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Discussion of the US General Accounting Office Report "Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise"

Light Rail Transit Association – UK Development Group
January 2004

This commentary is moderately edited and adapted from Discussion Document No. 002, "Mass Transit: Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise", prepared by the UK-based Light Rail Transit Association (LRTA) – UK Development Group in March 2003. As the original report notes, "This document is published to stimulate discussion and does not necessarily represent the views of the LRTA."


This discussion document will deal principally with an attitude change by the US General Accounting Office (GAO), which has sparked widespread controversy and criticism for what many professionals have described as an amalgam of misinformation, factual errors, serious anomalies and, in many instances, questionable data. The GAO report titled "Bus Rapid Transit Shows Promise" (1) was written at the behest of several congressional representatives, some of whom played front-line roles in boosting highway expansion and opposing major transit projects.

It should be noted that much of the data included in the GAO report has been proven to be faulty and must be regarded as highly controversial and not accepted as reliable by a consensus within the transportation planning profession (2).

Analysis of GAO's Report

BRT busEdson L Tennyson, PE presented an analysis of the GAO report to a meeting of the Transportation Research Board Committee A1E12, Light Rail. (3) According to Tennyson's analysis, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has begun to support the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) concept as an alternative to building light rail transit (LRT) systems, and promotes this policy with the slogan "Think Rail, Use Buses". A figure used to suggest that buses can provide equivalent attributes to rail, but at lower cost, is deceptive. An average (BRT) construction cost figure often includes in the performance characteristics the simple marking of street lanes for 12 mph service, in no way rapid transit. The equivalent average given for LRT included subway or tunnel (included in a few systems) but was omitted from the BRT average cost. The costly BRT subway in Seattle for instance was inadvertently omitted from the study.

That relatively few BRT projects were ready for funding was claimed to be because of the newness of the concept, among other reasons. BRT is hardly new, being first known in Newark in 1938. A second known BRT was on the Ardmore route of the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Co, converted from LRT in 1967. Its effect turned out to be an increase in operational costs and a 15% loss of patronage. This result was consistent with transit officials' noting the poor public image of buses. A comparatively recent example of this followed in Northern Virginia when their BRT opened in 1970 and then continued to lose passengers ever since the 1980 energy crisis. Patronage is now down to about 67%.

Poor Results from Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh West BuswayPittsburgh's first BRT was opened in 1977 with an estimated patronage of 32,000 each weekday. The service now averages 14,500. The current West BRT in Pittsburgh (photo at right) was estimated to attract 50,000 weekday passengers but so far has attracted about 6,000 (4). This compares with an independent estimate for rail operation which forecast 20,000 weekday passengers.

Operating Costs

GAO reported the hourly cost on selected bus systems as US $84.72, as against US $161.48 on LRT in the same cities. The capacity figures used were 50 on buses and 110 on LRT. A simple calculation puts a bus passenger cost at US $1.69 per hour as against US $1.47 for an LRT passenger. On a mileage basis, an actual cost for an express bus in Dallas, the only place where the data was segregated out, was given as 46 cents per passenger mile. It is of interest to look a little deeper, at either San Diego or Saint Louis for instance, where the LRT passenger mile cost in 1998 was 18.5 cents. Were these well-performing systems deliberately left out ?

GAO's Fig. 7 is replete with errors (5) and is very much at odds with the FTA's 1998 figures. The cost in Los Angeles per bus hour is not US $56 but US $93.72 and per LRT hour is not US $434 but US $253.94. This goes some way towards invalidating the GAO findings.


One of GAO's findings was that the top capacities of BRT and LRT were quite similar. This though is not borne out by fact with busways averaging about 15,000 per weekday as against 29,000 on LRT. The Blue line to the CBD in Los Angeles carries well over 63,000 and is the reason why "transit officials" told GAO that passengers prefer rail.


Denver LRTGAO's 56 mph BRT speed must be without any stops for passengers. The LRT figure is not unrealistic at 16 mph for slower lines making stops and with the turnaround time at each terminus included, but 20 mph would be better. GAO's speed for LRT in Denver (photo at right) as 11 mph was distorted because this is for the downtown section of the route. Full route speed is 23 mph. The 35 mph bus speed only applies to an isolated freeway section. The entire Green line LRT in Los Angeles averages 35 mph, which includes stops and a daily load of 33,000. Light rail vehicles (LRVs), although having good acceleration, are also good on grades. Bus drivers sometimes have to turn off the air conditioning to climb grades at reasonable speeds, not a problem with electric LRVs.

important Omissions by GAO

Issues the GAO report failed to address adequately include the following:

· Passengers don't respond well to bus flexibility.

· GAO assumes that the BRT title adds incentive to bus use.

· The change from express bus to a stopping bus in Denver more than doubled patronage.

· Poor ridership on Detroit's people mover shows that passengers prefer a park + ride served by LRT.

· For a given mileage, buses have an 80% increase in reported injuries.

· The air quality is improved in CBDs when transportation is with LRVs.

Purple Line Switch Has Caused a Few Surprises

Surprise and concern has been expressed after the Maryland Transportation Secretary's announcement that the proposed Purple Line light rail route is under serious consideration to be a future rapid bus system instead. (6) Described as a Super Street Train, it would supposedly be a cheaper and more mobile alternative to rail and, although there is a history of consumers preferring light rail to traditional buses, "we would like people to keep an open mind".


Leeds guided buswayA discussion document on a topical transit mode would fail in its purpose if it only looked at quality as a function of economy and became totally obsessed with low price, and consequently failed to address the many disadvantages of an economy-based decision. A transit system with low passenger appeal contributes little towards solving a mobility and traffic congestion problem. This has recently been dramatically demonstrated in Leeds where, despite two new guided bus corridors (photo at right), the city is about to install a Supertram system.


1. "Light Rail Now" has produced a report – GAO's "BRT" Report: Errors, Anomalies, Misinformation – with a sub-heading "Light Rail Progress - December 2002"
The GAO report
was dated September 2001.

2. Light Rail Progress – page 2. (see above for details)

3. Presented to a meeting of the Transportation Research Board Committee A1E12, Light Rail, in January 2002 by Edson L Tennyson, PE, Transportation Consultant and former Deputy Secretary of Transportation for the State of Pennsylvania.

4. Light Rail Progress – page 4. (see reference 1 for details)

5. Light Rail Progress – page 5. (see reference 1 for details)

6. Michael H Cottman – Washington Post Staff Writer - Washington Post, page B02 – Friday, 7th March 2003.

(Originally produced by F. A. Andrews – for the LRTA Development Group – March 2003)

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2004/01/06

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