Fast, comfortable and reliable are not normally words that spring to mind when people think of bus transit.
But as the populations of cash-strapped North American cities continue to grow, express buses that travel on dedicated lanes are becoming an increasingly popular alternative to pricier transit options, such as light rail and subways.
Roughly 120 cities around the globe have Bus Rapid Transit or express bus corridors, with 97 of them having launched in the past decade alone, according to a recent survey. The BRT movement has been most pronounced in developing countries, but several major projects are now reshaping the transit picture in the Toronto area.
These and other BRT initiatives are also changing the public's attitude toward bus travel. Express buses are higher occupancy than the average city bus, and some have features such as wireless Internet to entice new riders.
As for speed - a common knock against typical bus travel - it's been greatly enhanced under the BRT model. Although no two systems are exactly alike, the essential element of any rapid bus service is a dedicated laneway that permits buses to travel at speeds up to or greater than subway trains, which is why some advocates refer to BRT as "surface subway."
Jeff Casello, an associate professor of transportation at the University of Waterloo, said the BRT movement can largely trace its origin to the South American experience, where express buses are central to several cities' transit networks. In North America, he said Bus Rapid Transit and light rail are increasingly filling the transportation gap between conventional buses and subways.
"Typically, we use BRT for longer applications," Prof. Casello said. "But as the demand starts to grow and you start to need buses more frequently, then the labour costs of BRT grow really quickly." In these cases, light-rail service may be the better option, he added.
In recent years, both Los Angeles and New York have started successful bus express services. The Orange Line BRT in California's largest city opened in 2005, spanning about 23 kilometres and carrying nearly 27,000 people daily. It's been more popular than expected, already nearing peak capacity.
Outside Toronto, Mississauga and York Region are proceeding with plans to construct nearly 60 kilometres of dedicated lanes for express bus service. Portions of these new lanes will contribute to a 100-kilometre bus corridor that will eventually extend from Oakville to Pickering.
The new BRT routes are expected to deliver huge time savings to transit users. For instance, the City of Mississauga predicts the transit trip from city centre to Pearson International Airport will drop to 19 minutes from 41 minutes.
In Toronto, express bus service is being floated as an alternative to light-rail transit on Finch Avenue West, where plans for LRT service were recently shelved. BRT has the potential to become a third way in a Toronto transit debate dominated by supporters and opponents of surface and underground rail.
Subway proponents can support BRT because of its lower upfront capital costs, which can free up money for expensive subway construction, while some advocates of light rail believe that BRT can at least offer some degree of service improvement while also laying the groundwork, literally speaking, for future LRT lines.
A 2006 Toronto Transit Commission study calculated that building a BRT in the Finch hydro corridor, even with a number of construction and design issues such as the Highway 400 crossing, would cost about $27-million per kilometre in today's dollars. A centre-lane right-of-way down Finch Avenue West in north Toronto would be somewhat costlier because of the need to widen the road.
By contrast, the Finch West LRT, the cheapest proposed under Transit City, would have cost an estimated $85-million per kilometre. In total, roughly $600-million could be saved upfront on Finch if BRT was built in place of LRT.
"BRT in general is definitely an option worth exploring because it can be a cost-effective way of moving people around," said TTC chair Karen Stintz. "But any BRT needs to be done properly, with its own right-of-ways, so that they're convenient and effective means of moving people."
Ms. Stintz said in the short term the TTC is not in a financial position to consider using BRT as a substitute for shelved LRT lines, but that there is no question it could be a viable option in the long term.
But BRT might have great applicability on some of the region's 400-series highways, such as the 401 and the 407, as part of an inter-regional transit service, she said. A portion of the planned Mississauga BRT will run on the 403.