An Overview of Bus Rapid Transit in the United States (1)

Recent years have seen remarkable progress for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the United States. A small number of operational systems have been joined by a plethora of new projects that vary dramatically in terms of size and cost. Attracted by high potential ridership gains in exchange for relatively low capital investments, many transit agencies are now assessing which of the wide-range of BRT treatments are most suitable in meeting their service needs. It is important to understand the current status of the mode, including the achievements made to date and the major concerns and challenges that are currently being faced. This article attempts to provide such an overview, including a summary description of the mode in terms of elements, performance and benefits, a discussion of current issues under investigation, and a profile of three implemented projects that illustrate the wide range of possible BRT treatments.

Eugene, OR bus stop
Elements, Performance & Benefits
Example of transit-oriented development in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Transit-oriented development is quickly becoming a necessary plan for transit agencies. Here is an example of transit-oriented development in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Characteristics of Bus Rapid Transit in the United States

The seminal guidance documents on Bus Rapid Transit (see CBRT, 2004 and TCRP 90, 2003) define it as an integrated system of high-performance and cost-effective transit elements that are designed and implemented to best fit local conditions. The National Bus Rapid Transit Institute (NBRTI) is currently updating the “Characteristics of Bus Rapid Transit” document for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This document identifies the major elements of BRT as the following:

  1. Running ways – BRT systems can operate on a variety of running way types that range from mixed-flow arterials and freeways, dedicated arterial and shoulders lanes, exclusive at-grade busways, to fully grade-separated transitways above or below the surface.
  2. Stations – Aesthetically designed stations enhance the permanence and attractiveness of the system and station areas with passenger amenities such as shelters, benches, lighting, ticket vending machines, security features and next vehicle arrival information.
  3. Vehicles – Stylized and specialized buses provide comfort, modern design, accessibility, maintainability, good passenger circulation and environmentally friendly propulsion.
  4. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) – Applications such as transit signal priority (TSP), advanced communication systems, automated scheduling and dispatch and real-time traveler information at stations and on vehicles allow faster and more convenient trips.
  5. Fare collection – Electronic fare cards, off-board fare collection or proof-of-payment options allow for shorter dwell times and shorter overall travel times.
  6. Service and operations plan – BRT systems generally include rapid transit features like more frequent service than local bus service, all-day service spans and greater spacing between stations. The flexibility and lower-cost of BRT allow it to provide greater network coverage.
  7. Branding and marketing – Distinctive logos, colors, styling and technologies for vehicles and facilities help develop a system identity. BRT services can be marketed as a new tier of service or as part of a multi-modal rapid transit network.

The selection and integration of these elements and their implementation over the length of the alignment, and over time, is also an important consideration in BRT planning. As with any truly integrated system of elements, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Los Angeles' Metro Rapid Network
Los Angeles’ Metro Rapid Network has grown “rapidly” since its opening in 2000.

System Performance

Among the most important measures of performance for a BRT system are:

  • Increased capacity – The maximum number of passengers carried by a critical segment of the BRT system in a period of time is a function of the size and design of the vehicles, stations, running way and the level of service. For instance, the maximum number of passengers carried per hour per direction typically ranges from 10,000 on arterials to more than 30,000 on exclusive running ways, which is comparable to the capacities of some rail-based transit systems.
  • Decreased travel time – Exclusive busways have been shown to operate at an average of 30 miles per hour or more with travel time savings as high as 55 percent compared to regular bus services.
  • Increased reliability – The use of exclusive running ways, level boarding, off-board fare collection and automated vehicle location technologies allow for greater service reliability in terms of running time, dwell time and recovery.
  • Improved accessibility – The design of vehicles, stations, ITS and fare collection systems can greatly influence the accessibility of a BRT system to the mobility impaired and the general ridership as well.
  • Increased safety and security – The combination of modern technologies, facilities and personnel can improve the customer perception of safety and security and reduce the number of incidents.
  • Enhanced identity and image – The effective integration of the various elements can foster a quality image and unique identity for the BRT system as measured by public perception.
The proposed system map for the Lane Transit District's EmX system.
The proposed system map for the Lane Transit District’s EmX system.

Benefits of BRT

The potential benefits of a BRT system depend on the element and performance, and can be characterized by the following measures:

  • Increased ridership – BRT systems have been shown to attract choice ridership and increase total corridor ridership. As much as one-third of BRT riders have been shown to previously use private automobiles. Corridor ridership gains of 20 to 96 percent have also been recorded.
  • Improved capital cost-effectiveness – BRT systems can use less costly or existing infrastructure compared to other rapid transit modes. BRT can also reduce fleet requirements with better vehicle utilization.
  • Improved operating cost-efficiency – Indicators of operating efficiency such as passengers per revenue hour, subsidy per passenger mile and subsidy per passenger can improve when BRT service is introduced to a corridor.
  • Improved environmental quality – By attracting choice riders and using advanced vehicles with cleaner propulsion systems and emissions controls, BRT may improve air quality, noise level and help reduce overall congestion.
  • Transit-supportive land development – Investments in BRT infrastructure and related streetscape improvements may result in positive development effects much like other high-quality transit modes.

Funding Sources

The SAFETEA-LU legislation created a new funding category within New Starts, which expands the eligibility for capital funding (specifically to include arterial-type BRT) and simplifies the evaluation process. This new category is called Small Starts and applies to projects with a total capital cost less than $250 million with a New Starts share less than $75 million.

Source :

(to be continued)


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