Boston is at a Crossroads. Can Bus Rapid Transit Work Here?

By Mary Skelton Roberts

Mary Skelton Roberts is a Senior Program Officer for Climate at the Barr Foundation, where she focuses on transportation and land use. Mary has a Master’s in City Planning with concentrations in consensus building and environmental policy and planning from MIT.

This past winter, the worst snowstorms in Boston’s recorded history hammered the city, crippling our transportation system for weeks, and driving home what many of us knew on some level about Boston transit—the status quo is not an option.

The winter underscored the fact that much of our public transit, as proud of it as we are, is woefully outdated, overloaded, and in need of billions of dollars worth of backlogged repairs. Add the fact that Boston is experiencing record growth, and it’s clear we need to do better.

Back in late 2012, the Barr Foundation first convened a study group of diverse stakeholders from across Greater Boston to examine bus rapid transit (BRT) as a possible solution for the city, motivated by these issues and the need to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the so-called “snowmageddon” of 2015 punctuated just how important this moment is for the city.

So when the study group released a final report on its findings this month, we were excited to share that they found BRT holds significant potential for modernizing transit in the city and surrounding region.

The group’s analysis, with technical support from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, found that BRT—a form of rapid transit marked by physically separated lanes, off-board payment, and enclosed stations—not only could work in Boston, it could cut travel times, relieve congestion, and improve rider experience.

BRT is not a silver bullet for Boston’s problems, nor will it be for most cities. But we’re encouraging communities here to pursue it, and we think some of the lessons from the process will be useful for other cities. Here’s some of what we learned:

BRT is more than skeptics perceive it to be

Bus Rapid Transit is becoming more common globally, with ITDP finding that BRT has nearly quadrupled in the past 10 years. But this is less the case in the United States, where the corridors we do have tend to be less advanced than the best in Latin America, Europe, and Asia.

As a result, members of the public, even city officials, have a limited understanding of BRT’s potential. In meetings with stakeholders, I’ve often come across people who think of BRT as painted bus lanes or conventional service with modest improvements. Sadly, buses also carry a stigma in this country as a lesser transit option, and BRT gets lumped into that prejudice.

As part of the study group’s analysis, we made a trip to Mexico City in 2013 to tour its Metrobus system, which has revolutionized public transit in the metropolis of 9 million. Seeing well-executed BRT in person is sort of a surreal experience. Physically separated transit lanes carve through busy streets, and level boarding platforms, enclosed stations, and prepaid fare vastly improve waiting and boarding. We also saw how the Metrobus system seamlessly integrates with pedestrian walkways and bike lanes, even using the same payment method for its bikeshare system.

This collection of seemingly small features combine to create a beautiful experience, which led the Boston study group to embrace the BRT Standard, a bronze-silver-gold rating system used internationally to assess the quality of BRT corridors. One of the pitfalls of BRT is how easy it is to plan a corridor and have it turn out like “just another bus,” fueling skepticism.

In our report, we strongly encourage using this standard to ensure future BRT projects don’t backslide on what they promise.

BRT can work here, even in a crazy city like Boston

One of the biggest challenges for us, and sources of skepticism we worked through during the study period, is Boston’s one-of-a-kind cityscape. Boston is very small and compact compared to Mexico City and other places well known for their vast BRT systems. Our city streets, especially downtown, often make up a tangle of narrow pathways.

We also have some rocky history with BRT projects, including one that only partially succeeded as BRT, and another that fell through in the planning stages. But when the Barr Foundation set out to assess BRT for Boston, nobody had ever taken a citywide look at whether and where it might even be a good option for us.

We found more potential than we anticipated. Working with ITDP to compare ridership data, congestion, wait times, and future growth, we found 12 potential corridors, then narrowed down to five, that could benefit from Gold Standard BRT. The process went so far as to draft how the vehicles and stations might fit into existing roads and neighborhoods.

BRT could cut trip times here by as much as 45 percent. It could also serve a diverse cross-section of Greater Boston, including developing university and medical areas, burgeoning housing developments, and lower-wealth communities looking to spur economic development.

Other U.S. cities are steadily coming to similar conclusions, as one by one they recognize potential benefits. Varied cities such as Los Angeles, Eugene, OR, and Las Vegas have improved transit for their residents. The stateside poster child has been Cleveland, which leveraged its HealthLine BRT corridor into $6 billion in private investment.

Communities need to make courageous choices for BRT to succeed

Over the course of this process, the study group, myself included, developed a real enthusiasm for the possibility of BRT in Boston. But none of us are naive about what is required to make it work, especially at a high standard.

There would be hard fought tradeoffs. Some of the scenarios in our analysis involve devoting narrow stretches of road entirely to BRT and pedestrian traffic. Often, corridors would absorb a lane or two of car traffic, or on-street parking, a precious commodity here.

Such sacrifices require a strong vision, and a community that values smart development, reduced GHG emissions, and a de-emphasis on car travel.

I’ve come to believe the benefits outweigh the sacrifices. But a major take-home point of this analysis is that the communities involved need to drive these decisions. A past effort at a BRT corridor in Boston failed to materialize, largely because the community felt officials foisted it upon them.

Given past skepticism around BRT and neighborhood cultural and political dynamics, we recognize that success is entirely dependent on whether a community demands the service and is willing to make the tradeoffs.

It’s time to give BRT equal footing alongside rail

With a substantial body of data about its advantages and feasibility, it’s time to stop thinking of BRT as a second-tier mode of transit.

The fact that BRT generally costs much less than light rail is clear, with ITDP’s analysis finding that in the United States, it can be up to seven times less expensive. But that doesn’t mean it’s “transit on the cheap.” BRT can be comparable in speed and capacity to light rail. And we’ve witnessed BRT corridors where cost savings were invested in superior infrastructure, rider experience, design, and interactive features.

There’s also a flexibility and resilience that adding BRT to a transit system can provide. During the 2015 winter storms, our rail system struggled, with busy lines locking down and sending more cars out into nightmarish street traffic. BRT corridors can be easily plowed and used by multiple bus lines, and even emergency vehicles, providing a pressure release valve during shocks to the system.

But the key to all of this, as the study group and I learned in the past couple of years, is that BRT must be viewed as a component of a multifaceted transportation system.

The last thing we want to come out of this report is a local feud between light rail advocates and bus rapid transit advocates. Instead, we need to be collectively thinking of how to move more people in the fastest, most comfortable, and most exciting way possible, using multiple modes of transit. BRT should be one of them.

BRT is not a cure-all to Boston’s transit woes, nor will it happen overnight. But like so many other cities with aging infrastructures, growing populations, and tight budgets, we’re at a crossroads. It’s time to break out of the old paradigms and take courageous steps that use all the tools at our disposal.

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