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CityFixer

Can Boston Become America's Best BRT Town?

A new plan outlines five corridors that have the makings of “gold standard” bus-rapid transit.

Barr Foundation

As U.S. cities face more mass transit demands with less mass transit funds, they’ve started to pay closer attention to cost-effective bus enhancements. Features like dedicated lanes, prepaid fares, all-door boarding, and attractive stations are becoming more common. But true bus-rapid transit remains rare in the U.S., and even America’s most successful BRT lines—the HealthLine in Cleveland and the Orange Line in Los Angeles—don’t quite measure up to the best in the world.

An ambitious new plan for BRT in Boston would change all that. The local Barr Foundation has released the findings of a study group made up of local planning experts convened back in September 2013, with technical guidance from the sustainable transport organization ITDP. The report recommends five corridors that have the makings of “gold” standard BRT service, a vision that would vault the city into a bus model for the country. Its conclusion:

The benefits of BRT at its highest standard are real, and they could be reality in Greater Boston. The Study Group not only found technical evidence for BRT’s potential here, its members are enthusiastic about the possibilities in our future planning.

Don’t redraw your T maps just yet. The report doesn’t come with any price tags, and the MBTA has a long list of transit upgrades to address. Scott Hamwey, a transportation planner at the Massachusetts Departments of Transportation, tells CityLab the agency has no plans to develop any specific BRT corridors at the moment. But he says MassDOT “really likes” the new analysis and is working with local officials to discuss where enhanced bus service might become more than a few conceptual lines on a map.

“We know you can achieve something comparable to rail if you give buses all the same advantages you give rail vehicles,” says Hamwey.

Barr Foundation

The most promising options

In determining which existing bus routes might serve as high-quality BRT corridors, the Boston study group focused on two main factors: slow speeds and high ridership, says Annie Weinstock, a former ITDP staffer who led the plan’s technical study and is now a principal at BRT Planning International, a boutique consultancy.

Weinstock says bus corridors with low average speeds offer the greatest potential mobility gains from BRT features that expedite the boarding process (such as prepaid fares) or that remove a bus from general traffic (such as dedicated lanes). If speeds are already high—as with buses on the Mass Turnpike—then BRT won’t deliver as many benefits for the buck. ITDP also targets corridors with a strong established bus ridership, as opposed to parts of town where transit links don’t exist. That approach helps cash-strapped cities cover operating costs from Day One.

“The ridership will probably grow from the baseline,” says Weinstock. “But if you do it in a place where there’s no bus service, you probably won’t get enough riders to justify it for a very long time.”

Those measures turned up 12 corridors with the technical potential for high-quality BRT service in Boston. The study group then considered whether or not the options reduced congestion on the T, reached areas that were underserved or primed for growth, and created direct connections. Other factors such as right-of-way, street width, and politics also came into play, says Weinstock, with the result being five corridors that held the most promise for BRT implementation.

Compared with existing bus routes, the five recommended corridors offer rush-hour travel time savings of anywhere from 12 to 45 percent—assuming they get built to a true “gold” standard. To take one example: a new six-mile BRT service from Dudley Square to Harvard would cut the existing hour-long trip nearly in half. Hamwey says the recommended corridors encompass multiple bus lines, so in some cases, baseline BRT ridership could be around 20,000 daily passengers.

  • Dudley to Downtown: 47 percent time savings
  • Dudley to Mattapan: 34 percent time savings
  • Readville to Forest Hills: 28 percent time savings
  • Harvard to Dudley: 42 percent time savings
  • Sullivan to Ruggles: 12.5-20 percent time savings, depending on the route

The most pressing challenges

BRT isn’t exactly a foreign concept in Boston. The T’s popular Silver Line falls short of true BRT service, but it has some advanced bus elements: part of its route travels in a dedicated bus tunnel, and it will soon be extended to Chelsea along a busway. Hamwey also notes that parts of the T’s Green Line light rail travel along street-level tracks in a manner similar to how BRT would operate. “In some ways it’s easier for us to communicate what BRT might look like if you do it correctly,” he says.

That communication hasn’t been easy in the past. A proposal to bring BRT to Blue Hill Avenue, called the 28x Bus, died in 2009 amid local opposition. Weinstock says she’s seen “some hostility toward the concept of BRT” in Boston that might stem from the mistaken belief that the Silver Line represents true BRT. At the beginning of the new Boston BRT study, says Hamwey, the state promised to do a full alternatives analysis if the study group could secure local support for any particular corridor—but that never materialized.

The Silver Line travels part of its route in a dedicated bus tunnel, but lacks enough features to be considered true BRT. (MassDOT / Flickr)

Asked what’s changed to help officials educate communities about BRT, Hamwey points to better data. If you know that 40 percent of people traveling along a corridor take the bus, he says, you can “make a much stronger case” for giving half the street capacity to transit vehicles.

Boston’s narrow streets make any case for dedicated transit usage especially difficult. Weinstock says this challenge can be met with the right political will; in Mexico City and Bogota, for instance, officials converted entire downtown streets into BRT lanes. And while ITDP urges cities to have as much dedicated transit space as possible, Hamwey says shorter stretches of exclusive bus lanes can still lead to better service—“even if it doesn’t add up to a brand new, shiny, four-mile corridor.”

At the end of the day, it’s up to the cities of Greater Boston themselves to decide just how much they’d like to change their streets. So far the likes of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville have “all expressed an interest in trying to improve transit this way,” says Hamwey. “Which we think is great. We definitely view improving the bus mode, up to and including BRT, as really the most cost-effective way to improve transit service going forward.”

This post was updated to describe ITDP as a sustainable transport organization rather than a BRT consultancy; though perhaps best known for its work on bus-rapid transit, ITDP also engages in other mobility projects.

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