As traffic congestion worsens -- with no end in sight -- and cities look for ways to enhance their public-transportation systems, light rail gets most of the attention. At least 45 light-rail systems are now in operation worldwide, with seven scheduled to open this year alone. In fact, the United States has more light-rail systems than any other country -- Germany comes in a distant second with 10.
Light rail certainly has its place, but in the rush to reinvent the streetcar for the modern era, a viable, much cheaper and very capable alternative isn't getting the attention it should: bus rapid transit (BRT), which combines a bus system's low cost and flexibility with light rail's speed and capacity.
Compared to BRT, light rail is breathtakingly expensive -- $150 million to $250 million per mile to build -- while BRT typically costs $10 million to $30 million per mile. The reality is that BRT usually costs 20 percent of a light rail system but can capture 80-85 percent of those who would ride light rail.
Cost isn't the only advantage. A first-class BRT system's dedicated lanes can be built in an area 27 feet in width without a station and another 13 feet with a station. Larger buses in the dedicated lanes move faster along the route due to traffic signal prioritization, saving travel time.
A BRT system also can have all of the amenities of modern rail, including Wi-Fi, level boarding and off-vehicle payment systems. And compared to light rail, BRT is flexible: While it typically rides on dedicated lanes, it can leave those lanes and take another route if necessary. BRT systems can be built in the median area of roadways, the same layout as many light-rail systems.
So, why aren't there more BRT systems across the country? Unfortunately, potential riders typically focus only on the "bus" in BRT, to many people a negative connotation. In an effort to give constituents what they want, politicians, in turn, shy away from BRT and look longingly at light rail. But the reality is that we are not trading quality for cost.
Nationally, BRT has resulted in upwards of a 400 percent return on investment along transit corridors. That hasn't gone unnoticed by transit planners or government officials, and Cleveland's state-of-the-art system, which began operations in 2008, is one of the best illustrations of the economic benefits of BRT.
Known as the HealthLine, thanks to the Cleveland Clinic's paid naming rights, Cleveland's BRT has delivered more than $4.8 billion in economic development along the route -- a staggering $114.54 for every dollar spent on the line. And ridership is thriving. Since its opening, the HealthLine has carried more than 29 million people. Annual ridership has increased about 60 percent over the standard bus line that the HealthLine replaced.
One of the best BRT systems in North America is in Toronto. In its marketing campaign, the city focuses on the lifestyle the service provides, aiming to offset the bus stigma. With Toronto's system offering amenities typically found with new rail systems along with convenience for riders -- BRT vehicles come every five minutes during peak times -- consumers quickly see the benefits.
Perhaps the most famous BRT system worldwide is Bogota, Colombia's, which carries 30,000 to 42,000 passengers per hour. What better illustration could there be of what can be achieved with this inexpensive, efficient and creative approach to mass transit?