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May 2017

Not your Grandma’s Bus: Making Mass Transit on Wheels Cool Again

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When was the last time you rode a bus to work or school?  Or took it to go out on a Saturday night?  Many residents rely on public transportation in cities and counties each and every day.  But many prefer light rail or subway options compared to taking the bus.  Why do so many dislike climbing aboard the bus?  Are we all suffering from bad childhood memories of bus rides to and from school?  Most likely this is not the case.  More likely than not we shy away from buses due to the fact that riders often suffer the same annoyances as those of us sitting in our cars: the impacts of traffic.  Due to unpredictable conditions, buses simply cannot offer the same consistency in terms of time schedules as their rail competitors.  As a result, commuters choose other options.  Consequently, local governments, seeking to improve public transportation access for their communities, are turning to a tried and tested option that has lately seen a revival: bus rapid transit systems (BRT).

bus photo

So what exactly is bus rapid transit?  These systems tend to include many of the following characteristics:

  • • Dedicated bus lanes for designated “rapid” buses
  • • Alignment of bus lanes along the center or edges of streets in order to remain separate from the regular flow of traffic
  • • More frequent service, but fewer stops than traditional bus routes
  • • Stations/passenger protected platforms separated from sidewalks in order to prevent passengers from blocking pedestrian traffic
  • • Off-vehicle pay stations and/or all-door boarding to increase the ease and speed of passengers entering and exiting vehicles
  • • Platform-level boarding, which not only assists those with disabilities but increases efficiency upon entering and exiting vehicles
  • • Special treatments that prioritize rapid buses over the regular flow of traffic, including light signal coordination and turn prohibition by non-bus vehicles

These major aspects combine to offer cities and counties an exponentially cheaper option for mass transit compared to building light rail or underground systems.  Bus rapid transit seeks to combine the best of the bus and rail transit: flexibility and efficiency.  In order to “sell the bus” to new riders, bus rapid transit systems often look and feel like their rail cousins.  Rapid buses sport specific, bright designs and colors to stand apart from traffic.  Buses are often sleeker in appearance in exterior and interior details.  Rapid bus stations frequently provide real-time tracking so passengers know when the next, or next few, buses are expected to arrive.  Many local governments also opt to purchase electric vehicles for their rapid systems, an efficient upgrade from the standard gas-dependent buses.  Some rapid buses even offer wifi to their customers as an added bonus.

Many local governments also opt to purchase electric vehicles for their rapid systems, an efficient upgrade from the standard gas-dependent buses.

The popularity of bus rapid transit came through in the Voterheads database when we searched for public transportation related terms over the past few months.  During this time, seven local governments from across the country considered new BRT options, improvements to existing bus rapid lines, and the role these systems play in the sustainability of their communities.

• In Fontana, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, the city council held a workshop to discuss the proposed West Valley Connector, a BRT line in the San Bernardino Valley. The line would run for 25 miles between Fontana and Pomona, CA, offering limited stops for faster service.  The line would also provide quick access between the local train station and airport.

• The County Board of Commissioners in Franklin County, OH considered a resolution to enter into an agreement with the Central Ohio Transit Authority and the City of Columbus for a BRT proposal. The new Cleveland Avenue Bus Rapid Transit would extend through Franklin County lands, and thus the board must allow Columbus and the transit authority right of way and construction rights on those lands.  The board voted to pass the resolution, authorizing the cooperative agreement.

• The Kansas City, MO City Council passed a resolution that allows the city to enter into an agreement with the Kansas City Area Transit Authority for a new BRT line. The line will run from the downtown area along a major north-south thoroughfare within the city’s limits.  The city and transit authority plan to coordinate the funding between the two entities, in addition to federal funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).

• The city of Minneapolis, MN approved the final design and layout of improvements to their C Line BRT and the reconstruction of a line along an additional corridor. The approval also included an agreement with nearby Hennepin County, OH which will work with Minneapolis and the port authority to reconstruct roads and intersections to improve service for both of these BRT lines.

• Montgomery County, MD considered and held public hearings on the creation of a new bus rapid transit line. The proposed line would extend from Burtonsville, MD to the outskirts of the Washington, DC metro area in Silver Spring, MD to better connect the county to downtown Washington, DC.  The planned route will be especially helpful to minority and lower income populations along the Route 29 corridor where the new line will be placed.  The hearing on April 18th lasted over two hours, with local residents offering their testimony in support and opposition to the project.  The council is currently taking the points put forward under advisement.

• In Pittsburgh, PA members of the local port authority presented four different options for a new BRT line from the city’s downtown to the neighborhood of Oakland, where the University of Pittsburgh resides. As one of the major thoroughfares in the city, the port authority hopes to provide the rapid transit in order to encourage more citizens to use public transportation, thus reducing the dependence on individual car usage and traffic.  Citizens of Pittsburgh will have the opportunity to weigh in on the different options over the next month.

• Finally, Reno City, NV recently presented the progress made on their 2016 Planning Commission goals. One of the goals included finding ways to offer more pedestrian and bicycle friendly options to the citizens of Reno City, and making those options as safe as possible.  The update of this goal included the benefits to pedestrians and bicyclists of the city’s new East 4th Street BRT line, planned for construction during 2017 through an FTA grant.  The new line will include dedicated bike lanes and accessible, wide sidewalks.

bus photo

Cities and counties throughout the country see value in BRT systems as cheaper, efficient alternatives to light rail systems.  While many voice concerns over whether these systems will provide the outcomes touted in their proposals, the popularity of BRTs as an alternative option for mass transit indicate that we might see more of them throughout the United States in the coming years.  Interested in learning more about different transportation options and developments in your area?  Then be sure to add some transportation related terms to your Voterheads account today!

Links to Voterheads’ events:

• Minneapolis:

• Reno City:

• Franklin County, OH:

• Kansas City, MO:

• Fontana, CA:

• Montgomery County, MD:

• Pittsburgh, PA:

Maria McCollester on EmailMaria McCollester on Linkedin
Maria McCollester
Maria McCollester
Politcal Scientist at Voterheads
Maria is an American government professional and scholar seeking to apply research and writing skills to the development of public policy. She recently received her Ph.D. from Boston College where she's won some seriously cool awards (See her LinkedIn profile).

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Maria is an American government professional and scholar seeking to apply research and writing skills to the development of public policy. She recently received her Ph.D. from Boston College where she's won some seriously cool awards (See her LinkedIn profile).


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