BRT is a transportation system in which high-speed, high-capacity buses run on physically separate dedicated lanes between transit stations.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 19, 2014
At yesterday's mayoral debate organized by the Hamilton business community, candidate Brad Clark said something interesting as part of his argument against LRT:
I have said very clearly that we need to change the discussion. We need to start looking at our local transit needs now. We need to enhance Bus Rapid Transit.
You can watch the entire debate on YouTube, thanks to Joey Coleman.
Clark has said this a few times since coming out against light rail transit (LRT), and it is consistent with some of the other arguments against LRT that have floated around in recent months. It hinges on a pretty basic misunderstanding of what bus rapid transit (BRT) means.
BRT is a transportation system in which high-speed, high-capacity buses run on physically separate dedicated lanes between transit stations. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a transit consultancy that promotes BRT, lists five defining features of BRT:
The B-Line bus that currently runs between Eastgate Square and McMaster University is not BRT by any stretch. The express bus service started in 1986 and has been steadily building ridership along the east-west line to the point that 13,000 riders a day now travel along the corridor.
That existing ridership is one of the reasons why the east-west route is an excellent candidate for higher-order rapid transit, but an express bus is not BRT.
The B-Line runs in mixed traffic for almost the full 14 kilometre length of the route and it picks passengers up - and, too often, fails to pick passengers up as overstuffed buses do "pass-bys" - at regular bus stops, not transit stations.
Nor does the transit-only lane running between Mary Street and Dundurn qualify as BRT. The lane covers only two kilometres of the 28 kilometre round-trip and is not physically separated from automobile traffic.
The B-Line is not even BRT-lite, let alone full BRT. But that hasn't stopped people from conflating the express bus with BRT and then claiming that BRT can deliver the same economic benefits as LRT.
Sidenote: beware claims that BRT is more "flexible" than LRT because the buses can be rerouted. If it's flexible enough to be rerouted, it's not BRT. It's just an express bus.
As part of Clark's case against LRT, he referred yesterday to a recent study by the ITDP that promotes BRT over LRT. I wrote about the study in May and again in July. It spurred some dramatic headlines by comparing the performance of the most impressive outlier LRT system - Portland, Oregon's MAX - and the most impressive outlier BRT system - Cleveland's Healthline - and finding that Cleveland's BRT had a bigger relative return on investment than Portland's LRT.
Cleveland's Healthline BRT (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
However, it is not prudent to compare only the exceptional cases when evaluating transit technologies. To understand how a given technology will work in another city, you need to consider the full picture and not just cherry-pick supportive examples.
When you dig into the data behind the study and look at all the LRT and BRT systems the authors considered, the study merely confirms what we've been saying all along: that BRT costs less to build and attracts less economic development. The relative return on investment is similar, but LRT attracts a lot more total development.
And bear in mind, those results are what you get with full BRT that meets the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy's rigorous checklist of criteria.
It also ignores the fact that once a BRT system is in place, it costs more to operate per passenger than an LRT system would cost. Since an LRT vehicle can carry more passengers than a BRT vehicle, an LRT-based rapid transit system can carry a lot more passengers per driver - and paying for drivers is the biggest part of transit operating cost.
Clark expresses concern for Hamilton taxpayers, but he advocates a system that lets the Province off the hook for their promise of full capital funding and then shoulders Hamilton with the burden of paying to operate a more expensive system year after year once it has been built.