BRT FAQ #007: What does an outside expert think?

We asked infrastructure expert Matt Pollack about BRTs, the cities that have implemented them, and what our situation looks like from afar. The conversation brought a truly valuable perspective.

Photo by: Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (PAC)

We talked to Matt Pollack, who is VP of the Southeast division of HNTB, an infrastructure solutions firm. In other words, his career has put him in close contact with every phase of BRT setup and planning in several other cities–including Kansas City, Minneapolis, Chicago, Austin, and even Lima, Peru. Matt also works with light rail and plenty of other transportation modes.

He’s been paying attention to the Richmond situation from Atlanta, where he’s currently based, and we wondered what his take on it would be. HNTB is not involved in Richmond’s Pulse project, which puts Matt in an interesting position of outside expert with both a professional and personal curiosity in how we pull it off. 

If you think talking to a guy about this stuff would be a dry and tedious experience, you should consider thinking again! Matt is one of those people who is so committed to and interested in the work he does (he recommends public transportation as a great career for people with skills ranging from tech-y to creative) that his conversations about it are truly fascinating.

To reiterate: Matt Pollack and HNTB are not involved with Richmond’s own BRT dabbling, and he does not profit from the BRT’s success. Read a Letter to the Editor published in the Baltimore Sun that Matt wrote just because he is an eloquent and generous transport whiz!

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How does one even get INTO public transportation? What’s your route been like to get where you are?

I’m an electrical engineer by training, but I have been working in public transit for over 20 years with a mix of BRT and rail. It’s  primarily been rail, but that’s been where the primary work has been! BRT is a relatively new phenomenon, at least in the U.S. So the relative work has followed.

Directly out of school, I was working out of Westinghouse Electric–missiles and radars. Really, after five years, I decided that wasn’t my gig. Without getting on a soapbox, I just didn’t feel like doing defense work anymore. I decided to switch into a little more of the commercial sector. Westinghouse was actually doing work with automated toll roads, and in fact, my team successfully bid and won and upgraded Richmond’s original toll-way! The first upgrade of that system!

Then I took a new position with another firm, and they were doing public transit at that time. The transition to public transit was pretty smooth. Both use power, are computer-based, rely on signaling, and involve vehicles. 

And it’s been fantastic. I’ve relocated a few times because of that. I’ve worked in England, in Lima, Peru–I’ve just had a great time working all over the place. I couldn’t think of a better career, and I think it’s a good career for young people.

What’s the normal process that leads to a city deciding a BRT is the way to go?

Usually, what a city or agency will do is look at their alternatives, so that’s probably a very critical piece. If you aren’t receiving federal funding, you don’t have to look at alternatives, but if you want to get past the public perception, you’re going to have to look into everything that’s best for your city and publish alternative analysis.

You also need to tell people what the BRT is, sort of like what you’re doing [in the BRT FAQ series]. I was actually in a public hearing yesterday in another city looking at a light rail system. During this public hearing, some of these people stood up and said “We don’t want light rail, we think you should do BRT.”

We’ve heard a lot of public concern over the BRT in Richmond, regarding a lot of different aspects of the system. Is that fairly typical?

If it’s a new system that’s going to have a new maintenance facility, that could be your first issue. If you do not have an industrial sector or heart of town where you can put a maintenance facility, that’ll get your neighborhoods a little unhappy if they feel that there will be an industrial facility too close by or that you have to do some eminent domain (taking of property is not very popular). But that’s not very frequent in BRT, it’s really something that you’d do more with a rail system.

The other idea is that they don’t initially want the bus to stop near them. Usually, that’ll reverse afterwards, and then people will complain that it doesn’t stop near them!

Sometimes you’ll find people coming out against the BRT [before implementation] because it’s not going to stop near them. That’s not a very popular argument, but I’ve seen that as well. “You promised that it would, and now it doesn’t!”

The most general concern [from city to city] is about cost. You use any public funds for anything, and you’re going to have that problem. 

What are some constraints that a city would have that would prevent them from choosing other means of public transport and instead go for the BRT? In other words, what about some cities make a BRT a better fit for them than for other cities?

One of the optimal things for a BRT is that you have an existing bus service that is reaching capacity. That tends to be the starting point for bringing in a BRT. You have a corridor, preferably, and you’re getting close to capacity there, so at the same time you have a traffic problem. What the BRT is going to do is increase the capacity for the bus system–you’re not only able to take more passengers who want to use the bus, you now are becoming an incentive to people who normally don’t use the bus. The choice riders, as we call them, the people who may not have thought about riding on the local bus system. They’re now seeing the opportunity.

But when your trip becomes more reliable because of the BRT, it’s a different way of calculating things. To give you an anecdote, in Minneapolis, they’re just in the process of constructing their first BRT line. And during their planning phase, they actually took a look at their bus route and tracked how their buses actually move. What they found was that the main impact to travel time wasn’t being stuck in traffic, they found that the main reason for the travel time being impacted was how many times they had to stop, how many red lights they had, how long it took for people to get on and off the bus. It wasn’t the fact that they were bumper to bumper with other cars, it was all these other factors–ones that can be fixed.

You can solve the red light problem by doing a traffic priority system or queue jumping or opening a right lane, or allowing the bus to leave ahead of the other traffic. Of course the boarding process interface can be set up differently too, like level boarding [in which there are no stairs involved, you step directly from platform onto bus at the same level], which can make a huge difference for people getting on and off.

If your system is able to collect the fares off of the bus, you’re going to recognize significant time savings in actual boarding. Not only is it easy to get on, but then you can use multiple doors. So Minneapolis was actually thinking without taking into account getting rid of cars and having the bus in a free lane–they could reduce travel times by 20%. I would think a city’s not going to put out that type of information without feeling fairly confident that it’s going to prove out. 

How has the business community responded in your experience? And what’s been the result?

Business community, I think that the business community tends to be nervous because they have to look at short term impact. Restriping a lane doesn’t have a big construction impact, but there will be a parking impact. Building a new lane does have a construction impact. Someone might say “If I’m closed for two months [during the construction period], I’m out of business!”–someone like a barbershop or a small restaurant. 

In some places, the city or agency will create events to celebrate the construction, which, counterintuitively, brings people in during construction. Some have run a race along the line, during the construction. They’ve had special happy hour events that they helped advertise. They’ve worked with social media. 

The real estate community is usually ecstatic about the BRT, and if they’re not, perhaps they’ve not been fully engaged at that point.They should be quick to see that switching from a local bus service to an enhanced rapid transit system will increase the property values of the area. For example, in Kansas City I was told that the apartments along the their “MAX” BRT would advertise and say “We’re on the MAX line!” You don’t often see someone saying [in regards to a traditional bus line] “We’re on the #10 line! Come live at our apartments,” but the BRT is such a plus, they’re using it as marketing!

Can we talk about Richmond specifically? I know you’re not working on our particular BRT, but what are your thoughts from afar?

I think the key is that Richmond is a growing city. It’s not a city that’s seeing its population in a decline, so the question is “How do we sustain our city?” Because if you want it to grow and if you want it to be livable, you have to have a healthy transit system. That’s just part of a growing city. Everybody uses the term “Smart growth”–when you’re going to grow, you’re looking to maintain or reduce congestion, you’re looking for green, there are certain pieces that prevent a city from growing beyond its means.

Kansas City is a good one for Richmond to look at. For years, they thought they needed rail because St. Louis has rail. But it was so expensive, they had six failed ballots to fund the rail system. That’s pretty conclusive evidence that the population was not going to foot the bill. So they sort of cobbled together the funds from a bunch of different sources and started to build a BRT.

And they had insteresting opposition. They had the opposition that said “Don’t build the BRT because we want to have the more expensive rail.” And then they had the opposition that said, “Don’t build the BRT because it’s too expensive.” So they were getting slapped from both ends. 

They went ahead and built a wildly successful BRT. So a couple positive affects: more choice riders, and not only is their ridership high, they’re actually reducing congestion. The other thing that’s really interesting is that the first BRT line has spurred their transit system to grow. They already have another BRT line in place and are now finally building a streetcar system, but it’s only because (in my opinion) people finally understood the benefit of improving their public transit. So, in other words, a dozen years of trying to explain why public transport was important never sunk in. Then they said “Let’s put a BRT in and SHOW you what it’s like when it’s improved.” And now they public is like “OK, OK, let’s put more in.”

Public transit is no different than politics, it’s very hard to change someone’s opinion. People think of public transit as a social program, but BRT is both a social program and a congestion reduction program…it’s different. It’s a different mindset that maybe people aren’t necessary ready for at the beginning.

The vocal minority–the people who are unhappy are aways going to be louder than the 90% who are satisfied. You are going to have a vocal minority wherever you go. That’s just going to happen. BRT has been fairly lucky in that it has a little bit of a cross-the-aisle Republican/Democrat type of approval. 
It takes thick skin to work in public transit. It’s not easy doing anything in opposition to the vocal minority.

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Big thanks to Matt Pollack, who is a font of information that we will almost certainly be tapping again when questions arise. And, when it comes to the BRT, they’re always arisin’.


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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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