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What's the Tea on BRT?

It's a bus! It's a train! It's a cost-saving mechanism (that part I can't stress enough)! It might even become a larger buzzword in any transit planning conversation, if it isn't already. However, with any innovation (new or otherwise), there’s always a group of naysayers that just don't agree with it and you may wonder why the contention? Well, to understand what people don't understand it is to understand what Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system achieves. Or should…

The Federal Transit Administration defines BRT as, "a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast and efficient service that may include dedicated lanes, busways, traffic signal priority, off-board fare collection, elevated platforms, and enhanced stations (FTA 1).” Note the keyword "may". Most high-quality BRT systems are usually found in Latin American and Asian countries, while the American BRT systems hold maybe three out of six of these qualities.

A BRT is essentially a public transit system (yes, a system) that uses buses to achieve the same level of service as a rail system without spending millions of dollars on infrastructure. The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy states that, "A heavy rail transit (HRT) system could be expected to cost 5 to 9 times as much as a BRT and 3.4 times as much as a light rail transit (LRT) (ITDP 1).” The BRT is usually cheaper because unlike two of its counterparts, the HRT and LRT, it doesn't require major excavation to the built environment or heavy land acquisition. Thus, no digging to the center of the Earth or buying a whole neighborhood for a rail station halfway to heaven.

However, the amenities for BRT allow it to operate similar to a rail system as if it were running in an enclosed tunnel or on an elevated railroad track. Given this, headways between vehicles are not expected to be more than a 15-minute wait with adequate station spacing. A few notable BRT lines in America include the Health Line in Cleveland, the busways of Pittsburgh, CTfastrak in Connecticut, and the Orange Line in Los Angeles. These systems may have their strengths and weaknesses, but all-in-all have passed the anti-bus or anti-dedicated transit lane sentiments that tend to resonate within suburban or rural America.

Here's the reality - RAIL IS EXPENSIVE. You're shooting for the moon to believe that money really grows on trees and that you can build a rail system overnight. Yet, BRT allows you to set up the infrastructure so that if ridership on said system increases to max capacity, you can upgrade to rail much easier. At some point, we as a society have to stop shaming and downplaying the bus. As long as it gets you from point A to B in a quick and efficient manner, why should it matter what mechanism arrives? Just some food for thought...

“Bus Rapid Transit.” Bus Rapid Transit | FTA, Federal Transit Administration, 9 Dec. 2015,

“2.2 Costs.” BRT Planning Guide, Institute of Transportation & Development Policy, 2013,


Bakari Height is the Co-Founder and Chairman of the transit nonprofit, the MARTA Army in Atlanta, GA. He is a graduate of Georgia Tech with a Masters Degree in City and Regional Planning. His planning interests include transit planning, regional planning, and transit-oriented development.

To contact Bakari, you may reach him at

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