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Bus-Rapid Transit Is Better Than Rail: The Smart Alternative to Light Rail

IP-10-2003 (December 2003)

Author: Joseph P. Kubala, P.E. and Scott Barton

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Bus-rapid transit is a new type of mass transit that relies on buses that operate on schedules similar to rail transit lines, with greater frequencies and fewer stops (and therefore faster service) than conventional bus transit. A recent report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) compared bus-rapid transit with light rail and found that bus-rapid transit capital costs are as little as 2 percent of those of light rail. Further, bus-rapid transit costs less to operate and goes significantly faster than light-rail service.

Bus-rapid transit is also far more flexible than rail transit. It can be installed quickly, not requiring years of construction, and various aspects of it can be phased in over several years. It can allow more transit riders to go long distances without making inconvenient transfers. In the long run, bus-rapid transit can operate on high occupancy vehicle or high-occupancy/toll lanes, allowing even higher average speeds. The toll lanes would also provide a source of funds for congestion-free high-occupancy lanes.

The GAO specifically looked at Denver bus lines that resemble bus-rapid transit and found that they cost 80 percent less to operate than Denver’s light rail and traveled at speeds 69 percent faster than light rail. Given bus-rapid transit’s significant advantages over light rail, Denver’s Regional Transit District should consider bus rapid transit as a cheaper, faster, and more beneficial alternative to rail transit in all of its corridors. As the Federal Transit Administration recommends, transit agencies should “think rail, use buses.”


In recent years, a new type of mass transit called bus rapid transit has emerged as a means of providing better transportation at lower costs. Bus-rapid transit, or BRT, is not simply bus service; instead, it incorporates a variety of new methods and technologies to improve performance. A BRT system may use bus-only highways, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, high-occupancy/ toll (HOT) lanes, improved service on city streets, or a combination. In addition, BRT can include new technologies and design improvements to enhance service, such as traffic-signal prioritization, better stations, fewer stops, and cleaner, quieter buses.1

In a study published in September of 2001, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) concludes that BRT presents an attractive option for mass transit and has several advantages over light rail systems. Since Denver uses elements of both systems, the GAO included Denver specifically in its comparisons.2 Serious analysts should consider BRT in every corridor where light-rail transit is proposed, since it likely provides a very cost effective transit alternative to light rail.