A bus traveling toward the camera through a rural, treed area.

We Need to Talk About Bus Rapid Transit Creep

While the fight over Hennepin Avenue South is still fresh in our minds, other Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects have had features cut almost entirely unnoticed, like the dedicated lanes on Robert Street in St. Paul for the G and Purple Lines. Perhaps most prominently, the presumptive peripheral portion of the Purple Line was plainly put out to pasture. From Uptown to Downtown, St. Paul to the suburbs we’re seeing large chunks of infrastructure cut from future rapid transit projects, and this isn’t a new or unique trend. So why, in an era where transit expansion should theoretically be at its peak, are we seeing so many cuts to future projects, and why to BRT specifically?

The Socratic Method

First we must ask: What is BRT, and how does it “creep”?

The easiest way to think of BRT is as a hybrid between local buses and light rail. In the U.S., this usually involves running normal buses in dedicated lanes with offboard fare collection, increased stop spacing, high frequency, and perhaps some form of centralized traffic control as well, in the form of active signal management and dispatchers controlling bus timing and spacing. Systems in the rest of the world include additional infrastructure like specialized buses, high, step-free platforms (also called level boarding) and dedicated fixed guideways or center-running lanes for even higher capacity and simplified operation. Frequencies are also higher than systems in the United States, such as with TransMilenio in Bogota running buses up to once every 6 seconds.

These improvements allow buses to achieve higher average speeds, frequencies and ridership than local buses, while keeping overall costs lower than that of rail-based alternatives. Conversely, these improvements do not grant the same capacity and/or average speeds that rail can achieve, and cost more than a local bus to implement. Which view wins depends on the transit agency and how much money they’re being paid to build a particular system.

In the Twin Cities, the term “arterial BRT” or aBRT also pops up from time to time. This is a mostly meaningless term on which Metro Transit’s own documentation is inconsistent. When it does appear, it usually refers to corridors that have a limited set of the improvements listed above. They usually lack the more expensive features of BRT like dedicated right-of-way and grade separation, while keeping the larger stop spacing and offboard fare collection. In other words, it falls in between local bus service and true BRT. A compromise on a compromise. What’s worse, some of these changes often get applied to local buses as well. It’s sometimes inadvertent, like the addition of bus-only lanes where routes overlap. Sometimes it’s intentional, such as the rationalization of the 17 or the 2 through the Better Bus Route program, or the future addition of signal priority to Lyndale Avenue.

To top it all off, the term “highway BRT” occasionally pops up as well. In some cases, this simply means “BRT on a highway,” but not here. About the only BRT traits our highway BRT lines -the Red and Orange Lines – have are offboard fare collection and all-door boarding. There are technically some dedicated bus lanes on small segments. The Orange Line in particular has a decent chunk, but for the most part, all other aspects are almost indistinguishable from all-day express buses like the 94 or 645.

This brings us to the crux of the issue. “BRT creep” is used in the opposite fashion than in phrases like “scope creep.” Rather than describing new features “creeping in” and steadily bloating both the cost and the timeline, BRT creep instead describes features slowly getting cut out to save time and money, and possibly serving other political goals. Perhaps a better way to think about it is that the definition creeps over time, not the physical infrastructure. This often gets to the point where sometimes a “BRT” line is just a regular bus route with fancy branding. Our own Red Line between Apple Valley and the Mall of America is a good example of this.

The S79, a part of MTA’s Select Bus Service, is an often-cited example of BRT Creep. Note the lack of level/ all-door boarding, offboard fare collection, unique branding, or dedicated lanes. Image by AEMoreira042281 via Wikimedia Commons.

This issue is so prevalent that even the Wikipedia article on BRT — which also links to the one on BRT Creep — gets this wrong. It calls projects like the Lincoln Tunnel Express in New Jersey BRT, when it is just a part-time bus lane. This would be like calling Hennepin Avenue south in its current form BRT.

To BRT or Not to BRT: That is the Question

But who’s to say what is and isn’t BRT anyway? After all, language is just a construct we use to describe the world around us based on our values as a society. If we collectively decide that any sort of improvement to a bus route counts as BRT, then it does, right?

Yes and no. One of the things we value as a society is categorization. We have all sorts of standards, rules and regulations with which to define and sort the world into neat little boxes. We even have entire mathematical disciplines dedicated to the study of collections of things, like Set, Group and Category Theory.

I emphasize these words to prove the importance of the general concept of organization, at least in the English language. The fact that we have many words that often describe the same thing demonstrates the importance we place on it as a society. It follows, then, that as BRT is its own type of transportation, there must be something that significantly differentiates it from other forms of transportation. To put it another way, if BRT is just a slightly better bus, why not keep calling it a bus?

Square One

This brings us back to the original question: What exactly is BRT? We know all of its constituent components, but clearly there’s some amount, some threshold, of each where a bus route suddenly becomes BRT. There are at least two standards we can go by.

The first is 49 USC §5309, which defines the various categories under which projects can apply for funding within the Capital Investment Grants Program, the main funding source for most new rapid transit projects (emphasis mine for clarity):

(3) Corridor-based bus rapid transit project. The term “corridor-based bus rapid transit project” means a small start project utilizing buses in which the project represents a substantial investment in a defined corridor as demonstrated by features that emulate the services provided by rail fixed guideway public transportation systems, including defined stations; traffic signal priority for public transportation vehicles; short headway bidirectional services for a substantial part of weekdays; and any other features the Secretary may determine support a long-term corridor investment, but the majority of which does not operate in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation use during peak periods.

(4) Fixed guideway bus rapid transit project. The term “fixed guideway bus rapid transit project” means a bus capital project-

(A) in which the majority of the project operates in a separated right-of-way dedicated for public transportation use during peak periods;

(B) that represents a substantial investment in a single route in a defined corridor or subarea; and

(C) that includes features that emulate the services provided by rail fixed guideway public transportation systems, including-

(i) defined stations;

(ii) traffic signal priority for public transportation vehicles;

(iii) short headway bidirectional services for a substantial part of weekdays and weekend days; and

(iv) any other features the Secretary may determine are necessary to produce high-quality public transportation services that emulate the services provided by rail fixed guideway public transportation systems.

Great, we’ve narrowed our list of features down to three categories:

  1. BRT (aka Fixed guideway BRT).
  2. Kind of BRT (Corridor-based BRT).
  3. Not BRT (neither of these two).

To get rid of that pesky middle category and provide some more detail, I’m going to introduce another metric: the BRT Standard. This was developed by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to help solve this very problem.

To be considered BRT, a corridor must score a 4 in both the ROW and Alignment categories, as well as a 20 overall in the “BRT Basics” section. Fifty-three percent was good enough for a B in some of my physics classes, so I’ll accept this. To translate the points system into infrastructure requirements:

  • Must be at least 3 kilometers long with dedicated lanes.
  • Lanes must be differentiated at least by a painted line.
  • Lanes must be interior running, i.e., the roadway has an outer service lane.
  • Must have two of these three: offboard fare collection, no turns allowed across busway, level boarding.

Both of these definitions of BRT have some wiggle room, with the former up to the transportation secretary’s discretion, and the latter allowing some shifting in priorities to keep the same score. The important thing is we have our cutoff, and so long as nothing gets too close to this line, we should be able to look at a bus route — or any transit route, really — and say whether it is BRT.

The Local Angle

So, let’s do that! I’m using the BRT Standard to score everything from local buses to the light rail, cherry-picking what I feel are the best of our current and future routes to paint a picture of how our various kinds of BRT perform relative to other modes. For brevity, I’m just listing the scores.

Route TypeExpressLocalHighway BRTaBRTBRTLight Rail
Route9410UOrange LineB LineGold LineBlue Line
Basics Score029123238
Total Score11026376584

Interesting! This is much more evenly spaced than I thought it would be. I was expecting a wider gulf between the Gold Line and the Orange and B lines. That said, the former is still solidly on the BRT side of our imaginary line, whereas the latter two are not. Likewise, there’s still a wider gap between them than, say, the 10 and B Line, or the 94 and Orange Lines. I’ll admit, there’s some conjecture on my part as the B and Gold Lines aren’t running yet, so I had to eyeball some of the penalties as we don’t know if or how bad issues like bunching or lack of enforcement will be. With a 20-30 point difference between most modes, I don’t think those or any other issues with the methodology will significantly affect the outcome.

The larger takeaway may be that even our true BRT lines are still a bit lacking compared with others around the world. The insistence on park-and-rides, resulting in a lack of good pedestrian and bike integration, stands out in particular. As does open-air station design. This isn’t unique to the Gold Line, but after reading the standard it now strikes me as odd that we insist almost everyone taking transit is at least partially exposed to the harsh Minnesota weather.

Apples to Apples?

I keep comparing light rail to BRT for two reasons. First, I don’t think people really view BRT as a distinct mode of transportation; they just see it as a fancy bus, and I want to better distinguish the two. This is why I’ve spent so long discussing what BRT is. The lines are so blurry we don’t think twice about any compromises. Some might not see dedicated lanes as a true necessity for BRT, but if you were to attend a meeting for the Blue Line extension and suggest the trains can run on the same tracks as freight rail, everyone would laugh at you!

Second, true BRT does have the potential to equal and, in some cases, surpass rail transportation in capacity, frequency and speed when built properly, so the comparison is apt. Transmilenio, mentioned earlier, sees about five times the ridership of the Chicago “L”. True BRT honestly lives up to the hype. I’ve been ripping our current system here, but I’m genuinely excited for the Purple and Gold Lines and think they’ll be an eye-opener for many people.

The Wherefore and the Why

Talking about the “What” is easy. Things like dedicated lanes, platforms and other infrastructure are all concrete (sometimes literally) and quantifiable. What’s more difficult is asking “Why?” Why do we keep watering down our definition of BRT? As is often the case, the broad answer is “it depends.” Usually, it’s to appease some political goal. This being a transit project, that goal is typically to either keep drivers happy or minimize project cost, which are often the same thing given that both perpetuate the double standard between cars and transit.

Of course, this isn’t often stated outright, like how the City of Saint Paul says the Robert Street reconstruction will “support efficient and reliable transit service through downtown” even though their own design concept contradicts this statement.

Sometimes downgrading to BRT alone is the compromise, such as with TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia. Considered the pioneer of BRT, the city’s network was built in place of a Metro at a fraction of the cost and time. Two and a half decades later, the city is partially reversing course and building a metro to supplement the system. That said, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The network was built as designed and if anything is suffering from it’s own success. The reason they need to build a metro is because 6 second headways and extra-long buses still can’t keep up with demand.

A long elevated walkway to a rapid bus station, packed with people entering and exiting.
A Transmilenio station in Bogota showing overcrowding. Image by Oscar Amaya via Flickr.

The real issue is that BRT systems often suffer a “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Sure, individually a route segment or a few miles of dedicated lanes getting cut doesn’t matter that much, but as these cuts cause the planning process to drag on, cost and timeline increase. This allows more time for opposition to build, primarily calls to cut costs and better serve drivers, starting a vicious cycle.

With rail-based transit, there’s only so much that can be cut before the entire project falls apart. Despite all its issues, the Southwest Light Rail Transit project has only seen a station, some parking and part of a maintenance facility axed as cost-saving measures. While BRT’s flexibility is often touted as one of its strengths, it’s also why so much can get cut from a project without being dealt the final blow.

Now compare that to the Red Line. Originally envisioned as an extension of the Blue Line down Highway 77 and Cedar Ave., this was quickly dropped in favor of a dedicated busway as the former would require rebuilding the bridge over the river. While the busway was only projected to gain 3/4 the daily ridership by 2025, it would do so at 1/6 the cost – 18,400 vs 23,100 and $95 million vs $650 million, respectively. As the former seemed like a better deal, Dakota County went with it.

A Red Line bus laying over at the Mall of America. Image by Eóin at Wikimedia Commons.

As time went on, extensions down to Burnsville and Lakeville were tossed aside as being too expensive, and eventually the center-running busway disappeared altogether, replaced with 12 ft shoulders and instead adding an additional mixed-traffic lane. Certain station features were also cut. As a result, the last ridership estimate was just 1,600 daily riders by 2017, yet the overall cost of the project actually increased slightly, coming in at $112M total. The final daily ridership for the Red Line in 2017 was just 870. Sure, overall costs were still lower, but that’s $128,735 per rider vs $28,139 for the “more expensive” LRT. At least another $40M has been poured into the route. Metro Transit lists all the individual LRT and BRT route ridership on their website except the Red Line. I think in a way this still tells us how much help those improvements are doing.

Now What?

So what’s the solution to our BRT creep problem? Actually, let’s take another step back. Is this really that big of a deal? Any objective improvement to transit is a good thing, right? Right! But then it stands to reason that more improvements are better. We shouldn’t treat transit as a simple max/min problem but instead consider the actual needs of that corridor — and the system as a whole, if possible. If that ends up being BRT, great! Then let’s build some actual, high-quality BRT.

As for what to do about it, I’ve got an articulated busload of ideas — more than will fit in this article, so those will wait for another time.

Ian Gaida

About Ian Gaida

Pronouns: he/him

Foamer, Maker, Outdoorsman. bsky: @trainsfan Youtube: Midwest Urbanist