Portland BRT: How open should it be?

Bus Rapid Transit has been getting a lot of attention in the Portland metro area recently. North of the Columbia, C-TRAN has been planning its Fourth Plain BRT project. Here in Oregon, the Powell/Division Transit Project, widely expected to be BRT of some sort, is getting ready to start. (You might be interested in this presentation from TriMet from last year). Higher-end BRT is a strong contender for the Southwest Corridor, and longer term, BRT has been actively discussed for corridors such as Tualatin to Oregon City/Clackamas via I-205, and TV Highway between Hillsboro and Beaverton. And the transit mall, essentially, is a dedicated transitway (though the high stop density and large number of signalized crossings keep it from being rapid), and when the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail project (and the new bridge) opens, there will essentially be a dedicated multimodal transit corridor stretching from OMSI to Union Station.

North of here, King County Metro operates the RapidRide service, and Community Transit operates the Swift BRT service. South of here, the Lane Transit District operates the EmX service in Eugene and Springfield. And in Salt Lake City, the Utah Transit Authority operates a BRT line called…. MAX. (Their light rail is called TRAX, for those who are interested). Yet so far, no BRT system is operating in the Portland metro area–but it appears that will change.

An important decision when considering BRT–especially when considering an expansive system, rather than a single line or two–how open should it be?
Open vs closed BRT

In rough terms, an “open” BRT system is one where service is decoupled from physical infrastructure, and a “closed” one is where there is a high degree of separation between BRT service(s) and POBS (“plain old bus service”). The high-end Brisbane (Australia) BRT system is a canonical example of an open BRT system. Grade-separated busways radiate out from the central business district, with many overlapping bus lines using the busways as a high-speed, high-frequency trunk, and then leave the busways and run on local streets to serve different neighborhoods. Ottawa’s BRT system is also an open BRT. A closed BRT system, on the other hand, more resembles a light-rail line; as dedicated busses (often with distinct branding and livery) travel on dedicated infrastructure over specific corridors, and are distinct from local bus service. EmX is a closed BRT system, as is the LA Orange Line.

Of course, “open” and “closed” is not a binary choice. Busses, fundamentally, are all rubber-tired vehicles designed to run on roads, so there is plenty of opportunity to mix and match. Swift is one example of a “hybrid” system–as several local Community Transit routes overlap with Swift, and are capable of using some of its infrastructure. In general, for a hybrid system, there are two questions to ask:

  • To what extent can “ordinary” busses take advantage of BRT infrastructure?
  • To what extent can “rapid transit” busses venture off the busway and serve neighborhoods via local streets?

Among the attributes to consider are:

  • Right-of-way needs of the vehicles: Are oversized busses used that may have difficulty running on many local streets? Is special guidance equipment, signalling, etc. needed to safely navigate a busway?
  • Platforms and platform compatibility: Are stations high-platform, low-platform, or curb-level? Is precision docking needed, to minimze the gap between platform and bus (and permit rampless boarding of wheelchairs and such)? Are on-board ramps needed? Are opposite-side doors (doors on the left in the US) needed for center platforms? Are separate platforms/stops provided for different types of service?
  • Fare collection/payment: How are fares collected–by the driver, by onboard ticket machines/validators, by ticket machines/validators at the platform, or by fare gates on the platform? Are fares enforced by physical security (gates), checked by drivers or conductors, or randomly checked by fare inspectors?
  • How easy is it for faster services to pass slower services, particularly for limited-stop services to pass local services stopped at stations not served by the faster service?

Hybrid system use cases

There are several specific use cases that are worth considering:

  • Combined rapid and local service: A common characteristic of BRT is wide stop spacing–there’s little point in speeding up bus infrastructure if the bus is to stop every 150m. 400m (about a quarter of a mile) is often specified as a minimum stop spacing, and many BRT systems average a mile or more between stops. While this does not pose a problem for many able-bodied riders–many of whom will happily trade off walking distance for faster, frequent, and more reliable service–it can negatively impact those with mobility impairments, for whom a longer walk is a burden. A common solution is to mix local and BRT service in the same corridor. LA does this with its local (orange) and Metro Rapid (red) busses; this is not difficult to do with mixed-traffic BRT (such as Metro Rapid) or BAT-lane BRT (like Swift). For higher-end BRT, however, mixing local service in can be more problematic. Several local LTD bus routes run alongside EMX on Franklin Boulevard in Eugene–but they serve separate (curbside) stops (and stay in the mixed-traffic mainline) whereas EMX serves BRT-exclusive stops in the median. As many of the EmX stops require left-side boarding, use of LTD’s regular busses on the EmX line simply won’t work.
    I can see this scenario being played out with the proposed Powell/Division line, with the rapid line having infrequent stations and queue jump lanes, and the 9 and 4 being maintained as locals (with lower frequencies) that can also take advantage of the queue jumps, but stop more frequently and may not stop at dedicated BRT stations, depending on if there are platform compatibility issues. Actually, any BRT trunk line is a candidate for a nearby or overlapping local.
  • Branching closed BRT: BRT doesn’t necessarily have to be open to take advantage of trunk/branch topology (one of the things it does that rail cannot do easily)–it just needs to be possible for BRT-specific rolling stock to travel off the busway (possibly with lesser performance). One important attribute to support this is onboard payment, if the bus will be servicing stops that don’t have ticket machines. On-board ticket machines (like Streetcar has) are a good way to do this (though machines at platforms on the BRT trunk should still be provided). Mobile ticketing apps, like TriMet is presently beta-testing, will work. A second important attribute is adequate fare inspection–you don’t want to make everyone file past the driver on a BRT service. (And mobile ticketing will probably require this as well). Many European transit agencies have use proof-of-payment on all their services, there are good reasons TriMet should head in this direction too.
    Branching will likely be important for the Southwest Corridor–simply because the existing bus service has a heavily branched topology, with numerous lines heading south on Barbur/I-5/Corbett and scattering to various destinations in west and southwest portion. Branches to Raleigh Hills/Beaverton, Garden Home/Washington Square/Murrayhill, Tigard/King City, are certainly obvious candidates. In addition, if BRT infrastructure is built between Tigard and Tualatin–might the 76 be converted to BRT as well, with the Tigard/Beaverton section done as an unimproved branch? Upgrading the northern end of the 76/78 to BRT would itself be a worthwhile project, though outside the scope of the SW Corridor.
  • Partial BRT: Another advantage of BRT over rail is that it can far more easily be staged–were a line to Tualatin built in two phases (phase 1 to Tigard, phase 2 to Tualatin), it is entirely possible for the service to continue all the way to Tualatin on surface streets in the interim, and upgrade it to higher-quality infrastructure later. And likewise for an extension to Sherwood. Or it may be the case that funding is only available for a partial line, and a street-running extension becomes a long-term solution. Or possibly “class C+” BRT at the extremities, and higher quality service closer in to town.
  • Express service on BRT. Every time TriMet opens a light-rail line, it tends to cancel redundant bus service–and a particular target of that axe are express bus routes. There are good reasons for TriMet to do this–rapid transit can generally provide similar levels of service for suburban commuters, and express busses are expensive, inefficient, and in some cases, inequitible–but many riders of express bus like the service, and don’t consider LRT to be an adequate replacement, for various reasons (some better than others). Some fraction of these former express riders can usually be counted on to abandon transit and switch to driving (and to complain about it in the press). With BRT, a viable option is to simply run the express lines on the BRT infrastructure, skipping many of the stations along the way. If this is to be done, passing facilities need to be provided, so express busses can pass locals or ordinary BRT servoce. If ordinary busses (or even coach-configured busses, like C-TRAN’s express lines) are used, the stops that they serve need to be compatible (curb-level platforms on the right) even if the ones they skip are not (raised platforms on the left).
    TriMet is planning to upgrade the 94 to all-day service, as part of its 2014 budget; providing an express alternative to the 12 between Tigard and Portland. The 96 and 92 also provide express service in the corridor catchment area (these latter two lines provide service for which there is no local equivalent, an unfortunate circumstance in my opinion). Whether this would be continued were the SW Corridor to be built (would we get three levels of service in the Barbur corridor?) is to be decided, but it is a distinct possibility.

11 responses to “Portland BRT: How open should it be?”

  1. I keep thinking, improve what we have now instead of these grandiose plans.

    How bout buses running every 8 minutes instead of BRT?

    Frequent reliable service is what gets people on the transit system. Right now Trimet is neither frequent or reliable.

    They have a good system here, if only they would concentrate on improving that and stop with the expansions already!

    But ‘they’ keep destroying what they already have so they can add other services (light rail)

    Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

    If they must have new services BRT is the only sensible solution and not just for the installation cost. The flexibility of the system (when one breaks down the others pass it) make it the obvious choice.

  2. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by all of the LRT, but I don’t really get the concept of Open BRT as you’ve described it here. Would this imply that multiple different BRT lines run on the trunk (Powell) and then branch off into neighborhoods (Division, Foster, East Portland?)

  3. How bout buses running every 8 minutes instead of BRT?

    How about both?

    Ideally, that’s what we would have (and one advantage of branching BRT is you get very frequent service on the trunks; similar to how you see a MAX train every five minutes or so between downtown and Gateway).

    The problem of course is that there has long been more money available for capital improvements than for operational improvements–Uncle Sam passes out plenty of money for the former, but none for the latter. But–there’s also a thing to remember with capital improvements on bus lines (whether you call them “BRT” or not); as well as LRT:

    1. Capital improvements can increase speed and/or reliability.
    2. Increasing speed/reliability makes the service more valuable (to riders).
    3. Increasing speed means fewer busses are needed to maintain a given headway.
    4. Increasing reliability allows reduction of layover times–meaning fewer busses are needed to maintain a given headway.
    5. Together 3 and 4 reduce the operational cost of the service, freeing up money for increased frequencies or new service elsewhere.

    Bottom line? If you want faster, more frequent service, a good way to get it is to invest in wise capital improvements. Of course, one must avoid foolish capital improvements, several examples of which do exist in the Portland metro area (I’ll let you guess which ones…). But investing money to speed up (and make more reliable) heavily-used corridors like Powell/Division or Barbur is, if you can find the money, a no-brainer.

    Give a man a fish, and all of that.

  4. Nick,

    A branching BRT probably wouldn’t make as much sense on Powell/Division–there you have a strong street grid, so a grid-based system makes more sense.

    But it makes a good deal of since in the SW Corridor. Currently, Barbur (and parallel streets like Terwilliger, Corbett, and I-5) are served by numerous bus lines that go to different places: 1, 12, 38, 43, 44, 45, 54, 56, 92, 94, 96, not to mention the various busses serving OHSU. There would be quite a bit of operational advantage were many of these to have a dedicated busway as opposed to being stuck occasionally in Barbur traffic.

  5. Definitely open BRT with branches; in fact, the whole MAX system should have been built as an open BRT system, and we would have been much better off for it.

    As for the Powell BRT, if it swings up to Divsion further out on the east side, one branch could continue along Powell. Another branch could start at 52nd go down Foster.

  6. “Frequent reliable service is what gets people on the transit system. Right now Trimet is neither frequent or reliable.”

    Agreed. And when I have had top take the 70 to Portland I get additionally confounded because they alternate the routes. So I have to walk about one third mile to get to a stop before it splits, or consult the schedule.

    And why not smaller buses, but a more frequent schedule. Private organizations used to buy 15 passenger vans for an amount similar to a pick up truck. The airport car rental places use small shuttle buses. I doubt that these cost very much, and would be very easy to drive. And someone shouldn’t get paid 90k a year to drive on either. I used to get paid close to minimum wage to drive a 14,000 gross truck.

  7. al m wrote: “How bout buses running every 8 minutes?”

    Well, to do that you either need to make the buses twice as fast (average speed), or you need a 50% cut in total compensation for all Trimet employees (union and management), or a 100% increase in funding for operations (doubling subsidies as well as fares collected), or a combination of the above.

    I’m all for buses every 4 minutes on every frequent route, but it’s at least 50% a political problem, which needs political solutions in addition to engineering solutions

    BRT would help by speeding up the buses average speed (you need fewer buses and drivers to run the same route), and increasing ridership (more fares, and more support for subsidies from the riders), so it’s the best way to increase frequency, especially as long as the Feds and State are willing to pay 80% of the cost of capital projects

  8. Note to commentators:

    I’ve been ‘counseled’ about my conducting rants at this site,so I will make my one point per post and not engage in further discussion so the moderators don’t flip out on me.

    Just saying why I am not responding to comments about my comments.

  9. I loathe BRT. Its a much better bus, but nearly as expensive as rail. And operational costs are much higher.

    Doesn’t seem like a good deal to me in a larger city.

    Southwest corridor and Powell would be great rail corridors as long as zoning and developments are included as part of the projects.

  10. I-205 BRT between Clackamas and Tualatin (possibly as far as Sherwood) would be a good idea… save for the stretch between Oregon City and the 10th St exit, there’s sufficient room for additional ROW. Possible stops would include the Gladstone exit, Oregon City and West Linn (other than a possible Park-and-Ride at Stafford Rd, no stops would be necessary between WL and Tualatin as this stretch is and will likely remain largely undeveloped).

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