City Transit Diaries 3: Bus Rapid Transit

This is Part 3 in a series expanding on the City Transit project, looking at the different modes of public transportation of the U.S. & Canada in more depth and detail.

Categorizing transit modes can be a challenge. What separates one mode from another can be a difficult line to draw. At what point does a streetcar become light rail? Does "light metro" count as heavy rail? The most difficult of all though, in my opinion, is bus rapid transit (or BRT).

An ideal BRT system would be clearly distinct from a regular bus line, with features like completely dedicated lanes, extremely high-capacity vehicles, fancy stations with all-door level boarding, off-vehicle payments and more—all of which would would enable fast loading, high frequency, and high capacity service that rivals a rail rapid transit line at a lower cost.

Such systems do exist around the world and are quite impressive, but in the U.S. and Canada... it’s complicated.

Here, BRT lines are often proposed as lower-cost alternatives to rail transit, but over the course of their implementation, their level of service ends up being scaled back even further, to the point that many self-labeled bus rapid transit lines are really just an express bus with a special paint job and slightly nicer bus shelters. This phenomena of “BRT Creep” is notoriously common, and creates suspicion in any proposed system.

No system in the U.S. or Canada is considered a "gold standard" bus rapid transit system. A few come very close, but they pale in comparison to international systems, so arguments can still be made against them. Because each system suffers from varying levels of BRT Creep, and because it is so difficult to draw the line between what is or is not BRT, every list is going to be controversial.

Bearing that in mind, though, below are a few examples of BRT systems in the U.S. and Canada that at a minimum feature what is the most important element to a BRT line: dedicated lanes or transitways for a significant portion of their route. Many of these systems were not represented in the City Transit project.


Los Angeles, California

The 18-mile LA Metro Orange Line operates in northern Los Angeles between North Hollywood and Chatsworth. The vast majority of the 18-mile route operates on an exclusive right-of-way that was previously a branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad, save for a short spur. There are also proposals to upgrade the line to light rail.


San Bernadino, California

sbX operates in San Bernardino, a distant suburb of Los Angeles. Currently consisting of one route, sbX is intended to become a brand service with multiple lines. There are no dedicated busways on the route, instead utilizing bus-only lanes where possible. Vehicles feature doors on both sides to access both side and island platform stations.


Fort Collins, Colorado

Fort Collins' MAX is a north-south BRT line that opened in May 2014. For a large amount of the route, it utilizes a 5-mile busway known as the Mason Corridor Transitway which parallels a railroad line. The line get a portion of its ridership from connecting downtown Fort Collins to the Colorado State University.


Hartford, Connecticut

CTfastrak operates between Hartford and New Britain station in New Britain in central Connecticut on a 9.4 mile dedicated busway. The busway is built along two railroad rights-of-way, part that replaces two tracks of an active Amtrak line, and part that is built on an abandoned railroad. Multiple routes utilize the busway, further increasing the frequency of service.


Las Vegas, Nevada

The Strip & Downtown Express (SDX) connects downtown Las Vegas and to the Las Vegas Strip. It utilizes a dedicated busway and bus lanes for a portion of the route around downtown, but runs in mixed traffic along the Strip. The SDX also utilizes unique bus models not seen anywhere else in the United States.


Cleveland, Ohio

The HealthLine (originally the Silver Line) is one of the earliest and highest-rated examples of a bus rapid transit system in the United States, first opening in 2008. The HealthLine utilizes 6.8 miles of bus lanes in the median of Euclid Avenue, with island stations and left-side boarding.


Mississauga, Ontario

The Mississauga Transitway is a bus rapid transit corridor in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. The first phase of the system opened in 2014, with the final station opening later this year. It consists of a dedicated busway for the majority of the route, with a portion on highway shoulder lanes.


York Region, Ontario

Viva Rapid Transit is a network of bus rapid transit lines in York Region, a northern suburb of Toronto. The network utilizes bus lanes and "rapidways" for a significant portion of the network, and are continually being expanded under the vivaNext program.


Ottawa, Ontario

The Ottawa Transitway is one of the earliest, extensive, and successful busways in North America, first opening in 1983. With dozens of routes, it provides frequent and largely grade-separated service through downtown Ottawa. Currently, the central portion is being upgraded to a light rail line known as the Confederation Line.


Eugene, Oregon

The Emerald Express connects Eugene and Springfield in Oregon, first opened in 2007 and extended in 2011. The 4 mile route utilizes a busway for a majority of the route, though it is one-way in some sections. Buses feature doors on both sides to serve island platform stations.


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Pittsburgh Busways are a trio of bus-only corridors that connect to downtown, portions of which date back to 1977: the 9.1-mile Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, 5.1-mile West Busway (both of which former rail corridors), and the 4.3-mile South Busway (which shares a transit tunnel under Mount Washington with the local light rail system).


Gatineau, Quebec

The Rapibus is a bus rapid transit system in Gatineau, Quebec. The system is similar to the Transitway located in neighboring Ottawa, featuring a 7-mile dedicated busway with several grade separated intersections. The line parallels a railroad, and features a unique bridge across the Gatineau River shared with this line.


Arlington/Alexandria, Virginia

Metroway is the first BRT line in the greater Washington area, linking the cities of Arlington and Alexandria. First opened in 2014 and expanded in 2016, the system features two short busways, as well as a number of bus-only lanes and mixed traffic portions.

Honorable Mentions