BRT FAQ #001: So what’s a BRT?

The first in a series of in-depth looks at every component of the proposed GRTC Pulse. Let’s get granular!

Every day, our readers, our friends, and our countrymen ask questions–to us, to each other, to the City, to the Internet–about Richmond’s proposed Bus Rapid Transit system. A couple times a week, we’re going to examine one small piece of the BRT with a microscope. As we go, we’ll be compiling an easy-to-read resource for any interested party.

For example, next time, we’ll cover where the BRT goes. In another one, we’ll address who will ride it, where the money is coming from, what’s up with the left turns–those kinds of questions that, together, add up to a big, fat binder of info.

This part’s important: If something new comes up, you think we’ve missed an important component, or you have more data for us, feel free to let us know in the comments or submit a correction (see the options at the bottom of this post). We want to have a complete a picture as possible.

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The best way to think about BRT (which stands for Bus Rapid Transit) is to imagine a standard, run-of-the-mill bus system mating with a modern light rail system that then gives birth to a slick hybrid. Using its hybrid mutant powers, it attempts to blend the best characteristics of its parents. A well-designed BRT system could be the biggest improvement, certainly the biggest change, to Richmond’s public transportation options that we’ve seen in a long, long while.

The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy–the group who decides what defines a great BRT system–gives five benchmarks that you must hit to have a true BRT. Each of these focuses on making the buses move faster–rapidly you might say–shuttling their passengers around faster than a standard, local-service bus.

Here are the basic benchmarks that every BRT must meet1:

  1. Dedicated right-of-way — A bus stuck behind a stack of cars is not a rapid one. BRTs secure the right-of-way using dedicated lanes.2
  2. Busway alignment — If you keep the bus stations3 in the middle of the road, out of the way of cars turning into alleys and parking lots, you minimize delays (or “conflicts” in ITD parlance).
  3. Off-board fare collection — Buying tickets before you board the bus! No waiting behind someone as they dig through their pockets looking for change!
  4. Intersection treatments — Giving buses priority at traffic lights and preventing left turns across the route shortens the time buses spend stuck at intersections.
  5. Platform-level boarding — Climbing up into a bus takes precious seconds, BRT stations are level with the bus, so you just step right on.

Not only is BRT faster than a run-of-the-mill bus system, but it’s far cheaper4 and more flexible than a modern light rail system. Plus the buses look sweet. See, best of both worlds.

Based on how Richmond’s BRT measures up to the above (and other) criteria, the system will receive a point score which will then translate into a gold, silver, or bronze rating. There is exactly one silver BRT in America: the HealthLine in Cleveland, and four bronzes (L.A.; Eugene, Oregon; Pittsburgh; and Vegas). Thus far, no American BRT system ranks gold. YET.

Richmond’s BRT system will be called GRTC Pulse and is slated to open in fall of 2017 (PDF). When people talk about “Pulse” they are talking about BRT and vice-versa.

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Don’t be shy! Leave your corrections, your additional data, and anything else you think would add to this piece in the comments (or in the correction form) below. We’ll update each BRT FAQ if new (vetted) information comes our way or as new events develop.


  1. As this series progresses, we plan to cover each of these in more detail. 
  2. To meet the ITD’s definition of a BRT corridor, you need at least three kilometers of dedicated bus lanes. Richmond’s system will have about 5.28 kilometers of dedicated lanes (a mix of median- and curb- running). 
  3. In a BRT system, stations (née stops) are more like above-ground metro stations than the existing bus stops you see in Richmond. 
  4. Norfolk’s The Tide light rail system cost $318 million to construct, almost $43 million per mile. Richmond’s entire BRT project is expected to cost $53.8 million or $7 million per mile. 
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Ross Catrow

Founder and publisher of RVANews.

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