Is BRT The Chosen Way?

The Globe and Mail included a full page article by Jonathan Yazer on Victoria day on the subject of Bus Rapid Transit.  [In the interest of full disclosure, I was interviewed for but not quoted in the article.]

The online version includes one photo — a BRT operation in Seoul — but the print version includes two more — New Delhi and Soweto.

Common to all three examples is the provision of dedicated space for buses, and this echoes comments throughout the article.  The streets in question have generous proportions with the Seoul example having at least three traffic lanes in each direction, plus four lanes for the BRT (this provides space for platforms and a passing lane at stations).  The New Delhi example looks like two traffic lanes each way between stations, although the peak direction has a rather chaotic triple row of cars in it.  In Soweto, the example is on an expressway and the photo does not show a station layout.

There are really three questions any BRT advocate must address:

  • Are you prepared to take road space away from cars, or to widen the road so that non-transit capacity is maintained?  Apples-and-oranges comparisons with reserved lane LRT and mixed traffic BRT (aka BRT-lite) give the impression we can have something for nothing.  No, we would get little more than a road lane, a bit of paint, a few signs and no enforcement.  This is Toronto, and we should be honest about how traffic laws actually work here.
  • Are you building a line for local traffic, or for long-haul travel?  There is a big difference in the capacity of and the space required for a BRT line if the buses rarely have to stop.  Moreover, if you can’t provide exclusive lanes over the entire route, you must address the design where buses move into mixed traffic.  An example of such a problem who be at the Finch Hydro corridor and Keele Street if buses could not reach Finch West station without navigating through congestion on Keele.  Some parts of a route may not have room for road widening, and yet they must provide the full capacity needed for buses using the reserved-lane portions.
  • How do you expect riders to access your service?  Buses running through ravines, down expressways and along (some) hydro corridors will not be easy for passengers to reach, and this constrains the demands a line can serve.  This is not to say that such operations are a bad idea, but that they don’t answer every situation.

TTC Chair Karen Stintz remarks that “… BRT needs to be done properly, with its own right-of-ways, so that they’re convenient and effective means of moving people”.  This seems to put to rest any thoughts of making do with reserved curb lane operation.

I have a few kvetches with the article.

  • In the print edition (not online), there is a sub-title “Sayonara light-rail, au revoir subways.  Across North America, express bus corridors are leaving pricier transit options in the dust.”  This text is not supported by the article, and is a good example of poor headline writing (authors rarely get to write their own headings, except on personal blogs like this one).
  • There is a reference to the Vancouver BRT having been upgraded to “LRT”.  This repeats a statement in the TTC staff presentation on the Finch corridor.  In fact, Vancouver replaced its Richmond BRT with the Canada Line which is technologically much closer to a subway (completely grade-separated, automatic operation) than to LRT.  It’s closest cousin would be the planned Eglinton “LRT” which is a far cry from the original Transit City proposal.
  • The article does not mention the error in the TTC scheme which takes the proposed Finch line to a golf course rather than Humber College and, therefore, gets the length, cost and local impacts of the BRT proposal wrong.  I suspect that the article was completed and filed before this issue came to light.

Yazer’s article is a good overview, and it does not read as an airy endorsement of BRT in all circumstances.  I agree that BRT has its place.  Whether that place is as a replacement for Transit City is quite another matter.

We have many bus routes that will never get even this level of attention, and will do well to see the odd transit priority measure at intersections.  The war on transit will affect the bus network throughout suburban Toronto if only because making more space for transit and providing more resources to operate better service are two items far from the agenda of the Ford administration.

If Finch had not been an active part of Transit City, it wouldn’t even be considered for BRT.