US GAO issues report on Bus Rapid Transit

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued a 54 page report on domestic Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in which it offered up an official account comparing BRT systems within the United States.

US GAO BRT Depiction (image source: US GAO Report)
US GAO BRT Depiction (image source: US GAO Report)

The study touched on all manner of operational parameters as well as capital expenditures in coming to its conclusions on what constitutes a successful BRT system. The report is very telling in that it lends Federal credibility to many of the same items that active transportation advocates use as selling points for rapid transit infrastructure. Let’s explore.

As you might expect, the report concluded that of the 15 systems examined, local officials conceded that rail transit offered the most attractive choice for attracting riders and private development near stations. Indeed, a chart included with the report indicates that aside from the M15 BRT in NYC, that comparable rail transit systems outpaced BRT systems in first year boarding performance. NYC offers an easy explanation of why it would offer a high initial return on investment in the form of boardings for it’s supremely dense built environment. However, that is not to say that BRT systems were unsuccessful; of the 15 routes examined, 13 noted ridership increases over previous local bus service.

US GAO Report on 1st year Boardings (Image source: US GAO Report)
US GAO Report on 1st year Boardings (Image source: US GAO Report)

Additionally, the report compares which features each system took advantage of. In a final conclusion, the report offers that Cleveland represents a great example of domestic BRT implementation. It comes to this conclusion by citing Cleveland’s choice of ammenities which closely mimick those of a successful rail transit system; those being off board ticketing, high quality shelter facilities and next bus arrival information on display. Put another way,

“While most local officials believe that rail transit has a greater economic development potential than BRT, they agreed that certain factors can enhance BRT’s ability to contribute to economic development, including physical BRT features that relay a sense of permanence to developers; key employment and activity centers located along the corridor; and local policies and incentives that encourage transit-oriented development.”

Cleveland BRT at Station (image credit: Graeme Sharpe)
Cleveland BRT at Station (image credit: Graeme Sharpe)

 Why is this report important for Indianapolis? More importantly, why is it important to dig into the details comparing one BRT systems to another? In the end, what defines Cleveland as the standard of domestic BRT are design related features which frankly, are not cost drivers of the system. Connecting activity and job centers is a topic I have touched on multiple times. Additionally, local policies that encourage TOD are in the pipeline here in Indy in the form of the Indy ReZone innitiative. The last portion, features that relay a sense of permanence, are also important. We already know that planners for Indy’s Central Corridors are requiring station boarding platforms similar to light rail transit. Getting the guide-way design down will be important, and will be the topic of a future post on this site. Indy Connect’s long range transit plan advocates for several BRT routes across the Central Indiana region. Ensuring that we take advantage of the collective wisdom of those before us will position Indianapolis for a better initial offering when the time comes for our moment in the spotlight.

Comments 3

  • I was sitting in front of my computer and mulling over how the IndyGo Transit Service runs Buses without air-conditioning when it is 105 degrees outside. I split my formative years between Saint Louis and Indianapolis – living both cities at various times as parent were divorced. Wife passed away in Saint Louis October last year and all her relatives (my in-laws) are in Greenfield – so I moved back – but as I can no longer drive – I need to be on IndyGo routes.

    I was a taxi driver and I did not ride buses much – but I never did get on a City Bus in Saint Louis that did not have air-conditioning. The Bus service was great – but now t has deteriorated to the point you do not want to ride a bus because they installed a light-rail system. Instead of going where you want to go they all go to the terminal of the nearest light rail.

    If memory serves IndyGo did not require you to go downtown and then transfer to another bus – they used to have North/South routes besides East/West.

    It is a matter of dollars. People who use Public Transportation cannot afford Private Transportation, i.e. taxis. So spending dollars on systems where people have money can ride a public system is silly – they have dollars not to stand at lines in McDonalds. The light-rail works in Minneapolis which has a perfect Bus System because it connects Downtown with the Airport. Good enough.

    They are spending money and disrupting lives in the Twin-Cities (I was there before deciding to drop down here) for a rail between Saint Paul and Minneapolis. Good construction project but people will still use the Number 16 Bus which will run the same rout as it stops at every corner.

    Interesting I was thinking about transit and Googled that only 3 hours earlier you posted.


    – use advanced search as to when a web page was updated and I requested within the last 24 hours so I could comment if interesting.

  • Thanks for the comments Bill. It seems you might be a little out of context for what I was writing about, but it appears you have landed at the right website if you are concerned about local transit issues. It is a yearly struggle for IndyGo to maintain the current routes let alone expand. Your ideas are sound too about public vs private transportation. All we can do is continue to lobby for improved funding & service and provide intelligent conversation to inform the public about why it is a good investment.

  • Again I wish to raise the question, what constitutes appropriate investment of tax dollars ?

    Starting with the obvious, Indy’s existing bus service is limited, and the quality of the stops is more limited. The City-Council’s only recent idea of improving the bus stops was to allow advertising benches. The City’s out of money so bad now, having committed so much to the Colts and Pacers, that public safety may be reduced even further.

    Riders of the Phoenix rail and bus systems cover only 23% of the costs, and declining ( see 11/14/2011 release at ). A one-ride bus fare in Phoenix is $1.75, so the true cost of one ride is $7.60. Assuming gasoline taxes cover the cost of roads, this true bus fare compares unfavorably to driving a car.

    Since it takes so much tax money to keep public transportation running, it makes sense to ask who benefits. Tax money should benefit those who can’t get by on their own. Yet IndyGo’s corridor map ( ) shows service to Carmel (several stops) and Keystone at the Crossing. I suggest those people are doing OK financially, they don’t need tax-subsidized transportation, so IndyGo should concentrate service among those who can’t afford to get around any other way. Same goes for light rail to Fishers/Noblesville, one of the most affluent areas of the state.

    (Same goes for another group’s plans to provide high speed rail to Cincy and Chicago. Trains already run among all midwestern cities, but passenger service is at a bare minimum. If the entities that own and operate the current rail system don’t see any money to be made by offering passenger service, how will a group of mass transit fans make this happen ? By diverting billions in tax money from more important social needs, that’s how.)

    To address local transportation, IMO:

    1) IndyGo should operate heavily, with big subsidies, where people are in need. This means inside 465, for the most part. I’m talking Boulder-level bus service. Bus stops must be improved as well. Real park-and-ride facilities – not just a mall parking lot – scattered around the 465 loop would encourage greater use.

    2) People from Carmel and Noblesville who work downtown and don’t like the commute can either (a) MOVE downtown or (b) rot in traffic. Nobody made them move to the boonies.

    3) The heck with rail for now. Until we see suggestion (1) in place and working and helping poor people get to work, local light rail will take money away from the needy and give it to white suburbanites. And until we see CSX providing workable passenger rail to Chicago, we won’t have demand for heavy rail.

    4) Stop dreaming of ‘economic development’. The biggest and best economic development to come from transportation would be all the poor people who will be able to get to work, the doctor, etc.

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