GAO publishes extensive report on BRT

GAO BRT Report

 Recently, RVA Rapid Transit reported on the Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the effects of Bus Rapid Transit. We would like to summarize this fifty four page report for those who do not have the time to read the entire report. The 2012 report, surveyed 20 BRT projects nationwide. The GAO also did five site visits to BRT projects to gain more insight on particular characteristics of the projects. These 20 BRT projects were compared to 20 railway projects to determine differences in ridership ( GAO, 2).

Overall, after one year of service, BRT has resulted in an increase in ridership for 13 of 15 projects that reported ridership information. This translates into an average travel savings times of 10 to 35 percent. Overall, U.S BRT projects have lower ridership than international BRT systems, such as those in South America. The report’s authors explain this difference because U.S BRT systems generally have lower population densities and U.S  riders generally have a more positive view of rail systems than bus systems ( GAO, introduction).

However, the study found that success of rail over BRT was not so much an issue of the inherent superiority or inferiority of one system over the other, for each type of transportation has benefits and drawbacks. Instead the study found that marketing, perception, infrastructure development, and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) all contribute to the success of a transit system.

Cleveland Ohio, for example, helped spur economic development by investing in dedicated lanes for the BRT vehicles, which is one way for transportation planners to signal the community’s commitment to the corridor. The study found that the majority of the BRT projects surveyed ( 16 of the 20) operated in mixed traffic for 50% or more of their route ( GAO, 10). Only 5 of the 20 BRT routes surveyed traveled along a dedicated or semi-dedicated guide way for 30% or more of their routes ( GAO, 10).  According to a recent Broad Street BRT update presented at April 22nd’s Richmond City Council Land Use, Housing and Transportation committee, the current Broad Street BRT plan would call for 50% dedicated guide ways putting the project in the top of the pack as far as BRT in the United States is concerned.

The GAO study found that this sense of permanence from infrastructure development was reflected in land values around BRT corridors. For example, “the University Circle portion of the Healthline, which received significant infrastructure and private institutional investments (i.e., investments that are more likely to be perceived as permanent by developers and others),experienced modest to large increases in land values.” ( GAO, 34).  This particular area of the Cleveland Healthline had an average increase in property values in $10 per square foot, an increase of 30% three years after the Healthline opened ( GAO, pg 40).


The Cleveland Healthline, because it is so similar to the Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn, was used by GRTC and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit to predict the potential economic development of the Broad Street BRT. According to the most recent Broad Street BRT update the Broad Street BRT could result in $1.5 million dollars in economic impact each year, a $1.1 billion  increase in property values over 20 years, and a $98.3 million increase in real estate tax revenue over a 20 year period.

Finally, the report pointed out that Bus Rapid Transit and light rail do not necessarily have to be antagonistic ideas. Though it is often pointed out that BRT has lower capital costs (because of less upfront infrastructure) and light or heavy rail has less operating costs (because of greater carrying capacity and longer life of rail cars) such operating costs are highly dependent upon population density and thereby ridership. According to one transit expert interviewed for the GAO report:

“while signaling and control costs are high for rail transit, there is a tipping pointbwhere given a high enough density and ridership, rail transit begins to have lower operating costs overall. New York City Transit officials commented that while construction costs for a street-running BRT are about 1/500th of the cost of building a heavy rail, operating costs for a bus operation can be higher. Two operators can carry close to 2,000 riders on a single heavy rail train, whereas in a BRT system, 24 operators are needed to carry the same number of riders. “ (GAO, 31). Yet, as an article on Public Transportation Operating Costs points out many Metropolitan areas lack the ridership to justify even light rail yet still desire to increase transit oriented development. In the words of the Christopher Mackechnie, an urban planner and author of the article:

“It is true that one light rail train consisting of three sixty feet long cars can carry as many people as four and one-half regular buses. What this means is that assuming passenger load remains constant, a light rail train that has three-car consists operating every ten minutes would need to be replaced by standard buses operating almost every two minutes (six light rail trains per hour = 27.5 standard buses per hour). If there is enough demand along a corridor to operate buses every two minutes, then a light rail train would have lower operating costs than buses.”

Yet as the table Mackechnie provides points out few US cities have the ridership to support light rail. In the words of Mackechnie, “ Replacing a bus route operating every fifteen minutes with even a two-car light rail train operating every fifteen minutes is the equivalent of increasing corridor capacity by three hundred percent (a two-car light rail train is the equivalent of three standard buses). While ridership is likely to increase due to the introduction of trains, it is unlikely to increase by three hundred percent.”


Light Rail vs Bus
City Bus Cost Light Rail Cost
Dallas $122.38 $451.33
Salt Lake $118.24 $124.01
Denver $102.76 $170.18
Sacramento $119.51 $232.00
Los Angeles $127.28 $391.43
Portland, OR $134.39 $187.55
Minneapolis $123.64 $183.82
Phoenix $102.82 $180.35
Baltimore $163.96 $246.73
Philadelphia $141.34 $166.26
Boston $142.96 $216.45
San Diego $84.61 $137.67
Cleveland $126.12 $292.31
Buffalo $114.23 $280.97
Mean $121.87 $232.82
Max $163.96 $451.33
Min $84.61 $124.01
Median $122.38 $216.45
SD $19.50 $90.89




The authors of the GAO study suggests that mass transit is not a choice between bus vs. rail but a choice that makes economic sense based on density and ridership. The study concludes by suggesting that Bus Rapid Transit could actually lay the groundwork for light rail in areas that simply do not currently have the ridership or population densities to support a light rail system. In the words of the report, “ According to one real estate expert we spoke with, a successful BRT line can serve as a precursor to rail transit since it allows nearby property owners to see the actual and potential increase in property values stemming from the presence of transit.” (GAO, 40).  Another expert also pointed out that “communities can use BRT systems to test out potential corridors for light rail or heavy rail systems and provide some insight into the number and spacing of stops, as well as ridership.” (GAO, 40).  The report goes on to say:

“Project sponsors and stakeholders in four of our five site-visit locations indicated that the BRT projects could one day transform into rail transit service. Los Angeles Metro officials explained that Wilshire Boulevard, which is currently serviced by the Metro Rapid system, is the preferred location for a long-deferred subway extension project. According to Metro officials, the agency is still interested in establishing a subway line along this corridor, but it might be 20 or 25 years before this happens. In Seattle, King County Metro officials believe that the RapidRide A Line has established the transit agency’s commitment to capital and service investments that build a foundation for future light rail service in the corridor.” (GAO, 40)

The GAO is a well respected, nonpartisan, government agency who’s report shows the promise of Bus Rapid Transit as well as the downsides and areas for growth in this emerging form of Mass Transit in the United States. We at RVA Rapid Transit encourage you all to read the full report and decide for yourself if Bus Rapid Transit is right for Metro Richmond.