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Bus Rapid Transit is the future in many cities: 8 elements of a successful program

August 26, 2021

By Greg Chilik

How can transit agencies bridge the gap from dream to reality for a BRT project? Start by following the success of other projects

Your community is growing. Traffic was getting more congested before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now that people are returning to their offices, it’s a problem again. Your city buses serve all your employment centers, but they don’t seem to be enticing commuters to give up their car rides. You imagine a shiny train whisking those drivers over the miles to their destinations, but you know that your city isn’t big enough yet. And besides, where would the hundreds of millions of dollars come from to pay for a rail system?

Sound familiar? Many medium-sized cities are grappling with these same problems. What’s the alternative between the “do nothing” approach or the prospect of a decade-or-more of planning and raising local funds for a train? The answer may be Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

Mexico City’s Metrobús, first opened in 2005, has been a successful example of an effective BRT program.

A focus on “rapid”

The BRT concept is probably a familiar one to those in the transit industry. It’s familiar on paper, but not as prominent or widespread in practice as its more glamorous cousin Rail Rapid Transit. BRT has climbed in popularity in the last 10 years, with many more projects entering development now than at any other point in the past.

Before moving forward with a BRT solution for your own community’s transportation needs, it’s important to understand exactly what constitutes BRT and how to initiate a successful BRT project that delivers on all its promises.

The vision of BRT that grabs the public’s attention is the idea of a “train on rubber tires.” A prospective rider imagines themselves completing their trip quickly and smoothly as they whiz past all the standstill traffic they used to sit in every day.

In Calgary, the MAX Purple BRT showcases many of these design elements. Designed by Stantec and launched in 2018, MAX Purple features two kilometers of dedicated BRT lanes, 11 heated stations with large boarding platforms and real-time information displays, limited stops, traffic signal priority, and queue jumpers. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the service was carrying 2,150 riders per day and reducing trip times up to 30 minutes versus regular city bus.

So, how does your BRT project achieve this? Focus on the word “rapid” and apply the elements of proven, successful BRT projects. In order, starting with the most effective measures, here are the eight things that will help make your BRT project a success.

1. Exclusive lanes and travelways

This is both the best characteristic of a great BRT corridor, and the most difficult to achieve. What makes nearly all rail transit systems so effective is their ability to stay out of the auto traffic that can ensnarl a traditional bus. When a BRT corridor can reserve bus-only lanes for its route, it eliminates the uncertainty and delays of gridlock and provides riders a guaranteed trip time.

The obstacles to this are obvious: Taking a traffic lane away from cars for bus-only use squeezes the remaining auto lanes’ capacity and accentuates traffic congestion. And expanding roadway widths to create a brand-new bus-only lane is expensive (for both right-of-way acquisition and construction costs) and is usually the first part of scope to be cut or scaled back due to budget constraints. Keeping this in mind, your BRT should push for as much exclusive lane mileage as possible and educate your stakeholders on why this is so important.

2. Traffic signal prioritization

The ability to manipulate traffic signals ahead of BRT vehicles can be the difference between maintaining a rapid transit trip schedule versus being just another pokey bus on the road. Transit signal prioritization (TSP) is similar to the system used by fire engines, ambulances, and other first responders. The vehicle is equipped with a wireless signal which sends messages to the traffic signals ahead as the vehicle approaches. The traffic signals then recalibrate their light cycles to either extend the length of the green signal or accelerate the change from red to green, such that the BRT vehicle does not need to stop for a red light.

Calgary’s MAX Purple is the city’s first dedicated BRT line.

3. Queue jumpers and designated bus signals

Queue jumpers are a short pullout lane designed to give priority to buses. They are located at signalized intersections on the right lanes (sometimes coincident with a right-turn only lane, although sharing can create conflicts between buses and automobiles). The longer the length of the lane the better, as they allow buses to pass stopped traffic on the right and pull to the front of the intersection.

The queue jumper is most effective when paired with a designated bus signal, which can provide the bus with an exclusive green light to begin travel early and get ahead of the other stopped vehicles traveling in the same direction. If the BRT is already utilizing TSP, queue jumpers may not be necessary, or they may be used only at the busiest and most congested intersections.

4. Offboard fare collection

Minimizing boarding and alighting times at stops is often an overlooked aspect of rapid transit delivery. Time spent searching for fares and patrons lining up as they pay cash one-by-one can leave a bus sitting on the curb for a minute or longer per stop. To avoid this, strive to set up offboard fare collection.

If your transit agency already utilizes a pre-paid fare card with an embedded near-field chip (NFC), you’re more than halfway there. Fares can be paid at the entrance to the BRT station (if the station is built with fare gates), or the vehicles can be accessible only with swipe-style fare cards and card readers installed at both bus entrances. Some systems, typically those without NFC-equipped fare media, use an honor system with random fare checks. For patron convenience, fare media dispensers should be installed at BRT stations.

A prospective rider imagines themselves completing their trip quickly and smoothly as they whiz past all the standstill traffic they used to sit in every day.

5. Limited stops

BRT should run like an express service, without stopping at every intersection. Station locations should focus on proximity to residential and commercial centers and be spaced out appropriately to maximize the percentage of trip time spent moving. For a closer look at ways transit complements and enhances its neighbors, read this blog post from my colleague Craig Sklenar.

6. Platform-level boarding

In the same manner as offboard fare collection, level boarding can speed up the boarding and alighting for ADA passengers, eliminating time spent at stops for deployment of lifts. The infrastructure requirements are greater for this element than for some of the others, as it requires both an elevated platform at the curb (typically 15-18 inches above street level) and buses with doors and floors designed for that height.

7. Stations vs. shelters

This is not a time-savings feature, but one that gives riders more of that “train on rubber tires” feeling that differentiates their trip from a traditional bus route. BRT stations are designed to be more than just a shelter with a bench and a canopy. They may be enclosed on three or four sides, have limited-access entry (if utilizing pre-paid fares), and contain better amenities such as chairs, fare vending machines, and information kiosks. Each station can encompass distinct architectural elements that either reflect the surrounding neighborhood, or simply allow each one to stand out.

The 40-kilometer VivaNext program in the Greater Toronto Area is York Region’s first dedicated BRT line.

8. Unique branding

Much like BRT stations, this is another opportunity to distinguish your new rapid transit from regular bus service. Special branding, with logos and color schemes specific to your BRT route (or an entire BRT network) will make the service stand out in the eyes of the public. The logos and branding should be prominent in BRT vehicle paint schemes or bus wraps, at each station and on all marketing materials.

Ready to take the next step?

Have the potential benefits of BRT piqued your curiosity? Learn more about BRT and the work we are doing with transit agencies to make these projects a reality in communities around the world.

  • Greg Chilik

    Greg brings his passion for bus rapid transit (BRT) to Stantec, overseeing BRT projects across North America. He takes pride in knowing that transit, particularly BRT, has such a positive impact within our communities.

    Contact Greg
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