An Overview of Bus Rapid Transit in the United States (2)

The demand for such funds traditionally has far exceeded the supply, and even with Small Starts this will not change. Several projects have already applied to compete for a share of the limited pool of funds (up to $200 million) to be made available each year. Eligible projects must include either an exclusive running way or fixed guideway for at least 50 percent of the alignment during the peak period or contain substantial investment in specific types of project elements such as stations, signal priority, low-floor vehicles or level boarding, branding and operating service levels. The evaluation process involves an assessment of the local financial commitment and plans for capital and operating expenditures and also assesses the merits of the project itself, including cost-effectiveness, land use, economic development and reliability of forecasts. While the final details of the process are undergoing review by FTA and the industry, the proposed guidance documents on policies and procedures are available online through the USDOT docket management system, (see

Federal funding is only one of a number of potential funding sources, which include state and local funds as well as joint development and public-private partnerships. Indeed, there are several examples of U.S. BRT projects that have proceeded without federal assistance. It should also be noted that the federal, state or local sources for system operating costs or subsidies are typically distinct from sources of capital assistance and agencies must carefully consider how to cover the cost of operating a new BRT service.

Congestion Mitigation and Managed Lanes

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Transportation published the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America’s Transportation Network (USDOT, 2006). The document identifies traffic congestion reduction as one of the federal government’s top priorities, and highlights public transit as a crucial element in achieving this goal. However, transit’s usefulness as a congestion reduction tool rests on its ability to attract “choice riders” away from their cars, a task traditionally viewed as requiring some form of rail-based transit. Tailored to providing the high quality service and image characteristics that attract choice riders to rail transit, but at a more affordable cost, BRT has an important role to play in congestion mitigation.

Fiscal constraints, in addition to the high environmental and social cost of highway construction, have made it increasingly clear that addressing future traffic congestion will require more efficient use of existing road capacity. In recent years, the term “managed lanes” has emerged to describe a new generation of highway lane management techniques that combine road pricing, access control and vehicle eligibility measures in real-time to guarantee efficient, free-flowing traffic conditions throughout the day. Free access to the managed lanes, often situated in the median of an existing highway facility, is typically granted to transit vehicles and other high occupancy vehicles, while single-occupant vehicles are required to pay a toll that varies according to levels of demand. As a highway-based rapid transit mode, BRT is ideally suited to exploiting these free-flow conditions to achieve the high commercial speeds and levels of reliability more typically associated with dedicated busways, but without the large capital investments associated with such facilities. Further mobility benefits may also be realized by using the tolls collected on these “virtual exclusive busways” (Poole, 200X) to fund the BRT service. Encouraged by the success of two pioneering managed lane projects in California (I-15 near San Diego and SR-91 in Orange County), planners across the country are now exploring the potential for managed lane applications on their congested highways.

Image and Perception

It is no secret that public transportation in the United States suffers from a severe image problem. Bus service in particular is perceived by many as an inefficient social service completely at odds with the mobility, convenience and personal freedom afforded by the automobile. Though there are many dimensions to this problem, the central theme can be summarized as the perception that “only poor people ride the bus.” As discussed above, choice rider attraction is crucial if BRT is to be successful in reducing congestion and addressing urban mobility problems. Transit must perform at an extremely high level if it is to even be considered by car owners as an alternative means of travel. Research has shown that high quality service must be complemented by a service image that is attractive to choice riders. The image of a BRT system can play a crucial role in dispelling the perception that public transportation is an inferior form of travel. A well-crafted BRT “brand” leverages the image of clean, modern and efficient transportation to promote BRT as an innovative new “mode.” In addition to logos and design schemes, effective branding should imbue a product with personality — that extra “zing” that provides the mental basis for consumer discrimination.

BRT, like all forms of public transit, provides a service. Services, by their very nature, are intangible and consequently are often perceived as high-risk purchases (Dibb and Simkin, 1993). Thus, the development of a desirable image is extremely important for service marketing because it can provide the customer with confidence, security and a higher guarantee of consistent quality. An integrated BRT system with a quality image and unique brand identity can help potential customers get a “mental fix” on its product, convey important customer information such as routing and stations served and help infrequent customers understand how to use the system (Zimmerman and Levinson, 2004). To distinguish BRT from regular transit service, the vehicle livery and icon should be different from regular buses, but should also solidify the identity of the BRT system as a whole by complementing BRT stops, stations, terminals, signs, maps and other sources of information.

Furthermore, since BRT service consists largely of the interface between the provider and the customer, a heavy emphasis should be placed on creating a pleasant service environment and training customer contact personnel to interact well with customers.

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(to be continued)


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