As cities boost rapid transit, buses get new look

BRT systems may be better than light rail in some settings

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WASHINGTON — It's the fastest, cheapest, most effective way to move large numbers of people in an urban area, some transit advocates have come to conclude.

But it's not a streetcar or light-rail system: It's a fleet of buses that acts like one.

Bus rapid transit is common in Latin America and Asia, but it hasn't caught on as quickly in the United States. Most transit investment in the U.S. over the past few decades has concentrated on subways, light rail and streetcars.

According to its boosters, bus rapid transit can spur just as much or more economic development generally at a fraction of the cost, although more sophisticated projects can be just as expensive as rail. Real estate developers and city planners tend to prefer rail systems because of their durability and capacity to move large numbers of people.

Local angle

A proposed bus rapid transit system in Vancouver remains in the queue for a possible federal grant next year, after the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council turned back Clark County Commissioner David Madore’s effort to put the project on hold.

Madore has expressed his desire to “pause” the project until at least November, when bus rapid transit is among several nonbinding advisories that will appear on the ballot. The measure, if approved, would direct Clark County commissioners to oppose any such system unless it’s first supported by a majority of voters.

The Vancouver line would serve the Fourth Plain corridor between downtown and Vancouver mall, which is C-Tran’s busiest route.

Cities already operating bus rapid transit include Eugene, Ore.

A report by the New York-based Institute for Transportation & Development Policy fuels an ongoing debate about the advantages and disadvantages of both modes. The institute released a 159-page report last month that compares 21 North American transit corridors that contain a mix of streetcars, light-rail systems and bus rapid transit.

But the answer may not be as simple as throwing rail under the bus.

In some cities, buses might be the right choice, while in others, rail could be best. Despite the cost advantages that bus supporters claim, high-end systems can be expensive to build and operate, and many Americans still view bus service as inferior.

"Perception is reality," said Chris Leinberger, a real estate developer, author and urban planning scholar. "We've got to change that perception."

Transportation policy experts and city planners have come to embrace bus rapid transit. "An additional tool in the transit toolbox," said Deron Lovaas, the director of federal transportation policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental policy group.

But the more you improve it, he said, "the more the cost advantage disappears."

Bus rapid transit isn't an ordinary city bus. It incorporates many elements of light rail: a dedicated roadway that's separated from regular traffic, frequent service, fewer stops, elevated station platforms with better lighting and shelters, and payment collection at the station rather than on the bus.

"When you build something higher quality, you provide more transportation benefit," said Annie Weinstock, the director of the U.S. and Africa for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy and one of the authors of the recent report.

Weinstock said rapid bus systems could deliver more bang for the transit buck at a time when federal, state and local governments had less funding. But she acknowledged that many rail-based transit systems have been successful at stimulating local economies.

The report cites the Lynx Blue Line in Charlotte, N.C., a 9.6-mile light-rail corridor that opened in 2007 and has generated more than $800 million in transit-oriented development.

"Both have potential to stimulate development," she said. "In areas that have hot land markets, it doesn't necessarily matter what kind of project you build."

The construction cost for the highest level of bus rapid transit can approach or even exceed that of light rail because of the sophistication of the engineering, according to Art Guzzetti, the vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association.