Light Rail Now! - The Track to Better Urban Livability
Home Button Features Button News Button Events Button Facts Button Myths Button About Us Button Contact Us button Links Button Search

Related Links

The Light Rail Now Project can be contacted at:

Light Rail Now!

"BRT" - You Can Build it ... But Will They Come?

Light Rail Progress – Updated December 2002

Proponents of "BRT" (so-called "Bus Rapid Transit"), including the US Federal Transit Administration, assume that, service characteristics (like access time, total travel time, and cost) being equal, the ability of "BRT" service to attract riders is equivalent to that of LRT (light rail transit). Accordingly, the FTA mandates that in ridership forecasting models – such as those commonly used in Major investment Studies for federally funded new starts – bus and rail modes must be treated as virtually indistinguishable to passengers. in fact, speculative ridership models sometimes assign higher trip projections to a "BRT" system alternative, on the basis of input assumptions of supposed bus "flexibility", such as neighborhood access, "seamless", transfer-free trips, express services leapfrogging around local services, etc.

But do these theoretical projections jibe with reality? The empirical evidence would appear to suggest otherwise.

Recent experience with new LRT starts, in comparison with new "BRT" starts, certainly does not suggest that the two modes are equally attractive. More and more, new LRT systems (as in Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, St. Louis) are finding themselves flooded – overhwelmed, in some cases – with passengers. (See "Light Rail's Besieged With Riders! This is a Problem?" and "Light Rail's Stunning Track Record in Meeting – and Exceeding – Ridership Projections".) But where are the crowds besieging the latest "BRT" installations – like Pittsburgh's West Busway and Los Angeles's Harbor Transitway?

An historical review of major "BRT" experiences in North America – particularly in comparison with rail transit – provides some anecdotal indications of both the relative passenger-attractiveness of the two modes as well as other operating characteristics. While these cases are not presented as conclusive "scientific" evidence, at the very least they suggest a pattern which planners and decisionmakers would do well to consider.

• 1967 – in suburban Philadelphia, the conversion of the Ardmore electric trolley (LRT) line to a busway resulted in a 15 percent loss of ridership and an increase in operations and maintenance (O&M) costs (due to the need for more buses to carry fewer people).
[Source: Red Arrow; SEPTA; analysis by EL Tennyson, PE]

• 1970-1996 – in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, the Shirley Busway was deemed a great success upon its opening in 1970. The pre-existing Route 18 was expanded from three trips per day (without subsidy) to approximately thirty trips with subsidy – yielding a substantial increase in ridership. However, with long gaps between buses, political pressure grew to convert the busway into an HOV lane, opening it up for use by automobiles. Ridership peaked in 1980-81 during the second energy crisis. Subsequently it declined 67% as costs increased sharply. At the same time, transit ridership in the National Capital area ballooned from 135 million per year to 270 million, mainly because of the introduction of the MetroRail system. in 1996, ridership on the Route 18 Shirley Busway buses had plunged to 2,350 weekday rider-trips. As MetroRail service was introduced to the Route 18 territory (Springfield, Va), bus ridership dropped further to 1,650 per day; however, MetroRail patronage in Springfield soared to 13,000, even though bus fares were lower than rail and travel time was approximately equal. Furthermore, the operating cost of rail transit was far less per passenger.
[Source: WMATA and NCRTPB data; analysis by EL Tennyson, PE]

• 1973 – The El Monte Busway in suburban Los Angeles, installed on a former interurban railway alignment in the median of I-10, has been moderately successful, peaking with a ridership of about 30,000 per day. However, influential planners, highway engineers, and political leaders, perceiving unused capacity between the buses, in the 1980s opened the facility up to use by car pools. With the buses now delayed by "HOV" automobile traffic, ridership has dropped to about 20,000, a reduction of 33 percent. Meanwhile, a commuter rail line constructed by California down the middle of the "BRT" alignment, implemented to speed person-movement in the corridor, has been quite successful - consistently gaining ridership.
[Source: LACMTA data]

• 1978 – Pittsburgh's South Busway, projected to carry 35,000 weekday rider-trips, actually attracted only 20,000 rider-trips initially, and that level has now dropped to about 14,500, less than pre-busway ridership in the affected corridor. Meanwhile, a parallel LRT upgrade has attracted approximately fifty percent more passengers.
[Source: Port Authority Transit data]

• 1983 – Pittsburgh's East Busway originally projected 80,000 weekday rider-trips, but the actual service initially attracted only about 30,000. The system lost 25 percent of bus riders as the busways developed.
[Source: Port Authority Transit data]

• 1986-2002 – Ottawa, despite vigorous busway development, has lost over ten percent of its transit system riders despite the $450 million "BRT" investment. Fares initially were raised over $2.00, but have since been reduced in an effort to gain riders – but at the cost of a significant loss of revenue.
[Source: OC Transpo data; analysis by EL Tennyson, PE]

• 1997-2000 – Los Angeles's Harbor Transitway, with busway stations, cost approximately $500 million for ten miles of route. Originally projected to attract 63,000 weekday rider-trips, the service has actually attracted only about 5,000. The roughly parallel Blue Line LRT service, miles to the east, recently reached a ridership level of 70,000 per day. in terms of cost-effectiveness, the "BRT" has been virtually an economic disaster. The transit agency and political leaders have been trying to bolster ridership by cutting the "BRT" fare in half and adding service, but to date there has been no clear improvement. Meanwhile, bus load factors appear to be significantly lower than those of LRT; the average bus in LA has 15 passengers averaged over the length of its run, compared to 38 for LRT.
[Source: LACMTA data]

• 1999-2000 – Pittsburgh's West Busway, with a capital cost of approximately $55 million per mile, was originally projected to attract 50,000 weekday rider-trips. However, initial ridership of only 5,400 has grown modestly to 9,000 (18% of projections),as repairs to a parallel bridge in the corridor have delayed motor vehicle traffic and given a temporary ostensible advantage to the busway. It is debatable whether this level of ridership will be maintained after bridge repairs are completed, and traffic delays are thus eliminated. Taken as a whole, Pittsburgh's three busways were forecast to attract 165,000 weekday rider-trips. in reality, only 55,000 daily rider-trips have actually materialized some 25 years from the opening of the first busway there.
[Source: Port Authority Transit data; analysis by EL Tennyson, PE]

• 2000-2002 – Los Angeles's Wilshire and Ventura Metro Rapid Bus services, while operating in mixed traffic and not in busways, have nevertheless been frequently and widely cited as examples of "BRT" success, largely on the basis of an increase in bus ridership in the affected corridors. The new "BRT" services offer about 25% faster service (now averaging about 15 mph) by much wider spacing of stations (0.85 mile), modification of traffic signals to extend green time for buses, and consolidation of routes to eliminate transfers. in addition, new, lowfloor CNG buses and modern, attractive stations have been introduced. However, many questions remain as to exactly how much of the apparent increase in corridor ridership is attributable to the "BRT" improvements, and how much to normal traffic increase for the local bus services. With an initial 80,000 riders per day, the Wilshire corridor already had one of the highest bus riderships in the world, which is said to have now increased to 90,000, or about 13% (compared with 18,000 in the Ventura corridor). Furthermore, both the Wilshire and Ventura "BRT" routes were opened concomitantly with the new Red Line metro rail subway extension, and serve as feeders to it, thus clouding the picture as to how much new patronage is actually due to the "BRT" attributes. in contrast, LA's Blue Line LRT has recently exceeded 70,000 boardings per day, although, when planned, it was estimated to peak at 50,000.
[Source: LACMTA and FTA data; anaylsis by EL Tennyson]

Altogether, analysis has shown that, for new starts installed in corridors serving the core areas of US cities, "BRT" busways have attracted only one-third of the rider-trips estimated for them by FTA-approved modelling. LRT has attracted 122 percent. The palpable effect of this is that, on most new LRT systems, parking lots are jammed, and riders are crowding on trains; in contrast, typical new "BRT" systems may experience modest increases in ridership, but certainly not the avalanche of passengers seen on LRT.

in an article describing how Denver's new LRT extension was overwhelmed with passengers, a Denver Business Journal reporter assured readers that "Packed light-rail cars, overflowing parking lots and passengers left behind on station platforms aren't unique to the Regional Transportation District's new Southwest light-rail line." On the contrary, "They are scenes repeated around the country as people flock to new rail transit lines in numbers far beyond initial projections."
[Source: Denver Business Journal 26 January 2001]

Does this suggest a pattern? Certainly, what it does suggest, in light of experience with both LRT and so-called "BRT", is that theory-based ridership forecasting models, approved by an FTA promoting "BRT", may not tell planners, decisionmakers, and the public the whole story.

For information and analysis used in this report, Light Rail Progress particularly wishes to express appreciation to Ed Tennyson, PE. Photo of Denver LRT by Jon Bell.

Updated 2005/11/10

More on "Bus Rapid Transit"


All website material © 2000-2007 Light Rail Now Project (unless otherwise indicated)