensive way and not on the grounds of short term expediency


    BUS RAPID TRANSIT (BRT) AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR LIGHT RAIL TRANSIT (LRT) – A TALE OF TWO CITIES – a discussion paper by Kenneth G Sislak – Director of Public Transportation (Wilbur Smith Associates Cleveland Ohio) – Submitted to the Eighth Joint Conference on Light Rail Transit sponsored by the American Public Transit Association and the Transportation Research Board, Dallas, Texas — 11th-15th November 2000.
    LIGHT RAIL REVIEW No 8. page 26 – 20th May 1998 – Platform 5 Publishing and the Light Rail Transit Association.
    Barrie Clement (Transport Editor) – THE INDEPENDENT – 28th November 2000.
    BUS OR LIGHT RAIL : MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE – Carmen Hass-Klau et al. – Environment and Transport Planning – April 2000 – Table 12 on page – 49.
    Sydney’s Western Bus Transitways – TRANSIT AUSTRALIA – page 281 – December 2001.
    TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT – February 2002 – page 65.
    A quote from Kenneth G Sislak’s Discussion Paper – see Reference No 1. for details.
    A bus passenger per mile needs between 0.83 and 1.4- MJ which compares with the 0.59-MJ per passenger mile needed on an LRV – HOUSE OF COMMONS SELECT COMMITTEE – “ROADS FOR THE FUTURE” – report by M R Taplin in LIGHT RAIL REVIEW No 3 -. Platform 5 Publishing and the Light Rail Transit Association – November 1991 – page 62. – Published jointly by Platform 5 Publishing and Light Rail Transit Association.
    Internet information – GREATER CLEVELAND REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITY – 17th December 2001 –
    Page 8. of Kenneth G Sislak’s Discussion Paper – See Reference No 1. for details.
    G Leicester – Manager – TRANSLINK (Implementation Planning) – Vancouver – 2nd January 2002.
    Internet information – Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority – 17th December 2001 –
    COUNCIL TO DRIVE CARS OUT OF CBD – COURIER MAIL (Brisbane) – 18th December 2001.
    Dave Enslow – Vice Chairman of the Sound Transit Board (Seattle) 7th November 2001.

    Malcolm J.

    April 7, 2008 at 9:09 pm

  5. Well it takes sticks too, not just pretty carrots, lets get real – there has to be some pain before most people consider changing habits.

    People will ride transit (not matter what it is bus, LRT or BRT) when the costs of driving (time and/or money) get higher than transit. Look at regular bus service within Vancouver, there are *alot* of people taking the bus, even the stop-at-every-stop trolley buses.

    Have congestion charging, take the required ROWs away from the cars give them to transit, make the drive horrible… but offer a *fast*, reliable and affordable alternative (with suitable weather protection)..

    No BRT might not be the answer for travel within cores but from suburbs into town, or between suburban centres I think it has great potential… and besides if you build it right, the very same stations can be used for LRT down the road. It needen’t be one or the other.


    April 8, 2008 at 9:09 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: