As communities attempt to address their urban mobility issues, the menu of alternative transportation opportunities has grown in recent years to include Bus Rapid Transit. BRT’s ability to be built quickly, incrementally, and economically has reinforced its popularity as an alternative to light rail. But, what is BRT, and is it right for your community?

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is….

One of the problems with defining BRT is that there is no one kind of Bus Rapid Transit. Boston’s Silver Line, hailed as one of the nation’s largest BRT examples to date, utilizes standard bus vehicles on a mix of shared-use and dedicated busways. Curitiba, Brazil’s Bus Rapid Transit system uses low-floored articulated buses on exclusive roadways, coupled with intensive supportive land-use development patterns along its corridors. Other significant variants that fall under the umbrella of the BRT definition include express bus service, traffic signal priority technologies, and faster passenger boarding techniques.


  • The Federal Transit Administration broadly defines BRT as “combining the quality of rail transit and the flexibility of buses. It can operate on exclusive transitways, HOV lanes, expressways, or ordinary streets. A BRT system combines intelligent transportation systems technology, priority for transit, cleaner and quieter vehicles, rapid and convenient fare collection, and integration with land use policy.”
  • Lloyd Wright at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy defines BRT as “high-quality, customer-oriented transit that delivers fast, comfortable and low-cost urban mobility.”
  • Professor Vukan Vuchic at the University of Pennsylvania challenges the word “Rapid” in the name Bus Rapid Transit, instead offering the term “Bus Semi-Rapid Transit” and arguing that “Rapid” should only be used when referring to exclusive-right-of-way rail transit.
  • Michael Baltes and Steven Polzin at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research conclude the debate on defining BRT by saying that “regardless of what it’s called and how it’s defined, the underlying essence of the current interest in BRT is to use the best globally available technology to meaningfully improve overall transit service quality in the most effective manner possible. Heck, call it progress!”

Characteristics of BRT

Depending on which particular BRT system one looks at, some or all of the following elements will be included. It should be noted that many of these techniques can be applied to and enhance regular bus service.

RIGHT-OF-WAY: While the recent popularity in BRT has focused primarily on the technological advances of the actual vehicles, one fundamental distinction that separates BRT from bus, trolleybus, light rail, and metro is the difference in right-of-ways (ROW). The variants of ROW are characterized by their degree of separation from other modes of transportation.

Mixed Traffic: Transit vehicles operate with mixed traffic; requires very little investment since roads already exist; level of service and reliability variably dependent on traffic conditions.

Partially Separated: Transit vehicles are separated from automobile traffic, but has at grade intersection crossings; higher investment than mixed traffic ROW, but higher performance also.

Exclusive – Transit vehicles have exclusive use; highest investment cost, but also highest performance.


Vehicles – In an attempt to distance itself with the long-held notion that buses are “dirty, noisy, and bumpy”, new BRT vehicles are designed with streamlined features, high capacity, distinctive color schemes, and low-emission diesel or natural gas engines.

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) – With the advancement of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), new BRT systems are coming equipped with Automatic Vehicle Locators (AVL) to manage bus locations at all times and to facilitate rapid reaction to problems. GPS-equipped buses also helps to accurately display real-time information on expected bus arrival times.

Traffic Management Improvements – Yet another ITS technology is Signal Light Preemption, or Signal Priority, that allows for extended green lights at intersections. Other traffic improvements include curb cuts and wider lanes at bus stops.

Faster Boarding – Modern bus stops for BRT are allowing for pre-boarding fare collection machines that significantly reduce boarding times, as well as low-floor buses, and better handicap access.


Differentiated Service – To distinguish itself from normal bus services, BRT systems typically have either separate routes, or overlapping express service routes.

Marketing – BRT systems are heavily branded, positioned, and advertised as a completely different service than normal bus systems.

Service Integration – Typically BRT systems are implemented in conjunction with existing bus, light rail, or metro systems. Integration of ticketing allows for free transfers, sometimes across modes and transit companies.


The Federal Transit Administration
FTA hosts their own site relating to BRT and the demonstration projects that they are currently sponsoring. This is a good starting point to see the breadth of projects that fall under the BRT umbrella.

Bus Rapid Transit Central
Hosted by James McAteer, a transit planner from Nashville, TN. Still under construction, the site offers an extensive links page.

National Bus Rapid Transit Institute
Perhaps the most extensive non-governmental website addressing BRT. This site is hosted by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

Bus Rapid Transit Center
Metro Magazine, a publication that covers surface public transportation issues, hosts a website that is dedicated to BRT.

The American Public Transportation Association
APTA has information on their site regarding existing literature on Bus Rapid Transit. In addition, APTA provides links and information on existing and planned BRT projects in the United States.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy
ITDP has a International Bus Rapid Transit Program on their site, which gives an international perspective to this emerging concept.

The U.S. General Accounting Office, which is the Congressional watchdog, has produced several reports on Bus Rapid Transit. These include:

Other sites with information on Bus Rapid Transit include:

  • Calstart/WestStart
  • Center for Transportation Studies
  • Transportation Research Board
  • TCRP Report 90: Case Studies in Bus Rapid Transit 2003 (PDF)
  • Institute of Transportation Studies

Bus Rapid Transit Compared to Other Modes

Bus Rapid Transit has significant advantages over regular bus service. BRT vehicles can carry more passengers than an ordinary bus. The marketing campaign for BRT has helped to detach itself from the common stigmatism of “dirty, bumpy” buses, and is beginning to pay off with increases in ridership. With the addition of various ITS technologies, there is great potential in BRT for increased service frequency and reliability.

While BRT may offer some benefits for some communities, it should be considered as an alternative only in the context of other transportation options, such as light rail. Depending on the needs of a given community in terms of capital cost, implementation time, level of service and long term viability, BRT may or may not be an appropriate choice. Studies are still inconclusive on BRT’s impact on land use and economic development along its corridors, and capital costs are comparable to LRT when exclusive ROW’s are used. While BRT can offer a host of solutions for your community, its benefits should be considered as part of a larger examination of transportation needs and opportunities in your region.

Characteristic Comparisons Among Regular Bus, Bus Rapid Transit, and Light Rail Modes

Characteristic Mode
Regular Bus Bus Rapid Transit Light Rail Transit
System Components
ROW Mixed Traffic Mixed Traffic, Exclusive Exclusive
(Mixed Traffic)
Support Road Road Rail
Guidance Steered Steered Guided
Propulsion ICE ICE Electric
Max TU Size Single Vehicle Single Vehicle 1-4 car trains
TU Capacity 120 180 4×180=720
Lines/Operational Elements
Lines Many Few Few
Headways on each line Long/Medium Long/Medium Short
Stop spacings (metres) 80-250 200-400 250-600
Transfers Few Some/Many Many
System Characteristics
Investment costs/km Low High Very High
Operating costs/space Medium Medium Low
System Image Poor Good Excellent
Impacts on Land use None Some Strong
Passenger Attraction Poor Good Excellent
Vehicle Performance & Passenger Comfort Poor Good Excellent
Implementation Time Short Short Medium
Air Pollution and Noise High Considerable None
Legend: ICE Internal Combustion Engine
ROW Right-of-Way
TU Transit Unit
Source: Journal of Public Transportation, Volume 5, No. 2, 2002

Some Questions Your Community Should Ask About Meeting Transportation Needs

1. What is our goal?
Paramount to any examination of a transit investment is identification of a vision. This need not be mode specific, but rather, a look at what would be desirable should an investment be made. A sample of desired outcomes is listed below. Once these are determined, BRT, Light Rail, and other modes can be evaluated in terms of how successful they will achieve these goals.

  • Congestion Mitigation
  • Address Projected Population Growth
  • Economic Development
  • Maintain Quality of Life
  • Air Quality Improvement
  • Minimize Impact on Open Space
  • Tourism
  • Increase Transportation Choices
  • Increase Transit Capacity
  • Job Access
  • Transit Oriented Development
  • Promotion of Social Equity

2.What is deficient in our current transit system?
No one mode of transit can provide the mobility needs of every customers and community. Buses are commonly stigmatized as dirty and uncomfortable, which eliminates a large potential group of customers. The high cost of metro or light rail prohibits their placement and accessibility to every neighborhood. Some other common deficiencies include:

  • Poor image
  • Route placement/Accessibility
  • Frequency of service
  • Reliability of service
  • Poor marketing and information dissemination

3. What alternatives are available to solve those deficiencies?
Bus Rapid Transit has the potential to solve many of the common deficiencies in existing service. BRT can provide the accessibility and flexibility that Light Rail and Metro cannot. The streamlined vehicles of BRT has the potential to distinguish itself from the poor image of regular bus service. Utilizing BRT as an express service in conjunction with regular bus service can dramatically improve frequency and reliability. Another option is Light Rail. Offering low operating costs, and excellent passenger attraction, as well as inducing economic development, Light Rail has the potential to address similar deficiencies.

4. Who Are We Trying to Attract?
Identifying who the customer is going to be is critical in determining the success of BRT. Is BRT for the suburban auto commuter who would “never ride a dirty uncomfortable bus”, or is it for existing riders that are trying to get cross-town? Is it for tourists, university students, or retail consumers? Knowing who your rider is can help shape the service, independent of the mode.

5. Are We Willing to Make A Large ROW Acquisition?
Bus Rapid Transit is not very rapid if it has to sit in traffic with other vehicles. Therefore, if speed and frequency is part of the goal, portions of the system are going to require exclusive or restrictive right-of-ways (ROW). Acquiring these ROWs can be very expensive. If this is the necessary option, Light Rail, with similar ROW acquisition costs, should be further examined.

6. Are Our Transit Efforts Aligned With Other Efforts?
Transit systems see exponential increases in ridership and fare-box revenues when land uses become coordinated with routes and frequencies. Obviously, higher urban densities produce higher ridership numbers. Therefore, if BRT is going to be a success, it should be targeted for existing and future high density areas.