Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bus Rapid Transit in DC

by Duncan Gromko

BRT in Delhi, India; Source: Flickr
DC Metro officials announced that a Bus Rapid Transit - BRT - system will be launched in Spring of 2014. The transit corridor would connect Crystal City in Arlington with the Potomac Yard in Alexandria. There are also plans to build a similar corridor on Wisconsin Avenue between Western Avenue and the Beltway. And, a study has been done to assess the feasibility of putting in a BRT system on H and I Street corridor in downtown DC. The DC metro area is clearly rethinking its public transportation strategy. (Apologies to non-DC readers for these references; the first two corridors are suburban high-traffic areas, while the last is in the center of downtown DC.)

The crucial part of a BRT system is that it creates dedicated lanes for buses. As you see in the above photo of Delhi, cars are prohibited from entering bus lanes. This improves bus speeds and makes riding the bus a much more attractive option. Instead of buses being slower than driving or taking a taxi, they become the fastest way to get around! These dedicated lanes are only on high density "trunk" corridors; feeder bus routes operate in peripheral zones without dedicated lanes. Essentially, it's an aboveground subway system - at less than 1/10th the price.

A BRT system dramatically changes the calculus for travelers. Would you rather drive to work, watching buses pass you or ride a bus that flies by traffic?

Washington DC has the worst traffic in the nation. Commuters lose an average of 67 hours per year because of congestion (LA is second with 60 hours per year). This translates to an additional 32 gallons per year per commuter wasted. Here is a pretty cool video of traffic modeling for the H and I corridors in downtown DC, where congestion can be horrendous at peak hours (I once sat in a bus in this corridor for ten minutes and traveled half a block; my bus actually moved into the intersection, where it stopped, blocking southbound traffic for four traffic light cycles):

BRT systems have already exploded in developing world cities. Curitiba, Brazil was the first city to implement a BRT system in the 1970s. Since then, there have been similar systems in Bogota, Colombia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Guangzhou, China; Delhi, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and many, many more. These investments have led to measurable impacts; in Bogota, the "Transmilenio" system has reduced greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by 330,000 tons per year. Mitigating climate change by reducing traffic congestion isn't the only benefit; BRT systems also improve air quality, increase mobility for the urban poor, and decrease road deaths.

Here's a great video of how a BRT system works in Guangzhou, China:

Looking at just the direct benefits from a BRT misses the broader impact that reforming transportation systems can have; I recommend David Robert's piece on widgets vs. systems for background on this idea. A city's transportation infrastructure shapes the layout and design of the city (and vice versa). In a walkable city with good public transportation, fewer people will choose to live in the suburbs, there will be less urban sprawl, and fewer people will buy cars. If you compare the per capita greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in different cities, it's evident how transportation investments transforms a city's energy use. The average person in New York City emits 1.365 tons per year from transport, while the average person in Denver emits 6.31 tons per year. That's more than 4.5 times as much!

BRT systems alone aren't going to transform Denver into New York City, but if we make smart urban transportation investments (public transportation, mixed-use zoning codes, high density zoning around transportation hubs, pedestrian friendly spaces) instead of traditional ones (more and bigger roads), we'll end up with cities that are lower-impact, healthier, and just better to live in. 


  1. This is a necessity in this town. We already have dedicated bus lanes that travel through parts of the business district, but there is not enough of them and they are not respected. Why DDOT even bothered putting these in when clearly nobody uses them properly is beyond me. Painting the lanes or putting in curbs as the pictures in your article show would greatly improve the efficiency of the few bus lanes we already have.,-77.023972&spn=0.00157,0.003074&t=m&z=19&layer=c&cbll=38.898309,-77.023973&panoid=99gSDRCTukGNKSrYOjn1ww&cbp=12,180.37,,0,25.69,-77.023972&spn=0.00157,0.003074&t=m&z=19&layer=c&cbll=38.898309,-77.023973&panoid=99gSDRCTukGNKSrYOjn1ww&cbp=12,180.37,,0,25.69

  2. The links are to google maps street view of the lanes not being used properly...meant to put in two separate links, but looks like I messed that up. Here's the other one.,-77.023988&spn=0.001622,0.003074&t=m&layer=c&cbll=38.897177,-77.023989&panoid=4o1axlzI9qFzs19UvwVouA&cbp=12,209.49,,0,29.33&z=19

  3. Man, that first video is basically my daily commute. And yet, without congestion, how would I ever finish a book on my commutes?

    But seriously, they have a great BRT in Bogota. I imagine there is a lot of good research on that one. I wonder though, for at least down town DC, where we would fit it in. As I recall you need very, very wide streets to implement it. I can only think of a couple streets that might qualify.