Bus Rapid Transit: Not As Simple and Cheap As It Seems

Often, if not every time, there’s an article written by Janet Moore of the Star Tribune that relates to bus rapid transit (BRT). It’s defined as a “service that mimics light rail in terms of service and reliability but for a fraction of the cost” (quoting this article). This is a generalized statement that doesn’t go into detail about how much is needed in terms of infrastructure, planning, and funding to make BRT truly mimic light rail, and this statement is shared by politicians who don’t fully understand the infrastructural and operational details of each mode of transit.

In this post I will be analyzing our current and planned routes that are marketed as BRT using the Institute for Transportation Development & Policy’s (ITDP) scorecard for BRT services. As far as I know there isn’t an official scorecard for our existing BRT services. In fact, since none of them have dedicated bus lanes, the ITDP may not consider them BRT at all. However, I’ll be generous since they still involved millions of dollars in investment that include BRT-style stations and, in the case of the A Line and C Line, high frequency service all day and everyday. The scorecards for each route below are based upon my estimation.

Twin Cities Light Rail

First, let’s take a moment to pretend our existing light rail lines were BRT routes. The frequency, service hours, dedicated right-of-way, station features, signal priority (and in some cases preemption) at intersections, and other aspects are the same. The only difference is its buses on roads instead of trains on rails.

The TransMilenio of Bogota, Colombia is one of the highest ranked BRT systems in the world, and is often cited by American transit planners who propose BRT in their cities. Photo by Claudio Olivares Medina.

BRT Basics Score: 32/38

Service Planning Score: 17/19

Infrastructure Score: 9/13

Stations Score: 6/10

Communications Score: 5/5

Access and Integration Score: 12/15

Light Rail Total Score: 81/100 (ITDP Silver ranking)

University of Minnesota Campus Connector

Although primarily catered to students, the Campus Connector utilizes a dedicated busway for part of its route and operates at frequencies up to every 5 minutes in each direction during the school year. Therefore, I’m including it in this analysis.

In addition to the busway, there is no fare, so riders can get on and off through any door. Signalized intersections along the busway are designed to give priority to buses, and the busway is also used as a bike route. Connections to other transit routes including the Green Line at the West Bank and East Bank campuses are easy, but at the St. Paul Campus there is only an easy connection with Metro Transit’s Route 87. Since it’s designed to get students quickly from one campus to the other, there’s no stop at Como Avenue for a potential transfer to Route 3.

The west end of the University of Minnesota Transitway in the Stadium Village area. From here buses zip across the Minneapolis border to the St. Paul Campus. In addition to buses and emergency vehicles, bikers are also allowed to use it. Source: Google Street View.

There are also several weaknesses with the Campus Connector. Since it’s mostly catered to students, this means frequency drops off in the summer, on weekends, and school holidays. All stations are just an average bus stop with some having a bus shelter and providing real-time information on the next bus arrival. In addition, there’s no raised platform to reduce the gap for people getting on/off the bus.

BRT Basics Score: 20/38

Service Planning Score: 10/19

Infrastructure Score: 6/13

Stations Score: 6/10

Communications Score: 3/5

Access and Integration Score: 12/15

Total Score: 57/100 points (ITDP Bronze ranking)

Red Line

Opening in 2013, the Red Line operates between Mall of America and Apple Valley. Two significant infrastructural changes were made to the Red Line since its opening: a new online (middle of the highway) station at Cedar Grove to reduce travel time, and the renovated station at Mall of America. In addition, there have been two major operational changes to the Red Line: reduction of frequency from every 15 minutes to every 20 minutes on weekdays beginning in 2017, and operation of the Red Line switching from the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority (MVTA) to Metro Transit this year.

The Red Line’s 140th Street Station in Apple Valley. While there are apartments nearby, it’s over a quarter mile away and requires crossing the wide and busy Cedar Avenue. Source: Google Street View.
The Red Line’s online station at Cedar Grove in Eagan, which serves a developing area around the Twin Cities Premium Outlets. Source: Google Street View.

Buses operate entirely in mixed-traffic, but much of the corridor has shoulder lanes that buses may use during traffic backups. However, along Cedar Avenue in Apple Valley, these are also used by right-turning traffic that can slow down buses. The entire route is in an auto-centric area that makes accessing stations by foot and bike difficult, especially the stations in Apple Valley where people must cross 8-9 lanes of traffic. The fare must be paid on board, though I’ve been told they’re working on making the Red Line part of the off-board fare payment system and there are already ticket vending machines at each station. All station platforms are raised, so it’s nearly level boarding. One thing Red Line stations have that our light rail stations don’t have is fully enclosed station shelters, so you’re completely protected from the weather.

BRT Basics Score: 13/38 points

Service Planning Score: 7/19

Infrastructure Score: 7/13

Stations Score: 6/10

Communications Score: 5/5

Access and Integration Score: 8/15

Red Line Total Score: 46/100 (ITDP Basic BRT ranking)

Arterial Bus Rapid Transit (aBRT)

For simplification I will be evaluating the aBRT network as a whole rather than individual routes, because the system is planned to be mostly uniform in terms of station spacing, frequency, hours of service, types of buses, branding, etc. The A Line and C Line are currently operating, and several more routes are planned.

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An articulated C Line bus in downtown Minneapolis. Photo by author.

BRT Basics Score: 15/38

Service Planning Score: 14/19

Infrastructure Score: 5/13

Stations Score: 8/10

Communications Score: 5/5

Access and Integration Score: 10/15

aBRT Total Score: 57/100 (ITDP Bronze ranking)

Orange Line

The Orange Line is planned to open late this year between downtown Minneapolis and Burnsville via I-35W. It will be similar to the Red Line in terms of operating along a highway corridor in mixed-traffic, but much of the route will have high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes (still technically mixed-traffic since single-occupant vehicles can use them if they pay a toll). Frequency is planned to be every 10-15 minutes all day in both directions, and the Orange Line will have off-board fare payment.

The under construction platforms for the Orange Line at South Bloomington Transit Center. Photo by author.

BRT Basics Score: 25/38

Service Planning Score: 9/19

Infrastructure Score: 7/13

Stations Score: 6/10

Communications Score: 5/5

Access and Integration Score: 10/15

Orange Line Total Score: 62/100 (ITDP Bronze ranking)

Gold Line

As early as 2024 the Gold Line will begin operation between St. Paul and Woodbury. This will include a dedicated busway for most of the route outside downtown St. Paul. While it’s a significant upgrade in transit service, some areas that will be served are auto-centric, and the routing choice is questionable (more on that here).

Rendering of a Gold Line bus next to the 3M Headquarters in Maplewood. Source: Rani Engineering.

BRT Basics Score: 29/38

Service Planning Score: 14/19

Infrastructure Score: 7/13

Stations Score: 6/10

Communications Score: 5/5

Access and Integration Score: 11/15

Gold Line Total Score: 72/100 (ITDP Silver ranking)

Rush Line

As early as 2026 the Rush Line will begin operation between St. Paul and White Bear Lake. In addition to a dedicated busway along much of the route, the Bruce Vento Trail will parallel it, which should provide for good multi-modal connections.

Rendering of a Rush Line bus crossing County Road B in Maplewood. Source: Kimley Horn/SRF Consulting.

BRT Basics Score: 27/38

Service Planning Score: 13/19

Infrastructure Score: 7/13

Stations Score: 6/10

Communications Score: 5/5

Access and Integration Score: 11/15

Rush Line Total Score: 69/100 (ITDP Bronze ranking)

Planned Highway BRT Corridors

In 2014 the Metropolitan Council studied several highway corridors for BRT implementation including Highway 169 from Minneapolis to Shakopee, Interstate 394 from Minneapolis to Wayzata, and Interstate 35E from St. Paul to Lakeville. Like the Red Line and Orange Line, these are proposed to mostly operate in mixed-traffic with stations on and/or close to the highway.

As part of the proposed highway BRT routes, Louisiana Avenue Transit Center in St. Louis Park would be an inline/off-line (depending on direction) station for the I-394 Corridor between Minneapolis and Wayzata. Most stations on the proposed highway BRT routes would be inline (partially off the highway) or off-line (completely off the highway). Source: Google Street View.

For simplification I’ll be analyzing these routes as a whole rather than individually, because the system is planned to be mostly uniform in terms of station spacing, frequency, hours of service, types of buses, branding, etc. As of now none of the proposed routes have gone beyond the study phase.

BRT Basics Score: 15/38

Service Planning Score: 11/19

Infrastructure Score: 7/13

Stations Score: 6/10

Communications Score: 5/5

Access and Integration Score: 8/15

Highway BRT Corridors Total Score: 52/100 (ITDP Basic BRT ranking)

The Results

Not surprisingly, if our light rail lines were BRT routes, they would score the highest, and the Red Line scored the lowest. Interestingly, the aBRT routes scored only slightly lower than the Orange Line and slightly higher than the proposed highway BRT routes, and this can be attributed to several factors. aBRT primarily serves the urban area where it’s safer and easier to access a station than suburban areas, and during the warmer months there are usually bike-share facilities near most aBRT stations. Close station spacing along aBRT routes means nearly all riders who used the previous regular bus service can still be within close distance of an aBRT station, while stations are spaced further apart on highway BRT routes. In addition, there are less bus connections in the suburban area than the urban area.

The Gold Line and Rush Line are the only routes that will reach the service level of light rail due to the dedicated busways being planned for them. Each route will cost several hundred million dollars to build (specifically $532 million for the Gold Line and at least $400 million for the Rush Line), which, while cheaper than light rail, isn’t as cheap as BRT proponents may have hoped for.

These results shouldn’t be interpreted as an all-or-nothing view that our routes marketed as BRT must reach the ITDP’s Gold standard, but it does show that a lot more has to be done for BRT routes to mimic light rail. aBRT is a middle ground between a regular bus service and light rail, and the highway BRT routes are an afterthought of major highway reconstruction and/or cheaply built into the existing landscape and infrastructure that isn’t conducive to walking, biking, and transit use.

American BRT Successes and Failures at Mimicking Light Rail

Before concluding this post, here’s a few examples of BRT routes around the country. The successes at mimicking light rail can guide us in making our existing and planned BRT routes better, and the failures at mimicking light rail can serve as a cautionary tale of over-glorified buses that are nowhere near the service level of light rail.

Successes:

Albuquerque Rapid Transit (ART)

This service consists of the Green Line and Red Line. ART is the first and only BRT service in the United States to receive the Gold ranking (88.5 points) from the ITDP. Although originally planned to use electric buses, there were flaws with these as well as the stations, which led to service being delayed two years. When service began in 2019 diesel buses were used instead. Ridership on ART in January 2020 was 30% higher than a year before with the bus service it replaced.

Bi-directional bus lane on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. In the distance is an ART station. Source: Google Street View.

A unique aspect of ART is the buses have doors on both sides to allow boarding at median (island) platforms. For approximately 10 miles of the 17 mile system there are dedicated bus lanes and stations similar in design to light rail stations including raised platforms. On the rest of the system, however, there appears to be no dedicated bus lanes and most stations are simply a bus shelter along the sidewalk.

CTfastrack

Between Hartford and New Britain, Connecticut this route has a dedicated busway utilizing an abandoned railroad corridor. Several local and express bus services operate on all or part of the busway. The busway has limited grade crossings with local roads, so buses can travel at higher speeds and it reduces the amount of time stopping for cross traffic. In the downtowns of New Britain and Hartford buses operate in mixed-traffic to destinations beyond the busway. The ITDP ranks CTfastrack as Silver (79.2 points).

The CTfastrack busway and a station near Downtown Hartford. For part of the route the busway parallels tracks used by commuter rail and intercity trains.

Cleveland HealthLine

Over half the route (approximately 4.2 miles of the 6.8 mile route) of the HealthLine has dedicated bus lanes with median platforms. In addition to the buses having doors on both sides like ART, they’re also diesel-electric hybrids. The HealthLine is tied with CTfastrack on the ITDP’s BRT ranking.

A HealthLine bus at one of the island platforms. Photo by Roger DuPuis.

While the signals along the route were originally designed to give buses priority, this was mostly discontinued due to complaints by motorists (source), which goes to show that even with higher quality BRT services there’s still potential for sudden downgrades even when the service has already been implemented.

Failures:

Boston Silver Line

Intended to be a cheaper alternative to light rail, the Silver Line has six routes serving various areas between Boston Logan Airport in the north and Nubian (formerly named Dudley Square) in the south. The Silver Line service to Nubian was also part of a replacement of the Orange Line, which was originally an elevated railway but rerouted approximately half a mile west.

A southbound Silver Line bus in Boston. On the right is a Silver Line station. While there are bus lanes in each direction on this segment, motorists can still easily use them, and have to be used for right-turning traffic. Source: Google Street View.

The Silver Line has high frequency service, several stations are similar in design to light rail stations, and there’s a busway tunnel through downtown Boston. However, that is pretty much where the positives end. While part of the route has dedicated bus lanes, they can easily be used by other traffic as well as blocked by delivery trucks. The busway tunnel was designed for slow speeds (25 miles per hour), and travel time is further added by buses having to switch between natural gas and electric trolley wires when entering/exiting the tunnel. There are no signalized intersections designed to give priority to Silver Line buses. Off-board fare payment is currently not in place, so riders must board at the front of the bus and pay the fare. However, off-board fare payment on the Silver Line is planned to be implemented in the near future. With these and other flaws associated with the Silver Line, the ITDP does not consider it BRT.

Los Angeles J Line

Previously referred to as the Silver Line, the J Line consists of two routes operating between San Pedro and El Monte via Downtown Los Angeles. Route 950X operates limited service and skips some stations while Route 910 operates all day and serves all stations.

Service is high frequency, and with much of the route operating on freeways with station spacing far apart it also operates at high speed. On the freeway J Line buses use HOT lanes and online stations. Riders can enter and exit through any door, however, a TAP card (the Los Angeles equivalent of the Go-To card) is required and must be validated when boarding.

Tucked away behind huge concrete pillars is one of the J Line’s freeway stations. This particular station is for transferring to/from the C Line (formerly referred to as the Green Line). Source: Google Street View.

In terms of operating as an express service the J Line performs pretty well. However, from personal experience the ride is extremely uncomfortable at high speeds due to the noise produced, and the same can be said for the stations that are in the middle of the freeway. In downtown Los Angeles and San Pedro the J Line operates on surface streets, and in downtown Los Angeles part of the route has bus lanes, but stops are simply a bus shelter with real-time information. In San Pedro most of the stops are simply a bus stop sign.

Denver Flatiron Flyer

Originally commuter rail was proposed between Denver and Longmont via Boulder. However, decreasing tax revenues and increasing cost of the project delayed completion of the entire commuter rail line until 2044. As an interim solution the Flatiron Flyer was built along U.S. Highway 36 between Denver and Boulder. There are seven routes varying in frequency, route length, and number of station stops. Most of the day on weekdays there is high frequency service on the entire route.

U.S. 36 and Sheridan Station in the northern suburb of Westminster. On the right is the platform for southbound buses and across the highway on the left is the platform for northbound buses. A pedestrian bridge in the background connects the two sides. Source: Google Street View.
A Flatiron Flyer bus at the Denver Union Station bus concourse. Route FF1 is the main route of the Flatiron Flyer system, which provides frequent service all day in both directions and serves all stations between Denver Union Station and Downtown Boulder. While the coach buses provide a comfortable ride, they aren’t the most suitable for a BRT service that should provide close-to-level boarding and easier boarding for the elderly and people with disabilities. Photo by Robert Rynerson.

Most buses go as far as Denver Union Station, which, while close, isn’t exactly in the central business district of Denver. To reach downtown requires either walking, biking, or transferring to a local route, all of which take over 10 minutes. The stations along the highway are primarily catered to park & riders, but a few stations also have transit-oriented development. Since Flatiron Flyer buses operate in mixed-traffic for virtually the entire route, the ITDP does not consider it BRT.

Conclusions

The term BRT is used very loosely in the Twin Cities region, and any discussion of building rail transit is met with the suggestion of going the cheaper route with BRT. However, it’s not as simple as some may think to make BRT truly mimic light rail. To reach light rail standards of service, much more investment in infrastructure is needed including dedicated busways, signal priority or preemption for buses, stations that allow nearly level boarding, off-board fare payment, and several other features.

Not only is the statement “BRT mimics light rail for a fraction of the cost” a generalization, there also seems to be a widely held belief that BRT is more “flexible” than light rail. Flexibility in this case means that in theory BRT can easily be rerouted as travel demands change. However, in order for BRT to mimic light rail it has to be inflexible. A permanent route and stations means it’s more likely people will depend on the service and it can also attract investment to areas surrounding stations.

BRT routes will continue to be studied in the Twin Cities with some collecting dust on shelves while others receive serious consideration. In terms of the latter, MnDOT is considering BRT on I-94 and Highway 252 between Minneapolis and Northtown Mall or Maple Grove as part of reconstruction that will happen in the near future. For this and other proposed BRT routes in our region, pressure must be put on politicians and planners to make them more than just a bus with a different paint scheme, a unique name, and larger bus shelters. If we want BRT that truly mimics light rail then it will take more serious investment and planning to make that a reality.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.

5 thoughts on “Bus Rapid Transit: Not As Simple and Cheap As It Seems

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    You have confirmed my sneaking suspicion that the problem with the Red Line is NOT, in fact, the stations.

    Great article. That ABQ bus is wild. Also, some of those “failures” are real head smackers.

    Reply
  2. Karen Sandness

    Although Seoul, South Korea has an extensive subway system, one of the world’s largest, its surface transportation appears to be based entirely on buses, in contrast to Tokyo, where buses serve mostly as supplements to the public and private commuter rail lines.

    Most buses, except the one I took to the airport upon leaving Seoul, appear to operate in traffic. (The bus from Seoul Station to Incheon Airport runs on a dedicated bus way until it is out of the city, and then it runs on a freeway.) As such, the ordinary buses are subject to gridlock and traffic jams, the kind where it takes fifteen minutes to go two blocks. I initially relied mostly on buses after arriving in Seoul so that I could see the city, but after a couple of days of looking at the same block for minutes on end I switched to the subway.

    Going from Japan, where most major cities have at least some commuter rail and/or a subway system, to Korea, with its heavy reliance on buses, made me appreciate the way rail lines can take the pressure off the streets. There are few places in the urban parts of Tokyo that are not within walking distance of a transit station, and the worst traffic jams I have experienced there have been in buses on freeways leading out of the city.

    Reply
  3. Karen

    aBRT gets lower rating because in traffic for most of it, but feels like if we had thorough grid of it in our cities, be much less car congestion and really good service and really induce more use of transit.

    Won’t rest until Z line of aBRT is going in the Cities.

    Reply
  4. Keith

    I’d argue that aBRT is almost as simple and cheap as it seems. The Rush and Gold Lines are outliers: around 10x more than what the A or C Lines cost. The D Line, set to open later next year, is only $75 million. aBRT only seems to get expensive when it goes where it shouldn’t: in car dependent settings where bus infrastructure needs to be built from the ground up.

    When the A Line was getting ready to debut it seemed like forever since Metro Transit waited until real time displays were up and running. We could have had it running several months sooner if they had hired enough drivers to get those buses rolling (many of whom were probably already driving the 84 route buses). It was so frustrating to be forced to ride the snail paced lumbering 84 for several months while being taunted by stations that barely saw any progress for weeks at a time.

    Just hire drivers, buy the aBRT buses, and run it. Station construction can still occur and quite often the real time displays are down anyway and sometimes need to be closed for repair while still aBRT buses are still in service. Stick a post in the ground (like they do for the vast majority of local routes) temporarily just up or down from the station while under construction and run those buses every ten minutes: no one will be upset that the bus is actually getting them places much faster.

    Reply

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