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Thread: Problems with busways/BRT

  1. #1
    Cyburbian RPfresh's avatar
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    Problems with busways/BRT

    The busway is one of my favorite urban planning concepts, one I think is perfect for growing cities - cheap and supposedly effective rapid transit, with side effects including a fast way for emergency vehicles to get around town, buses able to leave the right of way and drive around problems on the 'track', and right of ways that can later be turned into heavy rail if needed. I'm looking to shatter my obsession. What are the downsides of BRT transit?

    Let's say for shits and giggles that the buses have complete right of way and are basically like rail with bus stops and roads instead of track. Everyone's heard of the Curitiba BRT, and I read its efficiency was comparable to the NYC metro at one point. Are there other systems like this that work as well, or are there similar systems with issues? I'd like to hear the opinion of Cyburbians. Thanks.

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    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    I like the whole busway concept for all that you mentioned. I would also add that most BRT busways work with signal pre-emption, these too can be used by Emergency vehicles to cross the streets, a veritable two for one.

    One of the most incessant things we hear about BRT is how BRT will not give the same spin offs as heavy rail, which I consider to be bunk, but thats how transit advocates think. The way I see it, a successful BRT system can lay the foundation for a more advanced system later, but you need to crawl before you can walk.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    My biggest concerns, and those I've expressed to the planners of a new B.R.T. line in my neighborhood, revolve around the quality of the passenger experience. I've been very adamant that as much attention as possible be paid to having the system effectively compete with private cars, and I've requested the procurement of special vehicles, like the Wright Group's StreetCar R.T.V. or the Irisbus Civis since they both have been designed to overcome the lack of refinements from which even some of the nicer articulated buses suffer.

    I'm also hoping that as much of the route as possible have dedicated right of way and that center-running stations be used to allow for conversion to rail as populations densify.

    The stations, themselves, should also not be glorified bus stops. The L.A. Metro system for example, has individualized architecture for the subways and the light-rail systems, but the busways have less-elaborate stations that have been designed in a cookie-cutter fashion.

    One of the biggest problems I foresee is the potential conflicts between the vehicles and private cars, especially where driveways are present.

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    Cyburbian Masswich's avatar
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    I think the main problem is that, as the quality of the dedicated ROW and other aspects improve, the cost begins to equal that of light rail. The one advantage- being able to take the buses off-line and on regular streets for some or part of the route - also reduces the quality of the service.

    So essentially, for me, good BRT = LRT without tracks. But that also means the cost of the BRT = cost of the LRT.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian RPfresh's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Masswich View post
    I think the main problem is that, as the quality of the dedicated ROW and other aspects improve, the cost begins to equal that of light rail. The one advantage- being able to take the buses off-line and on regular streets for some or part of the route - also reduces the quality of the service.

    So essentially, for me, good BRT = LRT without tracks. But that also means the cost of the BRT = cost of the LRT.
    I would say that GOOD busway transit = heavy rail without tracks. Like I said, Curitiba's bus system was compared to NYC's subway, not a light rail line. Curitiba's heavy buses were express lines that had very few stops and completely uninterrupted ROW; normal bus lines would take you from normal stops to express line stops.

    Someone has to know this - how much of the cost of digging subway tunnels is the digging, and how much is the rail? How much of the cost of building elevated rail, also, is building the platforms? And how much is a fleet of railcars compared to buses?

    The belief I've had is that a city could use a busway as a stepping stone towards a subway or elevated heavy rail, not as a permanent form of transport (I'm not sure if Curitiba still has a busway, for example). Digging tunnels and building elevated tracks and filling them with buses instead of rail right away makes sense to me; you can always build heavier transit as need arises. That's the idea, but reading into it I don't know if this is cost effective. Anyone?

  6. #6
    The problem with BRT is in the execution. (My view of BRT is forever tainted because of the terrible experience with Boston's Silverline.)

    The right of way is not kept clear of cars, the signals are prioritized, the route was not properly engineered (it comes out of a tunnel and does a circular loop, taking an extra 5 minutes), it is not well integrated with the rest of the system.

    Maybe if it can be better designed and operated it could work. But the Silverline is a US DOT approved BRT. So the federal guidelines allow all these compromises that make them inferior.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian b3nr's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Masswich View post
    I think the main problem is that, as the quality of the dedicated ROW and other aspects improve, the cost begins to equal that of light rail. The one advantage- being able to take the buses off-line and on regular streets for some or part of the route - also reduces the quality of the service.

    So essentially, for me, good BRT = LRT without tracks. But that also means the cost of the BRT = cost of the LRT.
    BRT is always cheaper than LRT because of utilities diversion costs for LRT. You can also share road infrastructure at points and donít need overhead gantries. There are significant cost savings with BRT. Even though there are not many savings in terms of land take or stop infrastructure. At least in the UK.

    In execution it is about mindset, and how much of the route is properly segregated from normal traffic. In terms of public perception they need to be feel BRT is as reliable and journey time reliable as LRT is perceived to be.

    I have never seen a proper BRT system so Iím not sold either way on weather BRT is Ďgoodí or not. I think it almost certainly can be. Can't see any reason why not, but i'm tempted to think your better off just flooding somewhere with really cheap regular buses.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian
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    One problem that I've seen discussed before is that the less expensive implementation does not give the same 'warm fuzzies' to the adjacent landowners. A more flexible system does not give the same sense of permanence as more significant systems.

    If there is a fixed subway stop, the adjacent landowners know that the pedestrian traffic will be fixed, and will build to suit.

    If it was inexpensive to implement, then the community has less investment in making it work, and could modify it or stop supporting it with less fuss.

    All of those things make investing in adjacent property improvements more risky.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    I studied the Adelaide O-Bahn system for my Masters thesis..
    The busway line itself worked well; it had a capacity which could "theoretically approach the lower limits of the capacity of a light rail line" and ran buses from the downtown to a newer part of the city which was being developed.
    There was a small number of stops on the way, and midline stops seemed faintly cumbersome in design to me. (Was not my study focus.)
    Public transit in the area did not have the dramatic land use benefits that my control in Perth had; apparent reason for this is because bus routes do not have the necessary permanence to shape land use decisions which I saw appear in Perth; in both cases, permanent stops were development magnets, but the O-Bahn had few stops and lower utilization.
    Furthermore, it was noted - though this too was outside of my original study parameters - that it was possible that the new system cannibalized capacity from other parts of the same system, again making the flexibility of the system a weakness.
    In general the weakness of busways is their relative inability to emerge from the other side of the planning process in a usable fashion. You think "A busway", and by the time it gets put down you have "A bus on existing roads with no special right of way with a funky name and better paint".

    Interesting idea, but after reviewing the systems and difficulty of setting them up, i'm going to have to advise the rail option. All indications I saw - and I had been philosophically predisposed AGAINST this before - are that the land use would, in general principle, develop to utilize whatever fixed transit capacity infrastructure was put in place, and that the "flexibility" of buses is their greatest weakness.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian RPfresh's avatar
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    Interesting. The book that did the most to sell me on busways actually looked at the Adelaide system, but it seems like it drew different comparisons. I guess another assumption I'm making is that poor or growing cities that don't have money for light rail (or heavy rail) can afford busways, but that may be unfounded. It certainly makes sense that any bus system is perceived as less permanent than rail, and appropriate TOD around stations is a concern. And while any grand idea is likely to come out in tatters if it's implemented, I can see how busways would be especially prone to the watering-down process.

    I also read that the studies recommending the Ottawa busway, another example discussed in the book I read on the subject (The Transit Metropolis by Robert Cervero, great book), were conducted by groups affiliated with the bus and road construction industries. It turns out that in Ottawa's case, a busway was much less functional than rail and I believe they've started to or have switched over to light rail.

    It's going to be hard to convince me that the Curitiba system isn't a league ahead of these other examples, though. Whether or not it is a singular example, and it may be because of political situations going on at the time (see the Dictatorial Planning thread), that system did something right. Jaime Lerner, Curitiba's benevolent Robert Moses, was able to create a system that seperated paying and boarding (increasing speed markedly), had from what I am aware of complete right of way, and used triple-section buses that could hold up to '900 Brazilians' although technical capacity was much lower. In addition, the fleet of triple-section buses was so deep that headways could be around 30 seconds. My hypothesis is if any city were to adopt a system with these qualities, it would 'work' and be worth the savings. But I don't know. Thanks for the thoughts.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Well remember also that Curitiba has, as I recall, begun transitioning their busways over to rail systems for the same reasons.

    Bus systems main "advantages" turn out to be fatal flaws in practice. In most cases, when a busway is proposed to a cash-strapped city, one of the first things to happen in practice is that the penny-pinchers in the planning process remove the actual busway itself from the plan. Furthermore, while the busway may represent a real piece of infrastructure, once the buses leave the busway, they are considered too ephemeral to influence land development decisions. This is what happened in Adelaide, in fact; further, the fact that not a single square inch of Adelaide, according to census data, saw an increase in public transit mode-to-work before and after construction of the system indicates that some other negative force was at work, very possibly cannibalization of other 'low profit' parts of the system as are needed to make the system usable for real use in order to channel throughput through the O-Bahn..

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by RPfresh View post
    Interesting. The book that did the most to sell me on busways actually looked at the Adelaide system, but it seems like it drew different comparisons.
    The Adelaide system -is- good. Unfortunately, you cannot look at one piece of the system in isolation.
    ...in Ottawa's case, a busway was much less functional than rail and I believe they've started to or have switched over to light rail.

    It's going to be hard to convince me that the Curitiba system isn't a league ahead of these other examples, though.
    The O-Bahn can have exceedingly short headways and run large buses. Nonetheless, even the creators of the thing brag that it's theoretical limits with maxed out throughput are ALMOST as good as the LOWER END of the capacity carried by a rail system.

    Simply put, you could put such a system in, given dictatorial powers to override all objections. It would work to a moderate degree. However, you will likely not get more working transportation capacity per dollar than you would see with some form of rail; at best, you will later see a need to retrofit your busways to railways.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Woolley's avatar
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    In Brisbane they have issues with encouraging development in some areas around the BRT system to create BTODs. Also park and ride takes up extensive car spaces (750 off memory) on land that would be better suited as mixed use development
    We architects and urban planners aren't the visible symbols of oppression, like the military or the police. We're more sophisticated, more educated, and more socially conscious. We're the soft cops.- Robert Goodman, After the Planners My Planning Forumino

  14. #14
    Cyburbian RPfresh's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by JusticeZero View post
    In most cases, when a busway is proposed to a cash-strapped city, one of the first things to happen in practice is that the penny-pinchers in the planning process remove the actual busway itself from the plan. Furthermore, while the busway may represent a real piece of infrastructure, once the buses leave the busway, they are considered too ephemeral to influence land development decisions.
    If a busway isn't allowed to be a busway, then it's not a busway; I can't see the fact that a system might be scrapped as a weakness of the system. Certainly some cities are serious about providing right of way and are making systems that will harness the potential of the model. If a city were only halfway committed to a rail system and messed it up I wouldn't call it a weakness of rail in general.

    But you've changed my mind about busways being superior to rail in many ways. However a friend pointed out that if a preexisting four-lane road were to be converted into a two-lane road with a two-way busway in the middle, the infrastructure costs would be practically insignificant. Any thoughts on this? It would seem to make a busway system a lot more affordable than rail, but maybe not. But that doesn't address the TOD issue, which seems to be serious.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian
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    The problem is not that the system gets scrapped, per se. The problem is that the part of the system that makes the system function is scrapped, but the people who are developing the system - politicians, etc - do not realize that the system has effectively been scrapped and continue to develop an expensive set of overpriced branded buses. This is the reason why most "BRT" systems in America lack dedicated right of way.

    Converting existing roadway to dedicated transit right of way is workable, but understand that there will be immense pressure to put more on the transit lane than buses, which again destroys the advantage. You may need to have a number of career politicians willing to destroy their career permanently every couple years to keep the capacity where you need it. This is the reason that the contrefoil lanes in... DC was it? work so well - by having the transit vehicles driving at full speed AGAINST traffic, the lanes are effectively destroyed for anyone else's use.

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    Cyburbian RPfresh's avatar
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    Good stuff, JusticeZero. Thanks for posting.

  17. #17
    Quote Originally posted by JusticeZero View post
    . You may need to have a number of career politicians willing to destroy their career permanently every couple years to keep the capacity where you need it.
    The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

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    One advantage BRT over other similar systems such as LRT is the noise/vibration factor rubber tires have compared to the metal on metal rail lines. Noise could be further minimized through making the system fully electric, though this would eliminate the perceived versatility of not having to have fixed routes.

    There is an example of excellent BRT in my area. It connects the Minneapolis and St. Paul U of M campuses and is on an exclusive corridor, mostly at ground level. There is no faster way short of a helicopter to get between the campuses and though it is a two stop shuttle, there is no reason it couldn't be applied to a larger system.

    The main disadvantages I see for BRT are the same as for LRT. If it uses an exclusive busway and is set up along major commuting corridors and is intended to serve commuters going to or from a major city, then it should be just as functional as LRT. But for intracity travel, the limited stops are a major drawback.

  19. #19
    Cyburbian andreplanner's avatar
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    BRT

    I am all in favour for mixed modes of transit. As long as they have dedicated ROWs otherwise it defeats the purpose of having higher orders of transit. Having lanes in mixed traffic does not mean BRT. It becomes a glorified express service.

    With respect to Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Curitiba, they have their own ROW except when buses go downtown. Light rail is still in its infancy stage and its recent plans for extension were denied by Council (tranplanner can confirm). It's present route uses an abandoned rail corridor, just like many of the present LRT services. Regardless of the political decision, BRT works there.

    Just don't get me started on the whole "Transit City" plan in Toronto.

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    Cyburbian
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    Omnitrans, the lead agency for the sbX B.R.T. project, recently announced the order of 14 Xcelsior articulated rubber-tired trams fabricated by New Flyer. They seem like good vehicles, but I really don't have firsthand experience with them. Does anyone know much about the model and about its ability to deliver a competitive passenger experience?

  21. #21
    Cyburbian
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    Ottawa BRT

    Having used Ottawa's BRT when I worked downtown there (over 20 years ago now though), one thing to set it apart from LRT is that the buses are free to enter and leave the ROW at special ramps. This was a huge advantage at least then because the bus could be its own feeder service, eliminating the need for a transfer to the higher-order rapid service, and greatly improving the travel time and user perception. It may no longer operate this way, I don't know.

    Ottawa is now heavily constrained by the throughput of the downtown bus corridor which has dedicated lanes but in shared streets, and the buses are literally bumper-to-bumper for blocks and blocks due to the frequent signal spacings, and the many routes that converge there. There is an ongoing debate about tunnelling to solve this problem, but bedrock is mere feet down, and utility relocations would be horrendous also. I believe the price estimates for a basic 2-lane tunnel are running around $500M and up now - until that is solved neither BRT nor LRT will achieve their capacity promises.

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    Cyburbian
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    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    uhhh.... thats just an articulated bus. why post it? Have you not seen anything like that before?? Its pretty common.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  24. #24
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Don View post
    Having used Ottawa's BRT when I worked downtown there (over 20 years ago now though), one thing to set it apart from LRT is that the buses are free to enter and leave the ROW at special ramps. This was a huge advantage at least then because the bus could be its own feeder service, eliminating the need for a transfer to the higher-order rapid service, and greatly improving the travel time and user perception. It may no longer operate this way, I don't know.

    Ottawa is now heavily constrained by the throughput of the downtown bus corridor which has dedicated lanes but in shared streets, and the buses are literally bumper-to-bumper for blocks and blocks due to the frequent signal spacings, and the many routes that converge there. There is an ongoing debate about tunnelling to solve this problem, but bedrock is mere feet down, and utility relocations would be horrendous also. I believe the price estimates for a basic 2-lane tunnel are running around $500M and up now - until that is solved neither BRT nor LRT will achieve their capacity promises.
    Might the Ottawa area (actually, now, it is ALL 'City of Ottawa' with the recent Ontario municipal amalgamations - and Ottawa's city limits now go out a loooong way into the hinterlands) be getting to the point of having to take the big-shovel 'plunge' into a full-blown heavy-rail subway system? BRT systems do have a limit on their effective throughput. Yes, the bedrock there is high, but that's what tunnel boring machines are for - it makes it easier for them to do their thing.

    Mike

  25. #25
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by mgk920 View post
    Might the Ottawa area (actually, now, it is ALL 'City of Ottawa' with the recent Ontario municipal amalgamations - and Ottawa's city limits now go out a loooong way into the hinterlands) be getting to the point of having to take the big-shovel 'plunge' into a full-blown heavy-rail subway system? BRT systems do have a limit on their effective throughput. Yes, the bedrock there is high, but that's what tunnel boring machines are for - it makes it easier for them to do their thing.

    Mike
    Yes indeed Ottawa proper is now really an enormous area thanks to a past provincial government that decided amalgamation would solve all the municipal budget problems everywhere, but all that means is there is a vast majority of the area which has such low density that even peak period buses are hard to justify. For the downtown core, something better has been needed for many years, but as they say, that first step is a doozy. Actually it's a double because we're talking about rail AND tunnelling in rock. The existing below-grade transitway was all (in the west end at least) blasted in a trench - one of my university jobs was inspecting basements for changes in cracking during the blasting. I wonder if a downtown tunnel would be reasonable to build with a TBM instead of cut and cover given the cost-cutting solution arrived at in Vancouver for the Canada Line? Maybe there is a suitable limestone-capable TBM on the used market somewhere? The total distance we're talking about in Ottawa isn't that large (2 km or so?) so building a new TBM might be prohibitive, though the benefit in terms of public convenience would be large. The other issue in the downtown is existing utilities including the district heating system etc., much of which would probably be replaced as part of the work "while you're there" - not part of the transit project but hard to avoid doing, and it adds to the total cost. I guess a TBM could go much deeper, but again with such a short distance you can't get too deep without prohibitive grades for the trains, and extra cost for the stations.

    You could spend half a billion dollars for a tunnel across downtown and it would be no better than today because it would still be packed with buses, and it may be worse as the buses couldn't pass each other unless it was a 4-lane tunnel. You could spent a lot more still to put rail in that tunnel, but unless you spent enough to take that rail somewhere useful far beyond the core (and in multiple directions), you won't replace the buses.

    I guess where I'm going with this is that the very flexibility of service area afforded by a BRT may be very hard to duplicate with a higher-order rail infrastructure, much less improve upon. From an implementation standpoint, there is also the question of how to run the system during construction, when the busway ROW is closed for rail installation. While I certainly think Ottawa needs large scale rail, it sure won't be as cheap as the O-Train demo suggests.

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