At last month’s 5th national Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) conference one of the key topics focused on which types of bus services qualify as BRT. While most transit practitioners think that BRT service must either offer a dedicated lane or some form of signal priority, some metro areas are branding any type of bus service BRT. This could confuse riders and limit the popularity of BRT.
Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) is a popular transit technology used extensively throughout the world. Similar to light-rail BRT can operate in either a dedicated lane or in mixed traffic. However, light rail typically relies on an overhead wire for power. As a result, LRT is limited to certain corridors and certain lanes in a corridor. As BRT receives its power from an electric, natural gas, diesel, or combustion engine it can travel on any street.
However, BRT differs from local and express bus as well. BRT vehicles have a system that allows them to bypass traffic congestion. This is typically a dedicated lane or priority signaling. In a dedicated lane system one lane of traffic in each direction is prioritized for buses. Sometimes these lanes are in the middle of the road separated from other traffic. Other times the lane is the right or left lane of the existing roadway. Sometimes BRT buses share left or right turn lanes with cars. In priority signaling a bus has special equipment that alerts a traffic signal that it is approaching the intersection. In some situations the traffic signal will turn green in a matter of seconds, so the bus does not have to stop for a red light. In other situations the bus gets a priority green; a priority green gives the bus a 5-20 second head-start over other vehicles. BRT systems with priority signaling typically have either a dedicated lane at intersections or share traffic with the right-lane. This allows the bus to jump ahead of traffic when the light turns green.
BRT is different from local or express buses. Local buses have numerous stops, often every 1/8 mile or less. These slow routes are designed to provide easy-access to everybody in the neighborhood. Express buses and limited-stop buses typically have fewer stops and a faster commute. Express buses have most of their stops in a small geographic area and travel some distance to an employment center. Limited-stop buses typically have consistent stops every ½ to 1 mile apart. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Neither of these is BRT because buses do not receive priority compared to other vehicles in a corridor.
All types of bus service are valuable. Many smaller communities may only need local-bus while the bigger communities may use local bus, express bus, and BRT. However, by calling any bus service BRT, agencies are distorting the concept of BRT. When consumers board a service labeled “BRT” that is really a local bus, their incorrect assumptions that BRT service is inferior to rail transit are reinforced. True BRT service is typically equal to or superior to rail service in speed, reliability and comfort. For most U.S. areas, BRT is the most realistic, rapid transit technology for the 21rt century. Delineating between regular bus and BRT service is essential.