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LRT or BRT? It depends on the potential of the corridor

The Orange Line BRT in Los Angeles
Photo by Cian Ginty
The Orange Line BRT in Los Angeles

Train or bus? With federal and state governments facing fiscal meltdown and with transportation expecting some of the biggest hits, the question is frequently asked: Why not convert proposed LRT lines to BRT as a cost-saving measure?

The question is a good one, but the answer isn't as clear as it seems.

First let's define our terms. LRT is light rail transit, a mid-sized electrified rail technology that's smaller than a subway but larger than a streetcar. The Hiawatha Line (opened in 2004) and the Central Line (under construction) are examples in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

BRT is bus rapid transit, a far more amorphous idea. At the high end, BRT is nearly identical to LRT except that its vehicles run on rubber tires on exclusive paved roadways and are powered by diesel fuel. Passenger amenities are similar: stations, ticket vending machines, raised platforms and 5- to 12-minute frequencies all day long. At the low end, BRT is just a glorified express bus system that runs mostly during rush hours. Locally, Metro Transit is developing BRT incrementally along Interstate Hwy. 35W between downtown Minneapolis and Lakeville, and along Cedar Avenue between Lakeville and the Mall of America.


Is BRT a bargain?
Now to the questions. Is BRT cheaper?

Generally, yes, but its cost advantage isn't quite what it appears to be. Construction costs run one-third to one-half lower, depending on the sophistication of the BRT line. An upper-end BRT line costs $50 million per mile to build, for example, compared to $80 million per mile for a typical LRT line. But operating costs for BRT tend to run higher, especially on high-demand routes. That's because it takes more drivers to haul the same number of passengers and because fuel costs for buses are higher and more volatile.

"The general consensus is that the more BRT tries to emulate LRT with higher levels of service and with better vehicles and stations, then you might as well have LRT, because the operating costs are less and because LRT tends to draw more riders," said Nacho Diaz, a transportation consultant and former Met Council transportation director.

In other words, while initial costs are cheaper with BRT, you might get more bang for your buck with LRT, especially in a high-potential corridor and over longer periods of time.

Not only do trains draw more riders than buses (a new LRT line typically draws double the riders of a new BRT line), they lure more auto drivers to switch to transit. Transport analysts refer to the tendency as "rail bias" or the "coolness factor," meaning that people simply prefer trains over buses.

LRT generates development
Another big LRT advantage is that it usually increases property values and it generates new jobs, new housing and new riders along its route. Results are, in some cases, dramatic. That gives LRT a big advantage in fairly dense corridors with high growth potential. BRT's record in the United States is incomplete by comparison.

LRT may provide an environmental advantage as well, not only with its electric motors but with its ability to concentrate dense development in some areas while leaving others more pristine.

All in all, the LRT/BRT argument is something of a mismatch. In high-value corridors with lots of jobs and appealing opportunities for density and redevelopment, light rail makes sense. In less dense, more suburban-type corridors where there's less all-day activity, BRT is probably a better choice.

"It's not an either/or proposition," said Jim Erkel, transportation director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

"The main point here is that it's the potential of the corridor that determines the mode," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. "These are not five-year, short-term decisions to be made because of political expediency; they are decisions with time frames of 50 years or more.

Converting drivers to riders
"Another thing to remember is that we're in the process of trying to rebuild transit's reputation in this market," McLaughlin continued. "It had devolved into a system that was just for 'other people,' you know, people who didn't have other options. Now we're expanding ridership to a broader audience and elevating the reputation.

"The other point is that we're not neglecting BRT," he said. "We're building it, and we're going to build more of it in corridors where it's most appropriate."

BRT's advantages for secondary corridors are considerable. BRT provides more flexibility; buses can operate on exclusive lanes along major corridors, for example, then branch out to cover more territory as the destination approaches. That means a better chance at getting closer to where people live and work. BRT can also be phased in gradually, as with Metro Transit's lines between downtown Minneapolis and the Dakota County suburbs. Politicians tend to like BRT because it allows them to spread transportation improvements more quickly to wider geographic areas at lower initial costs.

With cities clamoring for dwindling amounts of federal LRT money, some cities are giving BRT a closer look. The low-cost, high-use system in Curitiba, Brazil, [PDF] is often held up as a model. Los Angeles is investigating whether to give buses exclusive lanes along heavily-traveled Wilshire Boulevard, [PDF] thus copying the successful Orange Line BRT route running through the San Fernando Valley.

Ottawa considers rail conversion
BRT's limitations are also on display, however. Ottawa, which launched its extensive system in 1986, is usually held up as the continent's best BRT example. Busways there are credited with generating $1 billion (Canadian) of development over its first two decades of operation. But apparently the system has been victimized by its success. So many articulated buses crowd the downtown streets that the city is considering a conversion to higher-capacity light rail.

The capacity problem is one reason light rail was chosen for the Central Corridor. (Computer models showed buses bunching up at the University of Minnesota and failing to keep their schedules.)

"With ridership projected at more than 40,000 per day it wasn't that hard a decision to choose light rail," said McLaughlin, who chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board. Light rail has also been selected for the Southwest Corridor (downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie) and may be the favored choice for the Bottineau Boulevard (downtown Minneapolis to Maple Grove) and Gateway (downtown St. Paul to Woodbury) corridors. Other corridors being studied (Rush, Red Rock, Robert Street) are likely to become busways, largely because their ridership projects don't rise to LRT levels.

The fact that money is short right now changes the political dynamics for transit expansion. But it doesn't change the 50-year potential for corridors in the MSP metro.

Here are some sites to explore:
Light Rail Now!
Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center
Worldchanging
BRTvs.LRT [PDF]

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Comments (14)

We absolutely must take the long view. Budget shortfalls will not be permanent and we shouldn't decide to choose the "cheaper" and less effective option simply because there isn't money or political will today.

Note that BRT is different than "the bus." We absolutely need our bus system to function well and to be well-supported financially and politically.

I have yet to get excited about BRT. I just don't see the advantages in the long term over LRT. LRT is building for the future. BRT feels like building for today or yesterday.

The thing that is important to keep in mind is that even out to 2030, the only corridors that have significant potential for LRT are Central, Southwest, and Bottineau, with the last one being questionable. After that, corridors being modeled struggle to show ridership levels that current bus routes are able to achieve. So the question becomes, should we invest heavily in a few areas of the metro area or invest that money more widespread in areas where transit is already being used and the density is already transit supportive.

The question becomes more than just, is BRT or LRT a good fit for a corridor? You have to factor in the long term impacts on the region as a whole, the transit system as a whole, potential cuts to the bus system in order to fund rail, return on investment, etc. The LRT/BRT discussion is currently being driven by politicians and politics (see Peter McLaughlin) and less by the data-driven process that every corridor should go through to prove that a project is the right solution. In some corridors, the numbers suggest that neither BRT or LRT are the right fit but the politicians are still pushing for $1 billion+ LRT lines. They don't realize that compromises the potential expansion in other, more deserving corridors.

@Chotch,

It's not quite a simple as you make it out to be. Every LRT and BRT line has to justify itself in terms of cost, ridership, land use potential and a number of other criteria. The scrutiny these project go through is much, MUCH higher than anything a highway proposal must satisfy.

There are many transportation experts who believe the criteria aren't quite right. Some of that got fixed by Secretary LaHood but we still have some distance to go. It makes sense for planners to keep options open because these are 10-15 year projects and evaluations can change drastically over that timeframe.

That said, the east metro has had a problem driving transit ridership. At least a good amount of that has to do with the various east metro counties failing to get together and plan for the long term adequately. Anoka and Hennepin have put a lot of effort over the decades to make transit attractive in order to build ridership and ultimately support for their rail lines.

And finally, rail in no way impacts the bus system. The capital pots are separate and rail operating cost is lower than it is for buses. Anyone who says cuts to the bus system are caused by rail is lying.

Streetcar technology becomes LRT when stops are limited and the majority of the line runs on a right of way free from traffic congestion. Similarly, plain old express buses become BRT when they are given advantages that free them from most traffic congestion.

Under that criterion, we already have examples of BRT. The U of M's Intercampus route runs on an exclusive busway. Metro Transit's Route 94 between the downtown has shoulder bus lanes, ramp meter bypasses, an online station at Huron Blvd., 15-minute all-day frequency and rush hour non-stops. Sounds like BRT to me.

HOV lanes, downtown bus lanes, ramp meter bypasses and shoulder bus lanes have freed most of the regional express bus system from traffic congestion. No other metro area comes close to it. How is that not BRT?

Development follows LRT in dense corridors in ways which BRT can only dream. LRT also changes transportation dynamics significantly through development density. BRT becomes the connecting facility to maximize potential of the LRT lines. Small business is one of the main beneficiaries of LRT and they flourish like mushrooms as neighborhood pedestrian traffic increases dramatically. Anyone who has spent time in a city with a good commuter rail system understands the potential for expanded business development and residential building. BRT just doens't have the same coat tails.

@Mr. Greene

Absolutely the projects go through scrutiny. They are $1 billion+ projects so clearly they should be scrutinized heavily. Take Northstar, for example. Over $300 million in capital dollars and $17 million/year to operate and is served 700,000 trips last year. That's almost $25/trip plus $300 million to serve suburban and exurban residents who are contributing to urban sprawl. Are there development plans along Northstar? Yeah, but more public dollars will be put into those to bring them to fruition.

The fact is, the most expensive bus route in the region is about $10 million (Route 5) and it carries over 4 million passengers a year. Six times the passengers for almost half the cost. You do the math. The Route 50 and Route 16 combined are only about $10 million/year and Central Corridor LRT will likely cost over $25 million/year. Again, do the math and tell me rail is cheaper than bus. Central Corridor will be the most productive LRT corridor in the region but it will still cost the region more money than today.

And capital budgets? CTIB and the FTA pay for 80% of the capital cost of LRT lines, yes. But there is no guarantee that CTIB will contribute to replacement and upgrades of rail systems, nor is there a guarantee that FTA funding for rail will be there in the future.

I'm not an opponent of LRT, but there are limits to where it should and shouldn't be considered, especially when buses can accomplish the same thing. Trains are cool and their cool factor attracts more riders, but at what cost? Projects like Northstar are not a step in the right direction when when have more emminent needs in the urban core.

This is a very balanced article, but time after time the decision is based on the technology and cost and not what is good for ridership or the commuter. I am a daily rider of the Ottawa BRT and was a regular LRT commuter in Europe. The two are poles apart in terms of ridership comfort, noise and overall experience. Ridership will only develop if you offer something of equal experience to the automobile, significant time saving or the ability to do something else while commuting. BRT suffers from the disadvantage of cramped and poor seating arrangements, uncontrolled or variable acceleration and deceleration rates, leading to high G force on occupants and poor ride ( in my case nausea). In comparison to LRT, BRT is nowhere near the smooth and potentially relaxing ride that LRT can offer us. Take real caution in comparing per mile/km costs. This does not take into consideration the lower long term running costs of an electric vehicle and the overall power consumption which for LRT can be per equivalent HP near enough half ( not taking into account regenerative braking savings). As a lot of LRT's are implemented in denser cities, that mythical per mile cost for LRT generally doesn't take into account the reduced costs in suburban and potentially comparable to BRT corridors. I like BRT it gets people used to public transit, but my question is; "Wouldn't it have been more cost effective to plan for the future rather than now redesign BRT routes for LRT. How much money will be lost on diesel fuel over twenty years?

I don't understand why we have to spend so much time and effort studying BRT and LRT, especially when many BRT features could (and should) be implemented very cheaply. While it's best to have a nicely-built right-of-way, I have to think you could easily emulate it by borrowing some construction zone materials. Put up some plastic bollards, "BUS ONLY" signs, and a barrier here and there, and you've got yourself exclusive lanes and simple station areas. Why do we have to go through the extensive alternatives analysis and environmental impact processes when you could get at least halfway there with a weekend's worth of work? Try a couple of things, then come back and say, "Look what we did! Can we work to make these improvements permanent? Oh, and we've got a few more ideas!"

Of course, Curitiba's system also works because they've worked to build densely around their transportation corridors. They run buses as often as every 50 seconds, which is astonishing. Of course people would take the bus if it went fast and they scarcely had to wait. They also do the sensible thing of having both radial routes and circular routes in their system, to allow people to move from corridor to corridor without requiring a trip downtown.

I generally like trains better than buses, but we should do more with what we have. We shouldn't be waiting for an LRT line to appear to start doing transit-oriented development. BRT features and TOD should be getting applied to all of the routes on Metro Transit's Hi-Frequency Network. Pave the way for future rail service -- don't just wait for it to arrive before doing anything.

@Chotch

You're missing two important reasons for doing Central Corridor LRT.

The first is that we cannot run enough buses to satisfy demand in 2020. The cost and congestion is just too much.

The second is the economic development engine of LRT. No other transportation mode matches it and we get the multiplicative effect of colocating housing, retail and jobs.

There are several reasons for Northstar's underperformance, not the least of which is the economy. Commuter rail relies heavily on people getting to jobs and when the economy is shedding jobs ridership is going to suffer. LRT is much less sensitive to employment.

Pile on top of that the entirely political decision to stop the line short of St. Cloud, the largest ridership source outside the Twin Cities and the project was going to disappoint. That was in fact the goal of those who refused to fund it to St. Cloud.

I have no doubt Northstar ridership will climb and we'll extend it to St. Cloud.

@Mike and others,

Should bus lanes are a joke. I wouldn't call driving 25 mph on the freeway avoiding the effects of congestion.

As for rigging up cheap stations and rights of way, we have these annoying things called the ADA and safety which keep nagging at us. Yeah, it would be easier to just throw those in wheelchairs under the bus. Cheaper, too.

@Mr. Greene

I'm not missing anything and I'm not saying that LRT is not a good investment. What I'm saying is the LRT vs. BRT (or rail vs. bus) argument is often skewed for all the wrong reasons. Central Corridor is fine. Southwest is reasonable. Beyond that, rail is a stretch in this region.

Commuter rail especially. What problem are we solving by building a commuter rail line to Big Lake or even St. Cloud? Is it worth $300 million plus $17 million a year?

The point that you are missing that others are trying to make is that you could invest that $300 million in capital dollars and $17 million a year in operating dollars into a significantly improved bus system that would benefit a whole lot more people than the 2,000 people a day Northstar benefits. And for $1 billion on a corridor like Bottineau, you could do major BRT-like improvements to 10 other urban corridors and still have $500 million left to subsidize all the "economic development" you want along the corridor. If the demand isn't there (and it isn't after Southwest) and the primary rationale for LRT is development, why not just subsidize development directly and spread out some of the transit improvements around the region?

Those points aside, clearly rail funding affects the bus system. Expanding Northstar to St. Cloud will only increase the subsidy required for a bunch of people who make poor decisions about where they live vs. work. Remember this point when Metro Transit is making cuts to bus service this fall (i.e. $6.2 billion deficit) while they are still required to operate heavily-subsidized Northstar trains because of federal funding rules.

Aaron was talking about shoulder lanes on highways -- I was more interested in what can be done on urban arterial streets. Yes, stations on highways are going to be inherently more complicated because of the high-speed vehicles going by. However, I'm convinced that stations along slower urban streets can be built easily. ADA compliance is an issue, but all of Metro Transit's buses have wheelchair lifts to deal with the existing bus stops. I was basically just thinking about how to upgrade the experience of existing users.

Ramps and platforms to facilitate level boarding are definitely a good idea, and there have got to be cheap ways to make them -- recycling old shipping containers, for instance. Take one and chop off most of it except for the base, put in some bracing and hand rails, cover it over with some sort of non-skid surface (plywood with tar paper for all I care), and attach a ramp. Attach a standard bus stop to the top to give a modest amount of protected seating. Plop the whole contraption onto a street in between some strategically placed jersey barriers, and you've got yourself a station. Not very pretty, but that can be fixed in a later iteration. Besides, the whole thing could probably get reused somewhere else later on.

Excellent article. Of course, the devil is in te details, but the article clearly lays out the logical reasons (as opposed to ideological ones) for LRT v. BRT. Thanks!

No one is mentioning Personal Rapid Transit (Taxi 2000)? Well, how about the Straddling Bus? Maybe this scheme has already also been debunked, but just for fun anyway:♠

http://www.chinahush.com/2010/07/31/straddling-bus-a-cheaper-greener-and...