Bus Rapid Transit in the US: What Do They Do? What Can We Learn?

Bus Rapid Transit in the US: What Do They Do? What Can We Learn?


G James, Parsons Brinckerhof, UK


This paper describes current BRT practice and experience in the US, including case studies. It covers typical BRT and 'BRT-lite' system features, vehicles, the planning process, and how schemes are funded. What can we learn from this experience?


An increasing number of bus rapid transit (BRT) schemes have opened in the USA in recent years, showcasing a range of approaches. This paper summarises the US state of the art in BRT systems and their planning process, and reports on experience.

The current generation of BRT routes represents a spectrum, from heavy BRT with exclusive running ways, substantial stations and bespoke vehicles, through to 'BRT-lite' which is perhaps closer in concept to the British-style quality bus corridor. Whichever infrastructure is provided, the contemporary approach pays as much attention to soft factors, with branding and a conscious attempt at the 'wow factor', as to the hard engineering such as bus priority measures.

Two contrasting case studies are examined, with a 'virtual tour' showing features of the system. Both are on arterial corridors, but at opposite ends of the spectrum. The 'Max' line in Las Vegas, Nevada is at the heavy end, with bespoke 'stations' and diesel-electric vehicles. An optical guidance system was installed but was abandoned in the light of experience. By contrast, Metro Express route 40 in Stockton, California is typical of BRT-lite schemes, closer to a conventional high-quality bus route, and represents what is emerging as a common model.

Additional examples cover other aspects of US BRT practice. In particular, Emerald Express in Eugene, Oregon has some rail-like features, including centre island platforms, vehicles with doors on both sides, and a signalling system for movements over a single-track section. European-style kerb guided busways have not spread to the US, although some systems (such as Emerald Express) use guidewheels for docking at stops. Hybrid buses are now common, partly because federal grants include vehicle costs and will cover much of the incremental cost over a diesel-only bus.

Initial results from contemporary BRT schemes have been positive, with a degree of modal shift and a widening of the passenger base. The paper examines whether this experience helps to answer a long-standing question: can a top-quality bus system have the same level of impact on ridership and on land-use change as an equivalent rail system?

The paper also covers the federal capital funding system known as 'New Starts', and the factors that are taken into account in project appraisal and funding decisions. Smaller schemes are eligible for simplified 'Small Starts' or 'Very Small Starts' appraisal, including some stipulations about what is needed to qualify, which is shaping the approach to BRT-lite proposals.

Local match-funding is needed, typically a dedicated sales tax which often requires a local referendum - bringing public transport decisions into the heart of the political process. Indeed, as local bus systems are invariably municipal operations, sometimes with a private contractor on the ground, local government is at the heart of bus service planning.

The paper concludes with some lessons that US experience can offer to practitioners in Europe.


Association for European Transport