WASHINGTON — It’s the fastest, cheapest, most effective way to move large numbers of people in an urban area, some transit advocates have come to conclude.
But it’s not a streetcar or light-rail system: It’s a fleet of buses that acts like one.
Bus rapid transit is common in Latin America and Asia, but it hasn’t caught on as quickly in the United States. Most transit investment in the U.S. over the past few decades has concentrated on subways, light rail and streetcars.
According to its boosters, bus rapid transit can spur just as much or more economic development generally at a fraction of the cost, although more sophisticated projects can be just as expensive as rail. Real-estate developers and city planners tend to prefer rail systems because of their durability and capacity to move large numbers of people.
A report by the New York-based Institute for Transportation & Development Policy fuels an ongoing debate about the advantages and disadvantages of both modes. The institute released a 159-page report last month that compares 21 North American transit corridors that contain a mix of streetcars, light-rail systems and bus rapid transit.
But the answer may not be as simple as throwing rail under the bus.
In some cities, buses might be the right choice, while in others, rail could be best. Despite the cost advantages that bus supporters claim, high-end systems can be expensive to build and operate, and many Americans still view bus service as inferior.
“Perception is reality,” said Chris Leinberger, a real estate developer, author and urban planning scholar. “We’ve got to change that perception.”
Transportation policy experts and city planners have come to embrace bus rapid transit. “An additional tool in the transit toolbox,” said Deron Lovaas, the director of federal transportation policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental policy group.
But the more you improve it, he said, “the more the cost advantage disappears.”
Bus rapid transit isn’t an ordinary city bus. It incorporates many elements of light rail: a dedicated roadway that’s separated from regular traffic, frequent service, fewer stops, elevated station platforms with better lighting and shelters, and payment collection at the station rather than on the bus.
“When you build something higher quality, you provide more transportation benefit,” said Annie Weinstock, the director of the U.S. and Africa for the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy and one of the authors of the group’s recent transit report.
Weinstock said rapid bus systems could deliver more bang for the transit buck at a time when federal, state and local governments had less funding. But she acknowledged that many rail-based transit systems have been successful at stimulating local economies.
The report cites the Lynx Blue Line in Charlotte, N.C., a 9.6-mile light-rail corridor that opened in 2007 and has generated more than $800 million in transit-oriented development.
“Both have potential to stimulate development,” she said. “In areas that have hot land markets, it doesn’t necessarily matter what kind of project you build.”
Charlotte and other cities, such as Sacramento, Calif., plan to expand their light-rail systems. Kansas City, Mo., Sacramento and Charlotte also have streetcar systems on the drawing board. Additionally, Charlotte, Kansas City and Fresno, Calif., have some variation of bus rapid transit.
Kansas City’s MAX, or Metro Area Express, buses began running on a nine-mile route in 2005 and expanded with a second, 13-mile route in 2011, for a total investment of $50 million. But MAX runs in marked bus lanes on existing city streets, not on a dedicated roadway. That falls short of the “gold” standard for bus rapid transit as defined by the report.
Kansas City recently received a $20 million federal grant from the Department of Transportation to begin building a $100 million two-mile streetcar line, scheduled for completion in 2015. The bulk of the project will be financed by bonds paid for with increased sales and property taxes in a special district near the line. Increasingly, cities are relying on the direct beneficiaries of transit projects to pay for them.
Voters have approved more than 70 percent of the bond measures for rail transit in the past decade. But while rail projects have sparked tens of billions of dollars in economic development, Leinberger said he had yet to see bus rapid transit deliver benefits on the same scale.
“That is a reflection of how the market feels about it,” he said.
The construction cost for the highest level of bus rapid transit can approach or even exceed that of light rail because of the sophistication of the engineering, according to Art Guzzetti, the vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association.
The 9.4-mile New Britain-Hartford Busway in Connecticut, which is under construction, has a price tag of $567 million. Charlotte’s similar-sized light-rail line cost $462 million.
Still, while bus rapid transit generally is cheaper to build, it might not be cheaper to operate over the long term. Bus systems require more vehicles, drivers and fuel, and light-rail vehicles last longer.
Mike Wiley, the general manager and CEO of Sacramento Regional Transit, considered bus rapid transit to connect Sacramento’s airport with downtown. He said the construction cost would have been lower than light rail, but there’d be a significantly higher operating cost.
The agency plans an “advanced bus” corridor with dedicated lanes elsewhere in Sacramento, he said.
“We’re not opposed to any mode or any option,” Wiley said. “We believe there are places for anything.”