A lot of transit people are skeptical of BRT, with good reason. BRT is often used, quite consciously, by people opposed to transit (or opposed to funding transit with taxpayer money). Under some definitions, BRT can include everything from rubber-tired underground or elevated metro systems such as those in Paris and Montreal to the same ol' bus with a new paint job. Here is a list of BRT characteristics from Wikipedia:
- Bus only, grade-separated (or at-grade exclusive) right-of-way
- Comprehensive Coverage
- Serves a diverse market with high-frequency all day service
- Bus priority / Bus lanes
- Vehicles with Tram-like characteristics
- A specific image with a Brand name
- Off-bus fare collection
- Level boarding
That scale can be abused by unscrupulous people to divide and diffuse support for rail. Often it seems that the agency in question spent a lot more time and money on branding than on anything else. Image is important, but it's not everything.
In particular, the "BRT" pilot project for New York City is particularly disappointing, where each corridor was proposed to get a minor, heterogeneous collection of improvements. The BRT documents have been MIA from the MTA's website for some time now, and my hope is that the whole plan is getting a hard look from people at the DOT, and will emerge much better than before.
So here's my proposal to cut down on the "BRT" bait-and-switch. Let's focus on the word "Rapid." Rapid should mean something, and that something is "fast." Fast may mean different things to different people, but I think for every project, the affected people should agree on how fast is fast, and anything below that is just not Bus Rapid Transit.
There's often no concrete prediction for time improvement (such as a minimum speed, or areduction in trip time). In the absence of a specific number, focus on a specific feature. It may be that there's a corridor out there that could get major increases in speed through level boarding and signal prioritization alone, but the primary factor is right-of-way, and the single most important feature is physical separation of the right-of-way. It's hard to be rapid when you're stuck behind double-parked cars.
So the next time someone says "Bus Rapid Transit" to you, ask them, "How rapid?" If they can't give you a number then say, very sweetly, "Well of course the right-of-way will be physically separated for most of the route, right?" If they can't even promise that, then tell them to come back when they've got the numbers. Otherwise, they can call it Bus Slow Transit and abbreviate it BST, pronounced "bust."