A bus by any other name

Since its introduction in 1974 in Brazil, bus rapid transit (BRT) has made big inroads in mass transit internationally. Cities find BRT systems attractive for the reasons noted by ITDP in Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit: A Survey of Select U.S. Cities:

  1. “Speed of Implementation: the time from planning to opening tends to be far shorter for BRT than for rail-based alternatives—a benefit very attractive to politicians facing short election cycles.
  2. Cost: capital costs tend to be considerably lower than those for rail-based mass transit alternatives; operating costs are also lower in some contexts.
  3. Network Connectivity: because parts of the network can operate on normal streets, it is much cheaper and faster to establish a full network using bus-based mass transit. In this way, modern BRT can offer more one-seat rides than the typical trunk-and-feeder systems offered by older BRT and most light rail, metro, or commuter rail systems.”

ITDP came up with a ranking system, called the BRT Standard, and used it to score several of the best BRT systems currently operating in the United States, then compared these systems to international best practice. It concluded that several of the systems – Cleveland, Eugene, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas – have brought about significant improvements in the quality of transit services, and therefore deserve a bronze ranking, but none of them ranks among the world’s leading BRT systems. As for the Boston and New York systems: “Some American systems reviewed had so few essential characteristics that calling them a BRT system at all does a disservice to efforts to gain broader adoption of BRT in the United States.” Bogota remains the gold standard of BRT systems with its iconic TransMilenio.

ITDP’s report summarizes interviews with leading journalists on the topic of public and media perceptions of BRT, noting that “Everyone we spoke with emphasized that none of the BRT systems in the United States today are sufficiently high profile or high quality to capture the public imagination in the way that TransMilenio caught the imagination of the rest of Latin America. Until the United States has a world-class system, most Americans are not going to know what BRT is or understand its potential. The journalists all emphasized that the system will need to have high-concept stations and photogenic buses.”