Can BRT drive TOD? Yes, with the right government support

By Mary Ebeling

Conventional wisdom asserts that rail does a better job of spurring transit-oriented development than a bus rapid transit line, but until now no one has quantified the return on investment with a BRT line. A new study released by ITDP this week attempts to quantify the TOD potential of these transit options.

“We did this study because there had been a lot of experience in the U.S. about the development impacts of light rail and not so much around the development impacts of BRT,” said Annie Weinstock, co-author of the report.

The report found that “Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development investment than Light Rail Transit or streetcars.” This sweeping statement on the development potential of BRT comes with a few caveats. To effectively catalyze economic development, density-supporting zoning, land-use policies, and building codes, and a strong land market also need to be present. The study concludes that BRT is the third most important predictor of the success of a TOD strategy.

While some have been quick to conclude that this means the transit part of TOD is not important, it appears that the T is a necessary rung on a three-legged stool that can support sustainable mixed-use development, improve rather than depress the land market, reduce commuting costs, and help a city achieve air and water quality goals. Government support and policies are needed to redress decades of low-density and single-use development that work against TOD, but transit is still an important factor in economic development.

The ITDP report documents the potential of BRT to work as a successful tool in providing equitable transportation that supports economic development. However, as BRT is relatively new in the U.S., and most projects do not meet the gold standard set by ITDP, they hope to see more data as new lines are built.

One innovative project is the U.S. 36 corridor in Colorado, which will include BRT service and is expected to provide faster travel times between Denver and Boulder than driving a private car. Mixed-use developments centered on BRT stations are already on the books in anticipation of this much-needed transportation option. In another high profile project, which ITDP thinks may the first to reach its gold level for BRT, the city of Chicago is planning a line on the well-traveled Ashland Avenue. The city has focused on the economic development potential of the project during the public involvement process. Predictably, there is a group of skeptics, but in general the project appears to be receiving initial positive feedback.

ITDP’s report also shows how urban planners can employ TOD principles when redeveloping urban areas served by existing transit systems. The success story in Pittsburgh provides an excellent example of this finding. The Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway, the first BRT in the country, was conceived to move people—not necessarily to spark economic development. Pittsburgh completed the first segment of this BRT line in 1983 to connect downtown with communities and suburbs to the east. The city did not invest in economic development around the BRT at this time. Fast forward 20 years and a public-private initiative helped trigger $900 million in new development concentrated around the East Liberty BRT station.  The partnership worked to adjust zoning regulations around the station, clean up contaminated industrial sites, and actively recruit anchor tenants for the new development.

While the ITDP report is admittedly limited by sample size—just 21 rail or bus projects are analyzed—the report serves to jump start the discussion with its findings. With the growing number of new BRT projects in the works, additional data will become available that will allow the conclusions of the authors of the ITDP report to be tested and refined.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.