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Tanya Snyder

Don’t forget BRT

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In suburban Maryland, the debate about transit has often been cast as a decision between a light rail “purple line” and bus rapid transit. Democrat Martin O’Malley and local environmentalists lobbied for light rail while Republican Bob Ehrlich’s push for bus rapid transit was largely seen as an effort to “obfuscate, alter, study, and delay” the progress on light rail. So in the DC area, BRT is sometimes seen as the choice of people who don’t really want transit to succeed.

But that’s selling BRT short, according to a panel of experts at Brookings this morning. For inspiration, they looked to Latin America, the motherland of bus rapid transit, housing 26 percent of the world’s BRT systems, according to Dario Hidalgo of EMBARQ, the sustainable-transport arm of the World Resources Institute.

It all started with Curitiba, Brazil, which pioneered BRT in 1972, reducing congestion, improving air quality, and shortening travel times. The Curitiba system has been a model for others, including powerhouse systems like TransMilenio in Bogotá, which carries 44,000 passengers per hour per direction during the peak period. Car use has gone down, and traffic fatalities have declined by 56 percent.

“What’s important isn’t if the tire is a steel tire or a rubber tire,” said Hidalgo. “What’s important is the service that’s provided to the people.”

Logic like this flies in the face of entrenched biases in favor of one mode or another. Rail, especially, has its adherents among those who think buses are a lower-class form of transportation, ridden only by those with no other option. But more than 20 percent of TransMilenio riders own cars. “We can’t be religious about modes,” said Robert Puentes of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

BRT is characterized by three principal traits, as articulated by ITDP Director Walter Hook in a Streetfilm about BRT released today. 1) BRT runs on exclusive lanes, so it’s not slowed down by traffic jams. (That allows the TransMilenio to average 20 miles per hour while New York City buses crawl along at under eight mph.) 2) the station is on a platform at the same level as the floor of the bus. Usually, those stations are designed by architects and aren’t substantively different from the experience of being in a rail station. Passengers pay upon entering the station, not the bus, speeding up the boarding process. Another time-saver is that all the doors open at once and passengers can board quickly en masse, like they do on a subway. And 3) BRT is that the buses have priority at intersections, often through some kind of priority signaling…

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Source: DC Streetsblog, March 8, 2011

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