Station improvements for a BRT station.

Why Don’t They Just Build a Train?

I recently read Sam Penders’ detailed piece about Metro Transit’s E Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and discussed it with a friend. Instead of getting into the details with me, they asked “Why don’t they just build a train?”  I was surprised at first but worked my way through their questions as best I could with what I know as a lay observer and user of transit. Now looking back on it, I realize that awareness of BRT and its benefits might not be as widely-known as I assumed, so I decided to write up my (now better-worded) answers. 

“It’s a light rail…but with busses?”

A Bus Rapid Transit station in Brazil
A BRT station in Brazil

Yes, in a way.  Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a type of mass transit that utilizes buses but with features traditionally associated with rail.  There’s no standard definition of those features but it might involve dedicated lanes, elevated platforms that make boarding easier, payment at the station instead of at the front door of the bus, climate-controlled stations, timed signals at intersections, stations on the far side of a light, further-spaced stations, GPS-tracked arrival signs, more frequent 10- or 15-minute service and more.  Many BRTs around the world are aligned to the center of a road-way, but others use lanes along the side.  

“Sounds like a lot; why add that to a bus?”

A passenger paying their fare at a bus station prior to boarding the bus
A passenger paying at the station prior to boarding

Some of those elements are targeted specifically at making a faster transit experience. If you think about each one you can see where the time adds up. Timed lights as BRT approaches mean passengers aren’t waiting several minutes for a light to turn. That same principle applies to stations being just beyond the traffic light on the other side, so you can get going again without waiting for a green once you’ve boarded. Dedicated lanes ensure you’re never stuck behind single-occupancy cars not moving in traffic. Payment on the platform means less time waiting for individual passengers to pay single-file at one door up front. Further stations means the busses travel longer and faster before stopping again. If you put all that together, you can shave real time off a standard bus route.  Metro Transit estimates 20% travel time improvements, actually. And as a result of all that, some staff have even estimated that the E Line could double the ridership in this corridor.

“What about the stuff like GPS arrival signs?”

A numbered image defining features of a BRT station
Metro Transit BRT station improvements

The other bucket of items is aimed at improving people’s experience on transit.  Minnesota winters speak for themselves, so having heat in stations means a more comfortable wait. Bigger and longer busses mean more seats and space. Better lighting and emergency call buttons create a sense of safety for passengers waiting on the platform. Elevated stations mean less stumbling up or down into the bus. Arrival time signs mean you always know when your next bus is coming. And with it coming at ten minute intervals, you never have to plan your life around the bus schedule again.

“Okay, but for real, why not just build a train if you’re going to do all that?”

Well, for one it’s usually cheaper to build BRT, depending how you look at it. The numbers vary a lot in practice but you can’t overlook the efficiency when you’re trying to make the most of your budget that BRT can be funded for less than a light rail line. The other reason that a BRT might be chosen over a light rail involves its flexibility. If a train breaks down on the railway, trains behind it wouldn’t be able to get around. I’ve definitely experienced this problem (frequently at times) when I lived in Boston. With a BRT, busses can be more easily swapped in and out of service, work their way around obstacles or breakdowns, or even be temporarily detoured onto other streets if there’s an issue. That’s not to say BRT lines are superior to rail, but each has their own pros and cons that should be weighed.  

“Why do you care about this particular BRT line?”

A map with Metro Transit's proposed corridor plan for the E Line BRT
Proposed corridor plan for the E Line BRT

Selfishly, l live nearby in the Wedge neighborhood and really am looking forward to having faster and more reliable transit in the corridor. The E Line will run down Hennepin from Southdale Mall all the way to Northeast and the U. Now when I look at going to dinner somewhere in Northeast and consider the bus, I have to worry about the frequency of the schedule back. Will I be waiting 40 minutes after I’m done for the next bus? Will it take an hour to get home? With a BRT, the next bus will never be more than 10 minutes and I’ll get home faster.  

“This all sounds good so why do you need to submit comments?”

The truth is that not everyone has bought in on the improvements of BRT-like station locations and the dedicated bus lanes. Without some of these things, the busses will not see speed or experience improvements that will help current riders and convince more people than today to take transit in the first place. We’ve got to make sure that our voice is heard on supporting the best BRT we can so we can get the transit we all deserve.

Providing Comments

Example station placement

So, how do you provide comments and what should you say? Sam Penders’ piece that started this whole conversation for me is a great place to start for ideas. Ultimately though, make your voice heard in supporting transit improvements, station placement, and bus-only lanes that we all need:

  1. Go to the E Line stations page.
  2. Click on an individual station name to see the proposed design.
  3. Click on the “Submit a comment” link and provide feedback for that station, as well as comments on the corridor as a whole.

About Doug Schairer

Doug wants cities where walking, rolling, bicycling and transit are possible for everyone and where people will choose them instead of driving. He lives in Minneapolis with his spouse Lauren and their dog Lucy. Doug's favorite bus line is the 4.

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