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More than just another bus route: Can Bus Rapid Transit spur compact urban development?

June 04, 2021

By Craig Sklenar

7 key considerations for setting up BRT programs as contributors to improved urban development

Across North America, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is emerging as a preferred mode of rapid transport for cities both large and small. As interest increases, we receive questions about the development impact these modes of transportation offer to communities who are implementing BRT. Namely, can BRT be just as desirable a mode of public transit as would a light rail or rapid transit train line?

The short answer is yes. As always, the devil is in the details.

BRT is defined by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy as a high-quality bus-based transit mode that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities. It does this through dedicated lanes for bus service, iconic stations, off-board fare collection, and fast, frequent operations. BRT is a great mode of transport for smaller cities or areas of larger cities that might not have the population densities to support larger modes like light rail or subway. In the US, BRT has become a popular mode of transport because of its lower cost-per-mile and scores competitively under the FTA New Starts capital investment grants program. As a result, smaller cities can implement BRT more quickly and deliver high-quality services at a fraction of the cost of a light rail corridor. 

Our approach to corridor planning focuses on the areas of a community most likely to change with the introduction of new transit service. These considerations can impact potential station location, mode of technology used, and overall alignment decisions.

But here’s one of those devilish details: BRT often gets “value engineered”—basically watered down—in the development process to the point of being a service slightly better than a local bus. Without priority lanes, higher frequencies, and better amenities elements like true station/platform areas or off-board fare collection, BRT devolves into a lesser-than service and thus fails to meet its original goals.

To make sure a BRT program has its desired transformational effect, be sure to consider the following elements to maximize the opportunity to create walkable compact communities:

1. Understand your local market

Using BRT over light rail might seem like a concession, but it could be perfect for the scale of the community. High-frequency rapid transit service must be “high-frequency” and “rapid” from day one, regardless of mode, and making that happen is much easier with BRT. Design your system to meet the riders’ needs, provide a high-quality rider experience, and advance the opportunity for future city building.

2. Operations matter

Where do people want to go? Why? At what time of day will they be riding? What will get people to use the transit service? Focusing the BRT alignment on destinations and origins of ridership while keeping an eye on future city growth will ensure that the BRT corridor accommodates operations today and in the future. Remember: good rider experience + reliable service = the opportunity to gain ridership.

The Max Purple BRT in Calgary, Alberta, anticipates future development along the corridor that is mixed-use and less auto focused.

3. Public realm matters

Think of how this project can be an opportunity for reinvestment in the public street, a visual statement to developers that “this is where we want you to invest.” BRT works well in existing urban corridors as well as part of new community design from day one, but the connections from the stations and along the corridor are important.

4. Community planning matters

Use the implementation of a BRT line as an opportunity to focus on community outcomes. The installation of a BRT line can unlock new opportunities for compact urban development, while also bringing the critical density of people to support investment in new amenities, improvements to existing infrastructure, or even broader housing choices. Use this moment as a chance to envision the future of the communities that will be connected to this new transit investment. 

BRT is a great mode of transport for smaller cities or areas that might not have the density to support larger modes like light rail or subway.

5. Design for tomorrow

Consider the BRT operations for Day 1 but also for Day 5,000. This could range from anticipation of growth in bus operations, quicker headways to accommodate growth in ridership, or even future platform extensions. Approach the design process in the same manner a light rail or subway line would be developed.

6. Don’t be afraid to experiment

Perhaps there’s an existing bus corridor that is ripe for transformation into BRT. Experiment with this: utilize temporary-installation techniques—like temporary stations, temporary bus-only lanes, and other urban design interventions—that can provide the community a glimpse into the possibilities. This gives everyone a chance to examine what works and what might need tweaking. It offers the community a chance to weigh in through the process. 

Working with the local community in Everett, Massachusetts, temporary rapid bus shelters installed also provided the unique opportunity for art and garden installations along the route.

7. Most importantly: Remember who this work is for

Any transit operation needs to remember these systems must be designed for the communities they serve. Simply drawing a line on a map from Point A to Point B will not be as successful as gaining a true understanding of the people it serves, where they need to go, and what will get them to ride the system.

BRT can be an attractive, cost-effective way of delivering high-quality transit services to communities no matter the scale, if you maintain a focus on rider experience, high-frequency operations, and connections to destinations that serve the community. Keep community at top of mind throughout the design and implementation of BRT and compact urban development will be sure to follow. 

  • Craig Sklenar

    Like any good storyteller, Craig sees the big picture–he uses stories from residents, clients, and stakeholders to help craft a design that is a physical representation of their biggest ideas and serves their ultimate needs.

    Contact Craig
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