What Will It Take to Deliver Bus Rapid Transit in the Bay Area?
August 26, 2019

A rendering of planned bus rapid transit service on International Boulevard in Oakland. Image courtesy AC Transit.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) has been delivering better transportation options in cities around the world for 20 years — but it’s still a work in progress in the Bay Area. This relatively new solution improves bus speed and reliability on major streets by reducing or eliminating delays, mainly through bus-only lanes and more frequent service. BRT began in South America in the early 2000s; there it’s become a fast, reliable and cost-effective transportation option. Cities across the U.S. have since invested in BRT to address regional growth and sustainability goals, and many have been successful. Richmond, Virginia’s “The Pulse,” for example, supports 40,000 riders per week.

But as of 2019, only one BRT project has been planned and built in the Bay Area. Three projects are in process, and one was initiated but never got past the planning phase. (See figure below.) These projects each encountered significant hurdles and are taking decades to plan, approve and construct. BRT has genuinely worked in cities across the world, offering a way to manage congestion and population growth by providing riders a faster ride at a fraction of the cost of rail. But the experience in the Bay Area demonstrates that delivering BRT is not as simple as copying and pasting other cities’ plans. What will it take to better deliverBRT projects in the Bay Area?

Bay Area BRT Projects

 

Alum Rock

VTA

Van Ness

MTA

Geary Blvd

MTA

International Blvd

AC Transit

El Camino Real

Samtrans

Status

Opened 2017

Scheduled to open June 2021

Phase 1 scheduled to open 2021

Scheduled to open Dec 2019

Paused

Length of Project

7 miles

2 miles

5 miles

9.5 miles

17 miles

Est. cost

$148 million

$310 million

$300 million

$200 million

Up to $233 million

Frequency

12 min

6-9 min

< 2-6 min

7 min

12 min

Dedicated Lane

2 miles

100%

90%

85%

Up to 82%

Five different BRT projects have been initiated across the region. One has been delivered, three are in progress and one was initiated but not built.
 

Part of the unique challenge to getting BRT right in the Bay Area is that different transit agencies and cities mobilize for each project. This leaves little opportunity for learning and translating lessons learned into action; after all, the next BRT project is likely to happen in another city, led by a different transit operator. Cities and transit agencies may have one-off or ad hoc conversations with each other, but these are not at the scale or scope to provide truly helpful learning on projects of such significance.

In an attempt to remedy this, earlier this year SPUR convened the cities and transportation agencies that led or are leading BRT efforts in the Bay Area to share lessons learned and keys for success in implementing BRT. The workshop focused on four different aspects of the BRT planning process: partner agency relationships, public process and elected officials, planning and environmental process and project delivery. The lessons learned were discussed in further detail at a SPUR  forum.  

The key takeaway: BRT is a lot more than a bus moving rapidly in its own lane — it’s a multidimensional, layered and complex project that must consider network planning, land use, other improvements such as utility upgrades, community engagement, environmental review processes and politics. With so many moving parts, even the simplest of tasks can go overlooked or become especially challenging to deliver; what may seem straightforward may in fact be very intricate and nuanced. This is why sharing and reflecting on the implementation process is such a vital task. From the workshop, 11 lessons emerged in three areas: prepare for success; identify your message and build support; and practice effective project delivery.

Prepare for Success

Lesson 1: Identify and engage stakeholders and partners early.

BRT projects are complicated and involve a lot of parties — multiple government agencies, funders, constructions companies, local businesses, residents, utilities, advocacy groups, elected officials and more. Workshop attendees remarked that they were caught off guard by the wide variety of groups involved in BRT: They hadn’t anticipated that many of the stakeholders were in fact stakeholders. Creating a plan early on for how to work with and connect with these various groups, and assigning a staff member or team the responsibility of tracking and managing all these relationships, emerged as an important lesson learned.

Lesson 2: Build strong partnerships.

BRT projects are fundamentally partnership efforts. Transit agencies operate the bus service but often do not have control over the roadways on which the buses operate. Cities typically control the roadways but usually do not have dedicated transit planners on staff. In addition, BRT projects run on major corridors, and in the Bay Area these coridors tend to run through multiple cities, and many of them are owned by Caltrans. This means different stretches of the roadway have different owners, and sometimes multiple agencies have approval authority. As a result, different parts of a BRT route can have different and/or competing standards for parking, lane widths or traffic standards. The attendees emphasized that there are countless details and nuances to work out between parties.

Every BRT project needs a lead agency; the group discussed that ideally the lead agency should have maximum purview over the other partner agencies, however they admitted that this is not always possible. At the very least, they agreed that it’s imperative for cities, transit agencies and other core stakeholders to be engaged early as true partners on the project, invested in its success — and, crucially, that a strong project manager is assigned to manage the various relationships.

Lesson 3: Have a decision-making roadmap.

The cities and transit agencies at the session found that the newness and complexity of BRT meant there was a lack of clarity around decision making, which resulted in stalled decisions and tension between parties. It may seem like overkill to enter into formal agreements with partner agencies, but upon reflection the workshop attendees all agreed that before a BRT project gets off the ground, formal frameworks should be put in place to formally delineate and document who will do what, who is responsible for which decisions and how and when those decisions will be made.

Lesson 4: Properly staff the project.

Delivering BRT is not the same as creating a new bus line. Successful BRT delivery requires having the right expertise on the core project team, including: public engagement staff; project managers capable of working across many different systems and serving as a bridge between stakeholder groups; capital project management and construction management specialists; and staff with environmental review expertise. Because transit agencies (with the exception of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) don’t control the roadway, there must be staff at multiple agencies and departments fully engaged on the project.

Lesson 5: Have a design phase before environmental review.

Projects in California must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires a significant review process. But it’s not wise to leave key design decisions for the CEQA review stage, because once the CEQA process is underway, changes require a lengthy and laborious process. The attendees discussed the value of a pre-CEQA design process that would allow for agencies to compare project alternatives, zero in on project design details, resolve the most challenging intersection locations and resolve disagreements between partners in a more flexible setting than CEQA allows.

Identify Your Message and Build Support

Lesson 6: Engage the public and stakeholders early and often.

A BRT project can have benefits and impacts for businesses, riders and residents. The attendees discussed the value of and need for early outreach that is sustained throughout the project delivery process. They identified two groups that may require special outreach strategies:

  1. Businesses on the BRT corridor can be significantly impacted during the BRT construction process. They are key partners and potential opponents.
  2. Transit riders are often under-represented in traditional outreach, and their interests are often drowned out by more vocal stakeholders. At the convening, some remarked that they had to fight for bus riders as a constituency deserving of better transit.

A detailed plan for outreach that covers all stakeholder groups and extends before, during and after the project is delivered emerged as vital to success. A trained and sustained engagement team, including at least one full-time staff person with a support team of staff or consultants, was also identified as core project component.

Lesson 7: Know your “why” — and make it known.

At the session, several attendees noted that a main challenge was that the “why” — or rationale — for the project wasn’t clear. Instead of clearly articulating the benefits of the project, staff assumed the concept would sell itself. Often stakeholders were not aligned on the “why” and were communicating contradictory messages. Some of the justifications for BRT are technical in nature; several attended noted they didn’t have the communication tools to explain the technical information in a way that resonated with non-experts. Some had tried pointing to the success of international BRT projects, but doing so fell flat: The public didn’t want a solution from the early 2000s or from a different country; the examples given didn’t answer the question, “What would this mean for my community?”

Workshop attendees discussed the need to have a common set of “whys” that reflect what was learned from outreach efforts and are easy to communicate with riders and potential riders, as well as other stakeholders. Different messages resonate with different audiences. For some, the economic development potential of BRT is the selling point; for others it’s the dignity that BRT would provide to an otherwise crowded and subpar bus experience. BRT projects are, after all, much more than bus lane changes; they’re major street-shaping projects that can have safety, community, placemaking and economic benefits.

Backing up the case for BRT with data on ridership, travel-time competitiveness and bus reliability were also identified as helpful ways to ensure the “why” came across. Finally, the attendees noted that creating internal talking points and making sure all stakeholders understand and communicate the same set of messages as a key lesson learned. The “whys” for BRT need to be at the front of every conversation.

Lesson 8: Stop calling it “BRT.”

BRT is a technical term that often requires definition, and cities and transit agencies shouldn’t feel obligated to use it. Attendees discussed that it would be helpful to instead use unique branding that captures riders’ and neighbors’ feedback from outreach and engagement and that builds excitement for the project. The name should reflect the outcome — what people gain from the project — as opposed to the type of transit.

Lesson 9: Build political will.

Political will is absolutely critical to success. Giving the bus priority — which usually requires taking a lane from cars — is often as much a political challenge as a design challenge. As BRT projects can cross multiple jurisdictions, many different political stakeholders need to be champions for the change. If one jurisdiction drops out, it invites a possible domino effect. Similarly, if a key political champion leaves office, it can create a void that can hurt or delay the project. The attendees noted that it’s imperative to build  a lasting foundation of support by cultivating community champions who will be there throughout the life of the project — and by reaching out to politicians who join government during the life of the project. Keys steps the attendees identified included developing a political strategy, having a clear message that policymakers understand and can support, and identifying who will be in charge of working with the policymakers.

Deliver the Project Efficiently

Lesson 10: Consider the best construction plan for the community. 

BRT projects create short-term pains for long-term gains. Building and maintaining support for the project during construction is a challenge. Whether to do the construction in phases, and have less disturbance over a long period of time, or all at once with more disturbance over a short period of time, is a real trade off and should be evaluated up front. These trade-offs should be communicated to stakeholders. The attendees emphasized that small business outreach and assistance must be available throughout the entire construction process. The messaging strategy should focus on the benefits the project will ultimately provide, while riders and drivers are inconvenienced during construction. This is also an opportunity to encourage drivers to try alternate public transit routes.

Lesson 11: Assess which BRT design is right for riders.

At the end of the day, the goal shouldn’t be to deliver BRT according to the text book definition; rather, the goal should be to deliver a dignified transportation experience that offers fewer delays and more reliable transportation — however it makes sense to achieve it. Attendees discussed not starting with BRT as the solution and rather working with the community to identify the transportation strategies that keep people moving efficiently and can accommodate growth.

A fully dedicated bus lane can be hard to achieve because it often requires eliminating something else, such as a travel lane, parking and/or turn lanes. Managing the loss of parking — by moving parking to side streets or adding additional transit service, for example — is crucial for the success of the project. This is where political champions, community champions and a strong message that communicates the benefits of the project are key.

The Value of Process Evaluation

Learning has to be part of the process of building. Yet, more often than not, transportation planning evaluations focus on outcomes: Do people ride the new system? What is the farebox recovery? If the outcomes are positive, the process is deemed “worth it”; if they’re negative, the focus then shifts to tweaking the project or program to make it better. The project delivery and implementation process is an afterthought, rarely identified as a source of learning and information — or a way to improve outcomes.

SPUR convened the Bay Area agencies working on BRT because we believe in the value of stepping back and thinking about process. The workshop attendees valued the exercise and embraced the conversation. They were honest and reflective, curious and eager to learn how to make BRT project delivery more successful. This suggests that there’s a lot more room for process evaluation in transportation planning. The Bay Area’s disparate approaches to project delivery make this step even more crucial. But if it’s to become standard practice, it needs to be prioritized and resourced. Transportation planners could partner with other fields such as public health, where evaluation is built into every part of a project. Evaluation could become part of the transportation planning curriculum. Mistakes and setbacks are bound to be part of project delivery, but understanding the lessons learned and identifying keys for success is how those mistakes and setbacks become the foundation for a more informed perspective, a deeper level of understanding and, ultimately, better outcomes.  

 

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