Oregon has long been viewed as a public transit pioneer. That reputation tends to involve train cars. MAX trains and street cars ferry hundreds – even thousands – of people all around the Portland area every day. But with funding in short supply and congestion increasing, an alternative is catching on: bus rapid transit.
You can think of bus rapid transit as a souped-up bus.
Here’s Alan Lehto’s explanation -- he’s TriMet’s top planner: "Using buses – rubber tire technology – to try and make a more visible, more reliable, typically faster and often higher-capacity service than your standard bus service."
Or, you can think of it as light rail on tires.
Transit consultant Jarrett Walker: "Bus rapid transit is just that same thing done with bus. So instead of laying the rails, you just make sure that there’s a lane, where nothing else is going to get in the way of the bus as it moves along the path.”
There are two high priority corridors in Portland’s long-term transit plan. BRT is on the table, for discussion, in both of them. One is the southwest corridor along Barbur Boulevard, from Portland to Sherwood. The other is on the other side of the Willamette, in the area of Powell and Division in Southeast Portland.
Elissa Gertler, a deputy director at the Metro regional government, and the supervisor of the two corridor planning efforts, says there’s one big reason that interest in bus rapid transit may be overtaking light rail: "First and foremost, light rail is expensive. A big capital investment costs a lot of money, and partnership with the federal government in how to fund that has diminished over time, as we’ve expanded our system in this region.”
Bus rapid transit tends to be at least a little cheaper because it doesn’t require putting steel rails in the ground.
And when people suggest BRT can be much cheaper, it's because light rail needs its own right-of-way for every bit of rail line. BRT can use the existing roadway.
But TriMet planner Alan Lehto says that flexibility is a blessing and a curse.
"With a BRT project, it is possible to say, 'Ok, for this section you don’t get any exclusive right-of-way, you don’t get special treatments, you just run in mixed traffic.' That’s great, except that the place where the pressure to run in mixed traffic is the highest is also where the traffic is the worst."
It’s sometimes possible to reduce the problem by giving rapid buses priority at traffic lights.
But transit consultant Jarret Walker says the ideal is to run the bus like a light rail train. Easier said than done in the two corridors Portland is studying.
"You have stretches there, where there’s just so much width," Walker says. "There’s only so much space in the road. And in those places, it doesn’t really matter if you’re building light rail or Bus Rapid Transit, the real question will be: Where do you find a path?"
Standing at 82nd Avenue and Division, Metro’s Elissa Gertler says planners are starting with a focus on where people are traveling. This Division corridor includes multiple college campuses. She says administrators see a value in getting their students out of their cars.
"We have heard them say, 'We don’t want to be a sea ofparking lots, we don’t want to have to just building parking. We want to invest in educational space, and serving our students,' ” Gertler says.
She says extensive studies of the southwest corridor, across the river, show a variety of traffic patterns. But she says residents want alternatives to congestion and car-dependent neighborhoods.
"I think in places where the problems are so bad, they’re willing to look at multiple solutions," Gertler says.
Planners are studying both light rail and rapid bus approaches for the southwest corridor. The Powell-Division corridor is a few years behind.
Gertler says Portland has been a national leader in building light rail. But she says it's worth examining other cities, where BRT is catching on.