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Can BRT attract car users?

Alan Brett | 03 Jun 2015 | Comments

There is much debate as to the ability of bus based rapid transit systems (BRT) to attract car users, particularly in comparison with rail based systems. Most of this discussion is based on assertion rather than evidence – but whilst limited, that evidence which is available shows a consistent picture.

Direct comparison of the attractiveness of bus and rail based systems is generally not possible, as bus systems are rarely delivered with the range of features, in particular segregation, provided for rail systems. Research by Ben-Akiva in the US, reported in 2002, examined bus and rail systems using preference research techniques to remove the effects of differing characteristics and concluded that ‘there is no evident preference for rail travel over bus when quantifiable service characteristics such as travel time and cost are equal’. This conclusion is reflected in the ‘Affordable Mass Transit Guidance’ published by the Commission for Integrated Transport in 2005, which considered evidence from LRT and BRT experience in the UK together with the Ben-Akiva research. The guidance advises that bus and rail based alternatives ‘where service levels are similar’ should be tested with the assumption that modal attraction is the same for both modes.

Thus a key difficulty in understanding the relative attractiveness of BRT and LRT (light rail transit systems) arises from the lack of systems with equivalent characteristics and contexts. There is one very useful case in Nantes in northern France which does enable direct comparison between BRT and LRT. Nantes has LRT operating on three corridors, but the patronage levels on a fourth corridor did not justify the cost of LRT and BRT was provided instead. Importantly, the BRT was designed to replicate the service characteristics provided in the LRT-served corridors, with similar speeds, frequencies and stop patterns and support by a similar level of quality attributes. Patronage research by the municipal operator showed that the proportion of BRT passengers who were former car users was the same as in the equivalent LRT corridors in Nantes. Subsequently more detailed user research has been undertaken in Nantes and this has shown that there is a slight preference for the BRT services over the LRT, due to a higher comfort rating for BRT, thought due to higher seat provision.

Cambridgeshire Guided Busway
Cambridgeshire Guided Busway connects Cambridge, Huntingdon and St Ives in the English county of Cambridgeshire. It is the longest guided busway in the world, overtaking the O-Bahn Busway in Adelaide, South Australia. Source: Wikipedia

What of experience in the UK? There are relatively few BRT systems in the UK and only one of these, the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway, has been the subject of detailed user research. The Busway opened in 2011, with ridership quickly exceeding the levels forecast for the early years of operation. User surveys were conducted in 2012 in order to better understand the characteristics of the Busway users. The surveys showed that more than 60% of Busway users had a car available for their journey and more than 30% had previously travelled by car and had thus changed mode. Interestingly, frequency of use of the Busway increased with income, with the most frequent users being those with incomes of more then £40k.

So the evidence, whilst limited, is both clear and consistent, where system characteristics are equivalent BRT and LRT will provide similar levels of attraction of car users. The challenge for BRT is to understand the key characteristics that drive patronage and modal attraction and ensure that these are embedded in BRT system design and delivery.

Finally, on a related note, you may be interested to read an associated article written by a colleague of mine – Arafat Ahmad – about the Lahore Metrobus project.