Benefits of reliable transit: How transit agencies and planners should be talking about BRT

Bus Rapid Transit systems are beginning to pop up as quickly as fast-casual restaurants in the greater Washington region. Everywhere you look BRT systems are coming online – Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties, and the City of Alexandria.

And why shouldn’t D.C. be joining the ranks of New York, Chicago, and Barcelona? The region consistently ranks as one of the worst in terms of traffic congestion, so providing new options for travelers makes sense. Metroway, for example, is the region’s first BRT, providing a quicker trip between the Braddock Road Metro station and Crystal City.

But as a transportation planner who has worked on BRT-style systems in the greater Washington region, I’ve noticed a disconnect in the public’s expectations versus the reality of the systems they’re getting. It got me wondering: do people have an accurate picture of what BRT means or the benefits the systems provide?

During public-planning sessions, I’ve heard a lot of feedback on BRT. The gist is, “That’s really nice that the bus is a different color and the station platform is fancy, but I just want it to be on time.” This opinion is supported by industry research. Our own experience conducting surveys at VHB shows travelers place a high priority on the reliability of a person’s trip.

What this feedback tells me is – as transit agencies and planners – we’re not effectively communicating the greatest benefit of BRT: these systems are highly reliable. They largely stay on schedule and show up at their stops consistently on time. This is accomplished through a combination of elements that make up the BRT package: transit-only lanes, off-board fare collection, near-level station platforms, greater stop spacing, and improved operations management.

Why does the message of reliability get lost? In the United States, “BRT” systems don’t always include the full-spectrum of system attributes, making it hard to compare “BRT” systems from one to the next and adding to the public confusion about what BRT is.

Another issue is that media coverage often gives an incomplete summary of BRT. While the media, transit agencies, and planners often focus on the flashiest individual elements that each system provides, the biggest benefit – reliability – gets lost in the details.

By shifting the focus to reliability as the main benefit of BRT, we can better manage expectations effectively. Right now, people enter the discussion thinking they’re getting the Ferrari of the public-transit world – sleek, fast, and shiny. Yet they would leave better educated if they understood they’re really receiving a Toyota Camry – reliable, steady, and sensible.

“But the bus has an image problem!” you might say. “People want sleek, shiny and fast!” you might add. The reality is that no amount of swoopy bus design and new branding is going to convince people, particularly those with other options, that BRT is a more reliable option than a regular bus or a car.

Real-time transit information at BRT stations can make the process of taking the system more reliable and predictable.
Real-time transit information at BRT stations can make the process of taking the system more reliable and predictable.

So how do we effectively communicate BRT while managing expectations? We start the conversation with the public and media by talking about how the improvements we’re proposing will result in reliability, and then show it. Perhaps we don’t even use the term BRT.

For example, instead of talking about the BRT element of off-board fare collection in terms that describe it as a new or improved technology, we should explain that paying the fare at the platform allows people to quickly board the bus without having to dig through their bags for a smartcard. And while each of these transactions only saves seconds per person, added together those seconds can save minutes for a single trip and hours in platform time over the course of a day.

The message of reliability goes beyond the features that set BRT apart from traditional bus service. It’s in the delivery of the service, too. If a delay in construction, for instance, means the beginning of the service will not be fully functional, we need to clearly explain that to the public. The trust customers place in their transit service can easily be lost if the service doesn’t deliver. Rebuilding that trust takes a long time, and can impact public support for other similar projects.

So, to actively promote new transit options, we must start the conversation with reliability and then support our statement with all the fun, flashy new BRT elements that will achieve this goal. We also have to keep communication about reliability in mind when confronted with impacts to the project or schedule. Only then will the public see the systems with realistic – and positive – expectations.

Original post by Mobility Lab.
Photo: Top, riders board the Metroway BRT line in Crystal City, Virginia (BeyondDC, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, An arrival-time screen along the Orange Line BRT in Los Angeles (Matt Johnson, Flickr, Creative Commons).