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Chapter 4: Applications of Bus Rapid Transit in the United States

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4.1 Planning for Bus Rapid Transit

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) encourages U.S. cities to consider, analyze, and evaluate the benefits of implementing Bus Rapid Transit. Implementation of Bus Rapid Transit in the United States begins with the metropolitan planning process, which provides a forum for the development and evaluation of strategies to meet mobility needs at the regional level. Bus operations planning is generally the responsibility of the local transit operator, in cooperation with regional transportation planning agencies such as metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). Consequently, several low-cost operational strategies -- including many improvements associated with Bus Rapid Transit -- may be evaluated and implemented by transit operators to improve the efficiency of their existing bus service. Where the multimodal transportation planning process determines that some type of major transportation capital investment (such as a fixed transit guideway/busway and/or passenger boarding facilities) may be required to meet the mobility needs in a given corridor, an analysis and evaluation of potential alternatives to meet these needs is typically undertaken.

Corridor planning for Bus Rapid Transit should incorporate community participation. Bus Rapid Transit should be analyzed and evaluated in relation to locally-defined goals and objectives for the transportation system, mobility needs, and the relative advantages, disadvantages and costs of alternative approaches to meeting those needs. Curitiba-style Bus Rapid Transit may be introduced as a capital investment option. A variety of enhanced bus elements also may be considered, depending on local concensus. Determination of the effectiveness of specific applications of Bus Rapid Transit will require consideration of multiple criteria:

  • Mobility-- access to employment, services, and facilities; bus travel time savings; impacts on traffic operations; increases in bus ridership.
  • Environmental Impacts -- reduced use of private vehicles and attendant air pollution; impacts on water resources and wetlands, parks and open spaces, and historical and cultural resources.
  • Land Use -- compatibility with local land use policies, contribution to economic development.
  • Costs -- total project cost and measures of cost-effectiveness, including, for example, operating and capital cost per passenger or cost per passenger mile for each alternative under consideration; funding availability.

Following the selection of Bus Rapid Transit as the preferred solution in a multimodal analysis, proposed capital improvements need to be incorporated into the financially-constrained regional long-range transportation plan, developed by the MPO in cooperation with local transportation agencies and communities. More detailed engineering and completion of required environmental documentation would be necessary before Federal funding could be made available and construction could begin. FTA rates projects competing for its discretionary capital resources and recommends to Congress those projects which best justify continued Federal investment. Consequently, low-cost, high-performance Bus Rapid Transit projects that emerge from a locally-managed, multimodal analysis of alternatives may rate favorably in both local and Federal evaluations of potential transportation investments.

4.2 Implementation: Bus Rapid Transit Features

Many of the features of the Curitiba experience may be directly transferable to the U.S.; others may be applicable in concept only. For example, signal priority for buses moving along city streets could be implemented by many U.S. cities, but cashless fare collection methods during passenger boarding, rather than pre-boarding fare collection as in Curitiba, may be more feasible in some U.S. cities for reducing dwell time at bus stops. Features that are likely to be applicable to U.S. implementations of Bus Rapid Transit include the following:

  • Exclusive bus lanes -- may be separated from general traffic lanes by barriers, or simply signage and road markings. On city streets, there are several ways these can be implemented. A two-way street might have one exclusive bus lane in each direction, while a one-way street might have one dedicated lane. The bus lanes might be the outside lanes of a two-way street, or, as in Curitiba, the two center lanes. In older cities with narrow street patterns, the dedication of an entire street to bus traffic is a possibility.

    On highways, exclusive bus lanes can be installed in each direction, and separated from other traffic by barriers or signage. Often these lanes will fit into median strips, rather than decrease the number of lanes available for automobiles. Where space is constrained, one exclusive bus lane could change direction to coincide with the rush hour traffic flow.
  • Traffic signal priority for buses -- eliminates delays in bus service due to excessive waits at intersection signals. There are two general types of systems. In the first, depending on the program algorithm, a bus approaching a downstream traffic signal extends the green light or advances the cycle to green, either through transponders or other electronic communications means, to proceed through the intersection. The bus operator determines when signal priority is needed to maintain the bus schedule. In the second, a bus system equipped with an automatic vehicle location (AVL) system and advanced radio communications gives signal priority control to the operations center, where typically a computerized system determines bus adherence to schedule and automatically triggers traffic signals when needed.

    On streets with exclusive bus lanes, signal priority can be used when needed to give buses a head start over the rest of the traffic (a queue jump) by adding a signal phase that advances the green light for the bus lane prior to the green light for the other traffic lanes.
  • Fare collection system that speeds up the boarding process -- would decrease dwell time and improve overall system efficiency. A subway-like solution is the prepayment of fares prior to boarding, as in Curitibaís tube stations. However, the amount of space required to accommodate and secure prepaid customers waiting for buses may prohibit this option on many American city streets. Cashless fare payment methods that customers use as they board, such as prepaid passes, credit cards and "smart" cards, are likely more appropriate for most U.S. transit operations.

Bus door is open with raised platform for boarding.

A raised platform and level doors provides a seamless interface between bus stop and vehicle (Curitiba).

  • Same-level boarding platform and bus floor -- would speed up the boarding and deboarding processes, especially where wheelchair-bound passengers are involved. Such a feature would help bring a U.S. transit system into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are two options here: buses with low floors that are even with the curbside, and loading platforms that bring passengers level with the floors of stairless buses. Innovative bus stop designs could incorporate accessibility as an integral element for use not only by disabled passengers, but the general riding public.
  • Effective, clearly designated off-street facilities to handle increased numbers of buses in the central business district -- will ease congestion, provide visibility for bus services, and increase the efficiency and safety of boarding operations that do not have to compete with city traffic. Cities with central business districts concentrated in a small geographical area would generate enough local passengers to make off-street bus terminals effective. Terminals might feature convenient passenger services, such as newspaper stands, dry cleaning and film drop-off counters, and stamp machines. Bus malls might provide circulator service on bus-only streets through the central business district, and connect bus terminals at opposite ends of the district.
  • Hierarchical system of services -- would build upon the high speed bus service to offer a broad network of services (feeder, direct, express and/or circulator buses) covering an entire metropolitan area. The system would be characterized by ease of transfer between services with regard to fare payment and passenger-friendly signage and identification of bus routes and schedules. Such a system would have the capability of linking suburb to suburb as well as suburb to downtown, setting the stage for changes in land use policy.
  • Supportive land use policy -- including zoning regulations and master planning can promote high density development along transit corridors and in central cities and other commercial or neighborhood centers. Compact development will not only encourage use of Bus Rapid Transit, but promote the vitality of communities and local business districts and reduce automobile use, urban sprawl, pollution and energy consumption.

4.3 New Technology in Bus Rapid Transit

New Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) or Advanced Public Transportation Systems (APTS) applications could contribute to improved bus service and increased bus operating speeds. Some ITS and APTS applications that a Bus Rapid Transit system might employ are described below, but this list is by no means exhaustive:

  • "Smart" card fare collection methods -- use read-and-write technology to store dollar value on a microprocessor chip inside a plastic card. As passengers board a bus, the card reader determines the cardís value, debits the appropriate amount for the bus ride, and writes the balance back onto the card, all within a fraction of a second. There are two types of card readers, the proximity reader which can read cards held a few inches away, and the contact reader which requires physical contact with a card. Under development are systems that will be able to read cards carried in passengersí pockets, wallets and purses. Cashless systems such as "smart" cards speed up the fare collection process and eliminate expensive cash handling operations at transit agencies.

    "Smart" cards can also be programmed for distance-based pricing by recording where a passenger enters a transit system and debiting the appropriate amount from the card balance according to the point where the passenger exits the system, regardless of the number of internal transfers.
  • Automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems -- enable transit agencies to track their vehicles in real time and provide them with information for making timely schedule adjustments and equipment substitutions. AVL systems are computer-based vehicle tracking systems that measure the actual real time position of each vehicle, and relay the information to a central location. The measurement and relay techniques vary, but the most common are: signpost and odometer, wherein a receiver on a bus detects signals sent by signposts along the bus route and transmits the identity of the signpost and the odometer reading to the control center; and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology, wherein an onboard GPS receiver determines the bus position and transmits the information to the control center. AVL systems can be augmented by geographical information systems (GIS) on control center computers that display the location of the vehicles on route map grids.
  • Computer-aided dispatching and advanced communications -- are systems that enable transit dispatchers, in combination with AVL systems, to maintain bus system efficiency by performing service restoration activities and communicating instructions to and receiving messages from drivers. Service restoration activities include such operations as adjusting dwell times at bus stops or transfer points, adjusting vehicle headways, rerouting vehicles, adding buses to routes, and dispatching new vehicles to replace disabled vehicles. Communications can be received in buses via radiotelephones, cellular telephones, or mobile display terminals.
  • Precision docking at bus stops -- uses sensors on buses and on the roadside to indicate the exact place where the bus should stop. Bus doors opening at the same location each time make it possible for passengers to be in position for immediate boarding once a bus has stopped, shortening dwell time.
  • Tight terminal guidance -- uses sensors similar to those for precision docking to assist buses in maneuvering in terminals with limited space. This type of system can help minimize the amount of space needed for bus terminal operations, as well as reduce the overall amount of time a bus spends at terminals.
  • Warning systems -- are beginning to appear on the market to assist the bus driver in a number of safety areas: collision avoidance, pedestrian proximity warning, attentive driver monitoring and warning, intersection collision avoidance, and low tire friction warning. Safety improvements can help any bus system increase its reliability and efficiency by reducing the likelihood of accidents and incidents.
  • Passenger information systems -- give passengers the means to make informed decisions about their transit travel. Of the many technologies now available for passengers to access this type of information, the APTS applications most appropriate for Bus Rapid Transit are in-vehicle information systems. These systems automatically announce approaching bus stops, allowing disembarking riders to position themselves near the doors prior to arriving at their stops, and speeding up the unloading and loading operation.
  • Automated enforcement systems for exclusive bus lanes -- are being enhanced by new technology, including automatic video cameras and infrared sensors. These state-of-the-art systems are just now appearing on the commercial market.

4.4 Effects of Bus Rapid Transit

Successful Bus Rapid Transit systems can be expected to produce improvements in bus service, operations, and ridership, and to affect traffic congestion and air quality:

  • Bus speeds and schedule adherence: Perhaps the most fundamental effect of a Bus Rapid Transit system, travel times would likely improve due to the lack of impediments to bus movement along exclusive bus lanes. Bus speeds would be expected to improve not only in absolute terms, but also relative to the automobile traffic that parallels the exclusive lanes.
  • Ridership: Ridership would be expected to increase due to improved bus speeds and schedule adherence. Customers who use buses infrequently might ride more often, and some automobile users might convert to transit. A visible improvement in bus speeds might be noticeable to drivers of other vehicles, presenting a positive image of transit as an alternative to driving.
  • Other traffic: If the creation of exclusive bus lanes reduces the number of lanes available for other traffic, then in the short term the possibility of increased congestion on the roadways is raised. Traffic flow on cross streets and turning traffic may be disrupted as buses use their signal priority to travel uninterrupted through intersections. Further, mobility on alternate routes may deteriorate, as drivers seek ways to avoid roads with exclusive bus lanes. One of the challenges of implementing an exclusive bus lane would be to minimize this disruption.
  • Air quality: Long term, as ridership increases and the overall level of general-purpose traffic decreases, urban areas may experience improved air quality due to reduced emissions from automobiles.

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Commitment to Accessibility: DOT is committed to ensuring that information is available in appropriate alternative formats to meet the requirements of persons who have a disability. If you require an alternative version of files provided on this page, please contact