Could Bus Rapid Transit Be the Future of Public Transportation in Boston?

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As the Greater Boston Area continues to grow, it is important to plan future public transportation infrastructure to keep up with increased demand. In determining its vision for transit in the future, the MBTA has given careful consideration to new forms of transit that meet the demands of today’s commuters. One mode of transit that’s been especially prominent in this conversation is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

In 2013 the MBTA began working with officials from the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) to explore the possibility of bringing high standard BRT to Boston. BRT can be defined as a large-scale, fully integrated metro bus transit system. The MBTA helped form the BRT Study Group, which sought to determine where it could be most effectively implemented, and to gauge levels of political and popular support. In 2015, the Barr Foundation (a group made up of MBTA officials, local stakeholders, and ITDP officials) convened to create the BRT report which studied the most effective BRT systems in operation throughout the world today, and imagines how it might fit into Boston’s future public transit system.

The ITDP is a nonprofit international agency that publishes BRT standards describing the necessary specifications for a bus route to receive official BRT certification. To determine a route’s quality, they employ a ratings system which classifies the route into three levels: bronze, silver, or gold. Factors such as off-bus fare collection, high station platforms, designated right-of-way lanes, and bus frequency are used to determine a route’s quality. The United States does not currently have any silver or gold rated BRTs, and only 5 nationwide have earned the bronze distinction.

Officials around the country who have chosen BRT over light rail transit often do so to spur economic development and because it is theoretically cheaper. Cleveland’s HealthLine is the best example of BRT in the US today. It connects the city’s major hospitals and health centers, and has provided an efficient public transit option to Cleveland commuters. It has reduced the number of bus stops, and phased out older buses in favor of newer, hybrid-electric ones. While costing $200 million to build, it has been credited with at least $5 billion+ in economic development along its route through the city on Euclid Avenue. Since its construction in 2008, it has the highest return-on-investment of any public transit project in the United States.

While Cleveland’s success story is an important example for the MBTA to study, there are additional considerations that merit close attention. It is important to acknowledge, for one, that functionality and increased traffic congestion problems can occur when cost-cutting measures to BRT construction and operation are undertaken. “BRT creep” occurs when cities gradually eliminate some of the more expensive features of the BRT design to the point that the promised improvements are not delivered.

Boston’s Silver Line is an illustrative example of this phenomenon with its short stretch of bus service. The ITDP only rates the Silver Line a 37 (well below the minimum rating of 50 for it qualify as bronze) and does not count it as an official mode of BRT, or “true BRT”, because it was built without a dedicated right-of-way lane for the whole route, and is constantly stuck behind car traffic using the bus lane illegally.

That is not to say that building and executing strategically-placed BRT corridors in Boston wouldn’t have potential advantages for commuters. Reduced travel times and a more efficient and attractive alternative to existing MBTA service options could encourage more people to take public transportation instead of cars, while BRT vehicles with alternative fuel sources to diesel would reduce carbon emissions across the city. The BRT Report found that an “analysis of recent transit development costs in the United States suggests that implementing BRT corridors would be more cost-effective than other options for improving the existing transportation system. Based on this evidence, on average, BRT can be seven times more affordable per mile implemented than light rail.” A successful implementation of BRT, however, would hinge on the MBTA resisting the desire to cut corners on cost, and thus avoid BRT creep.

Employing the ITDP’s technical advice and support will be critical for determining how to best plan BRT corridors along Boston’s busy streets—the BRT report makes it clear that, in order for the project to be effective, Boston must pursue the gold standard specifications. Collecting input from the Greater Boston Area’s different communities of commuters will likewise be an essential component of the process. However, as the Pioneer Institute reported in 2009, a proposal to turn the Route 28 bus service along Blue Hill Avenue into a BRT route was nixed after it met resistance from Roxbury and Mattapan communities. While discouraging, the early opposition can be attributed to poor planning by the state as well as residents’ unfamiliarity with this new and different mode of transportation. Clearly, a positive public consensus must be reached before the MBTA and MassDOT boards can move forward and consider the next steps. That being said, it is never too early to start planning.

Within the Greater Boston Area, the Greater Boston BRT study group concluded that there are five possible routes that have the most potential: Harvard to Dudley Corridor, Downtown to Dudley Corridor, Dudley to Mattapan Corridor, Sullivan to Longwood Corridor, and Forest Hills to Readville Corridor. Any of these routes must meet four specific sets of criteria that must be met in order for the corridor to have real impact, and achieve the gold standard: “reduce congestion on the T, reach underserved communities and connect them with the Metropolitan Area more easily, provide more direct routes and connections, and serve planned future planned developments.” According to study group’s analysis, the corridors would stretch for 25 miles, costing the same as adding just 3.6 miles of light rail expansion.

BRT was included in the 9 initial build alternatives first considered by the MBTA for the Green Line Extension in its 2005 Beyond Lechmere Northwest Corridor Study. If they had opted to commit the necessary resources to a full-scale BRT approach instead of light rail, perhaps the much maligned project would already be in service.

They also found that incorporating BRT could actually reduce some commuters’ travel time by up to 47 percent. Estimates predict that commuters could have time savings as much as 42 percent of their regular rush hour commute from Harvard to Dudley, 47 percent from Downtown to Dudley, 34 percent from Dudley to Mattapan, 12 to 20 percent from Sullivan to Longwood, and 28 percent from Forest Hills to Readville.

While the MBTA has more than enough on their plate at the moment, it is encouraging to see that they are planning for the future. As long as this project is carried out with no shortcuts, investing in a gold standard BRT could have a tremendous long-term impact on Greater Boston Area commuters by providing them with a viable and efficient public transit option.