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BRT in America: What’s next? Part 1

By David Hubbard

BUSRide convenes with BRT thought leaders in a roundtable discussion.

In October during the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) EXPO in Houston, TX, BUSRide invited a robust group of transportation specialists, transit leaders and OEM representatives to a roundtable discussion to address the current state of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in North America.

The panelists included:
Alan Brick-Turin – Program Manager, East Bay BRT Project, Gannett-Fleming, Inc.
Deborah Dagang – Principal Project Manager, CH2M HILL
Dennis Hinebaugh – Director, National BRT Institute, Center for Urban Transit Research, University of South Florida
Cliff Henke – Assistant Vice President, Senior Analyst, Transit & Rail Systems, Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc.
Graham Carey – Principal, careyBRT
Michael Myers – Managing Director, The Rockefeller Foundation
John Birtwistle – Projects Director, UK Bus Division, First Transit
P. Christopher Zegras – Associate Professor, Transportation & Urban Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Tom Waldron – Vice President, Global Director, HDR Engineering, Inc.
Paul Smith – Executive Vice President, New Flyer Industries
René Allen – Vice President, Product Management and Strategy, Nova Bus
Hunter Harvath – Assistant General Manager – Finance & Administration, Monterey-Salinas Transit
Michael Allegra – President / CEO, Utah Transit Authority
David Miller – Principal Systems Engineer, R&D, Siemens Mobility
Bill McFarland – Director of Sales Engineering, INIT

Please address the theme of this roundtable. What’s next for BRT in America?

Alan Brick-Turin: Gannett-Fleming’s involvement in BRT incorporates planning, design, implementation and evaluation. I most recently finished my tenure as program manager for the East Bay BRT project in San Leandro, CA, which will go into construction in 2015.

Going back 10 to 15 years, BRT was always something to consider in an alternatives analysis when the agency really wanted a rail system — while the FTA was saying the agencies really needed to consider BRT as an alternative that would serve the purpose as well. As more people realize a need for public transportation, communities and agencies are looking to BRT as the next phase in transit for its flexibility and fast implementation it allows each city.

On some of the studies I did, the agencies concluded that BRT really seems to be able to do what they need and the project would advance to the next level of study and design.

Deborah Dagang: CH2M HILL is currently managing the Santa Clara-Alamo BRT project in San Jose, CA, the first full-fledged BRT system in the Bay Area. As I see it, a public transit agency seriously looking to move forward needs to recognize how many people BRT can move, and make a firm commitment to this mode. Among the struggles transit agencies face in planning and launching a BRT system is how to deliver the service adequately on existing city and county streets network in terms of right of way, mix of traffic and peak travel times. Therefore, making the commitment requires much more than just bringing in transit professionals. The local city officials must realize that for the transit agency to move a growing number of people in the future, it is going to need to that right of way.

Dennis Hinebaugh: The federal government formed the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute (NBRTI) 14 years ago to offer research and expertise in all areas of BRT and help bring it along. With the help of the Federal Transit Association (FTA), we have come a long way. While we are very proud of that, we still see a long history ahead. We would like to see more attention and work given to the land use issues associated with BRT. We still hear that argument out there when it comes to rail trains vs. BRT buses — even though a sound, permanent BRT system can operate as well as a light rail system. We have research and examples, such as Cleveland Health, that show this. We need to do all we can get that word out there.

Tom Waldron: HDR is currently involved with the environmental, preliminary and final design aspects of the Cleveland Avenue BRT project for COTA in Columbus, OH, and has helped other agencies and cities in North America assess their BRT options relative to their overall transit needs.

Our company touches on all modes and considers transportation as the “oil that keeps the economic engine from seizing.”

A robust group of BRT specialists convened for BUSRide’s roundtable at the APTA EXPO, including (left to right) Michael Allegra of UTA, René Allen of Nova Bus and Cliff Henke of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

A robust group of BRT specialists convened for BUSRide’s roundtable at the APTA EXPO, including (left to right) Michael Allegra of UTA, René Allen of Nova Bus and Cliff Henke of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

While BRT is an affordable public transportation solution, I think the stakeholders involved in analyzing alternatives need to consider BRT in the context of the ultimate goal of a transit system. For instance, BRT is an interim step to a longer-term agenda that could evolve into light rail transit (LRT). A good example is the Silver Line in Boston, which is currently BRT, but designed to allow conversion to LRT at a future date should market demand and passenger volume warrant it.

Paul Smith: I, of course, speak to BRT from the perspective of a transit bus OEM. New Flyer has been involved with various BRT projects over the years. I think what we continually try to do is to understand and clarify our role in providing bus products for the different types of bus transit services. As we continue to move down this path, the point extremely clear to us is that we still do not have consensus on what the BRT-specific product should be.

I think APTA has certainly made a significant effort in trying to get us that clarity. But, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Some of us, I know, are working on projects that we can hopefully deploy once we get that consensus.

Hunter Harvath: Over the last two and one-half years, Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST) built a $7 million mixed-flow BRT system we named JAZZ in partnership with the Monterey Jazz Festival that is now operational. So far it is very successful with a lot of community support.

As to where BRT is heading in the near future, I am beginning to see a sea change from our elected officials— our policy makers are realizing not every transit solution has to be light rail. For the last 10 years we have been telling them about the significant cost savings associated with BRT and they are finally starting to get it. In fact, our elected officials have now turned over a rail right of way to MST for the development of a fixed BRT guideway. They finally saw we could design, build and deliver, and are now willing to embrace BRT — even though BRT is not quite as sexy as rail projects appear.

Michael Allegra: I have been essentially involved with the development of Utah Transit Authority since its inception for more than 35 years. Over that time, we have seen tremendous growth and we expect this will continue. We have developed a unified statewide transportation plan in which about 35 percent of regional resources are allocated to transit. When I first came to Utah, that number was 5 percent.

It really doesn’t matter to us if it is steel wheel or rubber tire. At the end of the day, it is less about the mode and more about meeting the needs of the community.

In what is about an $11 billion plan, we see 200 miles of BRT as our future. We have consumed all the railroad rights of way that we bought and built them in record-breaking time. We expect the same from our BRT program. We have a couple of systems in play right now and see BRT as a high growth mode.

René Allen: Volvo, our parent company, is very much involved everywhere in the world and provides us very good internal information, insights and know-how. I have been working in BRT with Nova Bus for some time, providing buses for different programs including York, Ontario.

We think some very important progress has taken place in North America as more cities have urged BRT projects to transport people faster — from full-fledged systems to mixed use. Some BRT systems such as York customize heavily, while others keep their vehicles and design very simple. Our role as the bus manufacturer is to offer flexibility for the customer to customize as needed and still ensure high capacity on the system they choose to design and operate.

Cliff Henke: With projects going on worldwide and in the U.S., Parsons Brinkerhoff most recently worked on the build-out of a division in the City of Los Angeles BRT network. METRO Rapid is looking at an additional eight corridors for further development.

To say what is next for BRT in America, it may help to step back a bit. I think BRT follows the history of light rail, which started with an initial definitional phase and was then followed by skepticism of its range of applications; and followed now by acceptance as an option on par with other modes.

I see BRT continuing to grow with a gamut of options similar to light rail. Of course, rapid growth does not come without challenges. However, I think BRT is in a better position than the other modes to cope with the fiscal pressures Michael mentioned, as well as demand for transit in the future.

David Miller: Siemens Mobility, Austin, TX, manufactures the traffic control and signal priority systems required for BRT. Our products currently control over 150,000 intersections across the globe for all types of vehicles, from automobiles to emergency and service vehicles including transit buses. From Siemens’ standpoint, BRT is no longer a technical problem. The necessary equipment is available off the shelf.

As for the future, with the newest technology readily available, the challenge is funding; not so much lack of funding, but the sharing of funding. Having the buses run in the streets involves funds from city agencies, federal highway funds and transit research funding, which can become political where everyone has to work together to figure out what they want, what is necessary and what they must do to achieve it, measure it and work toward that goal. Sharing funding and resources all leads to benefits.

Graham Carey: I am currently working on CTfastrak in Connecticut. While, I think there are some very good BRT projects out there, my sense at the moment is that we are stuck in a rut. We basically have allowed BRT to be defined as an inexpensive alternative to light rail. It has become this formulated product almost like a cooking recipe. Take one tablespoon of signal priority and add shelters, plus a dollop of branding. Stir well and we have a BRT product. Everybody is following this formula, which I think is getting in the way of BRT actually achieving its true potential, and being able to adapt to the larger urban problems we see out there. I don’t mean to be negative, but I think it is just turning into an alternative to LRT rather that coming into something of its own.

John Birtwistle: I am involved with BRT in the UK, but also in the states; particularly in Austin, TX, which has started operating its second BRT line.

I take a slightly different view. I see BRT as a solution in itself and not an alternative. It is a menu, as we have mentioned, but not something an agency takes off the shelf to apply as is. As for BRT in North America moving forward, it requires what I call the Four Ps.

Policy has to promote public transportation as an important component in sustainable development; and BRT is an ideal means of achieving that.

A BRT system must have priority to operate efficiently without delay in heavy traffic. Its success lies in achieving consistent journey times.

BRT must exemplify permanence equal to a train system. I would say if BRT is designed and influenced in the right way, it is as permanent as light rail.

It takes the public and private sectors working together in partnerships to deliver affordable BRT projects. The risk and reward in a partnership to make BRT a viable solution is the same for both parties. The BRT concept needs promotion to the public, which, rather than just another bus line, must be something much different than for the local bus service. We are trying to attract new users to public transport, and in many cases these are people who wouldn’t even contemplate using the bus service.

Michael Myers: As with transportation overall, the Rockefeller Foundation  views BRT as important to economic vitality and inclusive economic growth.  It connects people to opportunities, such as jobs, schools and services of every kind.  BRT is a real game changer for transportation in American cities. In many respects, the United States is already behind the many cities worldwide that have implemented BRT systems. As the era of massive systems such as subways may have passed for many U.S. cities, BRT becomes an affordable, efficient and flexible way of providing many of the benefits of subways at a much lower cost. This is why the Rockefeller Foundation is pushing ahead and promoting BRT as an important option for city transit systems in the United States for the future.

Bill McFarland: As BRT gains attention with more upscale urban commuters, the appeal of onboard wireless and real-time passenger information become imperative.

What we see for the future of public transportation systems is far more automation, with the systems becoming even more complex —to help with decisions by alerting changes and potential problems to both the passengers and the controllers who ensure the systems all run smoothly and on time.

The easier we can make the controllers’ job when situations get out of hand, the better. That includes everything from automating detour and service changes to route messaging; all to keep the rider informed.

P. Christopher Zegras: On a global scale, I would say BRT is still relatively nascent in North America. There has definitely been a rhetorical explosion in recent years and North America has some long-standing precedents in BRT; quite pioneering in fact, considering earlier experiences in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., but those are mostly piecemeal from a generation ago.

I would say, looking at the number of BRT projects in North America and the relative quality of those projects, BRT in this part of the world is still in its infancy. We have a long way to go. I do not believe BRT is the panacea to our urban mobility challenges, but it has an important role to play.

That said, I think we have a great opportunity. The characteristics of our cities allow us to relatively easily implement BRT, drawing from a plethora of experiences from around the world. The U.S. is a little behind, but the benefit to playing catch-up to what other countries have done is that we have a great number of successes and failures we can learn from.
Check back next month for more of this in-depth discussion.

Posted by on Dec 20 2014. Filed under Features. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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