The 7 Elements that Make a Bus Line BRT

First of all, BRT stands for Bus Rapid Transit. I hear a lot of people in Atlanta talk about BRT like it’s a typical commuter express bus service. It seems like 90% of the time I hear BRT mentioned, people are not actually talking about real BRT. Some of you may already know that the strict design criteria for BRT systems has ruffled a few feathers in the past. This is one area of transportation design where I believe that the guidelines are important because history has shown that the systems that meet have the most elements from the list below are the most successful. If you ignore the guidelines you run the risk of having a BRT line that isn’t BRT. Just another unsexy bus sitting in traffic can give BRT an unfairly bad reputation.

In this post, I’m going to arm you with the facts, so the next time you go to a meeting and someone mentions a BRT line, you can educate them if it’s not true BRT. BRT is an amazing concept working in major cities around the world, and if Atlanta is going to be a world-class city, it deserves a high quality, REAL BRT line.

So what makes a bus line a BRT?

There are 7 key elements that must be included at some level.

1.       Running way

A running way for BRT is a busway with a marked area for the bus to drive in. The key is, does the bus have its own lane to run in, or does it share lanes with existing traffic? A separated running way is an important piece of BRT, but one that typically gets sacrificed first because of Right of Way (ROW) restrictions (limited roadway space or the ability to widen a road). This is one element that can vary throughout the length of a system. A bus line can have a separated lane, a simple marked lane, or share lanes with traffic at times, but still be called BRT. In my opinion, the best kind of BRT has a dedicated and separated lane for the bus the entire length of the system, but most US cities are fully developed with limited space. So there you have it. Most important, but hardest to guideline to implement.

2.       Fare Collection

Another way to speed up a bus route for passengers is to reduce boarding time. How do you reduce boarding time? Collect the fare at the station platform using TVM (Ticket Vending Machines) instead of on the bus. This allows for all door boarding and less dwell time at stations. Less time waiting means less travel time for passengers. Tap card systems, like MARTA’s Breeze program, also speed up boarding and allow for easy transfers from adjacent lines. Thankfully mobile ticketing is also coming to many US cities soon.

Photo Credit: Paul Supawanich, photo of: NYC fare collection machines

Photo Credit: Paul Supawanich, photo of: NYC fare collection machines

3.       Permanent stations

We’re not talking a bus stop. Not a bench and a simple overhang to shield you from the rain. A real raised platform with amenities such as lighting, seating, TVMs, art installations, and real time arrival information signs. You fancy, huh?

Photo Credit: Paul Supawanich, photo of: Cleveland Health Line

Photo Credit: Paul Supawanich, photo of: Cleveland Health Line

4.       Vehicles

One thing that makes BRT unique from standard bus services is the vehicles themselves. BRT buses are usually larger articulated buses that carry more passengers. They have high quality interior materials, better lighting and climate control to optimize passenger comfort. They are usually lower-floor vehicles. Ideally, the vehicle allows for level boarding for ADA access, and faster boarding. Unfortunately, many US operators have struggled with this implementation due to the operator skill required to pull the bus up close enough to the station platform without causing damage. It’s good to see MARTA already moving in this direction with their recent new vehicle procurement announcement.

Photo credit: Ed Meng, photo of: TransMilenio bus in Bogota, Columbia

Photo credit: Ed Meng, photo of: TransMilenio bus in Bogota, Columbia

5.       ITS

Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) deploy a variety of advanced technologies to collect, process and disseminate real-time data from vehicle and roadway sensors. For one thing, that means the entire corridor has gone through traffic signal optimization to give the bus route the fastest signaling possible. It gets better; that also means the bus can communicate with traffic signals to extend their green light times. Say the bus is about to leave the station and miss its programmed green light… it won’t. On top of that, the passengers will be able to see when the next bus will arrive at their station, not only on a message sign at the platform, but also on their smart phones. Another great technology the bus driver can use to ensure level boarding is called precision docking, which enables the bus to pull itself closely into the station area.

6.       Service and Operations

All of the above criteria impact the bus route’s service and operations. When implemented correctly the entire system should operate much more efficiently and faster than a standard bus line. In general, service should be provided all day with higher frequencies?? peak hours. BRT lines usually have stops every 2,000-7,000 ft - more spread out than typical bus routes to speed up service and serve dense nodes of development along busy corridors. Ideally, the BRT line has lower headways (time between buses). Many in the US have 10-15 minute headways, going to 5 minute headways during peak periods of travel. Basically, you shouldn’t be able to walk faster than the bus, you shouldn’t be able to have a full conversation with your mother while waiting for the bus, the bus shouldn’t stop every 4 blocks nor should it only stop at a park-n-ride lot in the burbs and downtown, and you shouldn’t drown in the rain while waiting for everyone to board the bus. What a concept.

7.       Branding

BRT lines are distinctive. They have a single brand throughout the entire line that connects to a broader transit system. The buses are branded, the stations are branded, and everything connects together into one common image that is easily identifiable by the community it serves. For example, if MARTA implemented BRT, the buses wouldn’t look like standard MARTA buses. Maybe they’d all be yellow and be like giant Big Birds that you can’t ignore driving down its own lane on North Avenue shuttling you from Moreland to PCM to the North Avenue MARTA station? Hey, a girl can dream.

Photo by: Paul Supawanich, photo of: Vegas Max BRT

Photo by: Paul Supawanich, photo of: Vegas Max BRT

Stayed tuned for BRT Part 2: BRT in Atlanta.


Danielle Elkins is the Vice President of Advance Atlanta, and she wants to advance Atlanta because like her friends and neighbors, she wants safe and convenient transportation options. Before moving to Atlanta almost 4 years ago, Danielle worked on designing the first BRT system in the Bay Area. That system is still under construction today, which shows that quality design and construction takes time. She has a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Southern California and works for a Fortune 500 engineering firm in Atlanta.


Transit 101 series:

This blog post is the second installment in a comprehensive series of stories discussing components of Georgia transit systems, transit decision makers, and regional transit opportunities.  We hope you find this series educational, entertaining, and insightful.


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