US Transit Leaders: “We Must Prioritize, Invest, and Do Better for BRT”

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The majority of transit trips in the US are by bus. California State Senator Scott Wiener’s keynote address at ITDP’s U.S. Bus Rapid Transit Symposium called on policymakers to prioritize Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as a cost-effective way to implement efficient and fast public transportation, build back equitably post-COVID, and meet our climate change goals. Other transit leaders in cities across the US agreed.

As we prepare to close out this most disruptive of years, ITDP US held a national Bus Rapid Transit Symposium to engage with elected officials, practitioners, and civil society on moving BRT forward. California State Senator Scott Wiener kicked off by highlighting the links between BRT, housing, jobs, equity, and sustainability. His message was simple: “As long as we continue to rely on sprawl as our land use strategy, we will not effectively combat climate change.”

Prior to COVID-19, California was falling behind on its climate goals despite being ahead of schedule on decarbonizing its electric grid. This demonstrates that, in order deal with climate change, we must tackle the hard, structural decisions around where and how people live and work. “We need to shift land use patterns by having more density in existing urbanized areas, allow people to function without a car or drive shorter distances, and take on other initiatives that shift land use patterns,” said Wiener. “But in order to do so, having supportive public transportation is critical.”

The symposium featured speakers from cities all over the USA, as well as advice from neighbors north and south, including York, Ontario and Mexico City. Like in many cities, BRT and other public transit kept Mexico City running during the pandemic. “Public transport provides a service to everyone, not just to its users,” said Andrés Lajous Loaeza, Secretary of Mobility in Mexico City. “And the emergency made it very visible, at least in in Mexico City.”

Even in a pandemic, cities are making progress around buses and BRT. In San Francisco, construction on the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project continues, and Mexico City started a pilot operation with a fully electric bus. Yet, with transit agencies facing cuts, how can U.S. cities ensure they maximize the environmental, public health, and equity outcomes of a BRT investment? Tilly Chang, Executive Director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency underscored the importance of broad buy-in for successful BRT implementation at multiple points in the process. “This is not just the public when we say this,” Chang said. “This is including the public agencies and multiple divisions within an agency.” One engagement trick for SFMTA? Visualizations of the project, particularly if BRT is new to an area.

Access to sustainable public transportation takes many forms, such as statewide rail systems, walkable and bikeable communities, and enhanced green spaces. While train and rail are important, they are also expensive and time consuming to design, build, and fund – and that’s where BRT comes in. BRT is a way to implement quick, efficient public transportation without the need for enormous infrastructure changes. “Service dictates demand in the US,” said Aimee Gauthier, Chief Knowledge Officer at ITDP. “And I think that’s something that we don’t recognize enough. It’s not about Wi-Fi, it’s not about amenities. It’s about frequency, reliability, ease of use and access.”

Veronica Vanterpool, Chief Innovation Officer at the Delaware Transit Corporation agreed. “There can be a very healthy tension between the advocacy side and the agency side, and that healthy tension does often lead and can often lead to measurable impact, but then systems that are really designed for the users.”

Weiner also referred to the importance of putting greater focus on user needs. “In this country, transportation is overwhelmingly about buses,” said Wiener. “We have failed lower-income working class people, seniors, and others who don’t have the means to drive, take a taxi, or use rideshare apps by having bus service that is not frequent but rather slow enough that they can’t get anywhere on time.”

For Wiener, seeing BRT made him a believer. He shared insights from a delegation trip to Mexico City five years ago that explored their public bike share and BRT systems. “We learned that in Mexico City, when they decide to put BRT on the ground, from the idea, to cutting the ribbon and beginning service, takes about three years,” said Wiener. “Unfortunately, here in California, and elsewhere, because the U.S. has forgotten how to efficiently deliver infrastructure projects, it takes us forever.”

While three years would be ideal, even if it takes a longer to implement, we know that BRT works, and ultimately expands people’s ability and desire to take buses.

“If we want people to take buses, which we do, they are a fantastic form of transportation, we need to make them more efficient, frequent, and dedicate the space for it,” said Wiener. “Only by doing so, transit dependent communities will be able to get to school, work, doctors’ appointments, or other destinations on time.” Ultimately, BRT systems can help solve today’s, and future, transportation and climate challenges – it just takes planning and political will.

Senator Wiener added, “We need to prioritize it, invest in it, and do better at putting it on the ground.”

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