Government review shows BRT projects improve service and can contribute to economic development.
In late July, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its assessment of federal investments in Bus Rapid Transit under the New Starts/Small Starts/Very Small Starts competitive grant program. The report, titled Bus Rapid Transit: Projects Improve Transit Service and Can Contribute to Economic Development, is based mostly on the inventory of BRT lines and their attributes; basic measures such as ridership and travel-time savings; and interviews with transit agencies, land use experts, and developers. King County Metro’s RapidRide A line is featured as one of five case studies, and ULI Northwest and ULI Infrastructure Initiative participated in the GAO’s interview process, although the report does not identify any consulted expert by name or organization.
The report documents how almost all of the BRT projects have significantly improved transit service and attracted impressive ridership gains. The report also acknowledges that not all BRT projects are the same, or need to be the same. Transit agencies have deployed the different BRT technologies and attributes in ways that make sense for their service goals.
For example, Kansas City’s Troost Ave MAX achieved the highest travel time savings of all the BRT routes examined, even though it doesn’t run in a separate busway. Congestion wasn’t the problem in Kansas City. Most of New York City’s BRT time-savings is from paying fares off-board; the BRT line boards 55,000 people on an average weekday. Lines with boardings in the more normal range, 5,000-15,000, didn’t see as much benefit to off-board fare payment. The report categorizes the RapidRide A line’s “business access transit” or BAT lanes to be a “semi-dedicated” running way, an important recognition of intermediate solutions between dedicated running-ways and buses in mixed traffic. (Of the BRT projects examined, only 5 of 15 included dedicated or semi-dedicated running ways.)
On land use and economic development, the report recognizes the importance of supportive land use policies and associated corridor improvements, such as streetscaping, etc. It looks in depth at two lines, Cleveland’s Health Line and the Eugene-Springfield EMX, and includes maps assessing the increases in land values before and after their respective BRT lines. These two success stories put to rest doubts that BRT can contribute to economic development in their corridors. The GAO is appropriately cautious, however, in relaying that just because BRT can lead to development, does not mean that BRT will. That most of the lines examined opened during the recent recession means that their role in land development may still be years away.
The report inventories the many benefits that these BRT projects have brought to their communities, but doesn’t go as far as crunching the numbers on benefits and costs. This report will not settle the debates between rail advocates and BRT advocates or between “true BRT” advocates and “BRT-lite-is-still-BRT” advocates. And I wish the report had put more emphasis on the role of service frequency and the quality of service at night and on weekends. That said, the report contains a lot of wisdom to be gained from the experiences and insights of the interviewees.