Several weeks ago the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a positive study of U.S. based Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) systems. Thirteen of the 15 projects that provided study data reported increases in ridership over the most recent service year. When BRT replaced another transit service, it decreased travel time between 10-35 percent. While total ridership varied, the M15 BRT line in New York City carried more than 55,000 daily riders. Its ridership was greater than many light-rail lines as well as that of several light-rail systems.
BRT has many other advantages. Capital costs are lower than for rail transit projects. BRT costs account for a very small percentage of New Starts, Small Starts, and Very Small Starts funding. Using a given amount of money substantially more BRT lines than rail lines can be funded. Many of these projects provide rail-like benefits at substantially lower costs. While transportation projects should not be built primarily for economic development reasons, the study indicates that BRT is just as likely to contribute to economic development as rail.
The GAO study examined projects in dedicated lanes and shared lanes. With the exception of New York City with its large number of buses and small headway between vehicles, it is impractical to dedicate an entire lane to buses. Instead, priority traffic signaling, bus pull-outs and other improvements can allow buses to travel quick, consistent speeds without the expense of adding a lane or the issue of eliminating a lane from car travel.
Often metro areas must choose between light-rail service and BRT. This GAO report confirms that BRT has many advantages. One of the advantages is that BRT is much cheaper to build and operate. For the cost of constructing 2 or 3 light rail lines, a city could build an entire BRT network. With the exception of places such as New York City, Washington D.C., or Chicago there are few corridors where rail is a better choice than BRT.
New rail lines provide sexier ribbon cutting opportunities than new bus lines. These photo opportunities are very beneficial to politicians. Transportation engineers, planners and policy makers need to encourage politicians to focus on solving transportation problems and not photo opportunities and ribbon cutting ceremonies.
GAO has released several studies critical of rail. When a former skeptic such as GAO offers such a glowing report, it shows the success of BRT. Far more metro areas should invest in this cost-effective and efficient technology.