Bus Rapid Transit and the Potential of the Newly Connected Vehicle

By Sharmila Mukherjee

Sharmila Mukherjee


Sharmila Mukherjee

Jumping into your car and driving isn’t always the most efficient – or most pleasant – way to reach your destination. But many times the alternatives are less appealing, or non-existent.

One of the goals of the newly formed Advanced Mobility Project (AMP) is to change that mindset and find innovative ways to use existing and emerging automotive technology to create better commuting experiences.

Launched in January by the AutoBeat Group, LLC, the mission of AMP is to provide unbiased news, reports, and analysis about developments in new mobility – a holistic approach to transporting people and goods. AMP is bringing together people and resources to look at what technology is available today and envision where technology is heading.

Will vehicle ownership become unnecessary? Will we share vehicles? Will we witness the emergence of driverless vehicles? Advanced research in the field of connected vehicles is under way, and vehicles are already able to connect and communicate with one another. This emerging technology opens up numerous possibilities in advancing safer, more efficient, and more appealing transportation opportunities.

In a not-too-distant future we will likely see our mobile devices acting as the primary personal transportation resource directing us to a host of customized options all accessible via a series of integrated apps – including weather, driving conditions, roadway GPS, parking locator, real-time transit, and shared bikes and cars.

Rapid Transit Solutions

In February, AMP hosted the Beyond the Connected Vehicle conference in Detroit, co-sponsored with NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization.

I was part of a panel discussion, “Lessons from Innovative Mobility Projects,” where I focused on a key piece of this puzzle: use of bus rapid transit, or BRT, and non-motorized planning projects being undertaken in Michigan.

This panel of four also included presentations on a connected vehicle safety pilot project; on deploying automated vehicle solutions that leverage connected technologies, and how these various elements can be threaded through a common theme of connectivity and personal mobility across all modes of transportation – and how it will look and feel for users.

Rail-Like Features

Given that rail transit is expensive and often hard to implement, especially in regions already struggling with funding, it becomes worthwhile to look into options like BRT, which is rapidly gaining favor in many cities. BRT has many rail-like features. It provides level boarding, so it’s handicapped-accessible. It receives priority at traffic signals, so it avoids delays that traditional buses must endure. It is capable of incorporating many transit technologies that are appealing to commuters. Another element separating BRT from a regular bus is its dedicated lane. BRT is not mixed with traffic, but follows a separate guideway similar to a light rail line.

While it is more expensive to operate than traditional bus lines, BRT provides a higher level of service that is more often associated with rail travel. That includes station stops spaced farther apart than more frequent traditional bus stops, which can slow travel.

Why Woodward Avenue?

Lengthy travel time via public transportation is a problem in Detroit. Currently, bus travel time along Woodward Avenue, a 43-kilometer (27-mile) corridor in central Detroit known as the “spine of the city,” can take two hours or more. That makes it non-competitive with automobile transit.

The Woodward Avenue Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis is looking at BRT, combined with non-motorized transportation solutions, for an area in need of a sustainable and affordable public transportation option. The project is funded by the Federal Transit Administration and managed by the Southeast Michigan Council of Government (SEMCOG), in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Transportation. Parsons Brinckerhoff is responsible for performing the Woodward Avenue Alternatives Analysis along Woodward Avenue for SEMCOG.

Another solution is the 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) Woodward Avenue Streetcar Project now under way. Parsons Brinckerhoff is providing design review and construction quality assurances for M-1 RAIL, a consortium of businesses, institutions, and foundations designing and constructing the streetcar line in partnership with the City of Detroit and MDOT. The goal of the streetcar is to provide transportation between midtown and downtown Detroit, while the BRT is intended to serve the larger regional commute. The streetcar is a good start.

BRT along Woodward Avenue would not have been possible 20 years ago. Woodward Avenue has been studied many times, but public transportation had not been widely viewed as a mobility solution. In absence of wider regional support, prior studies could not be implemented. There is also a growing gap between roadway maintenance needs and available funding. With that comes a shifting focus and changing mindset toward a more comprehensive, holistic mobility solution. BRT is a key part of that plan.

Beyond Station-to-Station Service

In order to encourage people to get out of their cars and use alternative transportation, a BRT system must be “state of the art.” It needs to be competitive with other options, incorporating comfortable and convenient amenities that replicate the appeal of rail travel.

We also need to look beyond BRT to create a successful transportation system. So a key element of the Woodward Avenue Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis is a complete streets project being led by Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Barbara Arens. The complete streets plan considers how people will arrive at the station, and how they will reach their destination once they leave the station. Dedicated walking paths and cycle tracks along Woodward Avenue are an important part of the solution. We have also identified possible park-and-ride locations along the Woodward Avenue corridor. This is critical to encourage automobile drivers to park near a station and use BRT, thus avoiding downtown traffic congestion and parking headaches.

Finally, drawing upon Parsons Brinckerhoff’s BRT portfolio, I addressed how BRT also improves travel time reliability with “real-time” arrival information, thus mitigating commuters’ concerns about not arriving at their destination on time.

Future of Integrated Mobility Solutions

I believe the Beyond the Connected Vehicle conference is a reflection of the American auto industry’s acknowledgement of changing personal mobility needs; the conference addressed this theme of new mobility from lessons learned worldwide.

As a result of the economic downturn of the Great Recession, I think there is a different sense of how we need to approach various mobility solutions, and the Woodward Avenue BRT is an example of one viable approach.

Mukherjee is a Supervising Planner in the Detroit office at Parsons Brinckerhoff. She is the firm’s Project Manager for the Woodward Avenue Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis.


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