BRT being tested in Cleveland. Photo by jeffschuler on Flickr.

Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich has a plan for “rapid bus” corridors around the county. While I applaud Councilman Elrich’s vision, he’s not the first person to articulate such an idea.

In fact, the Action Commitee for Transit sent BeyondDC some excellent recommendations to immediately improve existing bus service on major routes in Montgomery County for no cost, or the very small cost of painting stripes on asphalt. I hope that Mr. Elrich and County Executive Leggett embrace these suggestions.

We don’t have true Bus Rapid Transit in our region.  We have some limited stop “express” bus routes.  These routes have fewer stops, and can therefore run a tighter schedule.  However, they operate in mixed lanes with automobile traffic.  Anyone who rides a bus during rush hour can attest that there’s nothing “rapid” about that.  True Bus Rapid Transit is defined by the presence of a completely separate roadway that is only for the bus.  No pesky automobiles.  In theory, no traffic jams.

While everyone has heard about the BRT wonder that is Curitiba, Brazil, looking at existing BRT in other American transportation systems sheds more light on the transportation possibilities in the Washington, D.C. region. Other cities in the United States do have true BRT: Maryland Delegate Al Carr, whose district includes anti-Purple Line centers Kensington and Chevy Chase, recently visited Cleveland and wrote about the new BRT line there. Carr feels that Maryland should choose BRT instead of light rail for the Purple Line:

I came away convinced that BRT is a practical, efficient and cost effective transit option. Giving buses priority at traffic signals seems to be a key factor in achieving its full potential for fast trip times.

Here in Maryland it would be unwise to rule out BRT for the any of the new transit lines being considered. In a time of fiscal constraints, we need to keep all options open.

But Edson Tennyson, P.E., a transportation planner and former official of the Pennsylvania State DOT, sent Purple Line NOW some more sobering statistics on the true effectiveness of BRT:

We have lots of official data on Bus Rapid Tranait. I funded the state share of the first Pittsburgh BusWay [The BusWay is true BRT]. It was not cheap. They promised me 32,000 weekday passengers, up from 18,750 with no added buses, just improved efficiency.

Well, in 1981, we had the Second Energy Crisis, and the South BusWay peaked at 20,750 weekday passengers. No efficiencies. It has been all down hill from there, down to 10,000 weekday passengers now.

Pittsburgh has suffered economically like Cleveland but not as bad. Nevertheless, the Light Rail Lines parallel to the South BusWay gained 50 % in ridership when it was converted to include a short subway downtown.  When one branch of the Light Rail line was shut down in 1993 to avoid bridge repair, the 8,000 displaced riders showed up with only 1,600 on the replacement BusWay bus.  After 11 years, they put the Light Rail Line back and ridership on the Light Rail system gained 10%.

Pittsburgh then built an East BusWay. I refused to fund it, so my new boss, the Secretary of Transportation, funded it over my objection. This one planned for 90,000 weekday passengers but they thought better of it and cut the estimate to 80,000. It peaked at 30,000 and is at 28,000 now, but [aggregate] bus ridership in Pittsburgh declined 26% at the same time. The East BusWay disrupted existing routes and split up travel with fewer buses on each line with longer waits.

Finally, Pittsburgh built the West BusWay using an abandoned railroad bed like the Georgetown branch [Purple Line ROW] except it had a short tunnel. It was to be eight miles long and was to cost $325 million in 1998.  It was to carry 50,000 people.  The bids hit $525 million. [The local] Congressmen got an earmark to disregard the Full Funding Agreement that required the County to pay the cost overrun.  They cut it back to only 5 miles to stay within the $325 million, but lost access to downtown, other than by the old way on the congested streets.  Only 18% of the 50,000 passengers have shown up so far.  It cost more to build than Light Rail, but attracts far fewer passengers.

Mr. Tennyson also compares the long-term cost-effectiveness between BRT and light rail:

Los Angeles has three Light Rail Lines and several BRT projects but Light Rail is the low cost operation. 48 cents per passenger-mile vs. 55 cents by bus BUT the accounting is distorted.  They assign General Administration cost by passenger, so empty buses get no such cost, but busy Light Rail lines carry the bus overhead costs.

Bus Rapid Transit has its place in diversified transportation systems.  However, it is in no way a direct substitute for light rail (and even farther from the capacity of heavy rail). There is no BRT line in the United States that has an average daily ridership of 68,000 per day, which the the Purple Line DEIS projects for High Investment LRT, even under conservative FTA metrics.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.