Is It BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) or BAS (Bait and Switch)?


In Minneapolis and other cities, Bus Rapid Transit ( BRT) has been offered by highway builders as a low-cost sugar-coating on the bitter pill of highway expansion. With the phenomenal success of the Hiawatha Light Rail line, it may be time to take a more critical look at BRT.

In an October 14 Star Tribune article, Laurie Blake reported that the proposed Minneapolis–Rogers busway was re-routed by Hennepin County. The proposed busway would run between downtown Minneapolis and Rogers through the suburbs of Robbinsdale, Crystal, Brooklyn Park, Osseo, Maple Grove, and Dayton along County Rd. 81. Hennepin County engineers predicted the center lanes would by the year 2030 become too congested with cars for the rapid movement of buses. So the county is hoping to re-route the busway along a railroad right-of-way. Officials are seeking permission from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, but there is a great deal of uncertainty whether the busway will be built at all.

“If we are really going to be bus rapid transit, we should try to be rapid,” explained County Commissioner Mike Opat. “If the railroad will not agree to share space with the buses, the project would have to be reconsidered. We would have to ask ourselves if we are really providing a new transit alternative.”

The fate of the Rogers-Minneapolis BRT should give the city of Minneapolis and transit advocates a reason to question whether MnDOT will keep its pledge to make BRT a part of its plans to expand Interstate 35W in South Minneapolis. The sober reality is that there is no funding for Bus Rapid Transit on 35W. It is very likely that BRT on 35W will suffer the fate of the Minneapolis–Rogers busway. The tradition and culture of traffic engineers and officials at the Department of Transportation favor increasing capacity for automobiles rather than diverting funding from road construction to transit projects.

Unlike Light Rail Transit, Bus Rapid Transit runs on a paved roadway that can easily be converted to a car lane. BRT does not have the same star-appeal that LRT has. If MnDOT changed its mind about BRT, it is unlikely there would be a last-minute public outcry to save the BRT.

The experience of cities in Europe and North America is that only quality transit can successfully compete with the private automobile. BRT is not quality transit. Particularly when the buses operate on High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, as planned by MnDOT on 35W. BRT’s quality of service declines when buses travel at the same speed as cars. There is also a loss of ridership that occurs when single occupancy vehicles “steal” passengers from BRT stations.

BRT cannot offer a high-speed, high-capacity alternative to private automobiles unless the buses travel in exclusive busways. BRT systems where buses operate in exclusive busways exist in cities like Curitiba in Brazil, and Ottawa in Canada. It is a real stretch to imagine that suburban motorists jammed bumper to bumper wouldn’t be speed-dialing their legislators if MnDOT built a new lane exclusively for buses.

It may actually be a poor investment to build any kind of transit along 35W. Unlike the Hiawatha LRT, there are few stops along the freeway. There aren’t a similar number of pedestrian-oriented destinations. Any transit system on 35W would mainly be used by commuters during rush hours. At other times, the expensive system would lie idle. A transit line on 35W would not be able to generate pedestrian-friendly businesses and residential development that we see sprouting along the Hiawatha LRT line.

It would make more sense to look elsewhere for an opportunity to provide a Southern Metro transportation alternative to driving on 35W. A more practical route for an LRT line would be to begin at Centennial Lakes and Southdale, where parking facilities already exist. The LRT line would proceed north to the Crosstown, along Lyndale Avenue, down Hennepin to connect with the Hiawatha Line at 5th Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. An LRT line that serves both suburban commuters as well as urban passengers is a far more attractive and cost-effective alternative to highway expansion.