BRT workshop highlights best practices and marketing

By Ann Grodnik 

In late March, the Institute for Sustainable Communities, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, held a workshop for cities interested in expanding or establishing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems. The event was hosted in Cleveland, home of the HealthLine, and covered a range of topics relevant to cities struggling with the process. The event was attended by several BRT experts and invited representatives from Seattle, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Connecticut, Denver, Eugene/Springfield (OR), Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Madison (WI), Nashville, and Salt Lake City.

Attendees and speakers agreed that BRT fills a unique niche among transit modes. When done well, it provides speed and convenience comparable to rail and can move up to 50 percent more passengers than standard bus services. While it costs more than standard buses, it is much less expensive than light rail, can be implemented more quickly, and is ultimately more flexible. Ridership surveys show a preference for BRT over standard bus service, reflecting that the service is often more akin to rail than buses. Finally, BRT can be a driver for substantial economic development along transit lines.

Despite excitement around the concept, there is no official definition of what constitutes a BRT system. Perhaps the best way to define BRT is by evaluating its components, as the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) did in its report, Recapturing Global Leadership in Bus Rapid Transit: A Survey of Select U.S. Cities. As detailed in the report, ideal BRT systems boast off-board fare collection, peak period frequency of less than 10 minutes, a physically separated right-of-way, elimination of turns across the busway, signal priority, platform-level boarding, permanent stations, and real-time passenger information.

The strongest focus of the conference was on marketing BRT to meet and exceed ridership goals. Both the Healthline and EmX (Eugene/Springfield) run every five minutes during peak periods, and each has seen a 30 percent or more increase in travel speeds along their BRT lines, compared to previous bus service in the same corridor. Eugene and Cleveland also have boasted ridership increases on BRT over the bus line that formerly covered the same route of 74 and 60 percent, respectively. Ridership increases such as these two services experienced are achieved by delivering on the promise that the BRT experience is high-quality, convenient, fast, and rail-like. Marketing these qualities to key constituents during the planning phases is also an important element to a successful system launch. 

Greater Cleveland RTA General Manager Joe Calabrese acknowledged a rail bias among citizens and eschewed the dreaded “b-word” (bus), referring to BRT instead as Better Rapid Transit, because “in Cleveland, the suits don’t ride buses.” By presenting the HealthLine as a high-quality mode of rail-like transportation, they were able to attract new riders. RTA marketed the arrival of the HealthLine heavily, and Calabrese reported being asked numerous times “when the tracks would be going in” by citizens who were convinced that the service would be light rail.

The EmX has exceeded its goals for the 20-year ridership plan, and plans are in process to extend the system. Nevertheless, their road to success was paved with marketing challenges, because the agency failed to adequately reach out of local businesses to garner support for the project. This made later marketing to the local community even more critical. Transit and city staff learned the value of involving the business community early in the process and establishing partnerships from the beginning.

A successful BRT line can bring benefits to cities beyond passenger mobility, including economic development. In Cleveland, the BRT has drawn over $4 billion in real estate investment along Euclid Avenue, a historically significant but economically deteriorated corridor.  Los Angeles has seen substantial development at the terminus of its Orange Line in North Hollywood. The National Bus Rapid Transit Institute released an FTA-funded study in 2009, attempting to quantify the economic impact in one BRT corridor in Pittsburgh. It showed that the magnitude of economic impact of BRT was larger than expected — the value of a single family home increased $1,600 for every 100 feet bring it closer to a BRT station. While these results are only valid in Pittsburgh, further research is being done to refine the methodology and to apply it to other cities.

Ann  Grodnik is a Senior Associate at COWS. She can be reached at AGrodnik@cows.org.