One of the reasons so-called Bus-Rapid Transit projects have been so contentious in U.S. cities is that urban street space is a precious commodity. Unwilling to give BRT exclusive lanes along the median, many cities route the buses into curbside lanes with mixed traffic. There, BRT must share the curb with turning cars, double-parked trucks, and other traffic conflicts — forcing the buses initially sold to the public as "speedy" to a crawl.
In other words, what feels like a compromise is really a critical error. American cities that fail to extend true BRT through the downtown area ensure that the systems receive their greatest visibility in places where they experience their lowest effectiveness. The result can be to sour public opinion on BRT at large, making subsequent expansions — there or elsewhere around the country — all the more difficult.
"What our organization has found throughout the world is that there's a really great benefit to bringing not just exclusive bus lanes but the highest quality BRT directly into the downtown," says Annie Weinstock, a U.S. regional director for Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which has established a global standard for BRT design. "That's something we've been pushing in all the cities we work. It's a constant battle everywhere we go."
Space is the biggest battle, says Weinstock, but the problem is largely illusory. In technical terms, any street 40-feet wide can handle BRT. Drivers and businesses often fear the loss of traffic lanes or parking and delivery areas, but traffic patterns and customers tend to find a way of rerouting themselves — as they did when New York repurposed hundreds of miles of city streets during the Bloomberg administration (albeit for bikes and pedestrians).
More often, says Weinstock, the challenge is political will masquerading as street space. "People like to say there's no space," she says. "It's more that there's not the political will to take the space that exists."
Take the case of the East Busway — a dedicated BRT highway in metro Pittsburgh. The busway has done loads of good for the city: it's stimulated hundreds of millions of dollars in development and contributed to the 38 percent of city commuters who reach downtown by bus. ITDP recently gave it a bronze BRT rating.
But the East Busway loses a lot of its impact when it enters mixed traffic downtown. Bus traffic is so bad within the city center, with riders crowding sidewalks, that businesses have urged local officials to eliminate buses from entering the downtown area at all. Weinstock say the problem could be avoided by running true BRT downtown, because the buses would be organized in an attractive and efficient way.
Contrast that with the HealthLine in Cleveland, rated silver by ITDP and among the models for American cities. That BRT route, which goes right through downtown, helped the city leverage a $50 million transit investment into nearly $6 billion in new transit-oriented development, according to a recent ITDP report. For several types of transit, including light rail as well as BRT, ITDP has found that systems running downtown do a much better job producing an economic benefit.
"A transitway has to benefit people going from their origin to their destination," says Weinstock. "So if people couldn't get to downtown as easily, the whole BRT wouldn't be as successful."
Weinstock recognizes that sometimes this political battle over city street space is easier said than done. Downtown Cleveland was by most measures quite blighted before the HealthLine, for instance, which made opposition minimal. But the fight is worth it, she says, because building sub-par BRT — or, worse, calling something BRT when it's not — reinforces negative public perception of the entire mode. Over time, that preconception makes city residents resistant to the idea from the start.
"In a lot of cases you have people in cities who have seen projects in their own city called BRT and they say, 'I don't want this. You're going to change my street and take away my parking for this?,' " she says. "Definitely having more projects that really qualify as basic BRT — but ideally higher standard — would help."
Top image via Flickr user wyliepoon; chart via ITDP.