Rapid Buses for Rapid Transit?

thumbnail_transportationBuses don’t often excite commuters. High-speed rail like the bullet train? Definitely. Cars that autonomously sense and prevent accidents? Absolutely. Even the tried and true bicycle is cool again.

Buses have lacked the glamour of other modes of transportation. However, Bus Rapid Transit systems are giving buses a makeover in a number of cities. What are they, and do they really attract more riders? Today’s WatchBlog helps you get up to speed on Bus Rapid Transit.

The ABCs of BRT

So what makes Bus Rapid Transit different from ordinary buses? BRT systems have several features that are intended to attract riders by making bus travel more like rail travel. As shown in the figure below, these generally include:

  • Dedicated lanes to increase predictability and reduce travel time;
  • Rider amenities in stations or shelters such as weather protection and safety improvements;
  • Vehicles that run on alternative fuels or hybrid technology, can carry many riders, and board quickly;
  • Service that is faster, more reliable, and more frequent than standard buses—similar to rail transit;
  • Efficient fare collection to decrease boarding and travel times;
  • Branding to attract riders; and
  • Intelligent Transportation Systems to give BRT vehicles priority at intersections, helping to keep them on time.

Figure 1: Characteristics of Bus Rapid Transit(Excerpted from GAO-12-811)

BRT in the wild

Transit agencies in U.S. cities began pursuing BRT to deal with tight budgets and meet rising demand for public transportation from increasingly urban, car-free populations.

In 2012, we looked at the 20 BRT projects that had been completed since 2005 to determine which features they included, and how performance, costs, and benefits stacked up.

Some cities take advantage of many features, while others pick and choose for a “BRT-lite” approach. We found elevated stations and ticket machines in Cleveland; dedicated lanes and priority traffic signals in Eugene, Oregon.

The Kansas City, Missouri BRT project reported a 35% travel time savings compared to previous transit service.

At $36 million, median capital costs for the BRT projects we looked at were about 94% cheaper than rail projects, at $576 million. But full lifecycle comparisons don’t yet exist because BRT is still too new.

Transit officials in Cleveland told us that their BRT project attracted development investments of as much as $5 billion. We also found that land values generally rose near BRT projects. However, most officials believed rail had greater potential, and that broader economic conditions seemed to affect development more than BRT projects did.

If you build it, will they ride?

Most of the projects we examined showed higher ridership than their standard-bus predecessors.

Figure 6: Percentage Change in Ridership for BRT Projects after 1 Year of Operation Compared to Previous Transit Service(Excerpted from GAO-12-811)

However, even with those increases, U.S. BRT projects usually carried fewer total riders than rail transit projects and international BRT systems. Project sponsors and other stakeholders attribute this to higher population densities in other countries and riders’ continuing preference for rail.

Although BRT has become more common in the United States, it is still evolving. Further, the outcomes of BRT projects are linked to their chosen features and their city’s infrastructure and economy. Where BRT ultimately goes will depend on cities’ continuing experimentation.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact David Wise at wised@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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