High-Speed Transit, Off the Rails

Bus Rapid Transit

image by Joe Di Gianni

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The humble city bus is often portrayed as the poor person’s public transportation, especially compared to more expensive subways and glitzier light-rail lines. To overcome this reputation, reports OnEarth magazine (Winter 2010), urban planners from Beijing to Bogotá and in a handful of U.S. cities are creating high-tech bus rapid transit systems outfitted with vehicles that look like sleek European bullet trains—sans tracks.

The systems offer local policy makers the rare chance to offer their constituencies something that’s sexy, functional, and affordable. In Los Angeles, the Orange Line bus flies by rush hour traffic in a dedicated lane, with sensors that switch street signals to speed up trips. The Health Line in Cleveland features bus stations with automated ticket dispensers and raised platforms that make it easy to get on and off the bus. The stations represent an infrastructure investment that local business can build around, secure in the knowledge that the bus line and its riders won’t simply move to another route.

A functioning rail or subway line can cost three to five times as much (respectively) as bus rapid transit. With a relatively low $200 million price tag, Cleveland’s Health Line has added an estimated $4.3 billion to the local economy.