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Is this the Best Bus in America?

Light-rail and streetcars are enjoying an American renaissance, but their cousin, the public bus, wasn’t getting any love. Until now.

March 30, 2015

Bus rapid transit lines in Karachi, Pakistan.

That’s right: the much-maligned public bus is finally getting some love. Why? Because this is America.

Indeed, one transit agency has a hunch that a well-designed bus system can not only be just as efficient as light-rail — it can be just as sexy.

This hunch has pushed them to place a big bet on their new bus system. A really big bet, actually: one exceeding half-a-billion dollars. It’s the most expensive project of its kind in American history.

When full service begins today, media, politicians, and transit riders will be lined up to see whether their bet has paid off. We’ll be eagerly awaiting the outcome. Because by the looks of it, they might just have built the best bus system in America.

These are no ordinary buses.
They’re bus rapid transit.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a totally different way to run buses. In reality, BRT operates much like a subway system:

  • You pay before you board
  • Passenger platforms are level with bus doors (no steps to get on)
  • Dedicated lanes mean buses don’t have to deal with traffic

These features allow BRT systems to move passengers much more quickly than typical buses. And, unlike the subway, BRT doesn’t take as long to build, and avoids the costs of digging tunnels and laying down rail.

That’s why Connecticut transit planners picked BRT to be the state’s next rapid transit solution. Celebrating its maiden voyage this week, a new rapid transit corridor called CTfastrak will run between Hartford and New Britain, and hopes to relieve the chronic congestion along highway I-84.

Haven’t heard of bus rapid transit before? You’re not alone. BRT is largely absent from most American cities. For inspiration, CTfastrak had to look to the south.

The deep, deep, deeeeep south.

Bus rapid transit in Curitiba, Brazil.

Like Carnivale and summer grooming trends, bus rapid transit was pioneered in Brazil. The country’s first BRT system was set up in 1974 as a cheaper alternative to a subway — and proved massively successful.

Curitiba was the first city to build a BRT line, and it’s still going strong. Buses run along dedicated lanes, and come as frequently as every 90 seconds. Today, over 85% of travelers in the city use the system — which means Curitiba’s BRT line serves over 2 million passengers every day.

Boarding platforms in Curitiba: no steps needed.

Commute times weren’t the only thing to improve in Curitiba: BRT spurred a boom in urban development along the corridor. Now, tall buildings in Curitiba are only approved if they’re built along the BRT line. Moreover, in the era of BRT, nobody lives more than 400 metres from a bus station.

It was the first system of its kind. Curitiba’s success with BRT lead to it being adopted as an affordable rapid transit solution throughout Latin America and Asia. Even far-flung cities like Johannesburg, Nantes, and Ottawa set up their own BRT systems.

But only a handful of American cities have built BRT lines, and by most measures, CTfastrak will have them beat.

Here’s why CTfastrak is better:

When BRT is built right, it’s essentially a surface subway. But unlike subways, where tunneling, rails, and station caverns are unavoidable — it’s relatively easy to scale back certain BRT elements to cut costs.

That’s why BRT service is often ruined by adding too many stops between stations, eliminating traffic signal priority at intersections, and foregoing off-board fare collection.

But these “savings” are penny-wise and pound-foolish, since without those core elements, bus rapid transit becomes… well… just buses.

That’s why the purported “bus rapid transit” lines in cities like New York and Boston are mocked internationally — they don’t even meet the bare minimum requirements to classify as BRT.

You won’t see those mistakes repeated with CTfastrak.

Photo cred:

CTfastrak busway spans 9.4 miles, with ten stops, eight routes and thirty-one new buses. It will be the longest BRT line in America.

But not only is it the longest BRT in America, it’s also the best-implemented:

This is how CTfastrak stacks up to other BRT lines in the USA (not shown: Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Miami, New York, and several other cities which do not come close to qualifying as true BRT systems).

According to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which evaluates the quality of BRT systems around the world, certain aspects are necessary for a system to classify as true BRT such as:

  1. Dedicated lanes: other vehicles are forbidden from traveling in the bus lanes
  2. Busway alignment: bus lanes are designed to minimize conflicts with other vehicles trying to turn or attempting to access the curb
  3. Off-board fare collection: eliminates payment queues and permits back-door boarding to shorten waiting times at stops
  4. Intersection treatments: methods including traffic signal priority which ensure BRT vehicles spend less time waiting at red lights
  5. Platform-level boarding: allows quicker boarding because passengers don’t need to step up or down to get on or off vehicles

Not only does CTfastrak have these key elements, some of them are better executed than other American cities. For instance, CTfastrak is the only American BRT line with a dedicated guideway. And CTfastrak has a few other advantages.

One being easily accessible real-time information.

That means that passengers will know precisely when their bus is coming, even if it’s running early or late, and before they are at the stop.

This has a few benefits. First, it’s good for our brains: the reassurance of real-time bus info spares us the anxiety of worrying when (or if) our bus will ever show up. After all, you can see exactly where your bus is on a map! Second, it increases customer satisfaction with their bus system — sometimes even more-so than increasing bus frequency. Finally, it boosts public transit ridership, which means less cars on the road, less pollution, and more vibrant cities.

Best of all? Riders of CTfastrak get all of that information at no cost to the agency. While some transit agencies choose to only build proprietary solutions, the transit planners at CTfastrak chose the smarter route: opening their data to third-party developers.

What’s even more impressive is that the CTfastrak team gave us access to their data months in advance, and worked with us to ensure real-time information was available on day 1 of service.

CTfastrak boss Mike Sanders using Transit App on launch day. Photo credit: Don Stacom, Hartford Courant

Time will tell whether CTfastrak fulfills its dream of reinvigorating the local economy and slicing commute times. But if early indications are accurate, CTfastrak is going to be a huge success.

See how real-time info makes CTfastrak better:
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