BRT in America: It takes a village

By David Hubbard

The benefits of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) need little explaining. Many transit authorities throughout the U.S. have adapted the BRT concept for its capability to emulate light-rail transit, choosing transit buses for their flexibility and economy to deliver fast, adaptable, cost-effective and comfortable urban transport. Approximately 25 cities throughout the United States are currently operating BRT systems, seven are currently implementing BRT and more are under consideration.

No two BRT systems are alike. Each one requires a mix of characteristics uniquely suited to the individual communities it serves. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) determined that for BRT in the United States to succeed, it would set minimal, flexible standards specific to BRT systems and allow the municipalities to decide on the best fit for their needs. To qualify as a BRT system separate from conventional transit, the FTA mandates these features:

  • BRT infrastructure through dedicated corridors with segregated right of way.
  • Transit stations with level platform boarding
  • Specially branded transit buses upgraded for comfort on longer routes
  • Transit buses with multiple doors for efficient boarding and egress
  • ITS tracking technology that monitors vehicle locations, and control departures and arrivals

While working definitions of BRT vary slightly from one organization to another, the qualifications the FTA prescribes for federal funding carry the most clout.

The business of BRT
Less understood is why and how a BRT system actually comes to fruition, as well as the players who connect all the dots in the process. The Rockefeller Foundation funded an intensive workshop in 2012 at Duke University, Durham, NC, with the intent to form an assertive business constituency to promote and support BRT, similar to the advocates for light rail and high-speed rail develo

Veolia Transportation operates the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) Bus Rapid Transit for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, which currently runs between the Downtown Transportation Center and North Las Vegas.
Veolia Transportation operates the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) Bus Rapid Transit for the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, which currently runs between the Downtown Transportation Center and North Las Vegas.

pment. The aim was to bring together transportation specialists actively participating in BRT projects in the United States for a day of intense discussion.

Hosted by the Center for Globalization, Governance and Competitiveness (CGGC), the attendees explored this question: How can the many firms and full service professionals that provide the planning, engineering and design, construction, financing, vehicles and operations meld as an industry to further promote BRT?

From the work sessions, the CGGC was able to present one of the most comprehensive overviews to date of the business of BRT in the United States. The subsequent study, 10 high-quality BRT features and the firms that provide them, ( stresses the necessity to understand the scope of the business community that ultimately provides the planning, design and engineering, vehicles and equipment, and technology necessary to implement and operate a BRT system.

Its findings identified no less than 390 corporations, firms and full service professionals that serve transit authorities and transportation markets relevant to the planning, construction and implementation of BRT systems.

“It is important than ever we map out the roles, identify the key players and find the leverage points that can move an industry forward,” said Marcy Lowe, then senior research analyst at CGGC, who now leads her own private consulting firm, Datu Research, Durham, NC. “BRT is the perfect example of a little understood industry that comes more into focus by creating a clearer picture of the many areas of business involved in the process.”

BUSRide digs into BRT
Following the Duke University workshop, the World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C., developed a global database of these professional firms and businesses, half of which have already provided products and services to existing BRT projects or specifically address BRT (

The CGGC study categorized these firms in one or more of six distinct developmental phases according to their role, activity and service in a project.

Through this next year, BUSRide will trace the many steps in the interconnected segments that separate fully-functioning BRT systems from conventional transit, and introduce the firms, professionals and suppliers at work in each segment of the planning, development, implementation and management of BRT systems.

The six BRT segments

Planning cuts across every phase of the BRT process, from the first proposal, initial studies, engineering and design, construction to long-term operations.
The planning phase encompasses the largest and most diverse assortment of national and global full-service professional firms that provide a broad suite of services. They include project management, architecture and engineering, large-scale construction, funding and financial consulting, and legal and government affairs.

Transit authorities are finding the funding requirements for BRT projects both lenient and flexible enough to custom fit features that are most practical for their community needs in terms of budget, location and geography. Most of the funding for BRT projects come from governmental programs that provide matching state and local funds generated through a host of services that may include general funds, sales and gas taxes, property taxes, fees and assessments.

Where a BRT project must meet specific criteria that distinguish the system from a conventional transit bus operation, FTA Small Starts and Very Small Starts make it easier for transit authorities to implement less costly BRT projects.

Some projects draw from a variety of funding options and mechanisms available to municipalities. Naming rights are another innovative tack to generate revenue. Fees for the rights to emblazon a corporate identity on a local transportation project worked well for the Cleveland Healthline BRT system.

With the plan in place, construction begins on the infrastructure and operating system according to the final design. This phase encompasses initial right-of-way acquisition, utility relocation, BRT corridors and lanes, and boarding platforms and stations that include shelters, lighting and parking facilities.

Construction contractors include heavy contractors, electrical, environmental, wrecking and excavating, landscaping and material suppliers.

Several project delivery and management models direct the approach to BRT operations. A BRT project presents myriad opportunities for public-private partnerships. Transit agencies and management firms often work together providing management and operations relative to BRT, such as route service, fleet maintenance, marketing, customer service, ITS, and safety and security. For example, RTC of Southern Nevada relies on Veolia Transportation to manage its entire fixed-route services, which includes the BRT system in Las Vegas.

Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) encompass a range of variety technologies to monitor and control the flow of transit systems. Key BRT technologies include real-time arrival signs, next-stop signs on buses, and mobile apps and website tools.

Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) and Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) manages communications, supports incident management and improves on-time performance. Radio networks, wireless, cellular, and other emerging technologies provide the infrastructure to support all ITS for BRT.

Transit Signal Priority (TSP) technology enables automatic signal control system at an intersection to give  priority to transit vehicles.

Smart card technology and fare media for dramatically advancing transit fare collection and faster boarding through more flexible and convenient payment methods.

Transit buses that serve BRT typically feature OEM upgrades and amenities for additional passenger comfort and convenience to support longer routes and faster boarding, as well as distinct branding and graphics to identify and help market the service.  In addition to the rolling stock, the manufacturing segment also includes a wide range of firms that supply the technology, equipment and structures unique to BRT projects.