‘BRT’ – What is it?

November 11th, 2012

I’ve heard a lot of talk about Bus Rapid Transit(BRT) lately, and I’m feeling the need to start unpacking some of it. Just what is BRT? I suspect many people have a fairly vague idea, but fortunately, I found this great slideshow on SORTA’s page about the topic that actually explains everything quite clearly. From the second slide:

“[BRT is] A flexible, high performance rapid transit mode that combines a variety of physical, operating, and system elements into a permanently integrated system with a quality image and unique identity.”

Sounds good so far, no?

On the next slide we learn that “BRT is tailored to each unique corridor” and “can be implemented incrementally“. There are a variety of “alternate BRT packages”. Awesome!

The fourth slide gives us a show of how many cities are supposedly planning BRT.

BRT popularity map

Sweeping the nation like a new boy band!

Then on the next two slides we go back to how flexible BRT is.

The infinite specturm of BRT

BRT will be your everything.

Now this is actually the second time this next slide appears in the document. They really don’t want us to miss the fact that BRT is plug and play.

parts of a so called BRT

Buy the expansion pack!

Let’s pause for a moment to get real: I’m sure Parsons Brinkerhoff does some decent work every once in a while, but this slideshow looks like it was put together by a first year planning student assigned to learn about BRT.

Carrying on again: From here on out, the document spends a few slides at a time highlighting certain features of BRT one at a time. Let’s pick them apart one by one.

“Stylish Vehicles”

BRT is stylish apparently

“Environmentally compatible”: You don’t have to install any proprietary codecs?

Let’s look closer at that one in the top right.

Damn, BRT. You fine.

Damn, BRT. You fine.

That’s pretty awesome. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as excited about transportation as the emotions this picture conveys, but I have come close.

The big difference, as the next slide explains, between a BRT bus and a “regular”(?) bus is that the BRT is more “rail-like”. They even suggest retrofitting existing buses from the fleet with “front cones” and “wheel covers“.

But then of course if you don’t want any of that, BRT will be anything you want it to be. I mean, look at LA!

BRT will be anything for you

BRT is available in sizes XS -5XL

“Running Ways”

“BRT can operate in a wide variety of physical environments:
-On Street
-Bus Lane
-Bus Way…
-Guided or Non-guided
-Exclusive Lane or Mixed Traffic”

This is pretty neat. You mean to tell me it can go anywhere if we want it to? It could even have it’s own lanes?

buses frolicking in a feild

Buses frolicking in grass. Curiously, there is no sidewalk.

a variety of BRT lane types


Well, this is all well and good, but it amounts to little more than saying something like “Nate: with his two feet, he can go anywhere, climb stairs, even run! He’s found in the great outdoors, in bed, in coffee shops and many other physical environments. He could even fit in a hot-tub if you bought him one.” *wink, wink*

It’s simply a list of possibilities rather than requirements or standards. And it’s not unique to things called “BRT”. Trains could operate with essentially the same infrastructure. So could cars or bicycles or people or anything else that moves.

“BRT Stations”

We’re told that BRT “stations” can include such amenities as “artwork”, “customer information”, and “lighting”. That they can be “attractive and safe”, “permanent, substantial, and protected from weather”. It gives us a range of design possibilities, most of which look like¬†nice bus shelters already do.

BRT station design

What’s this bus doing here? I thought this was the train station!

Most importantly, it tells us that a typical spacing between “stations” is 1/4 to 1 mile. This is the real meat of the difference between BRT and “local service”, and it’s taken us 3/4 of the presentation to get to it.


Basically, yes, you can still write all over the stations and vehicles. BRT is not made of Teflon so your logos will stick just like they always have.

branding options

BRT will strut for you.

“BRT Service Plans”

This pretty much lists everything transit can be– from omnipresent frequency to peak-only, stops spaced far apart or close together, local service or express.

things transit can do

You can have BRT where and when you want.

Closing Thoughts

BRT as I understand it in theory has one critical difference from most transit lines we have in Cincinnati. Higher average speed brought about by less frequent stops and a designated transit only right-of-way.

Any other differences are imagined or branded. Indeed, this whole slideshow has amounted to very little more than an enumeration of what is possible with any type of transit. I said earlier in the post it looked like it was put together by a student researching BRT. I take that back. It looks like it was put together by a student researching transit generally and presenting to an audience who hasn’t heard of such a thing before.

If clean, safe stops are a good thing to have, why should BRT lines be the only ones to have them? If level, multi-door boarding and off-board payment are good things to have, why shouldn’t any other line have them too? If running in an exclusive right-of-way can make transit faster, why should we limit such a boon to only certain lines?

And further, if the qualities of BRT that we’ve heard make it special, that differentiate it from other lines are so flexible as to be completely optional, to be implemented one at a time as we can afford them, why can’t similar incremental improvements be made to any line as the funds are available?

It seems then like “BRT” is a brand more than anything. It’s a look to be slapped on a transit service, like the Southbank Shuttle’s¬† self-conscious ‘trolley’.

southbank shuttle

It’s a forced distinction and ultimately an ambiguous, unnecessary and possibly confusing one. It’s already resulting in maps that, like the streetcar’s, completely ignore the rest of the transit system:

BRT stands in glorious isolation.

BRT stands in glorious isolation.

That sort of cartography is indicative of a line that will itself ignore much of what already exists. Indeed, SORTA has put out some specific suggestions for BRT line routing and they seem to almost completely overlap existing ‘local’ lines:

proposed Cincinnati brt alignments

In this case the #33, #17, #78, #43, #4 & #11 but with a very, very different stop spacing:

SORTA transit proposal

This map is uglier than even yo’ mamma, and just as decontextualized as that joke.

What this means is potentially more of the same sort of confusion I’ve written about regarding TANK’s stop locations in Downtown with the shuttle stop disjunction. Where does one go to wait for the next bus in such a case? It’s not totally clear(without checking multiple schedules) whether you’re better off waiting for the #4 or the faster bus that won’t pick you up if you’re at the wrong stop.

Further muddying the waters is the complete silence on possible frequency for the new services SORTA is proposing. Since these new lines would be almost completely redundant to the main high frequency corridors, they would work best in compliment to them. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that SORTA doesn’t have the money to operate these new lines at anywhere close to the frequency of the lines they duplicate(if they did have extra, they would already be spending it. It’s annual operatin funds.). That would mean they could either make ‘BRT’ by taking buses from the existing heavily used lines to run them with limited stops, decreasing ‘local’ service, or they could operate a very low-frequency high-speed line over the still-high-frequency lower-speed line. In the former case, we would have very significant service changes ahead, and ones that people who don’t live near proposed BRT stops will not be at all happy with. In the later case, one would have to wait a reasonably long time for the higher speed line, making irrelevant much of it’s speed benefit. It’s been well demonstrated that, all else being equal, people would rather get a slow bus with little time waiting at the stop than wait a long time for a fast bus. I’ll call it the at-least-we’re-moving effect. Psychology is crazy.

But the point is that if the frequency of the ‘BRT’ service isn’t high enough(and it can’t be without sacrificing ‘local’ service somewhere) then the best option people will have in many of these transit corridors will still be to go out there and wait for the next bus. It might be a higher-speed limited-stop bus if they are near a stop, or a line like we have now. Whichever comes first will be the one they catch. I do this between Downtown and Northside. There are a number of lines I can take to get out there but the one I choose is always the one that happens to get to Government Square first.

Beyond the stops though, the other substantive difference with the idea of BRT is the designated, transit-only right-of-way that prevents cars and stop lights and squirrels from getting in the way. It’s not at all clear where if anywhere this would be found along these proposed routes. In fact, the City has been extremely reluctant to yield even an occasional parking lane for bikes. I doubt they would be friendlier to transit. It’s also not clear whether the vehicles would get priority at traffic signals. Without the assurance that they could avoid most car traffic between stops the potential for substantively higher speed is significantly diminished.

My suggestion would be to improve the high frequency lines that we have by eliminating some stops, assigning a designated right-of-way where possible, improving technology on most or all lines such as with the signal prioritization, and investing(as operating money is available) in higher frequencies and longer schedules. This would have the added benefit of keeping the maps and schedules simple. If a different line is added over the #4 for example, and I just want to get from Downtown to Norwood, I might now have to check two schedules rather than one. Or worse, a new rider may well not realize there are two lines and only check the schedule for one of them, leading to unnecessary wait.

In conclusion, I’ll point everyone to the last words in that slideshow:

don't oversell BRT

Don’t do it.

3 responses to “‘BRT’ – What is it?”

  1. […] The thing SORTA has been touting the most is the the thing I was most wary about before I attended the public meeting on the plan last week: The ‘Metro Plus‘ service, or as I’ll call it, the m+1, is to be their tentative step toward what might be called ‘bus rapid transit‘. […]

  2. […] a semester on a ‘big problem’ that the organization might face (like “How might bus rapid transit be implemented?”). The problems are usually local and a low-level representative from the […]

  3. […] infrastructure projects that effect transit. SORTA, if you want to make a case that your proposed BRT lines on major corridors need a designated right of way, what could do that better than a map […]