BRT in Eugene, Oregon. Photo from Lane Transit District.

Is Bus Rapid Transit a good idea? The answer depends on what BRT means. At its best, BRT is a toolbox full of techniques that make buses faster and more convenient. At its worst, it’s an excuse for highway-building in places where rail transit is needed.

The term is used in so many different ways that the only way to judge is to ignore the label and look at the specifics. What Chicago calls BRT is a plan to speed up buses that already carry 31,000 riders a day. In San Diego, BRT is an excuse to build freeways instead of expanding light rail.

In Eugene, Oregon, BRT is a bus that runs every 10 minutes in its own lane between a university campus and two downtowns. In St. Louis, what’s advertised as BRT is buses that would run 60 minutes apart outside rush hour, get stuck in traffic jams, and detour off the interstate to stop.

The Chicago Transit Authority has a definition that is vague enough to be accurate: BRT is “a term applied to a variety of bus service designs that provide for faster, more efficient and more reliable service than an ordinary bus line.” The key to making BRT work is to understand that it’s still a bus, and has to be planned as part of the bus network. Do only what helps the riders.

Seeing BRT as a toolbox is important because one tool can get in the way of another. One BRT technique is placing stops farther apart. Another is bus-only lanes in the center of the road. Either one moves buses faster, but they rarely work well together.

When BRT is in the middle of the road, local buses that stop more frequently run in the regular traffic lanes. For the rider, unless the buses come very frequently, the fastest way to reach a destination is to take whichever bus comes first.

As transit expert Jarrett Walker points out, there is a cost when local and limited buses make different stops. Riders on the limited may lose more time by missing the local bus than they gain from the exclusive lane. The better solution is then either a center bus lane where all buses run local, or a curb lane that buses share with turning cars.

“Gold-standard” BRT in Bogota, Colombia. Image from Streetsblog.

Even worse is what happens when all the tools in the box are used at the same time — what enthusiasts laud as the “gold standard” that resembles a “subway in the street.” If buses are to carry subway-like passenger volumes, traffic lights and pedestrians can’t get in the way. Gold-standard BRT becomes an interstate-like highway through the city, what urbanists have been fighting since the 1960s.

When BRT is seen as a toolbox, on the other hand, there are opportunities to help riders even on lightly used routes. The technique of off-bus fare payment can speed up any bus. For example, faregates could easily be placed between the Shady Grove Metro station and the bus stops on its east side. That would make boarding faster on all the buses that stop there, not just a few “BRT” lines.

Bus stops on the east side of Shady Grove Metro. Photo from Google Earth.

With large passenger volumes, rail is the best transit solution. Rail cars can be hooked one behind the other without swinging to the side, so a single train can carry many times more riders than any bus.

It’s not hard to cross a street where 3-car trains run 3 minutes apart; buses carrying the same passenger loads would need to run less than a minute apart and pedestrians would have to be fenced out.

And when ridership gets high enough, trains can easily go underground. There are bus tunnels in Boston and Seattle, but the transit they offer is hardly rapid.  Boston has speed limits as low as 6 mph where buses creep around blind curves.  At the entrances to both tunnels, buses stop to latch onto overhead wires — running diesel buses underground would require expensive ventilation.

Where BRT shines is as a “middle-range” solution, when there are enough riders that buses deserve their own right of way, but not enough to justify a rail line. Veirs Mill Road is an example in our area. Buses there already carry as many passengers as a lane of auto traffic.

Transit advocates are justifiably wary of BRT because opponents of the Purple Line, the Silver Line, and other rail projects frequently push bus lines that no one really wants as a ploy to stop the rail. But the fact that BRT is no substitute for rail shouldn’t blind us to the need for better buses. What matters is not whether a plan is labeled as BRT, but what it does.

Start out with the aim of building something you can call BRT instead of paying for a rail line, and you invite a debacle like Minneapolis’ new $112 million-dollar “Red Line.” Passengers get dropped off on a suburban highway that is ferociously hostile to pedestrians, buses go back into traffic just where the road backs up, and there are only 800 riders a day.

But when BRT is taken as an opportunity to rethink how we use our roads, it can have a big payoff. Bus priority becomes a means of making more efficient use of the pavement we already have. It enables us to stop fruitlessly trying to fight congestion with wider highways, and instead turn traffic sewers into walkable streets.