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.

28 thoughts on “Is BRT The Chosen Way?

  1. Good article in the Globe today on dedicated bus lanes as a low-cost transit alternative in a cash-strapped public sector world. Makes sense to me. Vancouver’s experience has been very successful.

    Steve: This comment was submitted before I posted the article, and has been moved to this thread.


  2. ROW by any other name… I know I may be just preaching to the choir so to speak but isn’t the biggest problem the inability of certain people to understand the word “capacity”?


  3. The discussion point of BRT will be between three visions.

    BRT lite
    BRT dedicated lanes on roads
    BRT along non road way spaces

    I await the suggestion of a BRT across the Kay Gardiner belt line path between Eglinton West and Davisville.

    I sometimes wonder if people who draw BRT lines down ravines and across hydro corridors listen to what people are saying about the need to maintain green space in this city. Or listening to tourist specialists who indicate we could make as much tourism dollars off our ravines as off our museums and the CN Tower.

    The war on the car is over……time for the war on the walking path.


  4. I would like to refer everyone here to thetransportpolitic for their latest article which is about the debate between LRT and BRT. I’m no fan of BRT myself but if BRT is what has to be settled for then it should by all means be made rail ready. Before Houston decided to switch from BRT to LRT all BRT routes were to be rail ready.


  5. I like the coverage the article gives to both sides of the LRT/BRT debate.

    But Fordites considering BRT as a long-term solution while complaining that LRT will soon reach over-capacity demand? What the he**?

    In the three major Toronto Newspapers (The Star, The Globe and Mail, National Post), I have yet to see an article promoting LRT in the way that BRT has been promoted here. Even The Star and National Post have published pro-subway articles (albeit by guest contributing politicians, namely Gordon Chong and Chris Sellors). The only place where one can find LRT-positive articles are in lefty-pinko newspapers (spacing, Torontoist, NOW)…

    Steve: I am constantly amazed at how LRT is described alternately as excessive or inadequate for demand. What is really happening is that those who would push transit out of the way of cars hope that “BRT” will only be implemented with dedicated lanes on a hydro corridor or super-wide road with lots of spare capacity. If LRT actually threatens to be the proposed solution, then it must go underground. The argument is tailored to the situation, but either way it means preserving lanes for cars.


  6. If the Globe is trying to sell me, as a reader, on how great BRT is as a transit alternative, they failed. With a capacity of 2250 pphpd, BRT cannot handle the demand on Finch West. It’s not all about speed but capacity too. Buses don’t have the same capacity as LRT. With LRT you need fewer drivers because each LRT train holds more people than a bus. You don’t need as many LRT’s to proivde the same level of service in terms of capacity which theoretically means a lower operating cost.


  7. I was also thinking, if they’re going to create reserved bus lanes in the middle of the road for BRT, what was the point of canceling Transit City? It’s basically a similar concept the current administration is proposing. The difference is instead of running modern LRT vehicles with higher capacity, they propose running low capacity buses that have a limited ability to attract new riders to the system. Rail-based transit is how you attract new riders to a transit system. It’s as if the current administration didn’t like the design of the wheel and decided to reinvent the wheel on their own. The only problem is that their new design is inferior to the old design.


  8. Steve wrote, “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.”

    Only triple? I guess you’re not counting the two- and three-wheelers! 😉

    I’m spending the week at my company’s head office in Bangalore, and have a daily commute that is just under 10 km. Oddly, the morning commute at about 8:30 takes about 20 minutes, while the commute after 6 pm takes over an hour.


  9. All they have to do is travel down the highway and visit us in Ottawa to see how BRT both works and fails. The downtown section in mixed traffic is the achilles heel and is why we’re planning a downtown tunnel–with LRT!!!!


  10. Hi Steve
    One thing that I find interesting on the BRT vs LRT debate is that it is starting up just as Chong resurfaces on the transit scene. Is it me being paranoid or do you think that there has been some work going on behind the scenes to put BRT forward?

    Steve: There has always been a BRT contingent, not least at the Ministry of Transportation, because it’s just another way to build highways. For implementations like GO with a relatively small number of buses per hour and widely spaced stations, it’s all that is needed in some locations. However, it’s not a replacement for higher capacity modes.


  11. A question, and I’m not being sarcastic: How is “BRT lite” different than a “bus”? To me, to apply the term BRT requires a dedicated lane.


  12. I had the pleasure last summer to try the new Lima (Peru) BRT system. It was excellent, and gave me a lot of respect for the South American BRT system. It is fast, runs through the major centres of the city, and has a very good system of express service the evens out the passenger load across the 33km line.

    I support all modes of transit for the proper use and in the right places, and I always thought centre-of-the-street, traffic-signal-prioritized BRT would actually be a very good fit on streets like Finch and Sheppard (east of Don Mills). There are double-articulated buses that have capacity near the larger LRVs, and the improvement in operations could be a catalyst for LRT and subway conversion in the future.

    Downsides that I see are winter operations, where the ROW may have to be constantly plowed, and if using stations like the South American systems, the gap between the station and vehicles doors was inconsistent and sometimes almost a foot wide. Also, as mentioned before, many BRT systems seem to be inducing so much demand that they put themselves over-capacity before expected, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    My experiences with the Lima system: youtube and flickr


  13. What the Fordistas miss about BRT vs LRT is the ratio of passenger seats/driver-operator. More buses (even artics), more ATU113 employees. In Dublin, a single driver operates a 40m long single unit tram – the equivalent of maybe 3.5 standard buses when you account for cab space and rear engines. I would like to know what the comparison is between operator costs as a % of total revenue between some of the BRT cities and Ontario, and whether fuel subsidies are provided by higher government to keep diesel prices low.


  14. It’s interesting that the only specific per-km cost figures given are for Finch West Transit City (LRT, middle of road) and for a hypothetical Finch Hydro Corridor BRT. This is a perfect example of an apples-to-oranges comparison. How much for LRT in the hydro corridor or BRT in the middle of the road?

    And any numerical cost comparison that doesn’t include numeric operating cost estimates is totally invalid.

    Steve: And both lines should go to Humber College, not to the Humber Valley golf course.


  15. Apparently “BRT” is as poorly defined and understood as “LRT”.

    If LRT is “just more of the same old streetcars”, surely BRT is “just more of the same old buses”.


  16. LRT is quite expensive to build. Dedicated bus lanes are far cheaper to build than LRT (not to mention that construction is less disruptive, because sections of bus lanes can go into operation before the entire project is completed, e.g. the Viva rapidways). Thus it ought to be possible to cover much more territory with BRT than Transit City, had it been fully funded, would have covered. Just as there is a tradeoff between subways and LRT (speed & capacity vs cost) this same tradeoff exists between LRT and BRT.


  17. “A question, and I’m not being sarcastic: How is “BRT lite” different than a “bus”? To me, to apply the term BRT requires a dedicated lane.”

    LA has fairly effective mixed traffic BRTs (although some lines are better than others). Wider stop spacing, signal priority and larger bus capacity makes a significant difference. Anyone who has used the 720 BRT on Wilshire compared to the non BRT bus lines on the street can attest to the differences in speed. This isn’t to say there aren’t problems. There are bottlenecks on this route (particularly around the 405 freeway) which is why there is currently a proposal to institute a bus only lane on Wilshire.

    What I don’t understand is why the proposal for Finch doesn’t consider something similar to what is being looked at for Wilshire with just painted bus only lanes at a fraction of the cost. I think the Wilshire line is predicted to cost around $30 million for about 8 miles. This is far cheaper than the cost estimates for the dedicated BRT line on Finch. Granted LA does not need to purchase new vehicles and the signal priority system already exists (although they are making upgrades) the cost differentials are still huge.

    If they’re truly looking for an interim (or permanent solution) to this problem and are considering creating a dedicated lane why isn’t this being considered?

    Steve: Toronto has a long history of painting lanes and then ignoring the bylaws that keep traffic out of them. The cops are too busy with other matters, but nobody else is allowed to actively target offenders. On transit priority signalling, the typical situation is that transit gets what is left over, not real priority, as we have seen on several routes. Unless these attitudes change, the “cheaper” solution will be no solution at all.

    Opponents of LRT don’t like the fact that it takes the road space and does not attempt to cohabit with other traffic. BRT Lite can give the impression of movement on transit with little to really show for it. By the way, the TTC has no idea of where the money is going to come from to buy and operate the extra buses any of these schemes would require.


  18. Steve

    About ten years ago I travelled to Curitiba Brazil, just to ride the BRT there. I am a serious transit nerd. The system moves over 2 million passengers a day. It carries something like 2/3 of the daily traffic in the city.

    The biggest problem I had with it was trying to hang on as the bus took curves at 60-70 km/h.

    But to make the system work there was no street parking on any route downtown.

    The interesting thing is that Curitiba has the highest car ownership percentage of Brazil’s cities. People use the system because it is inexpensive and fast.


  19. Steve said:

    Toronto has a long history of painting lanes and then ignoring the bylaws that keep traffic out of them. The cops are too busy with other matters, but nobody else is allowed to actively target offenders. On transit priority signalling, the typical situation is that transit gets what is left over, not real priority, as we have seen on several routes. Unless these attitudes change, the “cheaper” solution will be no solution at all.

    There is a very simple solution to the parking problem. Privatize it! Empower tow truck operators to remove illegally parked vehicles. Traffic will flow better and increased revenue will benefit the city. Soon, police will squawk about tow truck operators taking their work. (Same as they did about TTC Security) New police will be hired to ticket and tow vehicles. Police fiefdom grows. End of problem.

    Steve: Oddly enough, Vancouver allows towing without having a constable on hand to authorize it, and this tends to quickly clean out downtown streets. Of course, here we would need to political will to take on the taxis and the delivery trucks who think that “no stopping” doesn’t include them.


  20. Andrew says:

    “LRT is quite expensive to build. Dedicated bus lanes are far cheaper to build than LRT (not to mention that construction is less disruptive, because sections of bus lanes can go into operation before the entire project is completed, e.g. the Viva rapidways).”

    Why is it always a LRT vs. BRT debate? Who cares if bus lanes are far less expensive than LRT. Bus lanes have much lower capacity than LRT, and would require many buses to handle the capacity of a few LRT trains. What is the point of BRT in a corridor that requires LRT?

    How can you know construction is less disruptive than LRT construction, do you have concrete proof to back it up, or are you just like every other BRT advocate who makes these claims, and hope no one questions them? Reminds of that gondola guy who claimed gondolas can carry 8,000pph with 30 sec headways, someone debunked his claims, and gondola guy disappears.


  21. How much capacity do you need?

    In class B ROW BRT can take you up to ~ 5000 pphd before it becomes more sensible to have a larger vehicles (an articulated bus with 200 spaces coming every 2 minutes).

    Light rail in Class B ROW can take you to about 15 000 pphd (500 space LRT coming every 2 minutes).

    BRT may well be cheaper to construct and help build patronage later on for LRT. So before we go mode picking, ask yourself the question- what capacity is required?


  22. Hey Steve,

    I just read Ian’s comment about Chong, and it got me to thinking about something that this blog doesn’t talk about much … but I think you’d be in a unique position to shed some light on … and that is who are the movers and shakers in the Toronto transit scene. There are the obvious ones that everyone knows about (mayors, head’s of ttc/metrolinx, yourself etc.) but I am thinking the analysts, specialists, influence pedlars, company people that might be more connected to what is happening than the general public knows … I’d be interested in learning a bit more about some of these people, who they are, what their history is (who they’ve worked for, what they’ve accomplished), what their slant is.

    Steve: I tend to stay away from this for a few reasons. First and most obvious is the legal question of being accused of misrepresenting in a negative way what someone might be doing behind the scenes. There are times this sort of things should come out, but usually the important story is the debate on the facts of an issue, not the players. I could mention that the author of the report that shows the Finch BRT going to Humber Valley Golf Course is a well-known consultant who wants to become a Commissioner, but that at least is a statement of fact from the printed report (not from the online version). The political machinations of others are not as easy to expose, and some of them are notoriously litigious. This is a blog about issues, not personalities.


  23. Remember to compare like with like – apples to apples. Something the bus nutters never seem to do. No one, not even the most devoted light rail advocate, pretends that modern cities can do without buses but the road lobby promotes the converse: that rail is “too expensive” and that buses (or, in their dreams, no public transit at all) is all that is required whatever the situation. I don’t joke – we have such ideologues in Wellington, one of the more PT-oriented cities in the English-speaking world.

    BRT is generally touted as “cheap” when what is commonly branded as BRT is often really only lane markings or some other low-cost expedient.

    Meanwhile “light rail” examples quoted may include subways, overhead viaducts or property purchase for exclusive RoWs, or other expensive infrastructure. Hardly a fair comparison.

    Our experience in Australia or New Zealand is that BRT – in Adelaide (O-Bahn), Brisbane (SE Busway) or Auckland (North Shore Busway) can be as expensive as LRT – or even more in Auckland’s case – as far as infrastructure is concerned ($50M/km in Auckland vs $10M/km for the Christchurch Tramway) and have higher running costs.


  24. Justin Bernard says:

    “Why is it always a LRT vs. BRT debate? ”

    I was wondering the same thing. When Transit City was announced, the subway advocates were saying the plan is useless because it’s not using subway technology. They proceeded to then erroneously conflate light rail and streetcar as the same technology. Now that Transit City has been cancelled and a BRT is planned for Finch instead of LRT, the discussion has suddenly shifted to a LRT/BRT debate.

    Others have commented that articulated buses can have capacities of 5,000 ppdph at 2 minute headways because the buses can carry 200 people. I cannot find figures that support that claim. All the figures I have found indicate that articulated buses carry between 70 to 105 passengers. Taking the high-end of that range, 105 passengers, with buses running at 2 minute headways means a BRT can achieve 3150 ppdph.

    Bi-articulated buses (which are rarely in use around the world, and differ from articulated buses because they have two articulations instead of one and are much longer) can probably hold closer to 200 passengers. At two-minute headways that translates into 6000 ppdph. However, can bi-articulated buses operate in Toronto and navigate the hilly environment and tight curves on some of Toronto’s bus routes?

    LRT trains typically hold 350 people and that’s on the low-end of the scale. At two minute headways, LRT trains can move 10,500 pphpd. BRT cannot match the capacity offered by LRT. By building an LRT network (Transit City) now, the City is not just providing service for current demand, but it will provide the capacity needed to handle future growth along these routes.

    However, Transit City as was originally planned, was to operate at 5 minute headways. That reduces the capacity of the LRT lines to 4200 ppdph. Now that the Eglinton-Scarborough line will be entirely underground the headways can be similar to the subway at 2.5 minutes. That puts the capacity of this particular line at 8400 pphpd.

    BRT’s operating with articulated buses cannot match the capacity provided by LRT’s. BRT’s operating with bi-articulated buses (buses longer than 60 feet) can match the capacity of surface LRT operating at 5 minute headways but once the LRT headways are reduced to the same level of service as BRT (2-3 minute headways) BRT cannot match LRT’s capacity.

    Rail-based transit is also faster than bus service even when both are separated from traffic. Current TTC figures show that a BRT on Finch would operate with an average speed of 20 to 22 km/h while an LRT on Finch would operate with an average speed of 22 to 25 km/h. There are other routes in the city that can benefit from BRT but I think Finch needs an LRT line.


  25. Would we ever allow 3-car LRV’s on Finch Avenue West? If one LRV is 30 metres long, a 3-car train would be over 90 metres long. Some blocks are as short as 70 metres, especially near Yonge Street.

    Also, is a 3-minute headway considered easy to manage without bunching vehicles?

    Steve: The headway is getting down to the level where there will be an interaction with the cycle time of traffic signals at intersections unless priority aggressively lets vehicles through with little delay. One other consideration for surface operations is the matter of pedestrian movements to/from the station platforms at busy stops. You can have all the capacity in the world, but if the riders are so numerous that there isn’t sidewalk, platform and crossing capacity for them, it’s a problem. This applies to BRT as well as to LRT, and of course with shorter vehicles, the headway problems at signals kick in at lower capacities.


  26. While LRT certainly has higher capacity than BRT, the two modes can significantly alter what capacity is actually needed. This is because, like it or not, there is something about a rail mode over a bus mode that attracts users.

    If the capacity requirements for a BRT falls at its high end, an LRT implementation in the same situation with all else being equal will result in a greater use of the service. How much more is debatable and will vary by example, but it will always be greater because of a “I will never take a bus” attitude that exists in some people.


  27. Ms. Stinz also implied in the article that there is not enough money for real BRT. End of charade, except that the mayor might be trying to make this thing look good. When he cancelled Transit City he left the folks on Finch waiting for another bus.

    I agree BRT can work. It works on the Downsview to York University route, it works (outside of the centre) in Ottawa. Vancouver has mixed success, with bigger buses which load more passengers, fewer stops and all door loading which makes it more efficient. But where there are no dedicated bus lanes, you wait in traffic jams like everybody else.

    BRT lite as it’s called. That’s what’s cooking. There may not be enough money or political will for anything else.


  28. Nothing is stopping the TTC from taking all the express buses that operate on Finch West and converting them to a BRT “light” situation. Almost all of the LA BRT “light” routes (and all the most successful ones), used to be limited stop routes operating along the same corridor. Believe it not, the branding change resulted in a large increase in ridership.

    Unless you have a segregated right of way, if you want to maximize speed and take advantage of transit signal priority you are not going to be able to have headways less than 5 minutes. A BRT crush loaded with 90 passengers * 12 trips per hour = 1,800 people. BRT’s capacity is great for York Region where nobody rides the bus, but not for Finch. Why would we design a system to operate at crush load when it opens anyway? Originally the Scarborough RT had enough supply to meet the (high) demand, but look what happened when it couldn’t be expanded? What’s the point of spending the money if we still have to operate limited/express buses to offer additional capacity?

    It doesn’t matter since there is no money for this anyway. I can’t imagine that anyone who is already paying a 13% “harmonized” sales tax is going to vote to increase that sales tax even more.


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