Municipal Election 2014

BRT is Not Just Express Buses

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.

What is BRT?

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.

ITDP Study

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)
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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 09:37:06

BRT is the preferred rapid transit option of people who never plan to use the HSR for the rest of their lives. I also love how "fiscal conservatives" are now championing building subways instead of street-level trams - because spending more money for the the same service is totally conservative.

On the other hand, does the city's LRT plan include off-board fare entry? All the drawings I've seen show just normal sidewalk boarding (plus the new in-street sidewalks for eastbound boarders).

At any rate: McHattie was right about the West Harbour stadium, history has vindicated him with this ludicrous Tim Horton's trainwreck and the new James North GO station being built right next to the planned stadium site.

The hand-wringers and haters screwed us out of the West Harbour stadium and left us with a $150 ($160? 170?) million 90 degree rotation with fewer seats. McHattie was right and they were wrong.

And now many of the same voices are rallying behind Brad Clark. Those voices have no credibility anymore, and should be mocked as such. You don't get to screw Hamilton out of 9 figures of Provincial/Federal money twice in a row in any sane world.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-09-19 09:37:29

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 10:30:55

Forget driver:passenger ratios. LRT can actually go driverless.

Bonus: HSR's toxic culture/harassment issues dramatically improve.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 10:44:21

Yeah. That use of the term 'BRT' to make a point about current bus service was sloppy. The truth is- Well, there's a couple of points to be made here.

1) Sometimes I think that pro-LRTers don't ride the HSR. Aren't authentically aware of the current situation.

2) The resultant huge blind-spot is not shared by those residents currently using the HSR; the B-Line is only one aspect of it. There are some pronounced problems with the current system that non-B-Line users face every day.

3) If you're betting on McHattie winning based on him championing LRT ('because it's been proven to the best option possible'), I wouldn't put any money on that. Why? Because the vast majority of Hamiltonians really don't care about the benefits of something they'll never use, but will have to pay for (to one extent or another). And it's these voters who will actually decide the election. You know, the residents in Wards 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15... As I've said before, LRT has not been sold well to these people, and to have counted on Council or an individual Councillor to have done so is absurd. As the Brits are wont to say, 'Good luck with that.'

Comment edited by ItJustIs on 2014-09-19 10:45:50

Permalink | Context

By Ms Me (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 09:14:48 in reply to Comment 104618

Well said!

Permalink | Context

By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 19, 2014 at 14:40:18 in reply to Comment 104618

I've ridden the HSR frequently. And buses in other communities.

Yes, the HSR sucks... but not substantially worse than other similarly-sized cities. Fundamentally, buses are not great. LRT will make transit travel something actually good-enough that people with better options (IE a car) will actually consider taking it.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 13:33:08

Since we learned from Clark and highlighted in Andrew Dreschel's article at the Spec titled "Clark goes fo r opponents Jugular" ( Hamilton taxpayers would potentially be on the hook for infrastructure costs associated with LRT, I am curious why no response from the team at RTH??? I mean complete radio silence on the issue.

According to McHattie, the question was posed to the transportation minister, Steven Del Duca, this past July. The reply; he'll get back to us and Dreschel speculates the answer will come after the municipal election. Why hasn't the RTH staff acknowledged this important information? Instead they, as well as the other mayoral candidates sling mud at Clark and accuse him of playing the wedge issue card. Don’t get me wrong, I have not made any decisions as to who to vote for this election, however I am grateful for the questions finally being asked regarding what the impacts of LRT will be. The infrastructure costs is a very important question that requires answers.

In short, I hope the staff at RTH, look into it these questions, rather than being perceived as disingenuous, due to questionable omissions of fact and dialogue, around the true impact of LRT costs to the taxpayer.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Joshua (registered) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 15:53:36

Ryan, thanks for the clarification on Bus Rapid Transit; it helps to move the discussion forward, now that terms have been defined. I think the expansion of the current Hamilton Street Railway system is the most possible option. It keeps the most people currently employed and allows for more transit drivers. Ideally, I'd like to see light-rail transit in the city, too, especially as current bus service to secondary schools in the south-east is inadequate and it's more environmentally sustainable, but bus expansion is a good beginning.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By scrap (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 21:45:54

So it appears that only the money candidates were invited and not all the candidates. Shame on the organizers of this event. The fix is in.

Permalink | Context

By sigh (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 22:21:43 in reply to Comment 104647

Yeah, it's a pity that fringe candidates weren't invited. Too bad.

Is there anything you are ever positive about?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By heynow (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 22:38:37

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

Permalink | Context

By Heynowheynow (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 21:23:44 in reply to Comment 104655

Why don't you tell us where you live so we can troll your lame town with ridiculously glib comparisons to places like Toronto, Detroit, or wherever. Please explain how amalgamation saved our backsides, because that is nothing short of fantastic. Otherwise it appears that your trolling comes from a place of insecurity, fear, or just plain jealousy.

Permalink | Context

By RobF (registered) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 11:04:30 in reply to Comment 104655

We don't have SKY HIGH taxes, we have an weakened tax base due to a couple decades of de-industrialization. This has left us overly reliant on residential taxes. Clark was part of the government that decided to push thru amalgamation, and it's not clear who's saving who in the arrangement.

Do you consider building the LINC and Red Hill, or Aerotropolis to be throwing tax dollars away?

Finally, don't compare us to Detroit. Other than deindustrialization we share little in common. Many parts of the City of Detroit have been abandoned and the city has lost more than half its population since 1950. Hamilton is slow growing, and the Lower City while poorer overall than other parts of the city has not been abandoned and has viable neighbourhoods. We also do not have the deeply entrenched racial divisions that Detroit has ... there is a tendency to overlook the role of race in Detroit's problems, especially the accelerated white flight that followed court-mandated busing schemes to integrate public schools in the City of Detroit in the 1970s. The City of Detroit experienced sharp and continual decline of it's non-residential tax base at the same time as there was a rush to the exits among its middle-class homeowners, without a regional mechanism to prevent suburban "home-rule" from gutting the City's ability to restructure itself. Even the most competent city government would be hard pressed to survive what befell Detroit. The real lesson of Detroit is that for a Metropolitan region to prosper long-term it needs a viable core. What is unique about Detroit since 2008 is that the whole Metro was impacted, not just the City. That wasn't the case for much of the period from 1950 to 2000.

The biggest risk to our future prosperity is failing to make prudent investments in hard and soft infrastructure that leverages value in what's already here.

Comment edited by RobF on 2014-09-20 11:12:36

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By scrap (anonymous) | Posted September 19, 2014 at 22:40:13

Dear by sigh: what is there to be positive about considering the logistics of this event? Just because I see that things should be open and fair opposed to closed and biased,seems to bother you.

Permalink | Context

By sigh (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 08:40:47 in reply to Comment 104656

What's wrong with the logistics? The 3 real campaigns are represented. Fringe candidate aren't. Have you ever seen a debate where all candidates are there? It's absolute bedlam. Think of the last municipal election and the cable 14 debate with all mayoral candidates. It was hijacked by the fringe as a way to personally attack the frontrunners, push an agenda in the guise of city building. It's a waste of time. It's not "open and fair", it's biased and closed. Why? Because it's all about the fringe candidates then and their personal agendas. That's not open and fair.

Your noise is tiresome. It's talking a lot but never saying anything.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Stu Barns (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 11:24:26

If the promise of LRT is more development along the line, and thus greater density, and thus a stronger tax base... why then are we not organizing for greater density in current projects instead of the opposite, such as 220 Dundurn and many other recent developments?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Logic (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 16:07:48

Some articulate and well researched comments made by Ryan, as usual. However, it is a bit of an echo chamber in here. This is political season. Clark is gaining traction and McHattie/Eisenberger are splitting the LRT vote. It is time for some realpolitik. Either McHattie or Eisenberger has to graciously bow out and support he other. If you are interested in winning the 'war' as well as the debate, will RTH push for this solution to be sought.

As for who of the two should bow out? I think it is the one who has the best chance of beating Clark.

For me the choice is clear even though either of the candidates would be fine. Only one can beat Clark. The other just can't.

Permalink | Context

By Astroboy (anonymous) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 08:22:38 in reply to Comment 104666

I can't put my finger on it but this comment feels like astroturfing.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By scrap (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 16:51:58

Oh By sigh, so in the big scheme of things we can all see your true fascist tendencies. In a true democratic situation all who run are given equal time.

Are they fringe or are maybe they are just not order followers.

Keep filling the white space with nothing stooge.

Permalink | Context

By Sigh (Again) (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 20:43:14 in reply to Comment 104668

Another thing to keep in mind, this event was hosted by a third party, which means they paid for the meeting space, and are free to invite whoever they want. If you want an all-candidates debate, you can host one. I'm sure the turnout would be stupendous.

Permalink | Context

By Sigh (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 20:29:55 in reply to Comment 104668

You're a real prize, aren't you? I can only imagine what it's like at McDonald's when they give you the single patty instead of the double.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By scrap (anonymous) | Posted September 20, 2014 at 23:00:08

By sigh, given your latest explanation it shows your true colors, you do not believe in the principles of democracy, only tyranny.

The chamber of commerce should be held accountable for not including all those running. Given the newest postings on Facebook, Mr DiIanni's bullying fingers, who has ties to Mr Eisenberger's campaign,
I do not think you have much to offer as opinion.

I said you are a few cents short a dollar, a drone incapable of any semblance of critical thinking.

Permalink | Context

By Sigh (Last time, I promise) (anonymous) | Posted September 24, 2014 at 05:54:53 in reply to Comment 104673

"By sigh, given your latest explanation it shows your true colors, you do not believe in the principles of democracy, only tyranny."

Sure, OK. Sounds like you're upset that maybe "the good reverend" wasn't given a shot to talk about his transit loop that nobody else talking about?

"The chamber of commerce should be held accountable for not including all those running. Given the newest postings on Facebook, Mr DiIanni's bullying fingers, who has ties to Mr Eisenberger's campaign, I do not think you have much to offer as opinion."

The chamber was one of 3 co-hosts of the event. Hamilton's Chamber of Commerce, Homebuilders Assocation, and Realtors Association were all involved. As stated prior, they can invite whoever they want, and exclude whoever they want. They should not be held accountable, it's not their mandate. They don't even have to co-host an event! Further to that, what are you rambling about with Eisenberger? What about the other 2 candidates? Why is the posting of another has-been mayor anything I would follow? I'm not associated with any of the 3 real candidates, and have my own opinions on them.

"I said you are a few cents short a dollar, a drone incapable of any semblance of critical thinking."

Actually, you never said that till just then. I'm not a drone and have no problems with critical thinking, but it seems like you're upset over nothing and would much rather be angry all the time and find fault with any perceived slight or anything than to actually solve the problems at hand. All I see in your posts is complaint after complaint. When was the last time you smiled?

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted September 21, 2014 at 08:02:27

2010 Election results:

Bratina: 37% DiIanni: 28% Eisenberger: 27%

Taking a look at this map:,_O... shows you how the victor's support played out.

I suspect...unless Eisenberger drops out...the results will look something like this:

Clark: 44% McHattie: 31% Eisenberger: 19%

Whether not having Clark as Mayor will spell doom for LRT is a matter of pure speculation. Whether or not the Province in fact has the $$$ for LRT/BRT funding is also a matter of pure speculation. Whether or not Hamilton has the monies to address general infrastructure issues (and I'm not talking about Hamilton's contributions to bringing LRT into play)... Well, this speculation isn't quite as 'pure'. The numbers (deficits) are astounding. The truth is that Hamilton has not maintained the basics of the city, meaning that we're really not capable of dealing with much in terms of massive projects. As my dad used to say, 'How can I trust you with the big stuff when you can't handle the little stuff?'

Comment edited by ItJustIs on 2014-09-21 08:03:00

Permalink | Context

By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted September 21, 2014 at 14:39:19 in reply to Comment 104675

meaning that we're really not capable of dealing with much in terms of massive projects.

OK, then how do you reconcile the costs going towards the Aerotroplis project? From my understanding, the city has been and will be on the hook for huge sums of money based on, some would call, "speculation" that the project will provide economic benefits outweighing the investment costs. That's essentially the same argument for LRT - that the costs, while substantial and somewhat speculative, will provide the best bang for buck and ultimately lead to greater economic benefits for the city.

I'm not discounting either position (although I’m far more in favour of LRT as opposed to Aerotropolis based on the material I’ve read). I just find the lack of scrutiny (and transparency) being paid to Aerotropolis is inconsistent with the amount of scrutiny and study that has gone into LRT. And of course this is a position that's been raised before by Nicholas Kevlahan here and here.

Comment edited by jeff on 2014-09-21 14:40:04

Permalink | Context

By Starbuck (registered) | Posted September 21, 2014 at 13:54:33 in reply to Comment 104675

Finally some sense. Your dad is a wise man itJustls!!!!

Permalink | Context

By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted September 21, 2014 at 09:00:19 in reply to Comment 104675

Edit: "Whether or not having Clark as Mayor..."

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Logic (anonymous) | Posted September 21, 2014 at 09:10:44

Thnks for the analysis ItJustIs. I don't have data because I'm not in that business, but I talk to people across the city because of my work and I know that Brian unfortunately isn't taken seriously as a contender despite his considerable talents. Fred is. He is liked and the worse people say is 'well, he's been there already'. As for the pure speculation of LRT demise if Clark wins, look at reality. When Rob Ford changed Transit City from LRT to subways in Toronto, the province did so on the strength of the Mayor's request.

We have a cash strapped provincial government. Do you think they will resist a cheaper option if a city wide mandate is won by an anti LRT mayor? Not for a minute.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By my2cents (anonymous) | Posted September 21, 2014 at 13:23:09

Politics aside, on a technical note-if BRT goes on the middle lane AND has a raised platform, then won't it take up at least a lane and a half of lane capacity. Surely all non-hsr users will be against this?
Seems to me that LRT is an investment in the future of a city that has matured. Quibbling over BRT sounds like an childish demand to stay in a disfunctional past.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By Jimmydougie (anonymous) | Posted September 21, 2014 at 17:46:09

Kitchener has been working on the preparation of their lrt for several years! Hamilton's government can't make any decisions.How do they get voted back year after year? Hamilton has always done things as cheaply as possible.Look at the art gallery, city hall , football stadium etc.Hamiltonians NEED something to have pride in.The lrt would add some badly needed pizzazz that Hamiltonians could feel good about.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By screencarp (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 02:39:18

What passes for BRT in most Canadian cities is not what Ryan has described above. It's a A/B-line with (sometimes) a dedicated lane and advance lights. I'm thinking of Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg...I'm not sure I can think of a "BRT" example in Canada that meets Ryan's definition.

In fact, many folks consider Hamilton as having BRT already with the A and B lines.

So in Canadian parlance, BRT is just an express bus.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By jeffzuk (registered) | Posted September 22, 2014 at 06:50:45

So in Canadian parlance, BRT is just an express bus.

Well, not quite, but I see your point. The PDF is helpful, and states:

"Bus rapid transit is a rubber-tired rapid transit service that combines stations, vehicles, running ways and a flexible operating plan into a high-quality, customer-focused service that is fast, reliable, comfortable and cost-efficient."

If BRT is ultimately what Hamilton gets, which I personally will find disappointing, it should be more than just what we have, which is what Ryan is pointing out in this article. As pointed out at the top of the page, comments coming from the anti-LRT camp are suggesting we already have BRT (in the form of express buses): for example, Brad Clark saying, "We need to enhance Bus Rapid Transit."

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By hshields (registered) - website | Posted September 24, 2014 at 14:09:51

If people in Hamilton are still "confused" over what BRT looks like. Please, please PLEASE, drive to Markham. It isn't that far. I've done it a few times. Here's a link.

Metrolinx is providing funding to York Transit to install BRT along Hwy.7. It follows exactly the description in the article. I can assure you - it is massively disruptive to build. It includes stand-alone stations. It includes dedicated lanes that are physically separated from the rest of the corridor and there is no left turning until you meet major intersections (please note, smaller intersections can only turn right).

I can understand opting for BRT over LRT for a variety of perfectly valid and logical reasons (e.g. unstable roadways, need to transfer to and from BRT to regular transit system etc..). Do any of these reasons exist in Hamilton? We have YEARS of studies that say no.

If you're going to build dedicated linear infrastructure that is cost effective and can enhance property tax LRT is the way to go.

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

There are no upcoming events right now.
Why not post one?

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools