Taking the Guesswork Out of Rating BRT: An Interview With Walter Hook

Rio+20 - June 19
Transoeste BRT in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Michael Oko.

There’s a new global benchmark for rating bus rapid transit projects. Today the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy released the BRT Standard 2013, which lays out the requirements for bus routes to qualify as BRT and scores 50 systems in 35 cities around the world as basic, bronze, silver, or gold based on various criteria. The idea, which ITDP has been refining since a beta release in 2011, is to provide a concrete definition of what BRT is, and a reference for politicians, planners, and advocates who are interested in creating new BRT routes, as well as to rate the quality of existing systems.

The standard rates more than 30 aspects of bus corridor design, awarding points for elements that improve system performance. Dedicated bus lanes, level boarding, pre-paid boarding and signal prioritization are considered basic requirements for BRT. Additional elements that score points include multiple bus routes running on the same corridor; passing lanes at stations; low-emission buses; attractive, weather-protected stations; real-time arrival info signs; integration with bike sharing and more.

Streetsblog recently caught up with ITDP CEO Walter Hook via telephone to get more info on the new guide.

People Creating Change: Walter Hook
ITDP CEO Walter Hook. Photo by Colin Hughes.

John Greenfield: Congratulations on releasing the BRT Standard. So this is kind of like the LEED [green building rating system] for bus rapid transit, correct?

Walter Hook: Yeah, that’s basically the idea, with the additional caveat that the BRT Standard is also positing a minimum definition for what constitutes BRT at all, which is not really an element in LEED. I mean, LEED doesn’t say, “You’re not a green building if you don’t hit any of these things.” The BRT Standard now has a minimum definition. That’s new from last time.

JG: What is your minimum standard for something to be called BRT?

WH: It’s a fairly complicated formula but essentially it has to have a dedicated lane of at least four kilometers. If it’s on a two-way road, it has to run along the central median. If it’s a curb-running bus lane on a two-way street it’s pretty much ineligible. So there are a couple of baseline things, but there are a lot of details and nuances.

And then you need to score a certain minimum number of points on BRT basics, which means it has to have at least some of the following elements like off-board fare collection, certain treatments at intersections, and other things that we consider to be pretty much essential.

JG: So the United States has a few different bus services that got a bronze rating. Does that mean that those are all considered to be BRT?

WH: Yeah, if you scored bronze and we say you’re BRT, then you’re BRT.

JG: Why do you think it was important to create a standard for BRT?

WH: I think it’s a similar situation to the way it was with organic foods and green buildings, where what it is that makes that food organic or what it is that makes that building green isn’t readily apparent to the consumer or to the politician because it’s too technical for the general public to really get. And so as a result, everybody started coming out with food that they labeled organic but the public couldn’t trust it. They didn’t know if it was really organic or not, and sometimes it kind of was and some times it kind of wasn’t. But until they came up with a technical body that said, “This really is organic,” and an actual procedure that everybody agreed on, nobody was really sure what they were getting.

It’s the same with BRT. Nobody really knew in the United States what constituted bus rapid transit. So all kinds of systems across the country were calling themselves BRT but they were little more than articulated buses, perhaps on a painted bus lane. But they lacked most of the critical elements of BRT and the public felt like the benefits were pretty marginal. And as a result they lost interest in BRT and a lot of the public was clamoring for light rail and other measures that would cost a lot more money but that essentially had the same elements that you could have done cheaper with BRT.

Metrobus
Metrobus BRT in Mexico City. Photo by Sergio Ruiz.

JG: What are the most successful BRT systems in the world?

WH: There are several gold-standard BRTs floating around out there. Bogotá’s TransMilenio is one of the gold-standard BRT systems. Guangzhou has a BRT corridor that’s ranked gold. But there are several others out there. There’s one in Guadalajara. There’s one corridor in Curitiba, Brazil. Lima, Peru, has some. Rio’s Transoeste scored gold. Those are the ones that immediately scored gold. And the U.S. has now, under the new rankings, one silver standard BRT, and that’s the Cleveland Health Line.

JG: Why do you think BRT has been slow to take off in the United States when it has really flourished in some places we think of as less technologically advanced than the U.S.?

WH: Well, I think BRT is progressing in the U.S. We have five pretty decent systems. It’s just sort of about where a lot of other countries are. So I don’t want to denigrate the progress here too much. I think there are a couple of things that are making it a little bit more of a heavy lift in the U.S. One thing is the U.S. has lost a lot of its transit ridership over the years. And so the bus frequency’s pretty low, and when you have fairly low bus ridership it’s harder to make the political decision to dedicate a lane of traffic to exclusive bus use.

When the U.S. promoted BRT they didn’t promote it with a very clear definition of what that meant. So a lot of mediocre bus improvements were implemented across the country that tarnished the brand.

It’s pretty easy to find a corridor in a developing country where you’ve got over 1,200 public transit users going through that corridor per direction per hour. In the U.S. you can find those corridors but they’re not quite as common. If you’re not moving more than 1,200 passengers per hour that lane is moving less passengers than if were just mixed traffic. So that’s a harder decision to make.

I think the second reason is that when the U.S. promoted BRT they didn’t promote it with a very clear definition of what that meant. So a lot of mediocre bus improvements were implemented across the country that tarnished the brand, and so the public lost interest. That varies from city to city. Like in Boston, because the Washington Avenue Silver Line was so modest in its measures, the public felt very much like they’d been cheated out of a real mass transit investment. So the terminology became almost toxic in certain markets. In other places that hasn’t happened, and so it’s not as problematic.

Boston Silver Line
Silver Line bus in Boston. Photo by Jonathan Hawkins.

I think the third reason is the U.S., at least among the progressive community, has a very strong belief in the story about General Motors tearing out the streetcars, and so there’s a real nostalgia for those old rail-based systems. While a lot of those rail-based systems were torn out by General Motors and a lot of corporate interests across the country, many of those systems operated in a mixed-traffic environment. They were plagued by a lot of difficulties.

If a trolley car’s blocked by a delivery vehicle it can’t move, whereas a bus can kind of go around it. So there’s a lot of romance about these systems in the U.S., but the truth is, bus rapid transit as a technology is a lot more robust and flexible than a lot of those alternatives and a hell of a lot cheaper to implement and a hell of a lot easier to retrofit into cities in the U.S. that have largely suburbanized since the time of those rail-based systems.

JG: Anything else we should know about the BRT Standard?

WH: I think one reason it’s important is that even a lot of decision makers are not too familiar with all the components of what constitutes a real BRT system, and I think that [Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner] Gabe Klein, who wrote the introduction to the BRT Standard, pointed out how it was helpful to them. What he said was that there’s definitely an interest in building some kind of a gold- or silver- standard BRT system in Chicago and that it was useful to them as a guide to their consultants for the plans that they were preparing for the various BRT projects across Chicago. And it was also very helpful to them to explain to the general public that the measures that were being proposed in Chicago were consistent with best practice and the reasons for them. So they liked it as both an aid in the planning process and also as a tool for educating the general public.

1wab-center
Proposed BRT configuration for Chicago's Western and Ashland corridors.

And I’m sure that the cities that are already being certified across the U.S. are pretty happy about the recognition that they’re receiving, because they had to make some pretty tough political choices sometimes to get these systems built. The BRT standard recognizes cities that have made tough political choices. It’s not really about cities that have spent a ton of money.

For example, it’s quite hard to convince a city to forbid turning movements across a bus lane, so you get a lot of points for that. It’s hard to convince them to build a dedicated, physically separated right-of-way, so you get a lot of points for that. And so the cities are going to be happy for the positive publicity that they get.

  • Ryan L

    BRT may be cheaper to implement than streetcars, but is it cheaper to operate? Which cost is more significant over time? And which encourages more developer investment along the new routes? I’m all for BRT and any other improvements to our transit system, but these are important questions that need asked, and may have been avoided because their answers suggest streetcars as a crucial, missing link in our transportation system.

  • Jemilah Magnusson

    These questions, are, in fact, being discussed and studied among transport and development researchers, no one is avoiding them. Operations costs are difficult to estimate since there is so much variation in labor cost in different nations, which is the main cost, but there is no doubt that BRT is comparable or even less expensive to maintain than a light rail, as the track and catenary are major infrastructure maintenance costs that don’t apply with BRT. As far as leveraging developer investments, there are many examples, including Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT in the US, that has so far leveraged 5.8 billion in real estate investment along the Euclid avenue corridor, for a system that cost the city about $200K to build. Also Line 4 of Metrobus BRT in Mexico City that has been a major factor in the revitalization of the historic center of Mexico City. That BRT is not as well known yet for economic development in the US (it is much better understood as a development tool in places such as China and Colombia that have excellent BRT systems), is a function of a lack of understanding of true BRT within the US, which is what we hope the BRT Standard will correct.

    Jemilah Magnusson
    Institute for Transportation and Development Policy
    brtstandard.org

  • Beta Magellan

    Per vehicle, bus is cheaper. When you pass a certain threshold of passengers, though, it becomes less expensive to operate a tram on a per-passenger basis.

    Parsing out developer investment is tricky—although I haven’t seen Ms. Magnusson’s data, a couple years ago I heard, through the grapevine, that developers along Euclid were neutral on BRT and would have gone there anyway—it’s still a major corridor, BRT or not. With respect to places in the US that have streetcars—the Pearl District, South Lake Union, etc.—tend to have started redeveloping long before they had streetcars and have all sorts of other development incentives thrown at them (and honestly, those streetcars are more expensive street furniture than anything else—they make the area look nice, give a certain ambience, and are amenities, but with walking-competitive speeds they scarcely count as transportation investments).

  • Joseph Musco

    The cost of the Cleveland Healthline was $200 million in 2008 dollars.

    “According to Maribeth Feke, Director of Planning at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority—the city’s transformative Healthline bus rapid transit (BRT) line is responsible for $4.3 billion in TOD.” – CEOsforcities.org 2/20/13

  • Anonymous

    Operating funding is an annual crisis, resulting in bus service curtailment and elimination. Hands-down, BRT is far more expensive to operate than LRT on a high ridership route; the scale tips in favor of BRT as ridership declines. BRT also has capacity constraints that LRT/HRT is uniquely qualified to address. BRT conversions to rail are clear examples of what a mature BRT system looks like. It looks like – no, it is – rail. That isn’t a bad thing, but it is a reality. BRT has a niche, as does rail. The key is conducting clear, unbiased analysis accompanied by transparent decision-making. That, however, is a tall order.

    To illustrate, and with respect to development potential, developers view risk as much higher for bus-oriented development than rail-oriented development. The U.S. experience with BRT, or so-called BRT that has tarnished BRT’s reputation, is not of sufficient quality to exert positive influence on the development community. It isn’t so much a worthwhile research question as much as it is a market condition requiring incentivisation to overcome. Making developing nation economic comparisons involving evolution from chaotic van and chitney service to Gold/Silver BRT is not a valid barometer for assessing what the economic benefits may be when some equal or lesser (likely lesser) form of BRT is implemented in a U.S. environment where there already exists HRT, Commuter Rail, express bus service, and a plethora of regular bus routes – a vast array of high quality transit options, albeit not a high quality network of them outside of the city of Chicago, for instance. Similarly, a Cleveland comparison also has only marginal relevance; one can’t dismiss the fact that the Euclid Avenue revival came in response to a decades long commitment by city leaders and residents to reestablish Euclid Avenue’s historic status as a key transportation and economic development corridor for the entire region – that didn’t happen because BRT came, but rather BRT was a single element of a broader intensely focused redevelopment effort involving many actors and many resources. The fact is, the Euclid Corridor suffered from 50 years of decline and a tremendous amount of resources were brought to bear on the issue. Are all of those resources (costs) reflected in calculating (or, more accurately, simply ascribing by way association lacking analytical rigor) economic benefits to the HealthLine? No, the costs are not accounted for and the correlation between Cleveland BRT and corridor revival is a statistical artifact – a clear case where correlation is not causation. Did the HealthLine help, and is it an improvement over prior conditions? Sure. That, however, does not close the gigantic and unjustified analytical leap between the presence of the HeathLine and the level of economic development the corridor has experienced. That is an example of overstating benefits and would result in under-delivering results where the same investment is made in a different environment lacking a similar history of thoughtful and aggressive resuscitation of an ailing corridor over decades of work. That is precisely the sort of analysis that could further degrade public perceptions of BRT by over-promising and under-delivering, i.e., setting high expectations for another project and failing to deliver on them. It is also inherently offensive for public agencies to build into their analysis of major capital investments data that they know – or should know – is misleading and/or not applicable to a particular study area, though it happens far too frequently in a Jack Welchian sort of “At Any Cost” approach to planning.

    BRT has its place, and can certainly be justified as a worthwhile investment in certain circumstances. It isn’t a question of whether BRT is better than rail. It is a question of which is more appropriate given the area of investment being targeted, and, unfortunately, often quite simply a question of which one has the upfront capital to be built – a factor that by itself biases solutions toward road-oriented solutions due to the regulatory environment and available funding pathways. We don’t build the best things, we build what bad regulations and flawed funding streams dictate we can. Anyone that always comes up with the same solution, be it rail, BRT, or highway expansions is trying to pull the wool over your eyes and likely has a personal financial interest in the outcome – either direct financial gain, or job security. Of course, they could also simply be dumb (or think their audience is).

    None of the foregoing is at all to say that BRT is bad – it surely has a place in America, if done right. Rather, BRT advocates should be very careful about further tarnishing BRT’s reputation by over-promising and under-delivering. There are scenarios where BRT is more cost-effective, and those scenarios generally align with ridership below a certain point beyond which operating cost and/or capacity needs tip in favor of LRT or HRT, often in a significant way. Importantly, the ITDP standard will help those examining BRT costs and benefits to properly classify the systems included in their studies, thereby hopefully reducing the likelihood that BRT Gold benefits will be used to justify BRT Bronze (or lower) investments, for instance. That can only help to improve decision-making and cultivate improved outcomes for significant public investments. It will not, however, preclude project proponents from attaching benefits to projects without considering all the costs, like suggesting BRT in Cleveland was responsible for the economic revitalization of the Euclid Corridor; such representations will have a deleterious effect on the long-term political viability of BRT in the U.S. by setting projects up to fail. A BRT standard will be of little value if people do not trust it because of its association with flawed analysis and under-performing projects.

  • Bolwerk

    The other posters aren’t making this very clear: BRT is certainly more expensive on a per-passenger-km basis past a certain point. What that point precisely is is probably implementation-specific.

    I’d be surprised to learn that BRT ever does as well at attracting ridership, but, you know, it’s hard to do a controlled experiment one way or another.

  • Bolwerk

    Oh, land acquisition costs could be another factor. BRT most probably has a bigger footprint, though perhaps not much bigger.

  • Anonymous

    Maribeth Feke said it, so I guess it must be true. How can it not be??

    Never mind that over 1/2 of that stated construction valuation was initiated or completed *before* the HealthLine opened in 2008, though the portion occurring after opening was almost 1/2 the total incorporated into the quote. I guess that observation, alone, says nothing about the claim that the HealthLine was responsible for the $4.3B in development ($4.291 to be a little more exact than Ms. Feke).

    Well, I guess it is clear based on Ms. Feke’s quote that decades of intense focus on the Euclid Corridor (and the associated investments coordinated across multiple federal, state, and local agencies and programs) had nothing to do with the investment before or after the HealthLine was completed.

    It was must actually be the direct result of bronze-level BRT service.

    Just curious, did you ever see Hartshorn Road, off Euclid Avenue in East Cleveland prior to the attention the Euclid Corridor began to receive? According to HUD, that little section – only one along an entire troubled corridor – attracted crime and deterred investment before the buildings were demolished.

    But wait, it was the Healthline that cultivated $2.167B in investment before it was completed, and $2.123B after it was done.

    Huh! Why would anyone even bother with Gold- or Silver-level service? Surely it could only result in diminishing return on investment. If Bronze service has the Midas touch, then Gold-level investment is surely overkill.

    Call MPC and tell them they’re all wet about the need for Gold level service. $200M in and $4.3B out, and that is just in TOD and does not count other benefits.

    Get Hilkevitch on the phone. Now this is a story. Bronze BRT to result in miraculous recovery and reinvestment in the city’s most maligned corridors. Just put that bus there and – POOF – instant $4B+ TOD investment.

    Call the mayor. Forget gang activity, drugs, and guns. Bronze BRT will solve the problem at lower cost and greater benefit.

    While you’re busy making calls, I’m moving to Cleveland and seeing what I can do with the $1000 bucks in my checking account – forget Caesar’s Palace, baby.

    Don’t get me wrong. The Euclid Corridor is an unmitigated success. However, as post project analysis concluded, Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue demonstrates the positive outcomes that can result from coordinating and leveraging multiple programs and funding to build a common vision. Multiple programs – not one investment – and decades of commitment. Bronze BRT can be built-out in one construction season with comparatively far fewer resources – apparently only $200M, assuming that is a biot more accurate than the representation that the HealthLIne is solely responsible for leveraging $4.3B in TOD.

    Ms. Feke? She’s obviously right.

  • Anonymous

    Per vehicle is a misleading and incorrect measure of cost-effectiveness.

  • Joseph Musco

    I’m with you Coolebra. I was trying to point out that the comment from Jemilah Magnusson of ITDP put development a full $1.5 billion higher than the head of the local transit authority. The intial cost given was off by a factor of 1000. It’s hard for me to take ITDP seriously when their boosterism outstrips even the most closely invested local officials.

    The Euclid Corridor is not an unmitigated success. Almost all of the development has taken place in 1/3 of the corridor is related to existing development in health and education. As you can see on in the GAO report on BRT below East Cleveland and Midtown saw either decreased or flat development (pg35). Almost all of the Cleveland BRT development is attributed to two major hospitals and one university. If you look at the number of parcels in the corridor, only a tiny fraction are seeing development. It’s not generalized growth at all. It’s very specific to local conditions and institutions in Cleveland.

    http://www.gao.gov/assets/600/592973.pdf

  • Anonymous

    Didn’t even see the disconnect between the $4.3B cited in project analysis documents and the number ITDP threw out. At least you gave me the chance to address even Cleveland RTA’s representation. :)

  • Larry Littlefield

    Grade separation, at least at major intersections. Did I miss it?

  • Anonymous

    The comment I posted above, “Maribeth Feke said it . . . “, should be in reply to Jemilah Magnusson (rather than Joseph Musco) reference both Magnusson’s claim of $5.8B leveraged investment and Joseph Musco’s tandem observation that Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority placed the estimate at $4.3B.

    Both The Magnusson and Feke representations are severely flawed, as noted above.

  • Anonymous

    How is MyCiTi performing in Cape Town?

  • Beta Magellan

    Not if you’re a transit agency with:

    1. A limited amount of resources

    2. A desire to run vehicles at good frequencies over a long span of time. This is incredibly important—the only reason I don’t have a car in Chicago is because the Ashland, North and Division buses run at high enough frequencies to make my non-work trips on them convenient. I have no idea why commenters here don’t know basic stuff like this—I’d assume humantransit.org would be on everyone’s feed.

    Posters here seem to think that simply running streetcars or light rail will unlock a lot of ridership and automatically make them more cost-effective for the agency to run than buses. While I won’t deny that people have a rail preference, the attitude towards the cost-effectiveness in-street rail here seems more reminiscent of conservatives’ attitude towards the Laffer curve than anything else. Just as, under a certain point, lowering taxes won’t stimulate more economic activity to bring in more revenue, on many of corridors where upgrading to rail won’t be cost-effective on a per-passenger basis.

    Although I understand the historical reason for BRT-hostility—it was (and still is) used as a way to shrink ambitious rail proposals to next-to-nothing, the reemergence of mixed-traffic streetcars have made it possible to shrink ambitious rail projects to next-to-nothing too (albeit a prettier and more yuppy-friendly nothing). In terms of all transit, the key issues are whether vehicles get their own rights-of-way, whether vehicles will run at appropriate frequencies, stop spacing, and whether they’ll be running vehicles with appropriate capacities.

    All but the last apply to bus-vs.-rail—LA’s Orange Line, which is so frequent it overloads its signal priority system, clearly should have been light rail. Something like BRT on Ashland or Western (or, in Cleveland, Euclid), won’t come close to that.

  • Anonymous

    Transit agencies aren’t in the business of moving vehicles. They are in the business of moving people. The more people and the less staffing to do it, the better the cost effectiveness. Personnel is a huge cost, as is diesel and gasoline.

    Agreed – BRT is right in some places, but not all places.

    When evaluating alternatives, the proper metrics are critical to get the decision right, and metrics need to be designed to support well-defined goals and objectives. Rarely will operating cost per vehicle be a good indicator of success and, more often, it would be a misleading indicator.

    Transit is moving people, not vehicles. Sometimes the number of people is right for a bus and other times something larger and better is needed.

    As for the observation, “Posters here seem to think that simply running streetcars or light rail will unlock a lot of ridership and automatically make them more cost-effective for the agency to run than buses” I have not seen that in the posts. To the contrary, BRT has been touted as the next best thing since sliced bread, which it isn’t.

    Overstating benefits, using misaligned or misleading metrics, and making false analogies does not help BRT, it further erodes public confidence.

  • Anonymous

    How is MyCiTi performing in Cape Town, for instance?

    Apparently there must be those that think that simply running BRT will unlock a lot of ridership and automatically make them more cost-effective for the agency to run than . . . regular busses?

  • Chance

    Just like to say I am impressed with the level of discourse in the comments. I am tempted to copy and past some of the comments in a letter to The Los Angeles MTA as they considering repeating the mistakes of the BRT Orange Line on an even busier corridor.

  • Ryan Lakes

    This thread has been one of the best!

  • ariof

    I’d point out, in addition to Coolebra’s excellent analysis, that most of this development has taken place in the portion of the HealthLine where it parallels the Red Line, which has plenty of capacity (it’s downright underutilized) and provides a faster ride downtown. Surely, if we’re going to ascribe all of this development to the transit in the area, we should give rail it’s due, right?

  • ariof

    Coolebra, I want to thank you for your excellent analysis here. I’m slowly writing a series about the ITDP and their shoddy numbers in relation to a BRT plan in Boston, and this has been most helpful. Feel free to chime in over at http://amateurplanner.blogspot.com/search/label/ITDP%20series. Thanks again!

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