The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report about Bus Rapid Transit this month that examined the BRT services that have been implemented in the United States and the effect they have had on transit and economic development. The report fulfilled a request by Senators Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) and Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs that the GAO produce a report on BRT—presumably to improve legislators’ understanding of what BRT is and its benefits.
Most of the report’s findings are not surprising to folks familiar with BRT:
- BRT results in faster travel speeds than local buses
- BRT routes have higher ridership than the routes they replace
- BRT can attract “choice” riders—those with the choice between car and transit
- BRT is less expensive to build than rail and can be implemented gradually
But there were two findings that jumped out as being interesting, especially in the context of VTA’s BRT Program:
BRT can contribute to economic development
By contacting BRT operators, the GAO found three ways in which local officials believe that implementing BRT has led to economic development: attracting private development, attracting grant funding and boosting existing businesses. The report acknowledges the difficulty in pinpointing the reason(s) for increased economic development, but reaches the conclusion that BRT is a contributing factor.
In Cleveland, Ohio and Eugene, Oregon, local officials cite the addition of BRT as a reason for increased private development in the corridor. In Cleveland, $4-5 billion in worth of investment—most of which has come from nearby hospitals and universities—has occurred in the Euclid Avenue corridor since Healthline BRT began operating. In Eugene, $100 million in construction projects have begun along the EmX BRT corridor since the service debuted.
In Kansas City, Missouri, the opening of the Troost Avenue BRT line has helped the city attract funding for streetscape and transit improvements along the corridor. The city received a $25 million federal grant for urban reinvestment, partly due to the existing BRT infrastructure.
In Los Angeles, BRT lines have been installed in former street car routes or on busy streets that already have concentrated development. While the BRT projects can’t be credited for attracting development, the increased throughput of the corridor is seen as an economic boost to existing businesses.
In evaluating the relationship between economic growth and BRT in other cities, there is good reason to believe that Santa Clara County’s BRT corridors would see similar economic dividends. Cities have already developed land use plans that target new growth in transit corridors like El Camino Real/The Alameda, Santa Clara/Alum Rock and Stevens Creek/San Carlos. The collaborative planning that cities have undertaken through the Grand Boulevard Initiative has well-positioned the El Camino Real/The Alameda corridor to receive grant funding and the addition of BRT should only help. Finally, these corridors are already populated with commercial land uses which would stand to benefit from increased corridor use and pedestrian activity—after all, every BRT rider is a pedestrian at the start and end of their trip.
Few domestic BRT services include full BRT amenities
When we think about BRT, we imagine systems like those in Curitiba or Bogota that feature a full package of BRT amenities that allow the bus to operate like a train. It’s a different story in the United States where most BRT systems fall far short of these systems in terms of amenities. Of the 20 domestic BRT services studied by the GAO, just five have dedicated or semi-dedicated lanes for portions of the corridor. Only 13 had seating or weather protection at stations. Nine featured all-door boarding. Two had median BRT stations.
The report found that even without the full package of BRT amenities, many of these BRT services are doing well in terms of travel time reduction and ridership. While the report is quick to mention that context—such as existing congestion level—is important for evaluating these metrics, there appears to be strong evidence that shows that BRT, even in a minimal form, is capable of reducing transit travel times and increasing ridership. The report finds that transit travel times for most BRT routes decreased between 15 and 30 percent with some of the more sophisticated BRT services seeing increases in first-year ridership in the 50 to 80 percent range. This bodes well for the Santa Clara-Alum Rock and El Camino Real projects as the level of amenities included in these projects are comparable to those of the more sophisticated—and more successful—domestic BRT services. As such, big improvements in transit travel time and ridership are reasonable expectations.