BRT in America: What’s next? Part 2
By David Hubbard
BUSRide reconvenes 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
What is your best advice, best practices or pitfalls to avoid for transit authorities and municipalities considering a BRT system in their community?
Alan Brick-Turin: We are not going to improve if we continue to do what we are doing. Elected officials must commit to giving up the street for transit and realize cars will never be able move the same number of people as a bus.
Discussion about taking away a lane from general-purpose traffic for transit or BRT, or BRT and HOV lanes, marks a significant change in thinking. When I speak at transit and public meetings, I will say to the audience that the traffic they were in today was the best traffic here they will ever see ever again. It is only getting worse.
Deborah Dagang: It is important for agencies to recognize that cities supportive of BRT are often looking for additional funding opportunities. They may view a BRT project as a form of urban renewal, thinking BRT is great because it is going to bring nice stations and nicer landscaping. All of a sudden, the transit agency is getting pushed to fund projects that it technically cannot call transit; whether it is lighting between the stations or the entire streetscape. I think transit agencies that are used to delivering a product to their customers need to become more integrated with how to work with local jurisdictions to help meet their needs, and how to merge their various funding sources.
Dennis Hinebaugh: More so than any other transit mode, BRT needs its champions. We discovered early on that BRT needs strong local support to move a project forward. Whether they be elected officials, leaders in the business community or advocates out there speaking to the community about the virtues of BRT. Most elected officials, without given comparable alternatives, turn their eyes toward the shiniest and most expensive option, which is invariably light rail. They need outside encouragement to look at the attributes, pros and cons of the specific transit mode itself.
Tom Waldron: I think a region considering any form of transit must first determine what it wants its transportation network to look like, and if BRT is the end-all or an interim step to the ultimate configuration. A transit agency or municipality gets there through well-focused, concentrated planning that involves the stakeholders connected to the program going forward. My advice is to work toward a comprehensive, long-range plan, and be very transparent during its development. It is vitally important that the champions of BRT work with transparency as it will ensure consensus and a broad constituency once BRT survives the planning process as the modal choice.
Hunter Harvath: Running our BRT system through four jurisdictions has been very complex and signaled a weak point we only discovered in the later phase of our project. During our planning and development, we laid out our responsibilities and those for each of the four jurisdictions, and made it crystal clear that each one was to inform MST before doing any type of work or disconnection on the system. Just when we thought we were ironclad, we learned one of the cities did not have enough staff on hand to maintain the signals, so the consulting engineers who were working for the city simply yanked out the controllers and put the old ones back without telling anyone. It took us a several months to realize what had happened.
In another jurisdiction, an IT director decided there was a weakness in the security of the entire computer system that could allow a break-in through the bus and the signal communications system. He simply disconnected all of the signal priority in that city without telling us.
We thought we had bargained in good faith, but came to realize this as a weakness. An agency operating in multiple jurisdictions must have some type of hammer to ensure the buy-in continues after that initial honeymoon phase, once it gets into the day-to-day operations.
Michael Allegra: As my job is to move people, I am actually modal agnostic. My agenda is to make transit the first choice by whatever means, bicycles, carpooling, buses or trains. The community has trusted us to-date to plan appropriate transportation solutions. One example is that our prospective 10-mile BRT line will run from one intermodal center to another, connecting with the commuter rail.
We start with one project using the best off-the-shelf products we can buy — vehicles, signal priority, roadways — with the certainty that the watershed will follow. Starting small is one of the key indicators for obtaining feedback on viability.
Cliff Henke: My best advice for agencies is to thoroughly understand the nature of the project and demonstrate a clear and consistent vision that fits with the bigger picture within their communities and regions. It is critical for agencies to work closely with champions who will see the project through successful end. The consistent support of those champions over the life of the project is very important.
David Miller: The agency must be clear on the problems to solve and decide on a measureable and achievable goal early in the project. Decide at the beginning what it will accomplish and on which corridor. Bring all the stakeholders in to participate in the planning phase to address these questions from every angle and suggest funding sources.
Plan to spend 15 to 20 percent of the effort on system requirements and financial matters to avoid open issues and feature cuts later on. Most likely, a BRT system will be the most cost effective. However, the solution is usually multimodal.
Graham Carey: I think BRT, strictly as a means of transportation, is difficult to sell. The most successful projects I have seen are those that include some form of urban renewal or corridor renewal spearheaded by local champions with a vision.
I think we need to leave the corridor in a better condition than what it was when the project began, and that sometimes means incorporating non-transit improvements aimed at enhancing livability.
John Birtwistle: BRT needs consistency in its image and quality to be successful. It needn’t be extremely expensive to implement, but it must set BRT apart from conventional transit and make people think they want to take the bus, rather than feel they are being forced.
Everyone has a role to play in the success of BRT. They must take pride in the consistent delivery of that service. This is how an agency actually gets people to use the system day in, day out.
P. Christopher Zegras: Do not water down the product. The advantage of BRT, such as speed of delivery at relative low cost, often translate into “Let’s just do this quick and cheap.” Corners start getting cut and before anyone knows, it is just a glorified express service with a painted lane.
Transit must work closely with municipal governments and view BRT as a unique opportunity to enhance public space. That being said, any altered road space will be local and sacrifices are inevitable.
This requires municipalities to show some guts to demonstrate such changes will bring greater benefits. However, creating an environment that will enable BRT to thrive does mean taking a few risks.
Michael Myers: A BRT project requires ongoing conversations and education before anything begins to happen. The planning process must allow a long lead time, as well as the execution.
However, because BRT is simpler than building a massive subway or light rail system, the lead time is considerably shorter.
BRT is almost counter intuitive. Cities that have implemented BRT have discovered that by removing automobile lanes and dedicating them to BRT buses, the overall flow of automobile traffic is even faster.
To our OEMs at the table, what do you say to agencies choosing vehicles exclusively for BRT?
Paul Smith: We are an engineering-intensive industry and styling is at the forefront for all our customers, however difficult it is to define. Quite honestly, our biggest problem is we have is too many engineers out there. I think they have to leave it to the bus manufacturers to listen and come up with the best solution. Far too often we end up with a bus that somewhat fits the style, but there is not enough critical mass to warrant the investment, or to properly test and launch an all-new model.
I will say when we do come up with a style that everybody likes, we will get hardcore BRT users and those with a dream of their BRT project who want a very uniquely styled bus for the service, and we are trying to satisfy both.
René Allen: In some areas, the bus is considered the last choice for transportation, which leads us to think we have to make the bus look like anything but a bus so that people will want to ride it. We certainly can’t give each agency a different bus design. Considering the time to develop bus models, we cannot redesign the bus for every contract. How can we satisfy everybody? We need to get everyone in the room to agree with the desired features and options.
There is an “R” in BRT and the focus should be on rapid service. It’s not as sexy, but let’s start with what we have — buses that can deliver high capacity very efficiently.
How important is branding to a BRT project?
Brick-Turin: Quite frankly, I am uncomfortable with the notion of branding. An agency can call it anything it wants, while the people who use transit are only asking for the bus to get them to their destination safely, quickly and reliably.
Typically, 2 to 5 percent of the population is already sold — if not dependent — on transit. That other 95 percent who otherwise would not ride transit makes branding an important element in capturing their interest and attention. No one is going to force them, so we have to make it enticing; to some extent imitate the mode they might think they really want, such as LRT or subway. Still, it is an uncomfortable tension; branding, to me, does not contribute to the product.
Hinebaugh: Branding is subtle, but as important as it would be to any rail mode. We are trying to brand the BRT for what it is — premium. The name, logo, color and marketing campaigns all need to work together to convey the permanent nature of the service. There has been great success where agencies have branded their BRT similar to rail services. Even with a more conventional bus system, the branding has had a very positive impact on community perception and reception of the system.
Harvath: An agency also wants its projects to be attractive to the people who will probably never use the service so that they don’t look down their noses at transit.
My advice is not to be afraid to reach out to those community pillars that may enjoy the association with a transit project. In our case, MST originally wanted to call our project by our former name, Bay Rapid Transit; not very inspiring, but it would work. However, five years ago Carl Sedoryk and I were in the audience at the Monterey Jazz Festival admiring the stage set when it hit us. Why not just call it JAZZ? Go beyond transit and communicate precisely what our community has to offer. The festival officials were excited to join forces as a natural way to extend their involvement in the community.
Henke: Branding is a strategic issue, as well as a legal requirement in dealings with FTA Small Starts. In branding workshops I tell stakeholders to step back and ask what they are trying to convey to the ridership, what is different about this service? It is a strategic exercise that involves much more than picking a name and a color scheme.
Carey: It may sound like a shocker, but for most people transit isn’t always the pleasant experience we like to think it is. For many, transit is a means to an end. When we are starting to market a new project, I think what we need to focus on the opportunities that transit affords the rider to undertake other activities rather than the trip itself. Promotional images of happy passengers or pretty buses no longer resonant with the traveling public.
Birtwistle: Very few people actually travel on transit for the sake of it. There is risk in thinking we know what is best. We need to make sure we understand the needs of the people who are making the trip for their own reasons. They are not out for a ride on BRT, but for another purpose.
Dagang: During the Ribbon Cutting at Mexican Heritage Plaza, I found it moving to hear the executive director thanking the dity and transit agency for this BRT system, because they had a community with people with mobility issues who had places to go. They actually saw this BRT station in the middle of their community as an improvement in their way of life. This is what we must communicate.