BRT in Austin?

A bus rapid transit for the Capital City

The Statesman calls it a revival, but CapMetro will tell you it never died.  Either way, CapMetro is under the gun to get a good transit system built after the questionable roll-out of the MetroRail commuter line.

The upside to CapMetro’s BRT plan is that it provides a cost-effective service using high-capacity articulated buses and traffic signal priority.  The downside is that they are not planning a dedicated corridor which is the number one way to achieve timely, reliable service.  This means Austin’s BRT will flow with regular traffic and never achieve full-trip times comparable to driving a car.  Mike Dahmus, formerly of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission, shares these thoughts on CapMetro BRT.

Other things worth mentioning about this BRT are that the planned routes include at least two high-density mixed-use developments: The Domain and The Triangle.  However, neither Austin’s most ambitious urban redevelopment, Mueller, nor Austin-Bergstrom International Airport are served by a BRT route.

Side note: I found this clever idea when searching the terms “Austin” “bus” and “transit.”  It uses a destination-oriented bus system and covers the last mile using shared private taxis.

Houstonians should keep a close eye on Austin’s BRT.  The nationwide push for conservative government spending may reduce or end Houston’s light rail expansion.  If that should come to pass, a stellar BRT will be one of the few remaining ways to prevent gridlock as Houston’s population grows over the next three decades.


Posted: Sunday, November 14th, 2010 at 9:50 am
Categories: move
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7 Comments

  1. I don’t really consider this BRT. This or this are real BRT systems. Austin’s system is simply the same old bus with a fancy new name and better marketing. It’s not going to be any more convenient or popular than the regular bus.

  2. I know certain people are going to be clamoring to substitute BRT for Light Rail Transit (LRT) in light of Harris County METRO’s financial problems. But, let’s make one thing clear, and this is an absolute truth, and I challenge anyone to argue contrary to it (and no one will, because they would prove themselves to be ridiculous and stupid).

    Read my lips, all caps: A BUS VEHICLE DEPLOYED WITHOUT A DEDICATED GUIDEWAY IN A HEAVILY TRAFFICKED ENVIRONMENT CAN NEVER, EVER BE CALLED BUS RAPID TRANSIT. If a bus has to fight with the mostly single-occupant vehicles (SOVs) on an open, free facility, then it will always be going as fast or slower than the SOVs. But, the SOVs don’t have to make stops, and they don’t have to make connections, so the bus without a dedicated guideway is made even slower than the SOVs. Therefore, it can never be rapid, unless you consider being faster than walking or faster than SOME bicyclists to be “rapid”, which is just a STUPID definition of rapid (BTW, my bike trips average 12 MPH, which is the METRO peak bus average speed also, so such a bus would not even be rapid compared to me, and I’m going to be 50 years old next year.

    The only way a bus in a heavily trafficked environment can compete with SOVs is that it can zoom ahead of them in a dedicated guideway, compensating for the time penalties imposed by having to stop to pick-up/drop-off, and for passengers’ transfer time penalties. Which also means that passengers need to pre-pay at a station, and they need to walk onto the vehicle using multiple doors, and not have to climb any steps (the BRT stop has to have a platform)… which would all help by making the stop more brief than it otherwise would be.

    Gee, that sounds a lot like light rail… the only difference being that the wheels have rubber tires, and there is no track. And the vehicles are smaller, you need more of them, and therefore you need more human operators, which raises labor costs, which are 80% of METRO’s budget anyway. BRT has lower capital costs, but higher operating costs.

    I’m not going to get into a LRT vs. BRT argument here. That’s not my point. My point is that we should not have people sell us BRT that doesn’t have an “R” in it. If there’s no money for LRT, and somehow our public officials can’t get behind the notion of giving up right-of-way currently devoted to cars and trucks over to a BRT vehicle, then we should probably just do nothing at all, and wait until the traffic gets so bad that it cures the rampant stupidity in this region and a steely-eyed, iron-gloved Traffic Czar executes a coup d’etat over at METRO and H-GAC and decides to implement the BRT with a real “R” in it. Enrique Peñalosa, former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia managed to get a great BRT system up and running in 3 years, start to finish. You’d think you’d hope we’d be able to do the same if we had to.

  3. Martin, Peter, I hear you. I think any transit wonk, aficionado or regular user will agree, too. For those unfamiliar with BRT, Curitiba, Brazil is the prototype (8min video).

    Austin has a history of mis-naming their transit, too. I lived there when the vote for “downtown light rail” was up on the ballot. I voted for it. It passed. And what Austin got was a poorly implemented commuter rail.

    Dedicated guideway is crucial: for LRT, BRT or even the commuter buses in the HOV lane. Yeah, the HOV is not strictly dedicated because any average joe +1 can drive in it; but it’s a step better than the regular highway.

    • Dean,

      I need to listen to that story.

      I don’t doubt that BRT is cheaper than LRT, especially in terms of initial capital costs. I have read though that operational costs are much lower in LRT (which Peter’s post suggests) but I don’t have any hard data on that.

      My concern about the whole BRT v. LRT debate though is that it is often used by opponents of transit who suddenly champion BRT because they see is as (a) a way to under-invest in transit infrastructure; or (b) a way to, pardon the pun, “derail” any attempt to construct and develop an integrated and efficient transit system.

    • A well-informed debate about implementing LRT in a city usually boils down to a matter of cost. Can a city afford to implement a LRT system? Proponents say it will pay for itself by enhancing the mobility of the city’s denizens. Opponents say LRT is a–and I love this term–boondoggle. I feel LRT is a boondoggle in much the same way that Apple is beleaguered; it depends entirely on who’s running the show. My usual reply to the “boondoggle” comment is that the boondoggle quotient is entirely dependent on the quality and experience of the project manager. However, since the USA has so few project managers with LRT experience, it’s hard to get a LRT project done right.

      My personal feelings on BRT are this: due to their lower costs, BRT means more people in a given population would support having a transit system. So there’s a greater chance of a BRT system getting done (and done quickly). After that, I believe you get what you pay for. If you want a cheap transit system, you get a cheap transit system. The big-time real-estate investors are going to prefer cities with a 100-year LRT system than cities with a BRT that could be dissolved after a decade.

      Some people argue that implementing a BRT means you could create an affordable transit system now with dedicated corridors and then use those corridors for LRT when the time comes. However, this means spending *more* money than just a LRT system.

      Houston is big enough and growing rapidly enough that we *need* both BRT and LRT, just not at the same places. We need our current LRT and we need the expansion LRT inside 610. I agree with Mr. Crossley (or was it Mr. Spieler?) that the University line should be the #1 priority for expansion. Then we need BRT in the places LRT doesn’t serve: to connect outlying centers like IAH/Greenspoint and the Energy Corridor and under-served areas like the SW corner of town along Braes Bayou.

  4. Lastly, here is quite possibly the best video I’ve seen on high-speed buses:
    http://www.theonion.com/video/obama-replaces-costly-highspeed-rail-plan-with-hig,18473/

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