How "Rapid" is BRT?

I'll admit, I am a little late to the party on this one. It's been nearly a year since Cleveland launched its new BRT, the Healthline, and since Streetsblog proclaimed the line was getting "rave reviews". Now that I live in a part of town with better access to the Healthline, I finally got a chance to take a ride. My overall impression: wow, the Healthline is really painfully slow...

(from Wikipedia)

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but for all the hype, the improved boarding platforms, pre-paid fare system, dedicated bus lanes, unique traffic signals, and the fact that it has "rapid transit" in the name, I think I was justified in believing that its speed might be somewhat synonymous with rapid.

The official schedule lists an 8am weekday trip from East 105th & Euclid Avenue to Superior & East Roadway as taking 23 minutes. That's a distance of 4.08 miles. Calculating it out gives you the average speed for the trip as a whopping 10.6 mph.

Contrast this with the Red Line, an actual rapid transit line. On a comparable trip, from the University Circle Station to the Tower City Station, the schedule lists the ride as taking 13 minutes. The route is 5.34 track miles long, giving it an average speed of 24.6 mph.

I haven't actually timed it, but I am pretty confident that I could ride my bike down the Euclid Avenue corridor at least as fast as 10.6 mph. So why is the Healthline so slow?

For one thing, there are probably too many stops. If a subway or elevated rail line had been built along the same corridor, I suspect there probably would be about half as many stops. Bus lines always have way too many stops; some local buses have a stop at every single city block. The Healthline has them slightly more spaced out but still relatively close together. The unfortunate thing about designing the system with so many stops is that it makes it that much more difficult to develop around any single one of them, a problem I suspect that Healthline will face if the economic climate in Cleveland is ever favorable to development again.

The second problem is that there is an overabundance of traffic lights and the Healthline doesn't seem to be technologically advanced enough to efficiently cruise through them. I always imagined that true BRT would be equipped with some sort of GPS or a similar technology that would change the traffic lights just as buses arrive so that they would never sit at a a red light... kind of in the same spirit as emergency vehicles that can manipulate traffic lights to get where they are going more quickly. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Healthline. Sitting at long red lights is the name of the game.

Needless to say, I was disappointed with the Heathline from a speed aspect. Eucid Avenue looks great, though. The bike lanes are definitely the best part (although I will have more to say about that soon). So there certainly has been improvement along the corridor; but the improvements have more to do with aesthetics and bicycle improvements than with transit itself.

I hope this serves as a lesson to cities that are thinking about investing in BRT instead of rail. I think The Overhead Wire is correct in arguing that you get what you pay for with BRT. When interest groups argue that BRT is a cheaper alternative to light or heavy rail, an important question to ask is exactly why it is so much cheaper. If you want to do BRT right, and you want it to truly be a form of rapid transit, then you're going to have to pay, anyway.


    I might add that the problems you mentioned aren't just problems for BRT but also LRT on arterial streets as well. The T Third that just opened up in San Francisco has some of the same issues due to too many stops. The distance of that new section of line is 5.1 miles and it takes 26 minutes on the schedule or 12 mph. I wonder if there was any time savings benefit to electrification of the health line and why they didn't consider it.


    Pantograph Trolleypole, perhaps it would have been appropriate to also compare the Healthline to Cleveland's two LRT lines as well. Both the Green and Blue lines east of Shaker Square are at-grade and required to obey traffic signals (with I think one exception on each line where they travel under a busy cross-street). Regardless, the average speeds on those stretches of track are 16.7 mph for the Green Line and 14.5 mph for the Blue Line. In my opinion, a major difference is the fact that the proportion of red lights that they stop for is much lower and the time they spent stopped at those red lights is lower as well.

    On September 10, 2009 Anonymous said...

    A cyclist of average competence can average 15 mph over a 10 mile urban commute.

    Bike commute is definitely faster than 10 mph.

    On September 10, 2009 Steve O said...

    @anonymous 15 mph is doable without traffic lights. However, that's a difficult speed to average on city streets obeying traffic laws. I agree with Rob, though, that he can probably beat the 10 mph the Healthline averages.


    Um... ride yer bike! You can do it in a dress or jacket and tie. It does take more thinking in the rain, but is awfully cheap after buying a bike for less than you spent the last time you took your car in to get something replaced.


    Be curious to get more thoughts on overall experience -- like, is it comfortable? Ride smooth? Does that matter to you? Cost. etc.

    Be nice to know if they're planning on doing 'signal prioritization' (i.e. 'green wave') so the bus can cruise thru would-be red lights.

    Also, still haven't heard back from RTA or Plain Dealer on whether or not the tainted concrete is, in fact, tainted, and if it needs to be replaced or not.



    My measured speeds in a 14km urban commute by bicycle, obeying all laws and stopping at all intersections as required, range from around 20km/hr if I'm really taking it easy or get delayed to around 25km/hr if I'm working hard and get good luck at intersections. 22 or 23 is pretty typical. There is then some time to spend locking up or unlocking the bike, but then again, compared to the car parking, the bicycle parking is right by the door, not across the street, so I save that. And unlike transit, no waiting to get on, no schedule to think about, no walking to/from the stops.

    I'm used to regular old plain buses averaging roughly the same speed as the bicycle (not counting the waiting time), that's what my measurements have indicated in Milwaukee. For fancy BRT to go even slower than a plain normal bus is just bizarre.

    At least it's faster than running, (if you don't count the waiting time, anyway. I sure hope the service is frequent.), but running at 80% of bicycle speed is just amazingly bad for a motor vehicle. It's just boggling.

    On July 08, 2010 Mark W. "Some Guy on Bridge" Schumann said...

    Before it opened, the Health Line was advertised as being "20% faster!" than the traditional #6 bus line--which really was notoriously slow.

    Really? All that hoopla for a 20% speed increase?

    On July 24, 2010 Kelly said...

    They just opened a "high speed" bus line here in Lima, Peru. I think the idea of high speed for buses has to be comparative. The buses here aren't particularly speedy, but they do have designated lanes, separate from the car lanes. So while the cars are crawling along in rush hour traffic, the buses - while not blindingly fast - do have the advantage of free and open lanes. Bikes here are near suicide - I just hook mine up to a trainer for exercise. :/