What people all over the German-speaking world and in San Francisco call the bus, San Diego calls bus rapid transit.

Cities have learned they can improve public transit, without spending the massive sums to improve their rail systems, by instead improving their bus networks.

The umbrella term for such improvements is bus rapid transit, or BRT, and in San Diego MTS has taken this on with its “Rapid” branded bus lines. But San Diego is also part of another global trend: BRT creep. That’s when a transit agency sells an improvement to the public as BRT, but due to cost considerations or political opposition, it ends up providing something only marginally faster than a regular bus.

Details of BRT systems vary, but in big U.S. cities it’s typically used to complement rail service, running on key urban streets where existing rail lines aren’t.

San Diego’s Rapid consists of five routes. The 215 route is the only route through urban streets, connecting downtown and Mid-City through El Cajon and Park boulevards. The other four routes — the 235, 237, 280 and 290 — are express routes along dedicated freeway lanes using I-15 in the direction of Escondido, with long nonstop segments through the urban core.

In branding, Rapid looks as sleek as the best BRT systems. But on the ground, it falls short of the standards for good bus service.

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There is a set of best practices for running buses optimally. Some involve BRT features, others don’t. Every bus stop should have shelter from rain and sun. Stops should not be too close together; in North America the standard is a bus stop every eighth of a mile, but in Europe and East Asia, a bus stop every quarter-mile is more standard, which lets buses run faster. Those are standards independent of BRT. They’re featured on Rapid routes, but are absent through much of San Diego’s bus network.

True BRT also requires a feature known as off-board fare collection. North American bus operators require passengers to board at the front door and pay at a farebox next to the driver. At busy stops, the bus waits several minutes as passengers file on, even if they already have monthly passes. To speed up buses, urban operators all over Europe have instead implemented all-door boarding, with the fare enforced via random inspections, the same system San Diego already uses on its trolley. American bus drivers have expressed support for this as a way of reducing assaults on drivers coming from fare disputes.

Within the United States, San Francisco Muni lets passengers board buses from any door, enforced through random inspections. Since it implemented this policy in 2012, the average time a bus is stopped at a station has declined by one third. Fare evasion in San Francisco has actually gone down since 2012, according to one report. Passengers without monthly passes can still pay at the front, so there is no need for ticket-vending machines at every station, reducing costs.

Yet even within its Rapid brand, San Diego only has off-board fare collection at the stops that are also rail stations. Rapid-only stops don’t meet what most consider a minimally viable BRT standard. MTS did, however, launch this week a mobile ticketing platform that will work on all its buses and trolleys.

Nor is what SANDAG installed on the urban Rapid route, the 215, real BRT. This comes from the distinguishing feature of BRT: a bus with 40 passengers gets 40 times the traffic priority of a car with one driver and no passengers.

In practice, this means the bus gets dedicated lanes, which may be physically separated from regular traffic lanes, to discourage car drivers from infringing on them. It also means that the bus gets signal priority at intersections, to reduce the time it spends at a red light. San Diego’s Rapid routes have signal priority, but besides a short stretch on Park Boulevard, none has a dedicated lane in mixed traffic.

This, in action, is the global problem of BRT creep. All the 215 route has is signal priority, better bus shelter and wider stop spacing.

The separate Rapid brand is a step in the right direction for San Diego’s bus network. However, it combines what are really two separate kinds of service. The limited-stop urban 215 route is not the same as the four freeway routes. In the North American cities with the biggest bus networks, freeway routes with long nonstop segments are usually treated differently from BRT. They get limited ridership, and practically all of their ridership is at rush hour, which raises operating costs since the buses run fewer hours per day and the drivers have to work split shifts. The BRT efforts in the North American cities with the biggest networks, such as New York and Vancouver, Canada, are focused on urban routes, like the 215.

Nationally renowned transportation consultant Jarrett Walker stresses the importance of frequency for transit service: There is a minimum all-day frequency at which passengers find a city bus usable, about 15 minutes. The 215, San Diego’s supped-up Rapid, just meets that standard, with a bus every 15 minutes at midday and every 10 minutes around rush hour.

San Diego’s busiest bus, the 7, runs every 12 minutes in the midday off-peak. For developers considering University Avenue to build the walkable, transit-oriented projects the city’s clamoring for, there simply is no transit to rely on. Instead, developers have to provide underground parking for new tenants at $50,000 per spot, driving up home prices.

San Diego has good light rail bones, owing to investments it made starting in the 1980s, when it built the trolley at relatively low cost. It should use its bus network to complement light rail. Some routes, like the 7 and 215, can fill in the gaps, serving neighborhoods that aren’t on light rail corridors. Other routes should be set up to feed into the trolley.

On the West Coast, the best model is Seattle. Seattle only opened its light-rail network, Link, in 2009, and the system still only has one line, with half the ridership of the trolley. As it extends Link, however, Seattle reconfigures its bus network to feed the trains; in areas close to the neighborhoods served by the train, the best transit connection may involve a bus-train transfer. As a result, Seattle has had burgeoning transit ridership: by 2015 bus ridership surpassed its 2008 peak, with Link providing substantial extra ridership on top of it. San Diego County has similar size to Seattle’s metro area and could learn from its bus-rail network design.

In addition to network design, SANDAG needs to deploy the best industry practices for bus operations systemwide: all-door boarding, dedicated lanes and signal priority on the most congested streets, bus stops with shelter from the elements and bus stop consolidation to one stop per quarter mile. Providing dedicated lanes will require significant political capital, but for an agency lacking actual capital it’s a low-cost alternative to improve transit.

The key routes should have at a minimum a bus every 15 minutes all day, ideally every 10. If SANDAG is interested in shifting people’s travel modes from cars to transit, it should implement these, in order to boost ridership, rather than announcing BRT on select routes and delivering the service quality of what in many cities is an ordinary bus.

Alon Levy is a Paris-based mathematician and public transportation policy writer.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how often the 7 bus runs during off-peak hours. It runs every 12 minutes.

    This article relates to: News, Public Transportation, Transit

    Written by Alon Levy

    Jennifer Reiswig
    Jennifer Reiswig subscribermember

    SDMTS made a mistake calling the 215 a "rapid" route. They should have just used the same designation as the Route 10, "Limited stops."  Presumably it was some kind of "color of money" rationale that let them buy the new buses via a different fund.  If you compare the start-to-finish schedules of the 215 and the old route 15 that it replaced, it only shaves about 10 minutes off the route. 

    The dedicated lanes on Park Blvd are completely ridiculous. The only reason they *could* build them is that the street is so wide that they didn't *need* to build them. And cutting off Polk Ave traffic being able to cross Park is incredibly irritating. The bus lanes are very confusing for drivers too - the barrier signs have been knocked over multiple times since those lanes went into effect.  

    bgetzel subscriber

    Another innovation employed in Seattle is a computer/phone app that lets you know when the bus (i.e. a specific bus) on an identified route will get to your stop. Using that app allows people to time when they need to leave work or their home to catch that bus.

    Jennifer Reiswig
    Jennifer Reiswig subscribermember

    @bgetzel We have real-time arrivals on the MTS website, Google Maps, and the OneBusAway app. There are certainly glitches where sometimes only the scheduled arrivals show vs real-time but at least the systems show whether you're seeing real-time or schedule times. 

    John Porter
    John Porter subscriber

    I never ride the bus.  All I know is to never drive behind one if you want to get where you are going on time.  They stop at every corner...

    Jeff Powell
    Jeff Powell

    I ride the 235 and 280 regularly and think it works great.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    I've been a regular rider of both the 215 (SDSU to Downtown) and 235 (Downtown to Escondido) Rapid routes since their inception.  I occasionally ride the 290 when it meet's my schedule. 

    The 235's approaching it's third anniversary in June.  Ridership has grown noticeably, to the point that periods with service every 15 minutes on weekdays should probably have it every 10 to 12 minutes and the times of day with service every 15 minutes should be expanded.  But as ridership has grown, the service has gotten slower and less reliable because of the shortcuts that were made.  For the first year of service, the service was so reliable you could almost have set your watch with departure times at each stop.  Now it's not uncommon for buses to run late as much as 10 to 15 minutes outside of the most off-peak times.  It's now exceedingly rare at any time for the northbound 235 to reach the first stop outside of downtown (I-15 and University) on time.  There needs to be all-door boarding at a minimum, if not payment before boarding.  Broadway, downtown, should have dedicated bus lanes and signal priority.  

    As for the 215, it needs all-door boarding at a minimum too.  There's little evidence that the signal priority works at all.  Even if running late and no vehicles in front of the bus, a light will turn red right in front of the bus so that a vehicle can enter El Cajon from a side street, for example.  Someone really needs to find out if what was promised as far as signal priority is what was delivered.  And as for the lack of dedicated bus lanes along El Cajon, that's unforgivable.  Given that traffic volumes along El Cajon would justify 4 general traffic lanes if it were built today instead of the 6 it has, it should have taken the most minimal of political courage to have included the dedicated lanes as originally planned.  But when none of the elected leaders in this city and county use transit, they seemingly don't care whether it works well or not.  They care just enough to show up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies. 

    Mike Horgan
    Mike Horgan

    @Greg Martin 15 minute mid day service on weekdays is coming to the 235 as a part of the Transit Optimization plan, but will remain 30 minutes on late nights past rush hour. NIMBY business owners prevented El Cajon Blvd from having dedicated lanes. 

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    And, then there are those intrepid souls that challenge convention and ride or try to ride their bikes. Have you ever tried to ride a bike and then mount a bike on a bus to complete your journey? May I offer my condolences. First, a biker on a bus or a trolley delay forward motion on the schedule. Mind you, I think bikers should be a priority or, at least, given a leg up on riding the trolley or the bus. 

    Let's just call inviting bikers to the bus or trolley political window dressing. The experience for bikers is horrific. 

    No. The standard for mass transit remains Europe...ANY part of Europe. 

    Ridership matrices or algorithms based on current ridership is completely useless. Ridership estimates must be made based on the potential, the usefulness, the accessibility, and user friendliness.  To calculate mass transit improvement based on today is pretty much accepting that John F. Kennedy was a complete lunatic in his vision of flight to the moon.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Mira Mesa Boulevard needs signal priority and queue jumper lanes at intersections. In a car, it takes up to 45 minutes to get from the I-5 to the I-15 in the evening, but if it only took 15 minutes on the bus, I think a lot of people would choose to bypass all that traffic and take the bus.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    I am not a traffic engineer. Nor do I hope to be one. All I know is that we already know where the traffic snarls are located and when and where people end up going. There are inherent costs that most be borne initially, but ridership should rise with the friendliness of the system. I want to go downtown, for example, from Imperial Beach. This either involves walking to a bus stop or hailing a cab to go to a trolley stop. Complicated, right? Inconvenient, right? Right. First, there is no trolley near Imperial Beach. Second, the buses to connect me to the trolley do not run directly either to Coronado or to the closest trolley stop. Third, I'll be waiting endlessly for a bus, any bus. If this simple maneuver is not improved, why bother with either the bus nor the trolley. Remember Steve Jobs? And, I will always remember a concept he promoted...user friendly. Pay to reduce your headaches and actually enjoy the usage of your device. It's an easy incentive. Reduce the $400 a month payment on a car to pay for a worry-free ride to fun downtown or work. This new generation is not ego bound to the car as the "boomers". They are calculating how they can get rid of a 1k++ annual insurance bill. They are looking positively at no D.U.i s,no tickets, no collisions, no uninsured motorists, no demographic calculations, and no car maintenance.  All that adds up. The suburbs is an old concept. The suburb is now the inner city. People are waking up to the fact that paying for freeways infringes on their property rights and health. 

    So, a healthy way to swing from tree to tree in a reasonable short time is the way to go. 

       Let's not continue the horrific "do nothing" attitude of Chula Vista. They saw housing development occur in a linear fashion from west to east and did absolutely nothing for the conveyance of people...just cars. And, with cars, they failed.  Now, they want to go "Gucci" and try to establish a big university there. Chula Vista can even take care of traffic and parking at little ole Southwestern College.