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Myth vs. Reality: Has Ottawa "BRT" Provided Light Rail-Type Service at Much Lower Cost?

Commentary by Edson L. Tennyson, P.E. • May 2003


Ottawa, Ontario's Transitway (busway) shows that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can provide rail rapid transit levels of service at much lower cost than light rail transit (LRT) or other rail transit.


Ottawa's busway has been hailed as a model for so-called "BRT" in North America, often called "LRT on rubber tires" by promoters, who have positioned it as a less costly substitute for LRT. However, from the outset, the system has been beset with serious problems, and the magnitude of the cost "savings" is highly dubious.

For example, the busway system has consistently been limited by the capacity of downtown streets to absorb the high volumes of bus traffic resulting from attempting to carry large numbers of passengers with relatively lower-capacity vehicles. Bus traffic at this density may actually work against quality urban development. Furthermore, lacking adequate station facilities, Transitway passengers crowd on sidewalks, impeding pedestrian movement and blocking store entrances.

Obviously, totally reliance on buses for public transport – even if they can handle high volumes of passengers – can have serious drawbacks. But Ottawa's "BRT" has not just brought mounting problems for Ottawa's downtown. Compared with previous ridership levels before the busway, the transit system lost a million passenger-trips per year. in contrast, most new light rail transit LRT systems have established a record of gaining passengers (by about fifty percent on average). [See, for example, Light Rail's Besieged With Riders! This is a Problem? on this website.]

Did installation of the busway, rather than LRT, produce major cost savings? By 1996, the Ottawa Transitway had cost $440 million Canadian, or about $330 million in US dollars, equal to about US$376 million in 2000 dollars. [See the article on this website, Ottawa's BRT "Transitway": Modern Miracle or Mega-Mirage?] For roughly twenty miles (about 16 miles of new busway construction, plus reserved lanes and other facilities), that is approximately US$19 million per mile without adequate downtown station facilities or segregated guideways, or including the cost of the extra buses, storage lots, garages, etc. required for the Transitway system.

In contrast, LRT projects for Denver, Portland (service to the Portland Airport), Salt Lake City, and East Saint Louis – 46 miles in all – were all completed about 2000 at an average total cost of $23 million per mile (in that year), which does include downtown stations and other facilities (to handle passengers adequately), as well as the fleet of cars, storage yards, and shops.

Factor in LRT's lower operating costs per passenger-mile and potentially higher fare revenue, plus the longer life of electric rail vehicles, and Ottawa's "BRT" Transitway begins to seem much less the bargain it has been portrayed to be.

Edson L. Tennyson, P.E., is a transportation consultant and former deputy secretary of transportation for the State of Pennsylvania. Ottawa Transitway photos: D. Williams.

Updated 2005/11/10

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