As COVID-19 vaccinations increase and more people return to activities and travel, mass transit ridership is recovering more slowly than other modes of transportation in the United States. At its low point of the pandemic, rail ridership—heavy-, light-, and commuter-rail—was down more than 90 percent and is now down 70 percent. Bus ridership was down more than 70 percent and is now down 30 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. While transit ridership has increased from those lows, the transit ridership recovery is likely going to take years and may never fully return.
Nationally, transit ridership had been falling for several years before the pandemic. Given the potentially permanent changes in ways many Americans commute and can work from home some or all of the time, most experts only expect mass transit ridership to recover to about 80 percent of its pre-COVID levels in the years to come.
It is time for cities and transportation agencies to start rethinking new capacity projects. For many high-density corridors, bus rapid transit is going to be a better, more cost-effective option than rail. The question is which type of bus rapid transit to choose.
First, it is important to define bus rapid transit, which is not local bus service or express bus service. BRT lines have seven elements to differentiate them from typical bus lines:
- A dedicated bus lane or a running way that gives buses priority;
- Unique station design;
- Larger vehicles (often 60-seat articulated buses);
- Off-board fare collection;
- Intelligent transportation systems;
- Unique branding;
- And more frequent servicel.
In many major cities, traditional bus service has developed a reputation as slow and unreliable. In order to encourage choice riders—those who can afford and access private alternatives to buses and transit— to take bus rapid transit, these riders must perceive better overall service and value than their other options.
It is understandable that transit service planners get indignant whenever a transit agency proposes to label routine bus service as BRT service just because it has longer buses or off-board fare collection. Keeping BRT as a differentiated brand from typical bus service is vital to attract choice riders. When BRT is watered down its popularity falls, and the calls for costly new rail lines often increase.
There are three different types of BRT. In ‘BRT heavy,’ buses travel in a dedicated right of way. In ‘BRT lite,’ buses share the right of way with automobiles. In ‘freeway BRT,’ the bus travels on a shoulder or uses a managed lane at no cost.
Choosing the wrong type of BRT, or building BRT where no type of high-capacity transit is needed creates its own problems. For example, Albuquerque built a BRT heavy line because the city prioritized obtaining a federal grant for fixed-route service over meeting community needs. To satisfy the terms of the grant, the city ripped up historic U.S. Route 66 to create a dedicated running way for the bus and ordered expensive, unproven electric buses. The torn-up roadway enraged motorists and contributed to a 40 percent decrease in business activity along the corridor. Vandals smashed ticket dispensers, and the general condition of the corridor deteriorated. The buses leaked oil, bolts flew off doors, brakes failed, and batteries did not deliver the promised 275-mile range per charge. The city was forced to shut down service for a year while it procured new diesel buses. Had Albuquerque prioritized meeting service needs through cheaper, more appropriate BRT lite rather than chasing federal funding, these problems may have been minimized.
BRT heavy is appropriate on some routes. It is best for routes with high ridership on surface streets with heavy traffic congestion. For example, the Washington DC region could have built a bus rapid transit line instead of the $6.8 billion heavy-rail Silver Line that runs from Falls Church to Ashburn, Virginia, When studying project alternatives, area leaders pressured the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to examine heavy rail and BRT lite, which was not an acceptable alternative due to traffic congestion in Tysons Corner. However, WMATA should have been allowed to consider a BRT heavy line that traveled in a dedicated lane in each direction. While that lane would not have been cheap, it would have likely been far less costly than the over-budget, off-schedule Silver Line that was built instead.
BRT lite is best for routes with medium ridership and surface streets with moderate traffic congestion. For example, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA)’s Prospect Avenue and Troost Max Line connect residential and commercial areas to downtown Kansas City.
Freeway BRT is best for limited-access highways connecting different parts of a metro area. Freeway BRT can link suburbs with downtowns or suburbs with other suburbs. The BRT vehicle uses either managed toll lanes or shoulders to travel in a semi-dedicated right-of-way. This right-of-way allows the bus operator to avoid roadway congestion and offers quicker and more consistent travel times. In managed lanes, such as express toll lanes, buses travel for free. This aids corridor throughput because buses can move far more people through a corridor than private automobiles. Some freeway BRT lines offer in-line stations that allow intermediate bus stops in the freeway median or shoulder without the bus needing to exit the highway.
While BRT has made considerable inroads in the transportation community, too many politicians still view it as some type of consolation prize when the money for light rail isn’t there. But in most cases, bust rapid transit is going to be equal to, or superior to, light rail in every way.
BRT vehicles can comfortably carry more passengers than many light rail vehicles. BRT can lead to the same type of transit-oriented development as light rail if the adjacent property is zoned for mixed-use and there is a market for those business offerings. BRT has helped increase economic activity in places ranging from Bogota to Boston.
Transportation officials and politicians need to remember that the number one priority of mass transit customers is convenient, fast, reliable service. Given its flexibility and low costs, no mass transit mode better delivers on those priorities more consistently than bus rapid transit.