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Detroit, the heartland of the U.S. auto industry, is realizing it can no longer rely so heavily on cars.  The city had been planning a light-rail system for over 4 years to connect the pockets of urban and suburban development that have created massive job sprawl.  Unfortunately, the city has recently decided to axe the project.    Still, not all is lost.  Detroit is now looking into transferring some of the funding from the proposed light rail system into a new Bus Rapid Transit System (BRT).

BRT is bus system designed with the intent of acting more like a rail service than the traditional city bus network.  With a focus on speed and efficiency these buses often use HOV lanes or dedicated lanes to bypass the congestion.  Additionally, BRT generally use fewer stops and more high-speed routes aimed at commuters, especially those moving from suburban areas surrounding major job centers.  Detroit’s BRT line is to stretch 110 miles making it the largest BRT line in the country.  Buses will have their own lane and focus on moving the increasingly stressed commuter population quickly to and from work.  The system could be up and running as soon as two years.

BRT has some obvious advantages over a rail-based system.  More than anything a BRT system needs only a fraction of the initial capital required by a dedicated rail corridor.  Use and modification of existing rights of way simplify the spatial needs of the system and a BRT plan can easily start small and be scaled up as ridership increases.  On the other hand, BRT is subject to the usual concerns of the road including congestion and maintenance requirements.

It’s difficult to tell if BRT or light rail are more cost-effective over the course of the investment.  The vast majority of all buses still run on gasoline and are subject to its dangerous price fluctuations.  Moreover, the lifespan of a typical bus is in the decade ranged compared to the half-century or more a rail car can provide.  The cost-efficiency of each method varies between locales depending on the layout and traffic and passenger patterns.  I wonder if any broadly applicable life-cycle analyses have been conducted on the relative efficiency of these systems.

Further Reading: