Portland has considered BRT in the past. Back when the city's first rapid transit line was being planned; BRT was a strong contender. Light rail was ultimately chosen, and now MAX is up to four lines, with another line scheduled to begin construction in 2011. More recently, the Lake Oswego transit project considered a BRT solution as an alternative, though that was eventually scaled back to "enhanced bus" (frequent limited-stop service without any infrastructure improvements). But for now, there isn't any BRT in Portland.
Or is there? While there is nothing billed as bus rapid transit here in town, there are plenty of examples of "enhanced" bus infrastructure, both present and future. There's the transit mall; numerous bus lanes and queue jump lanes scattered through town, and the on-the-drawing-board Caruthers Crossing, which will permit busses, light rail, and streetcar to all cross the Willamette River inconvenienced by auto traffic. But do these things constitute BRT?
BRT, of course, has been a source of controversy in the US. Some transit advocates view BRT as a Trojan Horse, hawked by those who don't wish to spend the money to "do it right"--and some go far as to suggest that it's all a giant plot by the auto-petrochemical complex. (The rail advocacy site lightrailnow.org is rather harsh in its assessment of BRT). Others claim that its useful applications are limited, and note that in many cases, it consists of bus service made to look like rail--so why not build rail instead? On the other side, depending on the level of service you need, you can often build much more BRT than rail for the same amount of money. BRT has several specific advantages, including the ability to support trunk lines which operate on a dedicated busway and then branch off onto local surface streets (so-called "open BRT"); and the ability to use local streets to get around obstacles that it would be difficult or expensive to add a dedicated line for. Two websites engaged in BRT advocacy are here and here. Anyone interested in BRT would be advised to read this article. (My own views on the subject have changed a bit, in large part to Jarrett's fine blog).
What is bus rapid transit, anyway?
The term "bus rapid transit" is, unfortunately, a bit of a buzzword. BRT service can range from local bus lines with less frequent stops and minor enhancements such as signal priority, such as LA's Metro Rapid, all the way up to fully-grade-separated transit lines. In addition, many services or routes which have BRT properties are not branded as such--so further investigation is in order.
The critical attributes of BRT is that it use busses (ya think?), and that it approximate, in some fashion, "rapid transit". The term "rapid transit", itself ambiguous, implies some level of service performance which is superior to ordinary mixed-traffic bus service--generally in terms of speed, reliability, and frequency. Mixed traffic bus service frequently has to make unscheduled stops (for traffic lights, blocked streets, etc)--all of which undermine both speed and reliability; and place operational constraints on frequency. Thus, any system purporting to be "rapid transit" ought to take steps to avoid times when the bus has to stop for other traffic. Ways to accomplish this include:
- Dedicated or enhanced street infrastructure. This can include full-fledged busways (which may be grade-separated), dedicated bus lanes alongside auto traffic, queue jump lanes, transit malls, green bridges and underground transit tunnels, etc. All of the "signature" BRT systems--Brisbane, Ottawa, Curitiba, Bogota--have extensive busway networks which segregate busses from other traffic.
- Bus priority arrangements. This can be something as simple as laws requiring traffic to yield to busses pulling away from the curb (present in Oregon), to signal priority at intersections, to a proposal Barcelona is considering to use lane control devices to cause motorists to yield to busses like they would yield to an ambulance. (No, the bus won't be running around town with sirens blaring).
- Use of fare collection schemes other than onboard fare collection (which can slow down loading). Some BRT systems use proof-of-payment (the system used by MAX); a few fully-enclosed BRT systems can use barriers or turnstiles--a feature typically found on subway systems. One other option is not collecting fares at all.
- Use of specialized busses. This can include longer busses with greater numbers of doors--many BRT systems use 60' articulated busses rather than than the smaller 30' and 40' models typically employed for local service. Some even have doors on both sides, and dual-sided platforms. Use of larger busses also increases system capacity; though such busses may have trouble navigating local streets (and in some cases may not be street-legal).
- Use of dedicated platforms which facilitate level boarding of wheelchairs and the like--the need to use mechanical lifts for boarding disabled passengers can slow things down tremendously. Dedicated platforms are often necessary for off-board fare collection, unless fare machines are present on-board, or the system is to be limited to passholders.
Open vs closed?
Distinction is often made between "open" bus rapid transit and "closed" bus rapid transit. In open systems, there is dedicated bus infrastructure which is used to speed up bus service, generally on some trunk lines. Ordinary busses will run part of their routes on such infrastructure in limited-stop mode; running other parts of the route in mixed traffic. In cities with a single important destination, such systems may work better than corridor-based systems such as rail or closed BRT. Brisbane's BRT operates on this principle. The primary disadvantage of open BRT is that it limits the ability to further speed up service with specialized rolling stock or optimized platforms or fare collection policies--as the busses also have to serve local routes where the necessary infrastructure for prepayment or dedicated platforms may not exist.
In closed systems, special bus lines run, entirely (or mostly) on dedicated infrastructure. These systems tend to resemble rail more, as the bus line serves a particular corridor rather than branching out into the wider community. Closed BRT has the advantage that it can be much more readily optimized for rapid transit applications--as the busses stay on the busway (or if they leave, only call on specific dedicated platforms), there's no need to worry about scaling up to thousands of roadside bus stops which may be no more than a signpost along the road somewhere.
It is entirely possible, of course, to mix the two types of BRT, including on the same infrastructure. (It may not be possible to mix stops in this manner, but adjacent stops can serve on flavor or another). Generally, in such a scheme, open BRT routes are branded in the same fashion as non-BRT; whereas closed BRT is branded differently--which leads us to the next topic.
One other common attributed of BRT is branding--how the service is presented to the user. Many BRT systems are identified differently from ordinary bus service. In some cases, they are branded in a similar fashion as a city's rail rapid transit (the LACMTA Orange Line and the MBTA Silver Line are two examples; both agencies use route colors for BRT, light rail, and heavy rail metro); or they may have an intermediate brand. LA, for example, has two BRT systems (the Orange Line, a closed, dedicated-busway system, and the Metro Rapid service, a limited-stop service running in mixed traffic with signal priority); each is branded separately from each other and from ordinary bus service.
Branding encompasses several things; including the visual design of the busses themselves; how routes are identified, the name of the service. etc. It can be obvious--vastly different colorschemes and other fanfare; or subtle--attaching an "R" suffix to the route numbers of rapid routes, for instance. Branding serves several purposes. Most importantly, it distinguishes different varieties of service from each other--this is especially important if the different services have different fare collection policies, for instance. Branding, and other cues (such as pricing and amenities) can also be used to signify that a given service is premium, in places where the social acceptability of transit is an issue (such as cities where "ordinary" bus service is seen as a refuge of the poor). Branding also can serve political goals as well--a "new" bus line may be seen as more desirable to a political sponsor looking to feather his cap, than an extension to an existing service.
Branding isn't strictly necessary, of course. An entirely open BRT system may do with no BRT-specific branding at all, and treat the infrastructure enhancements as simply parts of the urban fabric, of no particular import; if a bus runs on a busway, or not, it doesn't matter. Closed BRT systems, especially when different policies are in force, generally need higher levels of branding--so passengers will e.g. know whether they need to buy a ticket from a machine, or pay the driver at the door, in order to ride a particular bus.
The Portland situation
As noted in the lead section, Portland has quite a bit of dedicated bus (and rail) infrastructure in place. The transit mall is the signature piece of Portland's bus infrastructure--a high-capacity downtown transitway which effortlessly delivers busses and MAX trains from Union Station to PSU. There are plenty of other streets with bus lanes--82nd Avenue near Clackamas Town Center, Hawthorne and Madison, etc. And the "Caruthers Crossing" will provide a near-dedicated bus connection between the the south end of the mall, and important Southeast destinations like Powell Boulevard and the center street bus depot.
What is essentially missing is long corridors of enhanced bus infrastructure served by frequent, all-day, limited stop service. While TriMet runs quite a few frequent services (even if "frequent service" isn't as frequent as it used to be) TriMet's bus lines are generally either locals or expresses.
BRT on Powell
What would a Powell BRT look like? A lot depends on the budget available, but the Caruthers Crossing would likely be an important part of it. Between 12th and 39th, it would be difficult to provide dedicated bus lanes without spending a lot of money or doing a lot of violence to the existing neighborhood, so improvements may be limited to signal priority and additional queue jump lanes. (Keep in mind that Powell--US 26--is an ODOT facility; so removing auto lanes is likely a non-starter). East of 39th, there is more room to add dedicated bus lanes, as there is a wider median and the various stretches of frontage road (leftovers from the Mount Hood Freeway). The intersection at SE 82nd (one of the busiest and most hazardous in the city) would provide challenges, as would the interchange with I-205 (and the nearby Green Line).
East of the freeway is one of TriMet's bus depots, so enhanced bus infrastructure along the corridor could also help reduce the expenses associated with deadheading. Powell is presently a 2-lane road between I-205 and SE 174th, then widens to 3-4 through lanes east of there. Going to a full four lanes is probably necessary to support BRT.
What about elsewhere?
Where else in Portland might BRT make sense? The Barbur corridor is one which might benefit from BRT as opposed to rail. Like Powell, Barbur has excellent connections to the transit mall. And whereas Powell is part of the eastside grid, and the #9 bus (the present local service) has numerous parallel routes; Barbur acts more like a trunk line, with numerous routes converging on it to head downtown. The grades involved in climbing to Burlingame might be problematic for rail, especially in a dense-traffic environment. If the goal is to provide rapid transit service to outer suburbs like Tualatin or Sherwood, light rail might be more appropriate than BRT due to the distance involved; but a light-rail line serving these communities could also run along OR217 and connect to the the Blue Line in Beaverton (which could also help deal with the WES problem).
A second place where BRT might be beneficial would be a connection between the CRC, when built, and downtown. As mentioned in this post, I view rapid (or express) bus service to Vancouver as complimentary to the Yellow Line; given that Clark County plans to build BRT, making it easy to extend it into Portland is an obvious thing to do.
Other potential BRT corridors, pulled out of the air, include:
- TV Highway, possibly continuing into Portland via Beaverton/Hillsdale and Barbur
- The Hall Boulevard corridor--another WES alternative.
- A line reaching St. Johns
- Milwaukie/Clackamas or Milwaukie/Oregon City. These may be better served with light rail, given the extension of MAX into Milwaukie, but BRT could make sense here as well.
- Along the downtown eastside, and across either the Broadway or Steel Bridges, completing a downtown "transit loop".
A common argument against BRT in the Portland context, and one I'm sure I've made before, is "we have MAX for rapid transit". That argument, however, isn't really a good one--there are applications where BRT (especially those forms not involving full busways) might make more sense. We have both streetcar and local bus service serving neighborhood access needs; and we have both commuter rail and express bus providing quick rides to work from far-flung suburbs. So BRT makes sense, and it's good to see that TriMet appears to be taking it seriously as an option. Where to put it, and what form it would take, obviously involves more thought than I've put into a blog posting, but it is something that definitely ought not be taken off the table.