Bus lane in Brooklyn - Photo www.mta.info

Bus Rapid Transit hits the streets of NY: BC can do better


About 15 years ago one of the hot topics in the Vancouver papers was the plan for an at-grade light rail line from Coquitlam to UBC that would have taken up two lanes on Broadway and the Lougheed Highway. The plan was that rapid transit would connect Coquitlam and central Broadway within a few years. Shortly thereafter, the provincial government suddenly switched to a much more expensive – and never completed – SkyTrain line: today’s Millennium Line. Both Coquitlam and UBC are still waiting for rapid transit, and they may wait for decades, given the estimated $4.2 billion needed to connect both with SkyTrain on elevated guideways and subway tunnels.

The long-promised Evergreen Line SkyTrain branch to Coquitlam and the Northeast Sector is estimated at $1.4-billion but only $800 million has been committed by senior governments, leaving a $600 million gap. Translink is so strapped for cash that it was forced to mothball one of its three Sea Buses to reduce operating costs. The $2.8 billion estimated cost of extending the Millennium line to UBC is so daunting that it makes this funding gap insignificant.

In New York, the squeeze on the transit system is more intense. As transit ridership is growing rapidly, the aging subway system needs billions in upgrades, and even a modest extension to one line would cost billions they don’t have. But instead of crying about the expense of new subways, New York is putting rapid transit on the street with Bus Rapid Transit.

Bus Rapid Transit is a simple concept – you give buses a dramatic makeover that makes the rider experience much like rapid transit on rails but with a much lower capital cost. The main elements are dedicated lanes with enforcement to keep cars out, signal priority so buses seldom have to stop at traffic lights, and all-door boarding to reduce the time spent at stops. In Europe, many transit agencies no longer differentiate between Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail lines. Bus Rapid transit is typically a bit faster than light rail, and has about the same maximum capacity. It can also greatly reduce operating costs as faster and larger buses carry more passengers per hour.

Larger and faster buses reduce the cost per passenger. Photo by Micha L. RieserThe first full-featured Bus Rapid Transit lines were built in Curitiba, Brazil in the late 1970s, along rights of ways previously designated for freeways. But there are now hundreds of BRT lines around the world, including dozens in Europe and China. Los Angeles was an early adopter in North America with the Orange Line BRT. Ottawa also started a BRT line, but never completed the essential section into downtown because of reluctance to re-allocate street space to transit.

Now New York is now leading the way in North America. The city is creating bus lanes on city streets for what they call Select Bus Service (SBS). The Bx12 line is the prime example, with the whole lane painted red to make it crystal clear that cars are not welcome. In June, the New York State Assembly passed a bill authorizing the transit agency to install digital video cameras on the front of BRT buses to photograph and ticket vehicles that intrude into bus lanes. Soon, every SBS bus driver will be able to document anything that gets in their lane, a powerful incentive for drivers to stay out of transit lanes.

The next step for New York is the 34th Avenue Transitway, with physically separated bus lanes, scheduled to open in 2012. But this line is not designed to be particularly rapid; it will stop far more frequently than a typical rail rapid transit line.

This is where Metro Vancouver could easily outdo New York. Our transit system is renowned for the B-line express buses that run on the same streets as local buses, but only stop every kilometre or so. ‘Rapid transit’ can only be rapid if it has widely spaced stops. Vancouver also has one of the largest fleets of electric trolley buses in the world, so upgrading to electric BRT would be easy and cost effective – we already have the trained technicians and maintenance equipment. On Hastings Street in Vancouver there is already a double set of wires in place, ready for express trolley buses.

Proposed trolley Bus Rapid Transit station in San Francisco. Illustration www.sfcta.orgTranslink’s 2006 cost estimate for high end Bus Rapid Transit on the Evergreen Line route was $384 million, less than a third of the cost of SkyTrain technology and less then half of the $800 million senior governments have already put on the table. SkyTrain would be perhaps five minutes faster, but could leave riders waiting for another 15 years or longer to get the financing in place.

The same applies to all the rapid transit proposals around the province. The Broadway-UBC line in Vancouver, King George line in Surrey, and the Victoria to West Shore Line are all stalled for lack of funding. With electric Bus Rapid Transit, all of these lines could be operating within two years for a very reasonable cost. The provincial government plans to spend more money on one dubious urban freeway project than it would cost to build all these BRT lines. Cancelling the controversial South Fraser Perimeter Road freeway through Surrey and Delta would save about $2 billion. The rationale for the SFPR truck freeway – growing container imports from China – disappeared when container volumes dropped 19% in 2009.

What are we waiting for?


About Eric Doherty

Eric Doherty is a transportation and environmental planner. In his consulting business, Ecopath Planning, Eric focuses on practical approaches for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts, while improving community resiliency and livability. He blogs on transportation and environmental issues at the Livable Blog. He is also on the steering committee of the Vancouver / Burnaby Chapter of the Council of Canadians. Website URL:www.ecoplanning.ca

17 thoughts on “Bus Rapid Transit hits the streets of NY: BC can do better

  1. Geoff Meggs, City of Vancouver Councilor put an interesting post on his blog:

    “Metro Vancouver and Translink policy-makers need to avoid an academic argument over whether or not investments should serve existing ridership (as on the Broadway Corridor) or in emerging, lower-density communities (like Surrey). We need a pragmatic plan to do both, so that workers can get to the jobs.”

    I would interpret this as an admission that Vancouver is unlikely to get billions for a subway down Broadway anytime soon. Sounds like a job for electric bus rapid transit.

    see the full post at http://www.geoffmeggs.ca/2010/10/17/us-housing-crisis-underlines-role-of-transit-in-reducing-poverty-a-lesson-metro-vancouver-should-remember/

  2. Good article Eric. Buses, both guided and non-guided have far more utility than light rail.

    Passenger rail on the SR line between Langley and Chilliwack would be a white elephant requiring massive subsidies to operate. The premise for passenger rail on the line between Chilliwack and Langley is misguided anyway. Why use a rural rail line to encourage development on farmland? It would make the FV less liveable! Buses on the Fraser Highway would be far more useful, would not require costly upgrades of the rail line, and would serve areas which should be densified.

    While the Fraser Highway is direct, the Southern Rail line is tortuous. Unfortunately it would gobble taxpayers money which could be usefully be spent on useful buses.

  3. Zweisystem wrote:
    To be “competitive with the tram/LRT, a bus must be guided”

    Do you have any source for this that readers can reference on line? Can you quantify the supposed improvement in ridership? In perceived comfort or other factors such as noise levels?

    Please note that a reference that says BRT is no good, and guided BRT sucks just as much or more, will not provide this information.

  4. Eric, that is why BRT fails, to competitive with the tram/LRT, a bus must be guided, which dramatically increases the cost. With increased costs, the switch is easier to make to tram/LRT.

    I can see you have not studied the subject much, as the BRT/guided bus issue has been studied at great length in Europe, with not too promising results.

    Example: Bus or Light Rail: Making the Right Choice, by Professor of Urban Transportation, Carmen Haas-Klau.

    As I have said before BRT/Guided bus has been around a long time and has generally have failed to meet their promoters expectations.

    BRT is a popular myth and until buses (BRT/Guided or no) can attract the motorist from the car, they will always take second prize.

  5. Zwisystem wrote:

    “Two guided bus systems, Essen and Adelaide, showed that despite the added cost of guided bus . . . they did not attract any more new ridership than non guided bus lines.”

    There is sometimes a good reason to use guided bus. But most BRT lines are not guided, because guided buses lose an important advantage, the ability to steer around pedestrians and vehicles. In most cases it does not make sense to pay extra to eliminate (or at least slow down) this important advantage.

    I would not expect that guided bus would attract much more ridership than non-guided; there is not much difference from the riders’ point of view. Differences such as electric vs diesel, reliability, or even the comfort of the seats, are more important.

  6. An Answer for Bob Broughton

    Rail for the Valley is very close in releasing details about a Vancouver to Chilliwack TramTrain project. It’s viable and not as expensive as one would think.

    Coming to you sometime in September!

  7. The problem for the BRT gang is that they ignore history. Two guided bus systems, Essen and Adelaide, showed that despite the added cost of guided bus (both were O-Bahn kerb guided bus which also could operate off the guideway) they did not attract any more new ridership than non guided bus lines.

    Adelaide is now building with light rail and Essen’s BRT/guided bus shares much of its route with tramway’s and when the buses are life expired will convert back to trams.

    As for trams.streetcars getting stuck in traffic, it is more myth than fact as there are many signaling and operational measures that keep trams moving and the same general blockages that stop tram traffic also would stop BRT.

    BRT/Guided bus has been around for a long time, (O-bahn since 1980 almost predating low-floor trams) but have proven inferior to new LRT and for a few dollars more, one can build with LRT and obtain light rail’s many benefits.

    BRT has been used in emerging third world countries because the World Bank does not provide investment monies for ‘rail’ projects but instead provides ample monies for new highways, which are needed for BRT!

    Rubber on asphalt policies enables BRT overseas!

  8. Bob asks about using existing rail lines for passenger rail. This can be a great idea, but the province just blew about $1 billion widening the highway to Squamish and Whistler right beside the existing track. We could have great electric trains running to Whistler now if even half this amount had gone to passenger rail on the route.

    But in North America ‘commuter’ transit is only useful for commuters during peak periods, as with the West Coast Express. What is needed is all-day 7 day a week general purpose passenger trains and buses to meet today’s travel needs.

    Rail for the Valley has a solid proposal for general purpose passenger rail service, not commuter rail, on an existing rail line. See http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/

  9. Zweisystem wrote: “The sad fact is, BRT, guided or no, has failed miserably in attracting ridership as the Ottawa Busway has proven.”

    Zwei, why would you point to an incomplete busway that does not reach its main destination, downtown, as an example of failure? Can you list a few incomplete light rail lines that get stuck in traffic long before their destination that are wildly successful? This is a classic straw man attack, not evidence of anything.

    There is nothing magical about steel wheels.

  10. I want to hear more about Rail for the Valley, but I would also like to hear about using railroad tracks ALREADY IN PLACE for commuter rail to White Rock and Squamish.

  11. Sorry Eric, to be competitive, BRT must be guided or it is just another bus. The sad fact is, BRT, guided or no, has failed miserably in attracting ridership as the Ottawa Busway has proven.

    When ridership on a transit routes passes about 2,000 pphpd, buses cease to be competitive with LRT/streetcar. The higher the ridership, the less competitive buses become.

    There are niche markets for BRT or third world countries where lack of investment deters rail construction. In North America, BRT is a political decision by anti-rail/pro highway politicians, who want to greatly expand the highways network camouflaging it as a BRT network!

  12. Zweisystem wrote: “If BRT is to competitive with tram/LRT, then the buses must be guided”

    Guided buses on roads don’t make much sense unless space is extremely tight. And they can be quite expensive. That is why most on-road BRT lines are not guided. One of the big advantages of buses is that they can steer around obstacles such as cars and pedestrians; why spend money to eliminate an advantage?

    Buses on guideways are a different animal, maybe a subject for a future article.

  13. Corey Burger posted an interesting comment on the Livable Blog http://www.livableregion.ca/blog/blogs where I posted the introductory section of this. He wrote:

    “The bus lane is not protected and given NYPD’s abysmal reputation with policing parking in the existing bike and bus lanes, I am not hopeful that this will be any different.”

    This is off course the potential problem with any surface rapid transit, you need good enforcement to keep the lane free of cars. However, my understanding is that digital video camera enforcement has been quite effective in London England. Maybe politicians in the US won’t have the guts to implement effective video enforcement, but I think it could work in Vancouver.

  14. Notes:

    1) In conversation with Susan Heyes, the Cambie St. merchant who successfully sued TransLink for “Nuisance” and one of the very few people who has done due diligent research on the cost of the Canada line, now puts the total cost of about $2.8 billion.

    2) Despite the hype and hoopla about the Canada Line, about 90% of the ridership (TransLink has admitted that 80% of the transit customers that use SkyTrain, first take a bus to the metro) are former bus riders now cascade on the metro. This means about 40,000 to 45,000 Canada line customers are former bus riders (do not forget the old AirPorter Bus Service), thus it can be said that the Canada line has attracted about 5,000 to 7,000 new transit customers, but very few, if any have been attracted from the car.


    3) The return of a Vancouver to Chilliwack Interurban will be in the news very soon.

  15. Bus Rapid Transit is really misnamed, for what we call here Bus Rapid Transit or BRT, is really a glorified, limited stop express bus. The problem in Vancouver is that our bus stops are far to close together (250m to 300m apart), compared to European transit systems, where the standard distance between city tram/bus stops is 450m to 600m.

    Reduce bus stops by a third and we could have a faster bus service with no investment what so ever!

    If BRT is to competitive with tram/LRT, then the buses must be guided and the cost of guided bus is about 20% to 30% cheaper than light rail but with none of the benefits of LRT. This is one reason why guided bus has fared badly on the market as European light rail planners have reduced the cost of LRT while at the same time increasing the amenities, while BRT planners see a continues increase of costs, without the associated benefits!

    BRT’s time has come and gone.


  16. The Canada Line’s final tally was well over $2 Billion, Roger! And I concur with your other comments. I do believe we need to do something about that primary transportation/congestion route in the Lower Mainland – the Fraser Valley-Langley-Surrey-Coquitlam corridor. My suggestion is we examine re-opening the old Interurban Line – we own the rail right-of-way, and estimates range from only $400-800 million to get it up and running again. It still had 70,000 riders a day when it closed down in the early 60’s – and the population in those communities has skyrocketed since then. We need to continue giving people affordable, accessible means of public transportation to get out of their single-occupant commuter vehicles. At the same time, your suggestion of developing dense, walkable communities is essential. Eric’s proposal for expanded BRT throughout the region is also eminently sensible.

  17. My daughter tells me she can get home to NV from YVR in an hour. Along with others she does that trip
    very rarely, yet that shiny trinket the Canada Line cost over C$1B!

    The city proposes “land-lift” along the route, i.e. lineal sprawl with no identifiable centre.

    In its purest form the best transportation is no transportation. Instead we should be fostering autonomous semi-self-contained neighbourhood villages.


    In 1972 Dave Barrett’s NDP proposed a network of crosstown buses: a very sound idea. What happened?

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