Exploring the Different Aspects of BRT

To achieve the performance and benefits of its more expensive rail counterpart while maintaining the flexibility of a bus service, BRT employs a number of key characteristics. However, these elements are customized by agencies to best meet the needs of the community.

Building on a service

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) BRT is the Silver Line, with five different routes along two lines. Each route of the high-capacity bus line was built in a separate phase.

The latest line, the SL3-Chelsea, opened on April 21 of this year. The line provides more efficient service for riders headed to Chelsea, East Boston, Logan Airport, the Seaport District and to South Station by offering fewer stops and traveling in an exclusive bus lane in Chelsea to avoid traffic.

Construction of the $54.7 million SL3-Chelsea route began in 2015 and was managed by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Highway Division and jointly funded by the MBTA and Mass DOT.

MBTA Manager of Transit Planning Scott Hamwey explained that two Silver Line routes started about 15 years ago and one of those, the Washington Street corridor, had a dedicated lane for a significant portion of the route.

“One critique as a result of the transit project was that the dedicated lanes were in places that there was not a lot of traffic,” he said. “The places where there was a lot more congestion, we weren’t able to have street space from the city in order to provide a faster service in those areas.”

Having areas with priority traffic was more expensive to implement, but they’re having more success now thanks to a dedicated bus lane pilot project.

“We have a dedicated bus lane piloted a year and a half ago in the city of Everett during rush hour. That was really successful and the city quickly committed to making it permanent.” He added, “We started to see a lot more opportunities for those kinds of services.”

First-time BRT

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Metropolitan Tulsa Transit Authority (Tulsa Transit) is currently in the process of creating its first BRT, Aero, a nod to Tulsa’s aerospace industry. The initial route will run along its current Peoria route, one of its highest ridership routes.

The current service along the Peoria corridor is a 30-minute, standard fixed-route service. By August 2019, they anticipate the new BRT service being up and running, bringing the ride to a15-minute headway.

“There were a lot of studies that went into that corridor,” said Liann Alfaro, Tulsa Transit planning and marketing director. “Since it was already one of our higher-frequency and higher-ridership routes, it looked like it might be the best corridor to look at to put in a new BRT system.”

She continued, “Also, after doing some studying and looking at it, there are quite a few people that live off that corridor and there are also jobs available along that corridor.

One in seven Tulsa residents live within a 10-minute walk of the corridor and one-fifth of the city’s jobs are within a 10-minute walk of Peoria Avenue.

“Tulsa is really trying to grow and be able to be able to become one of the cool cities. We’re looking at better ways to offer different modes of transportation.”

BRT Style

The vehicles operated on BRT routes come in a broad range, from conventional buses to specially designed vehicles utilizing advanced technologies. Agencies consider the size and capacity; door width, placement and quantity; emissions; branding; and any guidance enhancements.

With the initial Silver Line, the MBTA brought in new articulated vehicles and enhanced branding. The buses have more room, a smooth ride and additional space for luggage, as they serve the airport.

The tunnel in the Seaport District that the buses would be operating in required a zero-emission solution, so the MBTA went with a hybrid vehicle. The vehicle operates on electric catenary in the tunnel and then on diesel power for the remainder of the service.

The Silver Line also has compressed natural gas vehicles, which were introduced when the line first began, but the agency continues to factor in developing bus technology — including electric vehicles.

When Tulsa Transit launches its BRT route, it will have 11 buses. Playing to Aero, the buses will be branded with an arrow, setting them apart from the standard service.

“We’ve already got all our branding put together and that’s how [riders] will be able to tell the difference,” said Alfaro.

Working with municipalities

Part of forming a successful partnership and ensure significant developments is partnering with the cities that routes operate in.

MBTA Director of Operations Planning and Outreach Wes Edwards said part of the work is being more engaged with cities. “They’re planning for future capital improvements and identifying how the streets get painted and what the signals look like. All of this supports bus service.

“We’re going through a renaissance in how we engage the cities to show how we improve transit services on their own streets.”

He said, “Municipalities, they own the streets, sidewalks and a lot of the things that our buses sort of run on. We operate the buses and we help with bus stop labels, but we rely heavily on them when improving the reliability of our system.”

Projects like the Everett dedicated bus lane pilot highlight the benefit to increasing capacity and reducing congestion on the highways.

“With the Everett pilot I think that the cities saw that there is a huge benefit from building dedicated bus lanes within the transit infrastructure,” he said.

Edwards said that the MBTA is working on both exclusive bus lanes as well stop consolidation, factoring in which aspects of BRT would be the most productive.

Tulsa Transit is looking at the characteristics it can implement along its line to improve the BRT’s efficiency and appeal.

“It will have the level boarding … and it will have more amenities than we do at our current shelters,” Alfaro said of Aero stations.

The BRT stations will have real-time arrival screens with next-bus arrival times and station-area lighting for improved security. “Some great capital assets will go on the street for this service,” Alfaro said. 

Most of the stations will be level boarding, but she said there are a few areas where they may not be able to accommodate level boarding. Level boarding is still being discussed, whether it can be offered at each station, and if not, the station will still look like the others and offer the same amenities as the other stations.

HNTB Corp. is assisting Tulsa Transit with the consultation throughout the construction and development of the BRT.

Tulsa Transit should be breaking ground in December of this year.

“I think this is a good way to ease the choice riders that we currently have to utilize public transportation,” Alfaro said. “Along with that, it is also for our current riders who need our transportation system. It will help them move through the city of Tulsa in a faster way than what we are able to do at this point.

“I think that once this Peoria corridor gets off the ground it will open the eyes of people who don’t use the transit system or understand why the transit system is so important to a city and the economic development.”