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To attract urban investment, build a bus line

Building a bus line can help a city get the most bang for its buck when it comes to attracting development according to a new report that compares 21 cities.


01 October 2013 - A new study from the public transit advocacy group Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), examined the growth of transit-oriented development in 21 cities with various forms of surface public transport. Compared to trams and light rail, the authors found that the bus won out big time in terms of generating high-value development at a low upfront cost. This study is the first to show that bus lines can leverage development at great savings to cities. The key, said the study authors, is investing in a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, like Bogota’s well-known TransMilenio.


BRT requires a dedicated right-of-way, controlled-access stations, and priority for buses at intersections. It has a lot more in common with a subway than an ordinary city bus, but happens to rely on tires instead of tracks. That means it’s a lot cheaper to build than any rail system.

Consider Cleveland’s HealthLine, a 10.9 km stretch of BRT with dedicated stations and busways that runs 24 hours a day. Despite opening in the midst of the 2008 economic downturn, ITDP estimated that HealthLine attracted $5.8 billion in transit-oriented development along the route. That’s an incredible return on investment, considering that HealthLine cost only around $50 million to build.


According to ITDP, three factors account for the success of any surface transit system: first is government support of transit-oriented development, second is the location of the transit line and finally, the quality of transit itself determines the amount of investment necessary. If BRT can match or surpass a pricey light rail when it comes to quality, it’s a solid choice, and other cities have taken note.


Forbes reports that ITDP’s Annie Weinstock spoke at the city’s Metropolitan Planning Roundtable earlier this month regarding a planned BRT line on Chicago’s Ashland Avenue. As far as transit quality is concerned, the Ashland Avenue line could end up the best of its kind in the country. “There’s no gold standard BRT in the U.S. yet,” said Weinstock. “But if we continue with the Ashland project on the current trajectory, Ashland could be the first gold in the U.S.”


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