Skip to main content

BRT: Lessons from Cleveland

Robert Sullivan has a piece in New York Magazine about the future of bus transportation in New York City. It has been getting a ton of attention around the blogosphere. The article itself is a very well-written piece of journalism and everyone should take the time to read it; but as far as BRT goes, it skims over important details.

Sullivan describes New York's plan for new BRT lines as a 'subway on the street'. This is an ambitious claim - one that I fear the eventual bus lines will not be able to live up to if they aren't done correctly. He writes:
But over the last decade, in a few transit-enlightened cities around the world, the bus has received a dramatic makeover[...] Buses that used to share the street with cars and trucks are now driving in lanes reserved exclusively for buses and are speeding through cities like trains in the street. They are becoming more like subways.
The article centers around the Bronx's BX12, with additional references to BRT lines in the 'transit-enlightened cities' of London, Cleveland and Bogota.

(from Flick user soopahgrover)

Admittedly, I've been a pretty harsh critic of BRT. I've heard the promises, witnessed the hype, and experienced the letdown. I lived in Cleveland and traveled the Euclid Corridor frequently during my last year in the Forest City. I watched with frustration a BRT line that is frequently referenced as a 'transit success' by people who, I believe, have often never ridden it.

Sullivan enthusiastically describes the BX12 in the Bronx and the promise such a line could bring to the rest of the city. His description is eerily similar to what people were writing about the Healthline a few years ago:
All of the sudden, though, here it comes: the Bx12. Right away, you see it’s different. A different paint job—new branding, as the transit people like to say—and bright-blue lights flashing on the header. Buying a ticket is different, too: You pay before you board, from a little box like a MetroCard vending machine that offers you a receipt. In the world of transit planning, boarding time is everything, and the receipt streamlines the process. “You just hold on to it,” a woman offers, shouting from under her earbuds. She smiles. “It’s much faster.”
Before I go on, I need to say this now and make it loud and clear: I do not think that public transit infrastructure is a waste of money. I think that when we compromise these projects to appease people who do think this stuff is a waste of money, we wind up with poor results.

The most important thing to understand about Cleveland's BRT, the Healthline, is that it's slow. Last year I calculated that the Healthline operates between University Circle and Downtown Cleveland at a speed of 10.6 MPH, only about 3 MPH faster than the typical bus in New York City. A recent Plain Dealer article by Karen Farkas confirms, using RTA's own run data, that the Heathline is, in fact, very slow.

The Heathline is hardly a 'subway on the street' and Cleveland hardly looks like a 'transit-enlightened city' among its locals. I can make this first claim because Cleveland also has a rapid transit line, the Red Line, which my calculations show to be about two-and-a-half times as fast. If you want to travel in speed, you're best bet is to get on a train, not a bus, even a fancy-looking Healthline bus.

The fundamental problem with the Heathline isn't a battle for lane space, an issue which Sullivan draws much attention to in his piece. I don't think I ever once witnessed a car driving in the BRT lane on Euclid Avenue.

The problem, which I've concluded from watching these buses for many months, is the traffic lights.

There are an unbelievable number of traffic lights along the Euclid corridor. Traffic lights with long cycles, and yes, the Healthline sits and waits at every red light. I wish I had taken photos to demonstrate some of the more egregious signals, but believe me when I say the Healthline is traveling at 10.6 average MPH because it spends so much time sitting and waiting. Buses move, at best, as fast as regular vehicle traffic.

If we want BRT to be a 'subway on the street' - then we need to make it act like one. It needs to stop only at designated stations and for no reason other than to pick up and drop off riders. If this means life becomes more difficult for motorists, then so be it. If this means manipulating traffic signals so that buses can cruise through every time, then it has to be done. If it means banning left turns all the way along the corridor, then by all means ban left turns. If you make concessions because motorists complain that they will be inconvenienced, you'll wind up just like Cleveland - a city with a BRT line that is mostly B and hardly RT.

Of course, traffic signals aren't the only issue. Sullivan draws attention to an improved boarding system on the Bronx's BX12. Like the subway, you pay before you board, so there's no time wasted shoveling nickles into the fare box. In theory, this is a great way to speed-up the boarding process. What Sullivan glosses over is the enforcement aspect.

When you enter a New York Subway station, you slide your Metrocard and only then can you push through a turnstile and onto the platform. If you don't pay, you can't enter. This simple system works, but it isn't the case on BRT systems. You're supposed to pay, but there aren't any turnstiles. How does anyone know you actually have?

In Cleveland, this is accomplished by positioning transit police along the corridor. Occasionally, they board, check that everyone paid the fare, and fine anyone who didn't. Again, sounds great on paper, but it actually makes people feel like criminals, even those who have done nothing wrong. On the Healthline, you're essentially guilty until proven innocent. Imagine, you're on your way home after a long day of work, do you really want to be hassled to prove that you paid your fare?

Lastly, there's the deep-rooted (although difficult to explain) psychological love for trains and aversion to buses. Ask people in Cleveland about the Healthline, and they'll probably agree that they look nicer than the buses they replaced, but they will also say that it's still looks a bus, rides like a bus, and feels like a bus.

If New York City and other cities are serious about making BRT work, then I offer the following suggestions:
  1. Signals: Adopt a take-no-prisoners attitude in regards to the speed of the line. If you want it to be a 'subway on the street' it needs to be as fast as one - no questions asked. If buses stop for even a single traffic light, this cannot be achieved.
  2. Fares: Figure out how to collect fares without making people feel like common criminals. I don't have a specific suggestion here, but certainly there must be a better way than the way Cleveland does it.
  3. Concessions: Don't make concessions because cab drivers or motorists complain about potentially slow-moving traffic. Concessions will benefit neither motorists or bus riders.
Lastly, I want to post this image, taken in Midtown Cleveland in May, near the intersection of East 66th and Euclid.

Although it's hard to see, the text on the banner reads 'Healthline: Pumping New Life into Cleveland.' The irony is that it's on the side of a dilapidated building on one of the most rundown blocks of Euclid between Downtown and University Circle.

Opponents will use the same image as evidence that transit projects are always and everywhere a waste of money. I disagree. If anything, the opposite is true and there is plenty of evidence where good transit drives development. BRT is touted as being a cheap alternative to rail transit. But that's not good if the resulting project is 'cheap'. If these projects are worth doing, they're worth doing right. I hope that in New York, a city where people truly seem to understand the value of good public transit, the idea isn't lost.


Anonymous said…
Most people already have some idea of what a nice LRT can look like.

But, there needs to be a better awareness of what best practices of BRT looks like before people can really have informed debate on the two modes.

International examples of quality BRT:

And lastly -Street- level Johannesburg:,28.04194&panoid=luKWn-_DiQl47OI75aO_Sw&cbp=12,252.03,,0,1.84&ll=-26.204678,28.04194&spn=0,0.000591&z=21

Now lets talk.
Globetrotter said…
I agree with many of your points - and it is worthwhile for policy makers and transit planners who are advocating for BRT to realise that the mode works best at regional scale with few stops. The perfect example can be drawn from Bogota, which showing extraordinary political will re-allocated 4 of 8 travel lanes on manys major arterials to transit (BRT). So they have 2 lanes in each direction of travel.

Here is where it gets interesting: BRT vehicles in the inside lane of the ROW stop at stations every 750 m (sorry, I don;t speak in miles), while those on the outside lane are super express - they will often skip 5 or 6 stations, and cross the much of the district (Bogota is a "D.C.") with only about 4 stops. Experts have termed this "Quickways". These super-express routes are the most popular and crowded, 2-3 times higher ridership of the local service counterparts. The super-express routes are at least 2x faster than the standard routes, and probably about 4x faster than driving. Passengers will put put with the most cramped conditions just to take advantage of the speed gains at the regional level.
Bogota (building on Curitiba) also offers certainty about the lines, which are anchored with very permanent, wheelchair/stroller-friendly, weather protected station infrastructure.
Mel said…
TRUST ME. Many, many cars drive in the Healthline lane on Euclid. I live on the corner of E4th/Euclid and see it more than once a day -- many times a day. It's a combination of people not realizing where they are, where they are going and then, well, there are the cars that just STOP in the only car lane to let people in/out without any regard to moving traffic.

And the buses? They just honk incessantly at them. And obviously, are forced to stop for the cars. The light especially at E. 6th and Euclid? There is a car a day sitting at the light in the bus lane -- not just there to pass a stopped car or two.

Let me tell you, ever since the valet stops went in on Euclid, it's even WORSE. Frankly, I don't think it's "fair" that the valet can block off all the free street parking, so visitors have no choice other than using the valet service or parking in a lot or garage. Whomever allowed it... is a dumbass.

But not like anyone here knows how to parallel park anyway. :)
Rob Pitingolo said…
Regarding cars in the BRT lanes - I stand corrected.

Now, I have witnessed a number of near wrecks because motorists turn left when the left-turn arrow is red. That's either the result of impatience or ignorance, I'm not really sure.
Anonymous said…
This is a thoughtfully-written post, and I think that people planning BRT in New York or elsewhere would ignore the lessons that it draws from an actual on-the-ground implementation such as the Healthline at their peril. I need no convincing that the author cares about transit and critiques it in order to help it get better, not to tear it down as is the reflex response of so many doctrinaire conservatives. The only portion I disagree with in the post is the claim that using the "honor system" of fare collection (i.e. relying on random fare inspections, rather than physical barriers within stations to restrain non-payers) is harming the system. The honor system is what has been used on virtually all new light rail systems in the country, including some very successful ones in terms of ridership. A relatively light amount of enforcement seems to be all that is required to keep failure to pay fares to relatively minimal levels, and I haven't heard too many complaints from people being made to feel like criminals because they are asked to produce their fares. All of those Wall Street execs that ride high-quality commuter rail from southwest Connecticut to their high-paid jobs in Manhattan presumably don't mind having to prove that they have paid their fares.

Other than that one criticism, very nice post.

Jake W, Oakland, CA
not a gator said…
Wow, sounds like Cleveland failed to give its BRT line secondary signal priority. BIG MISTAKE.

I really hate these BRT projects, because they only work if multiple elements come together. If you skimp ("let's rip out some stops and repaint the bus") you're going to get what you paid for.

Bogota spend a LOT of money on infrastructure. The US Gov't has been pushing BRT specifically to AVOID spending money on infrastructure! Express buses (or "BRT") do work, but subways work even better. Ya, sorry, you really do get what you pay for.

I'm experiencing major Schadenfreude now, though, since ADA demands have crept into bus stop and access to bus stops. Yep, the US piled ADA demands on subways and then dumped them in favor of bus because without ADA requirements, bus was cheaper. Not anymore, boyo!

I wonder if the well-paid mandarins at the Volpe Center sleep well at night knowing their bright ideas have led to innumerable unnecessary cases of asthma in inner-city children, caused by rubber tire and diesel pollution.
John said…
"Imagine, you're on your way home after a long day of work, do you really want to be hassled to prove that you paid your fare?"

That's how conductors on trains work every day and nobody minds.
Mark W. "Some Guy on Bridge" Schumann said…
I think the dumbest criticism of Cleveland's Health Line is that it takes lanes away from car traffic.

My response is, "What kind of fool drives on Euclid anyway?" Please. You have nice fast Chester a block to the north, nice fast Carnegie (or Prospect) to the south. Euclid has always been slow to drive on.

Popular posts from this blog

In Praise of Southwest's 'C' Boarding Group

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet from someone complaining that their Southwest Airlines boarding pass had been assigned A20 (meaning they would be at least one of the first twenty passengers to board the plane). Apparently this person though they should have been assigned a higher number, less their flight experience be considerably spoiled.

Despite the complaints, Southwest has resisted demands to assign seats on its flights, a decision which I personally applaud. I'll admit that I was skeptical when they rolled out the newest boarding procedure, assigning both boarding groups and a line number; but in hindsight it seems like one of the best operational decisions they've ever made. If nothing else, it effectively eliminated the infamous "cattle call" whereby fliers were getting to airports hours in advance and sitting in line on the floor as if they were waiting for the midnight showing of the new Star Wars movie.

When I was an intern at Southwest Airlines last winter, I…

So You Want to be a Southwest Airlines Intern?

My personal website must have pretty decent SEO - because in the past year, I've received about two dozen emails from aspiring Southwest Airlines interns looking to draw on my experience in search of their own dream internship. In the past two weeks alone a few new emails have already started rolling in...

(from flickr user San Diego Shooter)

If you've found your way here, you might be hoping for the silver bullet; a secret tip that will propel you above the competition. Unfortunately, I do not know any inside secrets. I can only share my experience as an internship candidate about two years ago and, rather than responding individually to future emails I anticipate to receive, I hope that potential interns will find the information posted here valuable.

Understand: Southwest Airlines is a very unique company. The corporate culture at Southwest is truly unlike that of nearly every other company. But you probably already knew that, since it now seems mandatory for every management,…

Mixing Sports and Business

In the last two days I've devoured every article in the Washington Post about the Nationals painful and epic defeat on Friday night in the NLDS. It was a tough way to see the season end, there's no doubt about that.

(from wallyg on Flickr)
These articles make it clear that there are a lot of people emotionally invested in professional sports. I think they sometimes they forget that, ultimately, Major League Baseball is big business. Each team is a major corporation and the league itself is an organization governed by a bunch of executives. The television networks that show the games are under contract with the team owners and the games aren't usually available to those without cable.

This is why it can be so hard to be a fan in this game. It's the multi-millionaire and billionaire owners that call most of the shots. They get to decide how much they're willing to spend on players. They get to decide who to hire as the CEO of the company. They get to decide how much t…