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New study finds positive economic development benefits associated with bus rapid transit projects

Today T4America unveiled the findings of a new peer-reviewed study that examined existing bus rapid transit (BRT) lines and found strong evidence that BRT systems in the U.S. can indeed generate economic development, attract jobs, retail and affordable housing — at a cost that’s well within reach for many mid-size American cities.

Bus rapid transit is a type of bus service that travels faster and more reliably by providing level boarding, triggering traffic signals, providing pre-board fare payment and running in dedicated lanes separated from traffic, among other typical characteristics. For the first time, a new peer-reviewed research study, unveiled this morning, provides compelling evidence that BRT — often with a price tag far lower than other transit investments — can provide ample economic benefits for cities large and small.

The study, authored by Arthur C. (Chris) Nelson and published by the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC) at Portland State University, was publicly released this morning in an event held by Transportation for America, Smart Growth America’s TOD Technical Assistance Initiative and NITC.

Interested in learning more? Couldn’t make our in-person event today in Washington, DC? We’ll be going over the findings in detail again in an online presentation on Monday, January 25, at 3:30 Eastern time. It’s free and open to all, so register today

All across the US, interest in bus rapid transit is booming as a smart, more affordable transit option. According to data gathered by Yonah Freemark and Steven Vance for Transit Explorer, more than 30 U.S. regions in at least 24 states are either building or actively considering building new bus rapid transit lines in 2016 and beyond.

Bus rapid transit coming soon graphic map

But there have been notable gaps in the research on the possible benefits — until now.

What does the study have to say about the economic benefits of BRT?

BRT encourages new office growth in locations connected to transit.

The areas within a half-mile of BRT corridors increased their share of new office space by one third from 2000-2007, and new multifamily apartment construction doubled in those half-mile areas since 2008. For most areas studied, there was a rent premium for office space within a BRT corridor.

BRT corridors fared better than other areas after the recession.

During the economic recovery following the 2008 recession, these corridors also increased their share of office space by one third, and more higher-wage job growth occurred near BRT stations than occurred in central counties. During the economic recovery, BRT station areas saw the largest positive shift in the share of upper-wage jobs, and employment in the manufacturing sector increased.

“Unlike the presumptions of some, bus rapid transit systems have important effects on metropolitan development patterns,” report author Dr. Arthur C. Nelson said in the study. “At substantially lower costs, BRT generates important and sometimes impressive development outcomes.”

To that end, Mayor Gregory Ballard, the recently departed Mayor of Indianapolis and a guest speaker at this morning’s event, noted that a new bus rapid transit network is one of his city’s primary economic competitiveness strategies.

“170,000 employees work within walking distance of our planned Red Line bus rapid transit service — one out of every five employees in the region,” Mayor Ballard said. “We have existing bus service, but it doesn’t go to where the existing jobs are. Providing a way to connect more people to more jobs in the region via a lower-cost, fast, flexible transportation option like bus rapid transit is a smart economic move to ensure that our growing region prospers for years to come.”

At the event, the Hon. Chris Zimmerman, Vice President for Economic Development at Smart Growth America, referenced work that Smart Growth America performed to quantify those potential economic benefits.

“A fiscal analysis we conducted for Indianapolis showed substantial benefits in terms of municipal revenues and costs if future development could be attracted to areas around their new bus rapid transit stations,” Zimmerman said. “It’s this kind of potential that is generating increasing interest in BRT, especially in mid-size cities.” Zimmerman directs the National Public Transportation/Transit-Oriented Development Technical Assistance initiative which Smart Growth America is leading in partnerships with the Federal Transit Administration.

The Hon. John Robert Smith, Transportation for America Advisory Board Chair, noted that Indianapolis is far from alone, supporting Dr. Nelson’s assertion that BRT could represent a large share of new high-quality transit investment for the next few decades.

“These findings are an affirmation for the scores of other can-do regions that bus rapid transit is a smart investment that can indeed bring tangible economic returns. The mayors and other elected officials I meet with on a regular basis are intensely concerned with connecting their residents to jobs, and evidence like this will bolster their efforts to use BRT as a tool to do so,” Smith added.

The full study can be downloaded here.


The study was published by the National Institute of Transportation and Communities at Portland State University and was funded partially through a grant from Transportation for America. Dr. Nelson, who began the study at the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center, is currently Professor of Planning & Real Estate Development at the University of Arizona.

SGA’s TOD Technical Assistance Initiative is made possible through support from the Federal Transit Administration.


  1. Pingback: New Evidence That Bus Rapid Transit Done Right Spurs Development | Streetsblog USA

  2. Pingback: New Evidence That Bus Rapid Transit Done Right Spurs Development

  3. Edmund L Robert

    9 years ago

    *BRT integrates the basic transit to be much more successful means of transport throughout Ft Collins CO.

  4. Catbus

    9 years ago

    I live in Chicago, where the CTA is planning to establish a BRT line on Ashland Avenue. I’d like to support it, but after seeing how badly Boston screwed it up on Washington Street, I feel nothing but trepidation. Where has BRT been “done right”?

  5. Peter Eldridge

    9 years ago

    Although a number of ideas have been put forth to relieve congestion we need to look seriously at building transit capacity on an incremental basis. While both heavy and light rail systems make the most sense for major trunk routes the emphasis should be placed on developing secondary lines so that once patronage level are sufficient they too can be converted more easily into these modes. Unfortunately, the ubiquitous diesel bus operated by area transit agencies fails to deliver the route building capacity needed to facilitate this process. Taken as a whole these vehicles continue to suffer from a combination of poor public perception, questionable environmental impact coupled with growing concerns about their reliability. Therefore, the question becomes what vehicle can help build patronage while being environmentally friendly at the same time.

    Enter the Electric Trolley Bus!

    The electric trolley bus (sometimes called the trolley coach or trackless trolley) combines the advantages of traditional streetcar technology with the flexibility of a motor coach. Operated from an overhead power source these buses share application of 600-750 volts direct current (dc) found in both office and industrial complexes for use in elevators, cranes or other electrical devices. In fact, 750 volts dc is the standard for many electric transit systems, including Washington’s Metro.

    While some might raise aesthetic objections to the overhead cables employed they nonetheless serve as guide to the route since potential riders can see where the vehicles operate. One of the most common complaints leveled against transit operators is the roadside “bus stop” signs give little indication where the line actually runs.

    Currently, in the U.S., there are five trolley bus systems located in such diverse cities as Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Dayton. In each case their quiet performance, coupled with sufficient power for gradient operations have outweighed the use of traditional diesel technology. In fact, it was these environmentally desirable characteristics that saved Dayton’s trolley bus system from extinction less than a 20 years ago. Additionally, Seattle is in the process of purchasing new trolleybuses due to come on line in 2015.

    Of course the question of financing for such an undertaking comes up.
    While such a program would most likely involve a combination of Federal, State and local dollars there are strategies that might reduce costs. One method might be the unique public/private partnership utilized in Kenosha, Wisconsin to build its heritage streetcar line. Here, the primary contractor acted as the purchasing agent to procure equipment, track and fittings at a substantial savings to the area transit agency. Also, the North Jersey-Bergen County light rail, operated by New Jersey Transit, is the result of such partnering including that of local real estate developers.

    Only through building capacity on an incremental basis can we begin to move people out of automobiles and on to transit with any degree of regularity. Thus, the trolley bus becomes a perfect vehicle to build ridership and infrastructure necessary to support larger more complex transportation operations.

  6. Rustin McIntosh

    9 years ago

    The map you provided shows Boston as a spot where this bus “rapid” transit has been implemented, and my experience with this (which is the Silver line) is that it is anything but rapid. The silver line was established after the old orange line was torn down and re-routed, away from the poor black neighborhood of Roxbury, with promises to build a new rapid transit line to serve where the old one was taken away. I regularly watch this supposedly rapid transit get snarled in traffic near South Station and other spots, where it literally hardly moves, just like the rest of the cars on the street. I consider this a poor substitute for the real thing: underground (or elevated) rail that moves along independently of the traffic. Even the Silver line to the airport (where part of its path includes operation through a dedicated tunnel using overhead catenary wires) is slow, poking along at what looks like never more than 30 mph and making many stops in spots where few ever get on and off.

  7. Walt Brewer

    9 years ago

    Outside the correctly mass transit oriented segments of large dense cities; Manhattan, Chicago, etc, how many dedicated bus lanes have consistent records showing 2,300 or more riders/hr/lane?

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  10. Mike Ciriello

    8 years ago

    You left Hartford off your map. Connecticut just completed a BRT line to serve Hartford.

    • Hey Mike, we don’t actually have a map of all BRT systems in the US — Just the two maps here: one that shows the systems studied in the report, and a second that shows systems under construction or planned (i.e. future systems.) There’s a bit of a gap between those and we don’t show all the systems that exist but weren’t in the study. Hope that help! And we’ve heard that the Hartford line is really well done — will score higher on the ITDP BRT scale than the Cleveland line.