If Bogota can do it, so can Boston

Bus rapid transit has great potential

“An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it’s where even the rich use public transportation.” – Former Bogota Mayor Enrique Penalosa.

I recently visited Bogota, Colombia, for the first time. While there I was given a tour of the control center for the city’s highly regarded bus rapid transit system, TransMilenio. TransMilenio is a marvel – a bus rapid transit (BRT) system that moves almost 2 million people daily across vast swaths of the sprawling capital city. It was literally carved out of the central lanes of existing boulevards, placing buses in dedicated lanes and offering riders clean, well-organized stations. TransMilenio routes also accommodate well-planned bicycle paths.

TransMilenio isn’t the only BRT system operating successfully in major cities. Brazil led the way with its BRT deployment in Curitiba, and other BRT systems thrive or are emerging across the globe. Sadly, the United States has been a laggard, but BRT is beginning to find a constituency. The generally positive experience of Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor BRT line has demonstrated that private sector investment will follow from a public investment in BRT. Regionally, Connecticut has taken the lead with its CT Fast Track initiative, a nearly $500 million project that will link Hartford and New Britain with a 9.5 mile dedicated BRT guideway, taking pressure off a heavily congested mobility corridor. We purport to have BRT here in Boston, in the form of the Silver Line from Dudley Station to Downtown Crossing and South Station, but there is virtually nothing about the Silver Line that resembles true BRT. That’s something that needs correction, because BRT is a proven, cost-effective way to improve urban mobility.

The experience of cities like Bogota has been an immediate and enthusiastic public acceptance and embrace of BRT. People are hungry for reliable public transportation. In the United States, many people tend to relegate bus transit to a second or even third tier – they view it as inherently inferior to light rail or subway. These negative views arise from a variety of fair and unfair preconceptions. But there is one irrefutable reality: as long as buses simply share the road with every other vehicle, without dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority, then buses will forever be a less desirable form of public transit.

We can change this paradigm with a coordinated effort among state and city agencies to reinvent the urban public realm as a more mobility-friendly and technology-friendly environment. This means reducing or in some cases eliminating vehicular lanes; it means strict enforcement of offenses like double parking on dedicated bus lanes; it means carving out dedicated bus lanes that behave like the dedicated light rail Green Line right-of-way in Brookline and Newton; and it means introducing traffic signal priority technologies that will enhance both mobility and public safety. These strategies can work, and they can provide cost effective solutions to more expensive alterations to existing infrastructure.

Prior to the introduction of its TransMilenio BRT system, Bogota was as auto-centric a city as any in the world. A progressive mayor, faced with levels of traffic congestion that created daily gridlock conditions throughout the city core, rejected proposals for roadway expansion and turned instead to the design and construction of a massive bus rapid transit system. It was fashioned as a public/private partnership and since opening 14 years ago it has been singularly successful improving mobility, opening up access to underserved neighborhoods and reducing travel times for transit users by 32 percent.

BRT is primarily about improved mobility, but it is also about economic growth along BRT lines, and it’s about making streets safer. That’s right – safer. Putting more eyes on the street and redesigning streetscapes to accommodate true BRT can improve public safety. Combining redesigned streetscapes with dedicated bike lanes separated from traffic by a parking lane and improved pedestrian crossings can also enhance public safety. In Bogota, both traffic accidents and crime fell along the TransMilenio corridor once the system was operational.

While Boston is not Bogota, and an apples-to-apples comparison cannot be made, there are lessons to be learned that inform how we should be thinking about, and acting on, this issue. For BRT to work well in Boston, our busses must have dedicated lanes and stations that resemble light rail stations; payment must not be on the bus but at turnstiles as you enter each station or platform, and roadways will need to be redesigned to accommodate both a dedicated bus lane and adjacent bicycle and pedestrian pathways along the corridor. BRT fully realized ought to have the look, the feel, and the mobility experience of the Green Line along Beacon Street or Huntington Avenue.

If Boston is looking for its next big mobility idea, let it be this: a historic reimagining and reinventing of the public realm along designated BRT corridors that will improve mobility and access to jobs across multiple sections of the city.

There are four strong potential BRT corridors in Boston: (1) Blue Hill Avenue from Mattapan Square to Dudley Station, (2) the existing Silver Line corridors from Dudley Station to Downtown Crossing and South Station, (3) Summer Street from South Station to the Convention Center, and (4) Mt. Vernon Street at Columbia Point, connecting JFK Station with the UMass Boston campus. The first three routes would create a nearly seamless BRT corridor from one end of the city to the other, beginning at Mattapan Square and ending at Logan Airport. This BRT corridor – let’s call it the Connected Boston Corridor or CBC – would be relatively easy to implement. A good deal of preliminary thinking and design work was done in 2009 for what was proposed as BRT along Blue Hill Avenue, the so-called 28X bus. The existing Silver Line corridor is wide enough from Dudley to Herald Street to accommodate a significant redesign that would shorten and improve the trip along that increasingly vibrant part of the city. Once the Silver Line 4 bus arrives at South Station, it can become BRT along Summer Street, taking pressure off the current Silver Line 1 and 2 routes, which are close to or at capacity, and offering a quick and reliable alternative ride to the Convention Center and Logan Airport. The Connected Boston Corridor would be transformative for the city, both in terms of improved access and mobility for a broad cross-section of our neighborhoods and also for the economic growth that true BRT will bring to those neighborhoods.

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One additional route – along Mt. Vernon Street in Columbia Point – would become the missing link between JFK Station and the UMass Boston/Kennedy Library & Institute/State Archives complex. Columbia Point is one of the city’s most important destinations, both for its housing and the academic and civic institutions it hosts – BC High, UMass Boston, the JFK Library, the soon-to-be-completed EMK Institute and the state archives. Having true BRT along Mt. Vernon Street would provide a straight shot from JFK Station into all of these uses, without having to navigate or congest the challenging terrain of Morrissey Boulevard. Indeed, combined with a reengineering of the current roadway and public realm along Morrissey Boulevard, this entire area could be transformed into a more people and jobs friendly environment.

This vision can become reality. Yes, there are one or two locations along the proposed Connected Boston Corridor where the street narrows and a center-median BRT system will not be feasible, but there are proven ways to manage this, including queue jumping, a procedure that gives busses priority at intersections. We need to overcome these modest limitations by thinking and acting boldly. Look at what New York City has done in recent years to reimagine and refashion the Times Square road and streetscape. The City took a tangled web of traffic congestion and tamed it, making Times Square more pedestrian and bike friendly. If Times Square can be successfully reimagined and redesigned so, too, can Blue Hill Avenue, Washington Street, Summer Street, and Mt. Vernon Street. What it takes is the will, the commitment, and the cooperation of state and city agencies to get it done. The Connected Boston Corridor can be this decade’s Big Idea made real, enabling the city to keep pace with increasing demand for reliable mobility tied to economic growth.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.