Transportation Nation

Rapid bus transit a cheaper alternative to rail

Marketplace Staff Nov 9, 2010
Transportation Nation

Rapid bus transit a cheaper alternative to rail

Marketplace Staff Nov 9, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Let’s take a quick second here and do a little word association: I say “bus.” You say what? Slow? Crowded? Late? All of the above?

Buses don’t necessarily have the best reputation. But a new kind of bus line is popping up across the country. Bus Rapid Transit, dedicated lanes separated from the rest of the traffic flow. All in the name of providing the speed and comfort of rail, just with rubber tires on regular pavement.

From the public radio collaboration “Changing Gears,” Dan Bobkoff continues our series on the Future of Transportation.

Dan Bobkoff: Enrique Penalosa is about to take his first ride on Cleveland’s bus rapid transit.

Enrique Penalosa: The bus comes this way or it goes that way?

The station’s in the middle of a major thoroughfare called Euclid Avenue. Penalosa’s paying attention to all the details.

Penalosa: Exclusive lanes…

Buses have their own lanes and special traffic lights to speed through intersections.

Penalosa: Prepaid stations, prepaid boarding.

You buy your ticket at the station so you don’t have to wait in line as people fumble for change. And the platform is at the same height as the bus so you can walk right on.

Sound of bus bell

It even sounds like a train.

Penalosa: The whole thing looks like it has been done with care and love.

That’s a real compliment. See, Enrique Penalosa is kind of the guru of bus rapid transit these days. A decade ago, he was mayor of Bogota, Colombia. The buses then were congested and unorganized.

Penalosa: Complete chaos, traffic jams.

And, virtually overnight, his administration built what many consider the gold standard of bus rapid transit.

Penalosa: Yes, we did it from zero. From scratch to operation in just three years.

Just three years. Think about that for a moment. In one term as mayor, Penalosa managed to plan, build and open a public transit system that moves 1.7 million people a day.

That’s been impressing transit officials in the U.S. too. They face shrinking budgets for their grand plans. That’s why Los Angeles, Kansas City and Eugene, Ore., have recently launched bus rapid transit. And Joe Calabreze of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority says it worked there too.

Joe Calabreze: We spent about $200 million. If it was rail, it would have cost about $800 million.

Cleveland’s route is called the HealthLine. It’s a nine-mile connection between downtown and a neighborhood with major hospitals and the city’s cultural center. The construction devastated many businesses along the line, but since it opened two years ago, development is picking up. Estimates peg more than $4 billion in investment — at least in part spurred by the buses.

Steve Bland: I’ve been to Cleveland three times and I’ve been to a couple of others and Cleveland and the Euclid Avenue corridor, we can all learn a lot from what they’ve done there. It’s truly impressive.

Steve Bland runs the Port Authority of Allegheny County, that’s the transit agency for the Pittsburgh area. That city also has a university and hospital center disconnected from its downtown, and the hope is bus rapid transit could link the two and help the struggling neighborhood in between.

David Wohlwill: Here we are in the uptown area.

Uptown is that struggling neighborhood. I’m on a bus with David Wohlwill in Pittsburgh. He does planning for the Port Authority.

Bobkoff: So this is really a community that could go either way.

Wohlwill: Yeah, and I’m very optimistic that it’s going to go forward, in part because of the high level of transit service.

But John Norquist of the Congress for the New Urbanism says that while cash-strapped transit agencies love cheap bus rapid transit, there’s a perception problem.

John Norquist: Americans think of it as Greyhound and Trailways. And if you can’t afford to ride on the train, or you can’t afford to buy a car, then you ride on Greyhound. So it’s kind of stigmatized.

The stigma against buses is so bad that when Joe Calabreze of Cleveland’s transit agency talks about the HealthLine, he doesn’t even use the b-word.

Calabreze: We don’t call them buses. We call them rapid transit vehicles.

Catchy right? Jim Anderson riding the HealthLine one morning wasn’t impressed with bus rapid transit.

Jim Anderson: Added trees and flowers. Still gets me from A to B.

You can’t please everyone. But overall, the HealthLine seems to be working. The transit authority’s Joe Calabreze says ridership is up 56 percent over the old, traditional bus route.

In Cleveland, I’m Dan Bobkoff for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Take a peek at what bus rapid transit looks like, how those dedicated lanes work with regular traffic and hear other stories in our Future of Transportation series.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.