The immediate future for BRT projects in the UK looks bright, but Aaron Nelson of Bircham Dyson Bell warns that the long term forecast remains, as ever, difficult to predict.

Bus Rapid Transport has had a good autumn 2011 but the outlook for 2012 may be stormier.

First, the good news: in recent weeks, the Department for Transport has announced over £110m of support for
BRT schemes in its Development Pool of Local Authority Major Schemes:

  • South Yorkshire BRT Phase 1 – a DfT contribution of £19.4m towards a new bus rapid transit from Sheffield along the Lower Don Valley toward Rotherham;
  • Bristol North Fringe to Hengrove BRT – a DfT contribution of £51.1m towards a BRT scheme from the north of Bristol (including Bristol Parkway) via the city centre to Hengrove in the South;
  • Pennine Reach BRT – a DfT contribution of £31.9m towards bus enhancements in Blackburn and East Lancashire including bus priority measures; and
  • Bath Transportation Package – a DfT contribution of £11.7m towards park and ride site expansions and bus priority measures plus improvements to local bus stops.

To this can be added the support for the Bristol Aston Vale to Temple Meads BRT announced a few weeks earlier in the Autumn Statement (a DfT contribution of £34.5m), amounting to DfT support of around £150m for BRT schemes in less than two months.

These schemes will now be able to progress towards construction subject to securing any remaining necessary planning and statutory approvals and subject to confirmation of value for money where material changes to the scheme have been proposed.

These new schemes will join a growing number of BRT schemes in the UK. There are guided systems in Cambridge (featuring the world’s longest guideway and reporting higher than predicted patronage), Crawley and Leeds and unguided systems in Dartford, York, Swansea and other towns and cities. What makes them all “BRT” is that they offer something more than a normal scheduled bus service, whether that is bespoke infrastructure like a busway, segregation from or priority over normal traffic, a higher specification of vehicle, an “express” service, innovative ticketing, or a combination of these factors.

The range of BRT schemes, their flexibility and the fact they can be cheaper to implement than light rail appeals to local authorities seeking to deliver improvements in urban transit in economically difficult times. The recent DfT funding announcements suggest that central government is also coming round to the idea that BRT can promote economic growth with a lower capital spend.

However, those promoting BRT should steel themselves against a renewed threat from an old foe in 2012: the DfT’s recent Green Light for Light Rail report charged the light rail industry to find cost savings in the development and implementation of tram schemes. In particular, the DfT encouraged the investigation of low-cost alternatives, e.g. streetcar, ULR, PRT, heritage trams and tram/train, which are perhaps more naturally comparable to BRT, in cost terms, than an “all whistles and bells” modern tram system.

Those promoting urban transit schemes of all kinds will therefore need to consider carefully their arguments regarding vehicle choice and ride quality, passenger perception and take-up, and townscape and environmental impacts. And, of course, given the importance of economic growth to the government, a case must be made for any scheme’s promotion of wider investment and effect on property values: in particular, promoters will need to consider whether the higher cost of installing permanent infrastructure provides, long-term, better economic returns than a more flexible system.

The immediate future of BRT looks bright, however, with those promoting the successful BRT schemes looking forward to real long-term public transport improvements, with all the increases in patronage and benefits to passengers that will bring. The long-term forecast is, as ever, more difficult to predict.

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