Are American Cities Building Top-Notch BRT or “Light Rail Lite”?

NYC’s Select Bus Service shaves trip time appreciably, but doesn’t yet fit the definition of a world-class BRT system.

What makes a bus system "rapid"? Trying to agree on an answer can get contentious. With a big menu of possible features for transit operators to choose from — pre-payment, priority signal timing, and physically separated lanes, to name a few — the quality of systems labeled "Bus Rapid Transit" varies widely. Some live up to expectations for "surface subways" and some don’t.

Over at the City Fix, Dario Hidalgo notes the problems that arise from the inconsistency:

More than just semantics, this confused nomenclature can lead to
real-world policy problems, diluting the concept of BRT and
undercutting efforts to promote it with skeptical populaces and

To set things straight, Hidalgo recommends a term coined by Allan Hoffman and Alasdair Cain in a recent article in Mass Transit Magazine: "Quickways." Here’s the quick and dirty version of how they distinguish Quickways from other forms of BRT:

A Quickway, by definition, is a specialized bus guideway
incorporating a number of essential elements.

It is fully segregated from automobile and pedestrian traffic; neither cars nor people cross its path nor do private automobiles operate along the right-of-way. The geometries support high-speed operations between stations. Stations are equipped with passing lanes, so that express vehicles can continue through without needing to stop.

Hoffman and Cain’s piece is well worth the read. The Quickway model, they point out, has yet to take hold in American cities, where the prevailing type of BRT is what they call "Light Rail Lite." Whereas cities like Bogotá and Brisbane have invested in complete BRT networks with an eye toward achieving ambitious ridership targets, the "Light Rail Lite" model looks to improve service along individual corridors at minimal cost.

Not every ingredient proposed by Hoffman and Cain may be feasible — or desirable — for American cities, but the authors believe that aiming for the Quickway ideal can help deliver the mode switch and sustainable land use patterns which full-fledged BRT enables:

Quickways are not merely a graduated step-up in BRT-supportive
infrastructure; they imply their own logic on system design and
operations and make possible services that otherwise would not be
cost-justifiable. They mesh well with other modes and create far more
useful transit networks, extending systemwide benefits beyond
individual corridors. They can create economies of scale for transit
operations, virtuous circles that can support wider-reaching mobility
goals, economic development, and sustainable urban form. They should be
treated as a distinct mode, particularly for network and corridor-level
planning, and one with great potential for helping American cities
achieve phase shifts in the role that transit plays in their daily
lives and long-range growth.

Photo: Kriston/Picasa Web

  • Larry Littlefield

    (It is fully segregated from automobile and pedestrian traffic; neither cars nor people cross its path nor do private automobiles operate along the right-of-way.)

    What you are talking about here is not only an exclusive right of way, as in light rail, but also grade separation, so there are no intersections or traffic lights. Like a separate subway line for buses. That is massively expensive.

    A half-way house is grade separation at a few key high traffic intersections, and giving the bus route priority when crossing lower traffic streets. That means building an underpass, like the one in front of the U.N. on first avenue. But pedestrians hate the underpass portals.

    That’s why I think real BRT has limited applicability in NYC, and why the “BRT” they are implementing saves so little time.

    If people were thinking, they could have done this to replace the Staten Island Railway, before they spent all that money to rebuild the line, and then extended it over on the former North Shore line.

    If money was unlimited, a street could be built over the Bay Ridge division of the LIRR and limited to buses, to create a rapid cross-town route in outer Brooklyn, stopping only at major streets.

    And some underpasses could be built to speed BRT operations on the Fordham Road/Pelham Parkway route, since some already exist. That Bronx rock is expensive to blast through, however.

  • J

    This is an interesting idea. In New York, however, a fully grade separated system, where buses cross neither pedestrian or vehicle traffic would require either tunneling or creating an elevated structures. This level of infrastructure would be so similar in cost to subways that there would be no reason not to just build a subway. The reason BRT is such a powerful idea is that is can move people at speeds and volumes approaching those of subway but requiring only a fraction of the time and money to build. The “quickway” idea can certainly guide some BRT segments where grade elimination is possible (e.g. First Ave Tunnel, Park Ave tunnel, tunnels under Grand Concourse).

    While I agree that BRT is used much too loosely, harming the BRT image as fast and dependable, I’m also glad that the author chose designate a new title for this type of system. If BRT were only used to designate “quickways” then BRT would lose much of its competitive edge over subways, harming the image of BRT as cheap and quick to build.

  • anonymouse

    Replacing the Staten Island Railway with a bus service would require, at peak, running about 40 buses per hour, which is still within the realm of feasibility, but probably precludes express service, unless at least some stations are upgraded to allow passing. Oh yeah, and the ROW might have to be widened for buses, since they’re not on rails. These “quickways” make sense when you have a city with many wide boulevard or freeways where you can just take four lanes to put in buses, and also lots of cheap bus drivers, since running five buses instead of one SIR train is about five times more expensive, and you can’t just add another car like on a streetcar or light rail or subway.

  • anonymouse

    Oh and guess what else? Bogota’s model of busway in the middle of a freeway has already been tried: in LA, there’s the Harbor Transitway, which gets almost an order of magnitude less ridership than the parallel light rail line. The one place where these quickways work pretty well is in providing an exclusive path for express buses from the suburbs into downtown.

  • Dane

    We could have something pretty close to a Quickway running up and down First and Second Avenues in Manhattan, or any other avenue for that matter. I’d convert the Quickway avenues back to two-way operation and put the BRT right in the middle. I’d probably get rid of a lot of the parking on the avenues and set aside space on the side streets, near the corners, for delivery trucks. If I were running the MTA I’d put an immediate stop to the #7 subway project and use the money to build two bus lines like this. If no new funding came available, I might even kill the 2nd Avenue subway and build these kinds of bus lines citywide.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is a picky review of the new Orange Line Busway in LA, which is significantly but not entirely grade separated, as it follows an old rail line right of way. The 20mph end to end speed complained about is pretty good compared with the NYC Subway.

    “The new 14.2-mile Orange Line Busway opened in October 2005. Many aspects of the Orange Line’s design should be copied elsewhere: its attractive guideway and stations, state-of-the-art buses, proof-of-payment fare collection, and well-done environmental
    mitigations. On the other hand, a typical Orange Line bus trip catches about 11 red lights and waits up to nine minutes for them to change. Its end-to-end travel speed is 20 mph. The travel time is also compromised by a 25 mph speed restriction at all intersections and speed limits along other portions of the busway.”

    “The lesson of the Orange Line to transit planners is that an at-grade busway will almost certainly not get signal preemption. This means it will not have the crossing gates that allow its buses to cross intersections at speed. Therefore, every other effort
    should be made to increase a busway’s travel speed through off-board fare collection, well-located platforms, minimal speed restrictions, and quick transferring to connecting
    services. A busway will be less expensive to build than a light rail alternative, but without signal preemption its travel speed will be significantly less.”

    No sense arguing about the SIR because it isn’t going to happen, but yes the ROW is nearly wide enough, although stations would have had to be rebuilt to allow local buses to pull aside allowing express buses through. Forty buses per hour is not that many. Just stand over a highway overpass and wait 90 seconds while imagining how many buses could go through.

    What would have had to happen is the entire SI bus route would have had to be reorgainized around the busway, with local buses ridding along the streets and then getting down on the busway and running express to St. George or the VB, in addition to those serving “stations” on the route. The ability to accomodate this mixed service is what a busway can do that light rail cannot.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As for first and second avenues, look at an M15 schedule, and compare the end to end run times for northbound service (which benefits from the 42nd Street overpass and going under the 59th Street and Triboro Bridges) and southbound service (which has to wait for bridge traffic to go east-west)

  • “The lesson of the Orange Line to transit planners is that an at-grade busway will almost certainly not get signal preemption. This means it will not have the crossing gates that allow its buses to cross intersections at speed.”

    BRT won’t get crossing gates like a train does, but some BRT does have signal preemption, which lets it extend the green or turn the red green as the bus approaches in intersection.

    The problem with buses instead of rail in Staten Island is that, when you have this high a volume of passengers, buses have a much higher operating cost. Labor is about 80% of the operating costs of buses. With rail, you can string together cars, so you need fewer drivers per passenger, lowering labor cost.

  • Derek

    San Diego’s I-15 BRT fulfills all the requirements of being a Quickway, except that it will share lanes with private automobiles. However, these lanes will have congestion pricing, which will achieve the same result (no congestion) as not sharing lanes with automobiles at all. So I think that one requirement needs a little adjusting.

  • anonymouse

    Hm, thinking about all this further, I’d really like to see the “BRT” concept broken down into its component parts. I think BRT should really apply to what they call “quickways”, something like the busways in Pittsburgh and Ottawa, where there are long grade-separated stretches, but with street running downtown. What we have on the Bx12 is more like “quality bus”, just a few simple measures taken to reduce bus delays, ranging from off-board fare collection to signal preemption to some dedicated lanes. It’ll make it much clearer what’s being talked about, just like for rail there are streetcars, light rail, and rapid transit, and while the boundaries are sometimes a bit fuzzy, it’s still much more useful than just lumping everything together under “rail”. Or for that matter, there are local streets, boulevards, and expressways, rather than just “roads”.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “I’d really like to see the “BRT” concept broken down into its component parts. I think BRT should really apply to what they call “quickways”, something like the busways in Pittsburgh and Ottawa, where there are long grade-separated stretches, but with street running downtown.”

    Back in the day, when street transit ran on rails, the opposite was true, with streetcars running on local streets in low-traffic areas and then merging into a subway in congested areas downtown, as in Newark, Boston, San Francisco, and many cities in Europe.

  • JK

    A Tri-State staffer reported a huge time saving on the Fordham Rd SBS when it first opened. Has anyone seen or heard anything about how it’s working since then? Pre-boarding payment / proof of payment and double wide doors would work wonders for all NYC bus service.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    The real value in BRT is clearing the space of cars, trucks and everything else. It also limits the space for the private drivers which is good for the mass transit market as well since that is one competitor system. However, to take fully grade separated right of ways and turn potential rail operations into BRT is not a real savings in capital (you have to dig up the tracks and widen the ROW) or in operating (trains handle way more riders per operator) or energy (steel wheel on steel rail is way more mechanically efficient). And what keeps service off of the Bay Ridge Branch in Brooklyn and the Rockaway Branch in Queens are the neighbors not the TOD potential or the value of the service to the community. How that would change with a BRT proposal is problematic. Save the few urban dormant right of ways you have for rail, there is little enough space for that service. Use BRT for point of the spear mass transit service in the “underserved” areas.

  • gecko

    Bus Rapid Transit is based on the conventional wisdom that if you want to move a lot of people quickly you have to pack them into a large vehicle that moves quick.

    This is not true, especially if people can move quickly on their own.

  • I am very leery of name changes. If we start using “quickway” instead of “(true) BRT” simply because “BRT” has been watered down, then all the cities that can’t build quickways will nonetheless call them “quickways.” Isn’t that why non-BRTs are called BRT now? Son once “quickway” gets watered down, we’ll be on the prowl for another term.

    Question: why a grade sep for a BRT? What’s wrong with signal preemption? As for preventing pedestrians from crossing, I’m not sure that’s desirable, cost-effective, or necessary. But maybe then I can be accused of pushing BRT lite? 😉

    I can’t believe I just used an emoticon. Please don’t tell anyone.

  • I am the author of the Quickway study that coined the term, as well as co-author, with Alasdair Cain, of the article in Mass Transit magazine that reported on the results of the study (which may be downloaded either from my website or from People who have posted comments here might find answers to some of their questions by reading through the study, including its appendix, which reports on the costs and feasibility of creating a true Quickway-based system in an American city.

    I’d like to offer a few observations, though, based on some of the comments here.

    1. We offer a very precise definition of a Quickway in my study. If it does not meet this definition (such as Pittsburgh’s busways), it is not a Quickway, but a busway.

    2. Derek suggests that San Diego’s I-15 is a Quickway; it most certainly is not, and in fact was strongly criticized by an independent Peer Review Panel which SANDAG had commissioned to review its transit planning. Quickways are specially-designed facilities on which only specially-trained drivers are permitted. I-15’s managed lanes are open to a wide range of auto traffic. What’s more, stations on the I-15 are located off-corridor, forcing buses to make significant out-of-direction detours (and pass through traffic signals); as a result, travel times for buses are not projected to be competitive with auto travel, even for trips actually beginning at a station (as opposed to most trips, which begin off-corridor). Also, Quickways are designed to maximize the linkage between stations and key land uses; stations on the I-15 offer little in the way of integration with land uses.

    3. Several people question the cost and necessity of full grade-separation. Yes, it is indeed expensive, but the best global example right now is Brisbane, Australia, which has been building fully grade-separated Quickways, not because they’re rich, but because an intelligently-designed system is very cost-effective. Unlike rail systems, which tend to serve mostly the areas within, say, half a mile on either side of the line (less in some environments), a single Quickway can support a set of branching services that express out of a major employment zone, then peel off to operate as “regular” BRT, express bus, or even local bus service along perpindicular and parallel arterials, extending the value of the investment to much large catchment zones.

    4. To answer Nick Peterson, it is precisely for the preceding reason that one deploys Quickways: one pulls in a large number of express and local services into a central Quickway spine; the sheer volume of bus operations creates the warrant for grade separation. In Brisbane, the busiest segments of Quickways support between 200 and 300 bus operations per hour. In contrast, the Orange Line in LA can support perhaps 24 bus operations per hour before the signal priority system begins to break down.

    5. To those who would question the costs and feasibility of “all those buses,” the experience of Brisbane is critical. Since most buses fill up off corridor–before they even arrive at the Quickway–the decision was made to just run them pretty much straight into their downtown (with very few intermediate stops); after all, why force people to transfer from one bus to another, especially if the first one was already full? And as to why not have them transfer to a train, the answer was also simple: they have an extensive train network, but people found the direct buses much, much faster than taking the bus to the train (as well as inherently more reliable and less stressful). So the network structure has a direct bearing on how many passengers you attract to the system (Brisbane has seen a 40% growth in system ridership in 3 years due in great part to its new Quickway system)–but they also saw that the vast improvement in travel speeds meant that they could provide much more service with a given size fleet (when a round trip that took two hours now takes less than 40 minutes, you can operate three round trips with the same bus that previously made only one), vastly improving productivity and ACTUALLY PUSHING MANY TRANSIT ROUTES INTO THE BLACK.

    This point is critical: the strategic provision of grade-separated infrastructure resulted in massive ridership gains AND very significant reductions in operating costs (subsidies) per passenger–the very “sweet spot” we need to be aiming at.

    So, in conclusion, I’d like to encourage everyone to read the report and consider its primary finding: Quickways impose a very different logic on transit service planning, and we should not begin by limiting ourselves because of the fear of what any particular piece of a system might cost. As the appendix on San Diego makes clear, an intelligently-designed Quickway network is no more expensive to build than most regions’ already-adopted transit plans, and may produce greater results for that investment.

  • Thanks for that clarification, Alan. It really sharpens the idea of “Quickways” – unfortunately, I don’t think that your Mass Transit article was as clear, and the City Fix and Streetsblog posts were even less clear. “Top-Notch BRT” I think is the most confusing term of all. Also, in this region the name Quickway has an established history meaning something completely different.

    I think the closest thing we have to a “Quickway” as you describe it is the Lincoln Tunnel Exclusive Bus Lane, which does many of the things you describe, with many of the benefits, although it has many flaws as well.

    In my series on BRT, I’ve described ways that we can implement similar infrastructure-focused improvements in the New York area. Right now there are bus terminals at many of the East River Bridges, but they’re on the wrong side of the bridge from the jobs. If we allow those buses to cross the bridges, either to terminals or to through-running corridors, without mixing with car traffic so they can turn around quickly, we can eliminate the need to transfer to a subway with relatively little added driver time. If we provide dedicated routes to and from those bridges, we gain even more efficiency.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Interesting points. Certainly a Quickway would be a good choice for a city that did not have a rail transit network. We’ll be lucky to be able to maintain the one we have in NY.

    I had suggested, in effect, turning a lane in each direction on the LIE in Queens into a Quickway, or just an express busway, for exactly the reason you gave — bus riders could get picked up over a wide catchment area then ride express to a central location, rather than take a local bus to the train in an outlying location.

    In the Queens case, however, the buses would face congestion on the crossings to Manhattan, and in Manhattan, jacking up the cost. I had suggested a crossing in Long Island City Queens, one or two stops from Manhattan on the subway, and a transfer there.

    Because the 63rd Street Tunnel was built with the intention of additional subway lines being built in Queens, the borough of 2.2 million has more subway capacity across the river to Manhattan than inside it. The busway would then allow the entire borough to connect to subway lines to points throughout Manhattan, with one transfer.

  • Lsat night I posted a long comment with several links. I thought that that comment was just held for moderation; is it still in some queue?

  • Yay! My comment appeared at #17. Thanks!

  • I’ve just written a post in response to Alan’s comment about pushing transit into the black.

  • gecko

    Average speeds could be even faster and potentially at much lower cost when travelers can get to and from the buses faster, say if the buses have bike racks or places to store Segways.


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