Bus Rapid Transit: An Inexpensive Solution for Cash-Strapped States and Regions

A funny thing about the transportation field is that it tends to give rise to people who are in love with one particular mode of transportation. “Foamers,” for example, are obsessed with trains. (According to Wikipedia, railroad workers invented this term for train enthusiasts who practically foamed at the mouth over trains.) I know a guy in the field who keeps antique train timetables on his nightstand. That’s a sure sign of a foamer. Others adore light rail, and some are fanatics for BRT, or bus rapid transit.

This means that sometimes in politics we get into food fights when it comes to building transportation, with say, rail people on one side and highway people on the other. But in fact there’s a role for an array of options. For better or for worse, as I once told a congressman from Georgia, when it comes to solving transportation problems I’m more of a “silver buckshot” guy than a “silver bullet” guy. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to our nation’s transportation problems. Different contexts need different approaches. And it seems to me that in our current budget-crunched situation, BRT is one tool that states and regions should be considering.

I’m not going to get into the complete history of BRT here, (Dario Hidalgo of EMBARQ gave a great presentation on BRT  at the Brookings Institute last week), but to put it very briefly, it’s a system that makes buses run more like trains. At their most upscale, BRTs use high-tech buses, fancy stations that display bus arrivals in real time, off-bus fare collection, street-level boarding and exclusive lanes. They move faster than traditional buses, and on a per mile basis usually cost less (sometimes much less) than a new rail line.

BRT is getting increasingly popular, especially in the developing world. Ninety-seven cities launched BRT in the past ten years, and 49 more cities have BRT under construction. (My colleagues at the Smarter Cities project recently wrote about New Delhi’s BRT.) There are just a handful of operating BRT lines in this country, however, and most of them aren’t as sophisticated as Latin American BRT.

BRT systems in this country are seen as a sort of poor cousin to rail. Politicians like to be associated with big, flashy rail projects – buses, not so much.

But maybe in this time of fiscal prudence, giving the poor cousin a chance might make some lucky state official look really smart. A 2007 study of Los Angeles’ Orange Line, one of the most advanced BRT projects in the United States, found that it carried more riders, at less cost, than the city’s Gold Line light rail system. This doesn’t mean, of course, that BRT is better than light rail in every case. But it’s a good reminder to keep an open mind about how we build a 21st century transportation network – and try to keep from foaming at the mouth over any one solution in particular.