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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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The Bus Route to Redevelopment

Evidence that BRT Systems Can Spur Transit-Oriented Development

By Mark Solof and Darius Sollohub

Jason Miller

A Cleveland Regional Transit Authority bus along the new

HealthLine on Euclid Avenue. The Cleveland State University

Parker Hannifin Administration Center is in the background.

Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue is coming back. The city’s historic main street is undergoing a revival after suffering from decades of disinvestment that left numerous empty storefronts, vacant lots and hulking, underused buildings. The catalyst for the revival is the completion of a 9-mile, $200 million bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

“Euclid Avenue was reinvented and repositioned as a result of the BRT,” said Paul Volpe, president of City Architecture Inc., a Cleveland architectural and urban planning firm. “There is a remarkable enthusiasm for redevelopment.” While the recession and financing crisis have put some plans on hold, he predicts “great things” for the avenue as the economy improves.

Cleveland’s success is prompting added attention by transportation planners to the prospects for modern bus systems to not only attract riders and speed travel but to serve as a cost-effective means to spur new development and economic activity. The recent experience with $4 per gallon gas has heightened interest in sites served by mass transit. Rail lines have traditionally been the focus for creating transit-oriented development (TOD). Can bus systems do the same at a cheaper cost and with more flexibility?

BRT systems vary widely. All include measures to speed trips, such as dedicated rights of way, special lanes or mechanisms to control traffic light timing. They have fewer stops spaced farther apart than conventional bus lines. The El Monte system in Los Angeles runs partially on highway HOV lanes. Pittsburgh’s system runs on a dedicated busway created along a railroad right of way. Boston’s BRT uses a “contra-flow” lane and a dedicated tunnel for parts of its route.

The systems in Cleveland and Eugene, Ore., two of the newest in the U.S., include elements that most closely mimic light rail systems—stations on islands in the middle of the street, low-floor vehicles, pre-boarding ticketing systems and displays of upcoming vehicle arrival times. The specially painted and branded vehicles (see related item in Research Exchange section) use hybrid diesel-electric engines to minimize emissions.

HealthLine Restores Euclid

As Cleveland’s BRT investment took shape, the once forlorn Euclid Avenue was rediscovered by businesses and institutions located adjacent to it. “Everybody began to see Euclid as their front door rather than their back door and enhanced their face on Euclid because of the project,” said Maribeth Feke, director of planning, Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. The BRT formally opened in October and has been named the HealthLine, through a naming agreement with the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals located at one stop.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer in February 2008 tallied $4.3 billion in development investment being made along the rebuilt Euclid Avenue, encompassing “everything from museums and hospitals to housing and educational institutions.” Land values in one section doubled in the past five years from $200,000 to $400,000 per acre.

Replicating the emerging success of Cleveland’s HealthLine in other cities and towns could be difficult. While the BRT was a key impetus for the redevelopment, there were other factors. In particular, property values on Euclid Avenue had fallen so far that they became all but irresistible to investors, who eyed the redevelopment going on in other urban downtowns around the country.

Also, the City of Cleveland made major non-BRT investments along the avenue. This included a curb-to-curb rebuilding of the street with new water and sewer lines as well as fiber optic cables, new sidewalks, streetlights and landscaping. These investments helped convince developers of the city’s long-term commitment to the avenue. The BRT system itself was designed as a permanent feature of the avenue.

“The stations are in the middle of the street,” Feke said. “They’re pretty substantial—lots of concrete.”

Permanence

Creating a sense of permanence is likely the most important factor in designing BRT systems that can support economic development. Developers are unlikely to invest large sums of money in TOD along conventional bus routes which can be easily altered or eliminated.


Lane Transit District

The rail-like EMX BRT system in Eugene, Ore., features several

elements that make it more attractive to riders than traditional

commuter buses.

Light rail systems are the gold standard of permanence, with routes fixed in steel and extensive supporting infrastructure, including stations and power systems. These systems have a solid record in supporting TOD in densely settled areas.

As BRT systems are designed to approach the permanence of light rail —to reap their potential to attract ridership and development— their cost advantages over light rail diminish. Still these advantages can remain substantial. The cheapest light rail alternative in Cleveland was estimated in 1994 to cost $365 million, compared with the $114 million for the 9-mile BRT (the project’s scope and costs escalated to $200 million by the line’s opening).

Rail advocates maintain that these capital costs can be deceiving, because over the long-term, light rail systems can cost less to operate and maintain than bus systems. For instance, buses must be replaced every 12-15 years; rail cars can last decades.

In other countries, such as Brazil, Canada and Australia, BRT systems have had notable success in providing the circulation systems for cities and as catalysts for development. The system in Curitba, Brazil—which inspired BRT systems around the world—includes  37 miles of median busways and carries about 2 million people per day.

Yet citizens—and, by extension, developers—in other countries are often more amenable to mass transit in all its forms than those in the U.S. because of greater availability, higher costs of driving and possibly cultural factors.  In the U.S., bus transit in particular carries a negative stigma for many commuters. University of California, Berkeley Urban Planning Professor Robert Cervero, speaking at a December conference on TOD at New York University, called buses “the Rodney Dangerfield of mass transit.”

“There’s a perception that they can’t attract development like rail,” he said, “and that’s because they’re [seen as] slow, lumbering vehicles.” But the newest BRT systems with their rail-like features, he said, are making the distinction between systems with steel wheels and rubber tires “a false dichotomy.”

The experience in Cleveland may bear this out. In an urban setting where real estate interests were reluctant to pioneer areas that had fallen into decline, the city’s BRT system investment jump-started corridor-wide redevelopment.

Boston’s Silver Line

Another case in point is Boston’s Silver Line. The first 2.5-mile segment of this system, opened in 2002, was built along Washington Street from Dudley Square to downtown Boston. In the 1980s, Washington Street had declined to slumlike conditions in some areas, including large vacant lots left over from failed urban renewal.

“There was plenty of crime. No one would go there,” said Linda Rubin Royer, executive director of Washington Gateway Main Street, a non-profit development agency.


Steve Pinkus

Some credit Boston's Silver Line BRT service for helping

revitalize Washington Street, a downtown strip that had

become blighted and economically depressed.

The BRT system was part of a city-led redevelopment effort started in the mid 1990s. It included street reconstruction and marketing of city-owned lots for development. “The BRT and development went hand-in-hand,” said Rubin Royer, whose organization helped guide and promote the development. “One couldn’t work without the other.”

Today, she says Washington Street is a “well-heeled Boston street. There are beautiful condominium buildings, very nice stores and shops and lots of restaurants.” In all, 46 new and 40 improved businesses line the street.

Washington Street’s BRT runs mostly on a combined bus and right turn only lane, but also makes use of a short segment of an exclusive contraflow lane as well as running in normal mixed traffic lanes in downtown (a second BRT segment opened in 2005 runs from downtown Boston’s South Station to Logan Airport, making use of a dedicated tunnel as it leaves the downtown).

The Boston BRT is somewhat less rail-like than Cleveland’s system—for instance, its stations are less substantial and lack off-vehicle fare payment. But, said Rubin Royer, “You see the buses full all the time.”

'TAD' vs. TOD

Some BRT systems that range away from downtowns to less dense areas have seen development near outlying stations. But the causal connections to the BRT system investments are not always clear. And much of the development is not strictly TOD.


Chris Ivey

Pittsburgh's East Liberty Station is part of the Martin Luther

King, Jr. East Busway, the oldest BRT line in the country.

TOD typically means walkable streetscapes around stations with a mix of housing, office, retail and other uses that both sustain and are sustained by transit ridership. Some of the big box stores and condo developments near BRT stations have been disparaged by transit planners as “transit-adjacent development,” or TAD. While such development may be accessible by transit, it tends to be primarily auto-oriented, with much land devoted to parking that shuts out future denser, walkable TOD.

Rail lines are not immune to TAD. Lindbergh City Center, built along Atlanta’s MARTA rail line, was to be a mixed-use center, but the execution left a lot to be desired. Office, residential and commercial uses remain segregated and pedestrians “feel intimidated and closed in by towering buildings and parking decks, heavily trafficked arterials and the railroad trench,” Mass Transit magazine noted.

Some of the development along Pittsburgh’s 9-mile Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway fits the TAD mold. The East Busway is one of three BRT lines running in dedicated roadways built along rail rights of way serving the city. They form the oldest BRT system in the U.S., dating back to 1977. The system uses conventional buses but in recent years has been upgraded and expanded to include more hi-tech BRT features at stations.

Because the Pittsburgh system was designed primarily to speed commuting and ease traffic congestion, over most of its history little attention was paid to development near stations. While some housing developments included special walkways to stations, they were otherwise auto-oriented.

In recent years, the city and private developers have given more attention to TOD.  Participants at a TOD conference in January 2009 toured the area around the busway station in the predominantly African-American East Liberty neighborhood. Once badly blighted, the neighborhood in recent years has become a thriving retail hub with major chains and independent retailers in a setting with many walkable streets.

According to Ernie Hogan, deputy director of the East Liberty Development Inc., a non-profit community development organization, “Part of the reason for the interest in and continued growth of East Liberty is that public transportation is readily available.” He said the next phase of development now underway is making TOD a guiding principal. It may include development at the station on land now set aside for bus staging and use of a new state Transportation Improvement District law.

Even without TOD, the mobility provided by the East Busway has helped support and stabilize residential neighborhoods. Dave Wohlwill, manager of extended-range planning for the Allegheny County Port Authority, said the Shadyside area has attracted many students and young professionals who “crowd the stations because it’s a very quick ride to Oakland and downtown.”

Though there is little experience internationally with BRT in low-density suburbs, BRT has potential advantages over light rail in serving these areas. Buses can be routed off dedicated guideways to serve scattered hubs and job sites, allowing riders to avoid transfers. In Ottawa, the 19-mile, multi-corridor BRT built in 1983 uses such flexible routing of buses to link the downtown with surrounding suburbs.

In the U.S., experimentation with new configurations, locations and technologies for BRT systems will likely continue, driven by the need for federal, state and local governments to find more cost-effective means to expand mass transit – especially as transportation tax dollars decline with the recession. The experiences in Cleveland, Boston and other cities suggest that with the right inducements and policies by the public sector, BRT systems can support private sector investment and healthy local economies.

Darius Sollohub is director, infrastructure planning, and associate professor at the NJIT School of Architecture. Mark Solof is director, public affairs, at the NJTPA.

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