BRT and what it might look like in Indy

BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) Proposed Routes (click to enlarge)
BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) Proposed Routes (click to enlarge)

Since the unveiling of Indyconnect’s long term proposal on Monday November 8th, those of us who were advocating AND EXPECTING light rail transit, are left to pick up the pieces. What we had been hoping for was light rail transit that would be implimented along Washington Street. Traditionally, light rail has been a GREAT motivator of economic investment in communities along it’s route. This fact, and this fact alone, was what most people were hoping for with Indyconnect’s intial plan of LRT along this route.

A station on Cleveland's Healthline BRT (Photo: Flickr user Thom Sheridan)
A station on Cleveland's Healthline BRT (Photo: Flickr user Thom Sheridan)

However, this was not to be. Due to the current economic climate, coupled with an anticipated pushback from fiscal conservatives across the region, planners opted for BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) in it’s place. From a shear mobility standpoint, BRT WILL address the needs of people wishing to travel from place to place using this service. It could arrive every 10 to 15 minutes using a dedicated transitway located in the median of Washington Street. It is unknown at this point when this particular system could be constructed. BRT systems that have been introduced in other cities have usually cost orders of magnitude cheaper due to the lower amount of infrastructure needed to impliment their service.

A stop on Everett, WA's Swift BRT (photo: Flickr user DWHonan)
A stop on Everett, WA's Swift BRT (photo: Flickr user DWHonan)

However, what BRT gains in price savings, it gives up in the form of what it is: A bus. No matter how you dress it up, it is a bus. BRT usually comes with improved stations that resemble light rail stops with raised curbs, fancy covered stops and some sort of public art to accenuate the areas and try to create “place” for people waiting on the bus. However, perception of buses is likely the sole contributor to the lower amount of investment that crops up around these routes. Rail, due to it’s static nature, tends to give potential developers peace of mind in knowing that the train is always going to be there now, and in the future.

A bus stopped on the Healthline (Cleveland) photo via Wikipedia
A bus stopped on the Healthline (Cleveland) photo via Wikipedia

With these facts in hand, what can we look forward to from a Washington Street BRT line? A quick examination shows that BRT has been operating in several major cities in America for some years now. Boston has the Silver Line. Cleveland has the Healthline and Everett, WA has the Swift BRT line. All 3 use varying types of infrastructure dedicated to insuring the buses get priority through dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority. They all operate special types of buses that differentiate them from the typical low boarding bus that we are used to here in Indianapolis.

Could Light Rail someday look like this on Washington St? (author's photo)
Could Light Rail someday look like this on Washington St? (author's photo)

Provided that the region can get this plan onto a referendum and voters approve it, future modifications of the Washington Street BRT line convert it to a full light rail system. However, this would not happen until 2030 some reports say. Can we hope that development will put this in it’s pocket and go ahead with development along Washington Street’s BRT line in anticipation of full conversion to LRT? One can only speculate at this point.

BRT Detailed Routes
BRT Detailed Routes

The other BRT routes suggested in the plan seem to point to a version of BRT that is not quite as infrastructure dependent as the Washington Street line. The 3 other routes specified, would likely rely upon signal prioritization and perhaps some bus only lanes at key intersections that allow buses to bypass traffic. However, we will have to wait and see what planners have in store for those routes. Whatever the case, BRT ultimately represents a compromise in technology for the benefit of fiscal conservatives, and the detriment of potentially better economic investment along it’s route.

Comments 24

  • One of the great things about BRT is the speed of rollout. If approved this system could be up and running much quicker than a rail based solution.

  • The problems with buses is that they are still bound by the laws of traffic patterns. Rush hour will still be rush hour, and it will still take forever to get downtown from Fishers/Greenwood/Carmel. With LRT, the trains move about on schedule with little to slow down it’s path to and from its destination. If Indianapolis plans on making BRT’s delay-free, they’re going to have to do some serious infrastructure adjustments to allow these buses the right of way to get up and down the roads w/o delays at lights and without being stopped by traffic jams.

  • Jon, I get the impression that the Washington St one will have its one seperated ROW. The other routes, I am not so sure about. That dedicted ROW would speed people along much like LRT would.

  • The north-south lines, in particular, don’t do a good job of connecting places that need to be connected. I’m specifically referring to Methodist, IUPUI, the concentration of offices west of Meridian, LOS, Anthem, and Fountain Square. If the line ran on Illinois/Capitol instead of Meridian, and on Virginia/Shelby instead of Madison, those significant deficits would be addressed. (Travelers to IUPUI would be able to utilize the Clarian monorail from 16th & Capitol.)
    Similarly, the east-west 38th Street line ought to go up Pendleton to Post, then north to the Finance Center and Ft. Harrison State park at its east end. At its west end, it ought to connect to Eagle Creek Park. That adds major destinations, both work and leisure.

  • Disappointing. Total lack of long-term vision (and fear of doing politically unpopular decisions). This is the same mentality as what we saw with the proposed outsourcing of our parking meters. If you want to raise the rates and make improvements, then do it, there is no reason for our city to share this revenue.

    Same lack of vision is true with this plan. It makes me wish that gas prices quadruple soon. There is that argument that there is not enough money to do more, but that is only because this is not our priority. And it should be. I hear local politicians say that today we no longer compete with our local Midwestern neighbors, but that we compete globally. Well, if that’s the case, I am very afraid, because those same politicians can’t see much further than Greenwood or Fishers.

    I guess this plan is better than no plan. BRT is low cost and we should see it implemented quickly. Great…I’m stoked.

  • I’m absolutely sick of all the negative remarks about the BRT. There’s a *lot* to love about them.
    First off, it dramatically increases the frequency of bus service along its given route. Wait times are listed as “10-15 minutes,” but the 15-minute frequency is for the Carmel BRT. The other three — 38th St., North-South (i.e. the one that runs directly between downtown and Broad Ripple) and Washington St., are all 7-1/2 minute headways during peak hours. 10th St., while not listed as a BRT, also has peak hour headways in the 7-1/2 minute vicinity. Increasing the convenience of buses is absolutely paramount to changing people’s minds about transit’s viability. The only way we’ll change people’s minds is if they have the opportunity to do so. I’ve heard too many stories of people waiting an hour for a bus and decided that buses weren’t for them.
    Secondly, there’s simply no arguing that light rail is significantly more expensive than a BRT. This Government Accountability Office report ( indicates that light rail costs on average $34.8 million per mile while dedicated bus lanes only cost $9 million per mile. The same report also finds that there’s no difference in operating costs between the two systems, and both systems have the same potential rider capacity. BRT’s might not be as sexy as light rail and it might not push developers to build near it quite so quickly, there’s no debate that if the objective is to move people from point A to point B, BRT’s do it in the cheapest (and arguably quickest) way possible.
    Thirdly, there’s a major possibility to use the HOV lanes reserved for BRT’s for light rail. Considering that the station infrastructure is already in place, and that ridership along that route would be up thanks to the BRT’s improved convenience, there would be a significant case for replacing the BRT with light rail.
    Thinking thirty or forty years out, I see this plan as laying the foundation for not just one light rail but FOUR. One of which is the much-touted Broad Ripple streetcar, or something akin to it. And the fact that metropolitan planners are seriously toying with that idea should make you giddy.

    • Andrew, I cannot find much fault with what you have said. If you read my reaction in the unveiling post, I say the same things as you. There is a need to grow the transit share here and a lot of that, is getting people comfortable with the idea of riding. Whether its a bus or a light rail train, or streetcar.

      But if you think that people wouldn’t ride the train, then I would see planners thought Indy was full of dolts. As it has been pointed out, Indy leads the midwest (sans Chicago of course) in nearly every growth metric. So we aren’t a city full of idiots clearly. There are smart people here who I AM POSITIVE are WELL AWARE of what other cities are doing for their transit systems.

      And that’s really what it comes down to right? Perception. When Indy’s business leaders reach out and try to attract new and progressive thinking people they are going to talk about the things that make it awesome to live here. And no doubt they are going tout this transit system with it’s low headways and how visionary it was for the time. But all one needs to do is look at other cities robustly investing in their future. Look at Denver. Look at Salt Lake. Even Cincy with the streetcar. All those regions are attracting GOOD development.

      I would hate to think that a potential architect or designer chose one of those cites and they got great potential city builders while we got stuck with the utilitarian people who thought the bus system was great, and we get stuck with another 20 years of Di Rimini’s and IMOCA buildings.

      I get the mobility perspective. I even said as much in my post. But Indyconnect’s latest plan, WHILE EFFICIENT and VERY capable of moving people, lacks gutsy vision and that stepping out on a thin branch (if you will) of chance.

      That said, I will ride the buses and be overjoyed when LRT starts replacing them. Provided I still live here

      • Considering the otherwise-small size of American BRT systems, I would think that it’s rather gutsy to move to a more extensive network of them. I would argue (and I have in my latest post further down this page) that locating businesses and new construction near a more-extensive BRT system could actually prove more profitable than locating next to a costlier (and thus less extensive) LRT system.
        As a major proponent of BRT as being the most-bang-for-your-buck, I see it as an extremely gutsy move that is consistent with Hoosier values of thrift. A costlier (and, granted, higher-profile) light rail system is not necessarily what would pass, nor would it be consistent with our transportation needs.
        I suppose that since the trade-off here is between a BRT system and a LRT system, then those who favor LRT’s are certainly let down. But I assure you, from seeing a BRT system work right, there’s a great potential for it BRT’s having similar effects on land development immediately surrounding it. And if Indianapolis is able to show to the rest of North America how BRT’s can be done right, then I would say that it could put Indy on the forefront of transit development.
        Heck, we’re already being heralded by the Department of Transportation for how public involvement and comment was handled for the Indy Connect initiative. If the BRT system works out as I suspect it will, we’ll be looking back twenty years from now and be proud of the most effective bus system in North America.

  • Here’s another link about BRT’s, done by the UN. They’re recommending BRT’s as a low-cost mass transit backbone system:
    I see BRT’s as being the single greatest chance for “sexing up” buses in the States. High-quality and high-frequency service would only improve the image of mass transit, which is why I’m dismayed whenever people poo-poo it.

  • The price of the BRT is nice. And given the government cuts to libraries and other essential non-profit sectors of Indy, this does seem a reasonable compromise. I live in Irvington and know this BRT line would be a real bonus to the Washington Ave Corridor. As it would be to many of the other neighborhoods it would touch. It’s a stepping stone and a solid one at that. Let’s just hope we get a chance to vote on this one.

  • LRT vs. BRT

    Operating cost – one study can’t possibly tell you the right answer here. It varies significantly from one city to another. However, I believe the the long-term operating cost would be lower for LRT. Although buses are cheaper than LRT cars, their life span is shorther, and they cost more to operate (each bus needs its own driver vs. chain of LRT cars piloted by a single person).

    Capital cost – definitely lower for BRT, but it varies significantly from one system to another. If you want your BRT to have all the bells and whistles (“upscale” BRT) to appeal to a broader population, then the cost goes up dramatically.

    Overall cost – I would argue that for the high density (or rapidly growing) corridors, LRT may end up being cheaper in the long run.

    Ridership – you can argue that the upscale BRT could compete with LRT on ridership numbers – especially if you have a separate bus lane, upgraded stations and high-quality buses. However, I think the BRT will FAIL TO ATTRACT “non-transit dependent” riders. There are successful BRT systems mostly in Latin America (Columbia, Brazil). But they have a lot of riders without access to cars. As their middle class expands (especially in Brazil), their BRT systems will have problem attracting “non-dependent” riders.

  • What Joe said, and double on the “Ridership” piece. Whatever system enhancements are adopted, they MUST result in non-dependent riders switching to transit for a variety of trips (not just work commutes).
    If BRT is so great, let’s save a ton more money by converting the Nickel Plate line into a BRT-only busway next year, and let Fishers, Noblesville, and Greenwood residents prove the theory that non-transit-dependent riders will use BRT. Then, only after ridership exceeds capacity, build the suburban rail line.
    It seems to me that this is the most equitable system solution: rail someday for everyone, and no rail for anyone soon until ridership justifies the need.

    • “If BRT is so great, let’s save a ton more money by converting the Nickel Plate line into a BRT-only busway next year, and let Fishers, Noblesville, and Greenwood residents prove the theory that non-transit-dependent riders will use BRT. Then, only after ridership exceeds capacity, build the suburban rail line.”

      “It seems to me that this is the most equitable system solution: rail someday for everyone, and no rail for anyone soon until ridership justifies the need.”

      You sir get a +1 for this. Buses would also be much quieter if powered by newer technologies, could be scaled for ridership, and would be more friendly to the adjoining neighborhoods(not to mention the areas where it is close to the Monon).

      If Indy transit planners do this right and leverage all of the operating advantages of BRT(such as operating different size buses for different ridership levels), and focus on cost-effective design that differentiates it from IndyGo’s standard product, this could be a home run. Before you know it, taxpayers could actually be asking for LRT(though, probably not).

      Personally, I’d like to see if they could get a bite from a private firm to upgrade the infrastructure and run the system. Even if it were non-profit. As long is it would be bound to service terms and there was reasonable exit conditions for the city. Take a look at the bids and plans, even if you don’t accept one, you have an idea of what could be done cost-effectively and at the least cost to taxpayers.

  • Unfortunately the BRT will be highly inefficient and a waste of tax dollars because it will not promote economic development. You’ve got to be brilliant to sell the idea that people in Carmel are going to take a bus downtown to work. It’s not going to happen with the bad stigma buses have, especially in Indiana. This bus sytem will have to be intermixed with at least 2 other modes, one of them having to be lightrail. I will never ride a bus in Indianapolis, but I know I will be paying for yet another inefficient system for years, unfortunately. Good luck to all of you who will continue contributing to our conjested streets…including these alledged ‘new bus riders’. We’ll see how much time you’ll be saving sitting in the streets…no matter what 4 wheels you’re riding. You’ll also have to hope for new road construction as your scenic route, because that’s the only development promoted with this plan. Finally! There’s reason to Connect Indy to Kokomo: A DREAM COME TRUE!!!

  • Thats quite the pessimistic view of things. Why will you never ride a bus in Indianapolis? I have rode PLENTY of times and its pretty nice to have someone else driving while I sit and relax. If it’s in protest, thats hardly cause.

    • Because it’s a waste of taxpayer money to spend on an inefficient system while not stimulating economic development, which Indianapolis needs to simply become more livable. This plan does nothing to retain the population Indianapolis needs to move forward. It just puts us back another 20 years, IMO. I’m not a firm believer in waiting for $5 gas to justify perception changing urban design, I guess. All the city needs to do is a College Avenue Streetcar which links downtown to Broad Ripple. This investment would stimulate interest in developing the residential districts and commercial nodes of midtown while boosting downtown’s residential density. By the way, how long did it take these ‘master planners’ (none of which probably live here) come up with a plan to put all of these buses on the street?

      • Unfortunately, the boom years of the Nineties and Naughties are gone. Local and State governments are wallowing in debt and operating deficits. Taxpayers are not interested in giving up more money when they already are hard pressed to meet their own needs. I believe most people would rather a mass transit system be self-supporting or at most very cost-efficient. If the city wants to make this a winner, it needs to utilize the talent it has here or nearby to make a compelling product. Smart branding, clear signage, short headways, clean buses, innovative services, and a feeling of safety and security will all be needed. And leveraging creative talent(such as in universities), would allow for nearly free provision of those things.

        Creating a more “permanent” infrastructure for BRT should mean not much more than stops/stations, lane dividers/planters, signage, and paint. Hell, automated BRT systems are being tested in Europe at the moment – why not be the first city in the world to implement it? And then operating costs go through the floor. A combination of advertising, vendor leasing, and community adoption programs could make the infrastructure pay for itself.

        I’ve wrote about this before, and might actually write about it again on my own blog.

        • Anthony, I do not share your viewpoint and here is why. First off, mass transit is not a simple economic problem solved by reducing costs by outsourcing it to cheaper labor, spreading costs out through economies of scale or reducing service. Normally, cost reductions come in the form of reduced service which leads to ridership decline. The other case is that fares are increased. Of course, these are limited due to government provided subsidies.

          If transit operation were profitable for private companies, this would be occuring. However, there are very few cities where something like this happens. When it does, you see higher fares. For exmaple, the new commuter bus service from Fishers & Carmel had to raise their fares from $3 to $5 which represents the closer real cost of transporting people for these distances.

          The same situation occurs regarding autombile related travel. User fees such as the gasoline tax, wheel tax, vehicle registration tax, etc still are not enough to cover the costs of road building. All you have to do is drive down a city street, or review the latest I-69 construction news. That also being the case, roads are subsidized a lot more than any mass transit in our state. All our interstate expansion and local road repairs are at the expense of tax dollars collected to perform this. And even that is not enough.

          Using your argument, I contend that the new I-69 should be a toll road to pay for its construction. Similarly, when US31 is expanded nroth of Indy, it too should be a toll road. 465 and I69 on the NE side should add toll lanes with the new construction to help fund it’s construction and upkeep.

          It’s all about equlity between transportation modes. When I see a post like yours, it makes me feel like the true costs of transportation have not been communicatd accurately.

  • Silver Line in Boston: 3-1/2 miles (approx.).
    HealthLine in Cleveland: 6.8 miles.
    Swift BRT in Washington state: 16.7 miles.
    Indy Connect’s BRT lines: 40 miles (approx.)
    A rough estimate of the Indy BRT system covers an area of 19.8 square miles within a 1/4-mile radius of the BRT lines, whereas a 5-mile straight line BRT would only service 2.7 square miles of area. That would mean that the Indy BRT would offer an 8-fold increase over a less comprehensive system.
    From a network perspective, the Indy BRT’s would be much more attractive than any of the other BRT in North America. I think there’s a very good chance that BRT’s would have a completely different reaction here in Indy than in other places it’s been implemented before — largely because it’s being implemented at a much larger scale than has previously been rolled out here.
    Or am I wrong? Is there another BRT system that’s been implemented at the 30-40 mile range? Because all I’ve seen are systems that have rolled out with 15 miles or less, and seldom branching. From a network analysis perspective, then it’s completely expected that a smaller BRT network would be less desirable to develop next to than a more-extensive light rail network.

    • I know that Ottawa, ON has a massive BRT that has been extremely successful. I rode it when I would visit the city, back about 10 years ago. It’s a much different beast than the one purposed by Indy Connect.

      • I’m having problems finding data on how many miles is stretches across, but from what I can tell it’s somewhere on the order of 30 miles in dedicated busways (i.e. separate roads at a different grade than standard traffic), with some significant overlap between routes along the downtown Ottawa region. Just out of curiosity, how else does the Indy Connect system differ from your experiences of Ottawa’s BRT?

  • Once again our community trades its highest aspirations for the (perceived) expedient solution. I share Curt’s dismay and disappointment. Indy’s current transit woes are multi-faceted: it takes people from where they used to live to where they no longer work, there’s a cultural stigma for transit use, INDOT & the Road Warriors have excessive control over how tax monies are allocated and the city lacks natural features that provide an impediment to sprawl and an inducement to increase density. The Indyconnect plan is a classic example of loss of nerve. Despite these concerns, I will continue to agitate, advocate and promote dense developments, Complete Streets implementation, streetcars between Carmel & Fountain Square and along Washington St. to the airport and more circulator routes like downtown’s “Green Line” for Midtown and the Near Eastside. Like it or not, Indyconnect represents the best shot the community is going to have in our lifetime to catalyze regional transit. So despite my misgivings, I’m not going to give up on trying to influence the proposal. Judging from the other comments to this post, I won’t be alone.

  • Andrew, I see where you are going with your thoughts. If in 20 years from now you are right, we will go to St Elmo’s and Ill gladly treat you to dinner and you can tell me that I told you so. And I will be happy to say that I doubted the BRT network.

    I would be VERY happy to see it be successful. If we look at the Ottawa model, as you have pointed out the large majority of the network is all grade separated. If we could plan on INDY;s entire network being grade separated, then we could catalyze the region around this. But as it stands, do you see Keystone Ave being grade separated? College Ave? Madison (or Shelby as it should be)?

    Washington looks like it would be the only one, which doesnt put us in a league with Ottawa, but something a bit watered down by something that is CALLED BRT, but still has it’s limits in the same region as regular bus, and express bus.

    As the plan develops, it will be interesting to see what they do. If we cant have LRT, then I will grudgingly support BRT. But as I have said, it just doesn’t sell people like trains do. That is one thing that I learned in Portland. When they have planned rail routes, they generated expected rider counts but something they were never able to nail, was a steady coefficient for rail. Bus? Thats easy. But rail, they have never been able to nail down. And in all cases but one (WES commuter rail) it has exceeded expectations.

    Have we seen this with BRT yet? I havent read about it. Doesnt mean it’s so, but I have been reading A LOT over the past year and a half and yet to uncover those numbers except Ottawa, and Columbia who, as you have pointed out, have vast, grade separate networks.

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