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 About.com 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 About.com 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.


Reality Check....Great Minds Want Rapid Transit




Reality Check Picture


RVA Rapid Transit has a vision. A vision of an affordable, effective, and premium Rapid Transit systems that serves everyone and that everyone wants to ride. But this isn’t an idea that we came up with on the spur of the moment. We are a group of citizens who are watching the larger trends in America towards sustainability and mass transit, and we are responding to that movement. We love Metropolitan Richmond, and we see RVA’s potential to become a go-to city for young professionals, start-up businesses and anyone looking for a high quality of life.  We’re working to promote a vision for the future of RVA.


And we are not alone.

On May 13, 2013 the Urban Land Institute (ULI) of Richmond met at the VCU Siegel Center to launch a one-day event called RVA Reality Check.  According to ULI’s website RVA Reality check, “is a one-day exercise that brings together diverse regional leaders to build consensus on where the projected growth of housing and jobs should be located across the region.”

Click here to read the Reality Check.


RVA Reality check did not set out to take the place of an official regional plan, but to bring professionals together from various fields to envision what the Richmond of 2035 might look like.  RVA Reality check consisted of multiple planning teams working independently of one another to see if any common vision of the Richmond of 2035 would emerge. Participants in the teams were from various backgrounds and included real estate professionals, small business owners, government officials, urban planners, economic development professionals and nonprofit representatives from various faith-based and civic groups.  By the end of this massive brainstorming session of some of the best minds throughout RVA, a big surprise emerged! In the words of the report;

“Leading up to the day, volunteers anticipated that some participants would opt to include transit, and others would focus just on the placement of Legos®, as the transit and roads were optional. Over 70 percent of the major transportation improvement miles recommended were new or improved mass transit routes.”


By the end of the Reality Check “Game Day” consensus emerged around the following transit routes:

Downtown to Airport 85%

–– Route 1 Downtown to Chester 85%

–– Route 1 Downtown to Ettrick/Petersburg 70%

–– Route 1 Downtown to Ashland 70%

–– Broad St. Downtown to Short Pump/West Creek 70%

–– Route 60 Downtown to Midlothian 70%

–– Route 360 Downtown to Brandermill/Woodlake 67%

–– Route 360 Downtown to Mechanicsville 63%


Overall, 93% of groups that participated in “Game Day” saw Rapid Transit as key to the future of Richmond. Connected with the desire for Rapid Transit was the desire for high density zoning.

RVA Rapid Transit representatives did not attend this event, nor we were aware of the event until recently. But the Reality Check’s proposal for new transit routes are virtually the same as those RVA Rapid Transit is proposing!  This isn’t about us. This is about a movement, an idea, a vision, that is rising up from multiple organizations, leaders and the citizens of the Metropolitan Richmond area. The vision is clear. The question remains …


Are you ready to ride?

Then why wait till 2035?