Stephen Rees's blog

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

Express bus corridors increasingly popular transit option

with 5 comments

The Globe and Mail gets on the BRT. Mostly, being Toronto’s national newspaper, it’s about what is happening at the centre of the known universe. But the longish article is quite a good summary of the whys and wherefores of BRT. It is relevant to us here because Translink is now in consultation mode for transit expansion in Surrey that will include this mode as well as LRT and SkyTrain

BRT Rending Surrey Rapid Transit

Translink's rendering of Bus Rapid Transit on 104 Avenue and 144 Street. A better image of this type of bus is shown at the end of this article

A couple of things that I think need to be pointed out. As the second paragraph makes clear we are only looking at this mode because it seems to be cheap. Cities are indeed “cash strapped” – but they need not be, and that is only a reflection of some very short sighted and deeply regressive taxation policies that seem to have taken over western society in general. There is still plenty of tax payer’s money available for things our present political leadership deems worthwhile, like fighter jets, or massive prisons. BRT should save money on upfront costs of equipment and infrastructure, but much depends on the degree of separation required. Ottawa spent a fortune on a grade separated right of way – but cheaped out in downtown, where buses were forced back into mixed traffic with entirely predictable impacts on service speeds and reliability.They also operated buses on conventional streets to do collection and delivery in the suburbs to give a one seat ride and no forced transfers – which tended to compensate for that.

But the capacity restraint of BRT hits at quite a low threshold. “As the demand starts to grow and you start to need buses more frequently, then the labour costs of BRT grow really quickly.” (Jeff Casello, an associate professor of transportation at the University of Waterloo.)

Bus Rapid Transit in Ottawa

Bus Rapid Transit in Ottawa by Ottawa Bus Gallery on flickr. On May 18th 2010, an incident caused this backlog to build up on the busway

Ottawa started looking at LRT some years ago: “the city plans to replace some portions of its BRT with an underground light-rail line to serve the downtown core”.

In Vancouver, in 2006, a decision was made to replace the highly successful, five-year-old bus corridor in Richmond with LRT, in order to have greater capacity.

Translink R8076 D60LF on 98 B Line Richmond BC 2007_0708

98 B Line on No 3 Road in Richmond July, 2007 - my photo

“Highly successful” seems to me to be debatable. It was chosen originally by an NDP government in Victoria and there was more than a little political spite involved. The former government had been planning LRT for Richmond – which is where the Vancouver commitment to the Cambie Heritage Boulevard came from. The NPA did not want surface running LRT. Glen Clark was happy to commit a very limited sum ($25m if my memory serves) to a bus service since Richmond would NOT get rail as long as he had anything to do with it. I will confess I did not hear him say that in person – but those at BC Transit in charge were given very definite marching orders. In the process of negotiation with City of Vancouver engineers, BRT was soon whittled down to a bus that did not stop as frequently as regular buses but would allow Vancouver passengers to board. (At that time, suburban buses sped past Vancouver stops as they were limited to suburban riders.) Only in Richmond was there any exclusive right of way and that was limited to a very short section of No 3 Road – which was supposed to be convertible to light rail in the future. When it was launched as the 98 BLine the overloading with passengers travelling to and from Marpole avoiding their slow trolleybus service – and the Richmond passengers lost to the forced transfer – meant that “express buses” came back very soon afterwards.

As for capacity on the Canada Line (which I find it hard to think of as LRT) I have exhausted that subject in other posts.

There are as many kinds of BRT as there are LRT – and a very wide variety of experiences to draw upon. Much depends on local circumstances and conventions. Not too many places, outside of South America, have double articulated high floor buses on exclusive rights of way with pre-payment at raised stations (Curitiba). The nearest we have to BRT now is the 99 B Line and that is overwhelmed when UBC is in session and gets little in the way of bus priority anywhere.

Bogota Transmileno BRT

Bogota Transmileno BRT photo by "Dear Edward" on flickr

It seems to me that the critical indicator that the Globe does not mention is relative speed. Relative, that is, to cars. As long as people can drive and park then the overall journey time door to door is likely to be faster and more convenient in a single occupant vehicle than most types of transit. That is because the car takes you almost door to door, whereas transit takes you from somewhere where you are not to where you do not really want to be. Now when the car driver faces congestion and a lack of parking spaces then transit starts to look attractive. Given the access and egress inconvenience of transit (i.e. walk time to and from the station at each end) anything that can be done to improve in vehicle time compared to driving is going to produce benefits in transit share of the market. But in Vancouver, the most that has been done with bus is to improve bus in vehicle time to be about the same as the car just by stopping less frequently. Though in the City of Vancouver even that gets reduced due to the City’s insistence on frequent stops for the B line. By giving transit its own right of way, the transit vehicle (bus, tram or train) moves faster than the car. That is all the “rapid” that is needed – and in some cases of short trips, the passion we have for grade separation means that access times – getting up or down to the platform – offsets the speed advantage. One of the great things about surface rapid transit is that access times are minimized – and the right of way can be taken from car/sov street capacity. I say “can be” only because in North America in general – and in Greater Vancouver in particular – it usually isn’t. Bus lanes or HOV lanes are usually added not subtracted from GP capacity.

The great lesson from Copenhagen – which I also never tire of repeating- is that space for cars must be steadily reduced over time. We can never ever keep up with the demand for car trips by adding capacity. It is pointless trying. When subways replaced streetcars on Yonge Street in Toronto, traffic downtown increased. Traffic expands to fill the space available.

It is this that matters – not what sort of wheels the transit has. As long as we use BRT or LRT to try and accommodate insatiable demand for car trips, then we are doomed to exist in uncivilized places. Once we start thinking of cities as places for people – not their cars – then we start making progress.

RTC's MAX BRT line

MAX BRT line that serves downtown Las Vegas out to Nellis AFB. Photo by Erik Weber on flickr

Postscript: see also The Transport Politic “The Silly Argument Over BRT and Rail”

Written by Stephen Rees

May 23, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation

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5 Responses

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  1. The problem with express buses is that they need dedicated corridors (and priority at traffic lights) to be truly express.
    Otherwise, as we see it on the B line to UBC, it is a cheap solution that, as the French say, try to “spare the feelings of both the goat and the cabbage” doesn’t really work..

    It only pleases ivory tower planners and politicians that never uses transit or/ and the avenues where these buses run.
    Totally separated express bus lanes plus articulated buses = less $ than a LRT but, as they carry less people and have a much rougher ride, where is the gain?

    Bordeaux used to have articulated buses with TWO (2) trailers!!!
    They were OK when fully loaded but in off-peak hours riding in the back trailer made people seasick (yes I used them).
    Avenues in downtown Bordeaux are 18th cent. Smaller streets are Medieval or Renaissance re-design of Roman only a few late 19th century avenues could have fast lanes (separated from other traffic by low dividers) these buses couldn’t be express all the way..

    Hence the decision in the late 1990s to bite the bullet and build a tramway (LRT) AND use it as an excuse to reduce the number of car lanes in the downtown area. the trams aren’t that fast either but they are more pleasant than buses in many ways.

    One truly great thing about Bordeaux’ huge buses was the big red knob outside the rear doors. If you were running at full speed to catch the bus as it moved away, hitting the knob stopped it on a dime, sending passengers flying, stressing the driver and opening the doors..what a thrill! and you were in.

    Red frog

    May 24, 2011 at 11:07 pm

  2. I agree that express buses need dedicated corridors and signal priority, but it is not enough as we see from experience with the Orange Line in L.A. and the Spadina and St. Clair Streetcar lines in Toronto. Grade separation is the only way to achieve high travel speeds.

    Note also the B-Line operates too frequently for effective signal priority. Even if we hate cars, the intersecting streets must have green lights occasionally if only so pedestrians and other buses can cross.

    I think an important factor in the effectiveness of express and limited buses is the PERCEPTION of speed. If people think the buses are fast then they will like them, even if they are not really all that fast. This goes with an old adage of planning: planning is successful if the public thinks it is.


    May 25, 2011 at 9:05 am

  3. And why in North America don’t we have bi-articulated buses, especially on the trolleybus routes?

    I wonder if Translink would have bought a lot more articulated trolleybuses and fewer 40′ buses had they known the increase in ridership seen in the last seven years in Vancouver.


    May 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm

  4. i’m really fond of your service, something I’ve often wondered is the purpose for the coverings on the wheels. are they purely aesthetic?


    May 18, 2012 at 5:58 pm

  5. Yes – the idea is that the buses look as much as possible like modern light rail cars

    Stephen Rees

    May 19, 2012 at 1:23 am

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