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Taking the Guesswork Out of Rating BRT: An Interview With Walter Hook

Rio+20 - June 19

Transoeste BRT in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Michael Oko.

There’s a new global benchmark for rating bus rapid transit projects. Yesterday the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy released the BRT Standard 2013, which lays out the requirements for bus routes to qualify as BRT and scores 50 systems in 35 cities around the world as basic, bronze, silver, or gold based on various criteria. The idea, which ITDP has been refining since a beta release in 2011, is to provide a concrete definition of what BRT is, and a reference for politicians, planners, and advocates who are interested in creating new BRT routes, as well as to rate the quality of existing systems.

People Creating Change: Walter Hook

ITDP CEO Walter Hook. Photo by Colin Hughes.

The standard rates more than 30 aspects of bus corridor design, awarding points for elements that improve system performance. Dedicated bus lanes, level boarding, pre-paid boarding and signal prioritization are considered basic requirements for BRT. Additional elements that score points include multiple bus routes running on the same corridor; passing lanes at stations; low-emission buses; attractive, weather-protected stations; real-time arrival info signs; integration with bike sharing and more.

Streetsblog recently caught up with ITDP CEO Walter Hook via telephone to get more info on the new guide.

John Greenfield: Congratulations on releasing the BRT Standard. So this is kind of like the LEED [green building rating system] for bus rapid transit, correct?

Walter Hook: Yeah, that’s basically the idea, with the additional caveat that the BRT Standard is also positing a minimum definition for what constitutes BRT at all, which is not really an element in LEED. I mean, LEED doesn’t say, “You’re not a green building if you don’t hit any of these things.” The BRT Standard now has a minimum definition. That’s new from last time.

When the U.S. promoted BRT they didn’t promote it with a very clear definition. So a lot of mediocre bus improvements were implemented that tarnished the brand.

JG: What is your minimum standard for something to be called BRT?

WH: It’s a fairly complicated formula but essentially it has to have a dedicated lane of at least four kilometers. If it’s on a two-way road, it has to run along the central median. If it’s a curb-running bus lane on a two-way street it’s pretty much ineligible. So there are a couple of baseline things, but there are a lot of details and nuances.

Read more…


Bus Rapid Transit Designs for East Side Avenues Still in Flux

Earlier this week DOT and the MTA showed plans for Bus Rapid Transit on the east side of Manhattan to the Seaport/Civic Center committee of Community Board 1. With implementation scheduled for next September, the question of how to allot space on First and Second Avenues is increasingly urgent. Robust bus improvements paired with protected space for biking on this corridor could become a model for sustainable street design in New York.

off_set_lane.jpgAn off-set bus lane, which DOT may or may not employ for BRT on the East Side. Image: NYCDOT [PDF]
According to the Downtown Express, the presentation depicted "off-set" bus lanes -- a configuration that puts the buses in an exclusive lane between other traffic and curbside parking. The bus station would be constructed on a sidewalk extension, so that buses don't have to pull into and out from the curb. The effectiveness of this design depends in large part on keeping the bus lane clear of other traffic and double-parked vehicles. Bus-mounted enforcement cameras, which require Albany's approval but were rejected by state lawmakers last year, would be absolutely necessary. A physically separated busway, however, wouldn't need cameras to deliver significant improvements for bus riders.

I checked in with DOT to see if the off-set design has indeed been finalized, and the answer is "No." The agency is still considering different bus lane configurations. "An image we presented to the board on Tuesday night did show an offset lane," said a DOT spokesperson, "but this is a baseline design, one which we've used in presentations for the last six months."

An off-set configuration would give bus riders on the East Side a faster ride, but without a physically-separated busway, there are few certainties. Off-set bus lanes would have to be paired with camera enforcement to deliver the full potential benefits, said Walter Hook, director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Hook has advised several global metropolises on the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit.

If everything lines up and Albany does pass a law enabling the use of bus-mounted cameras, then, Hook estimates, total travel time on the M15 corridor could be reduced from 70 minutes to 48 minutes during peak hours using off-set lanes. Hook projects that a physically separated busway would cut that time to 42 minutes. No permission from Albany necessary.


The Crossroads of the World Goes Car-Free


I've lived in New York City for just about twenty years now but yesterday was my first trip to Times Square.

Sure, I've been to Times Square before. Plenty of times. But until yesterday Times Square had never ever been a destination for me. Rather, it had always been a place to avoid or, if unavoidable, a place to get in and out of as fast as possible on my way to somewhere else.

The New York City Department of Transportation's "Green Light for Midtown" plan brought me and a lot of other people to Times Square yesterday. And it kept us there. By simply removing motor vehicles from Broadway around Times and Herald Squares and inviting pedestrians in with seating, street performers, good people-watching -- and a naked cowboy -- New York City has created two great new public spaces for tourists, office workers and, yes, even jaded residents.

NakedCowboyTough.jpgStreetfilms' Clarence Eckerson squares off with the Naked Cowboy. Icon Parking Systems, the Cowboy's sponsor, may be one of the few businesses unhappy with the new Times Square. The Cowboy is pleased.

The space is still raw and unfinished and it'll be interesting to see how it works during the weekday, but my two young sons and I had a blast yesterday along with thousands of others. Times Square is suddenly a place worth visiting and staying a while (especially if you're a parent desperate for an easy, low-cost weekend adventure for your kids).



BRT and New York City, Part 4: Getting It Right

brt_photosim.jpgWhat BRT might look like on First or Second Avenue. Photosim by Carly Clark/Livable Streets Initiative.

We conclude our discussion with ITDP director Walter Hook with a look at potential BRT configurations. In yesterday's installment, Hook noted that the best BRT systems incorporate both local and express services within exclusive busways, which requires three lanes at station stops. Here he discusses how to make this work along First and Second Avenue in Manhattan.

Streetsblog: What are the options for configuring BRT on First and Second Avenue? If a three-lane configuration is not politically feasible, what else might we end up with?

Walter Hook: It would take a lot of political courage to take three lanes out of First and Second Avenue exclusively for buses, but the current plan, de facto, also takes three lanes at the station stops (see diagram after the jump). I don’t think anything has been finalized, so perhaps we will get a great design even on First and Second Avenue. It would take some political heavy lifting to turn them into New York’s first ‘real’ BRT corridor. The folks at NYCDOT and the MTA know what they are doing, they are pretty familiar with the Latin American BRT systems, and there is no exact precedent for First and Second Avenue, so it would take some real creativity to pull it off.

The initial thinking, I believe, has been to allow only limited stop services inside a bus lane designated primarily with paint. The busway road configuration would probably look something like Broadway south of Houston Street, with a new nice bus shelter built on what used to be several parking spaces (a bus bulb), but with pre-paid ticketing like on Fordham Road:


BRT and New York City, Part 3: Ingredients of a Great BRT Corridor

itdp_34th_street_brt_proposal.jpgAn ITDP proposal for BRT on 34th Street. Rendering by Luc Nadal and Mark De Decker.
This is the third of four installments in our interview with ITDP director Walter Hook about Bus Rapid Transit in New York City. Be sure to catch the first and second parts if you haven't yet. In this installment Hook discusses how BRT can succeed in New York, and the series will wrap up tomorrow with a look at potential configurations specifically for First and Second Avenue.

Streetsblog: What would you say are the defining characteristics of a real BRT-level system?

Walter Hook: To be called BRT, a line must be a package of physical and operational components (stations, vehicles, running ways, passenger information, services, fare collection, traffic signal priority and other Intelligent Transportation System applications) that form a permanently integrated, customer-friendly, high performance system with a unique identity. BRT operations are generally tightly controlled by a technologically advanced system to keep service regular and reliable. How the system achieves high quality service and high speeds will vary according to the physical and operational environment, which, of course, is highly variable in New York City.

A BRT system's identity really comes down to all its elements being customer-friendly, attractive and planned as a system -- vehicles, stations, dedicated lanes, branding and passenger information, all fitting together as an integrated whole reflecting the surrounding traffic and urban environment.

The most important thing is the stations. I think NYCDOT is open to designing some truly iconic stations, something that everyone would identify with NYC BRT, the way New York's subway stations are identified the world over with their mosaics.


BRT and New York City, Part 2: What We’ve Got So Far

bx12.jpgSelect Bus Service has sped trips along the Bx12 route, but falls short of full BRT. Photo: Brad Aaron.
In the second installment of our interview with ITDP director Walter Hook, we look at the package of bus improvements implemented last year along the Bx12 line, and how it stacks up against full-featured Bus Rapid Transit. Read the first part of the interview here. Parts three and four will examine how full BRT could operate in New York.

Streetsblog: What's your evaluation of the SBS pilot route on Fordham Road? Does it qualify as BRT?

Walter Hook: The Fordham Road "Select Bus Service" pilot route was a very successful bus service enhancement -- including a number of BRT elements. The city is not calling it "BRT," though, and I think that is reasonable. A rule of thumb should be whether or not a map company would include the BRT system in a map of New York City. If it doesn't appear on any map other than as a standard bus route, then it has failed to enter the public consciousness as something above and beyond normal bus services.

Fordham Road has a dedicated lane for most of its length, but it is not physically segregated and not enforced as well as it could be.
I knew TransJakarta had succeeded when I bought a 2007 tourist map and it included a map of TransJakarta and its stations. The Orange Line in LA is on the ‘Mass Transit Map’ which includes the subway and light rail lines, and it's packed, so I think it's a success. When I went to Taipei and asked about the BRT system, nobody knew what I was talking about. It wasn't on any map. That is a sign that it has failed. In reality, Taipei only has dedicated lanes for buses, and continues to inefficiently operate the same tired old buses on them. It really cannot be called BRT.

Fordham Road has a dedicated lane for most of its length, but it is not physically segregated and not enforced as well as it could be. A BRT system does not necessarily need to have a physically-segregated lane. If the road is not congested, or bus frequency is very high, or enforcement is very tight, physical separation is not necessary. They removed a lot of parking, which took political courage, and this helps keep the lane free of vehicles. And the dedicated lane and signal priority are helping to increase speeds during the peak periods. But I suppose they have occasional problems with vehicles in the bus lanes because of too meek enforcement. If the New York state legislature would allow the city to have bus lane cameras that would help enforcement efforts.


BRT, Rail, and New York City: A Conversation With Walter Hook

transmilenio.jpgBogotá's TransMilenio carries 1.4 million riders per day. This bus- and bike-only transitway operates in the historic city center. Photo: Shreya Gadepalli/ITDP.

New York City made a major public commitment to Bus Rapid Transit in 2006 when, after years of discussion, the MTA and DOT put forward plans for pilot routes in each of the five boroughs. In the meantime, the city's BRT agenda has encountered a few setbacks in Albany and made a partial breakthrough on Fordham Road, with a service that incorporates some nifty bus improvements, but not enough to merit the BRT designation.

Perhaps no one knows the ins and outs of BRT better than Walter Hook (right). As director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Hook has advised cities on four continents about BRT implementation, including Jakarta's seven-corridor network, the first full-fledged BRT system in Asia.

Streetsblog caught up with Hook -- in between trips to Cape Town and Mexico City -- for an email Q&A about why New York City needs Bus Rapid Transit, common misconceptions of BRT in America, and what will make BRT succeed here. This is the first of four installments.

Streetsblog: Is BRT the right mode for New York City at this moment in time? A lot of folks think that BRT is no substitute for light rail or a subway system. How would you pitch the idea of BRT to New Yorkers?

Walter Hook: I was in Philadelphia a few months back, which is a real rail and streetcar-loving town, and I took a lot of heat for suggesting BRT had a place in U.S. cities like New York and Philadelphia, particularly from my friends in the sustainable transportation advocacy community. I understand why a lot of folks in the U.S. see BRT as some sort of marketing trick to pawn off low-quality bus improvements as mass transportation. I think it's because we don't really have a full BRT system in the U.S. Not very many people have been to Bogotá, or Curitiba, or Pereira or Guayaquil to see the best BRT systems. These are not exactly tourist Meccas.

The Second Avenue Subway would be great, it’s needed, it would have higher demand than almost any other metro line in the country. But will it happen?
The U.S. has a BRT program, and it has brought real improvements, and it's using some elements of the Latin American BRT systems, but most of them fall short. There is no quality control or mechanism to protect the ‘BRT’ brand, so some fairly modest bus improvements are calling themselves BRT, not only in the U.S. but all over the world.

New York City already has the most extensive subway network in the U.S., and one of the most extensive in the world. Whatever BRT is built, it will need to fit seamlessly into that network. Some subway lines are extremely crowded -- at capacity despite a very high fare by international standards. The 4, 5, and 6, the L -- these trains are packed.  I don't know why Japanese and Chinese cities can roll out 10 miles of new subway line a year, and the richest city in the world has been trying and failing to build the Second Avenue Subway since the 1960s. But I've lived in this town a long time, and I am skeptical. The optimists are telling us that we will have a Second Avenue Subway between 125th Street and 63rd Street by 2015 and only after we spend $4 to $5 billion. So this means we are probably talking about 2018 or 2020, and $10 billion. The Second Avenue Subway would be great, it’s needed, it would have higher demand than almost any other metro line in the country. At those volumes, metros are often a good investment. But will it happen?