Urban planners have come to assume in recent years that ambitious millennials and wealthy empty nesters will continue to migrate toward urban centers, evacuating the suburbs. Real estate developers have built new condo buildings at nearly every city block in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., expecting downtown revivals to accelerate.
COVID-19 upended everything urban planners thought they knew.
In truth, the movement to the suburbs appears to predate the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, demographer William Frey noticed something in a Spring 2019 U.S. Census population estimate: The mass movement from the suburbs into the city began reversing itself in middle of the 2010s.
Before the pandemic, population growth rates among the 87 largest U.S. cities with more than 250,000 residents slowed to about .7 percent since 2016. These cities had been growing at about 1.1 to 1.2 percent in the first half of the 2010s. Growth rates in the suburbs, in contrast, now appear to be ticking up, Frey noticed.
“These trends are consistent with previous census releases for counties and metropolitan areas that point to a greater dispersion of the U.S. population as the economy and housing market pick back up, perhaps propelled by young adult millennials who may be finally departing dense urban cores as they make a delayed entrance into marriage and the housing market,” Frey wrote in a Brookings Institution commentary.
If this trend continues as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, cities may need to rethink long-held assumptions of urban growth and invest even more in maintaining and expanding public transit. Demographic trends can change quickly and without notice.
Moving with the movement of residents
For public transit systems that already face a combined $90 billion backlog in bus and rail maintenance, the prospect of needing to expand transit lines even more to serve dispersing residents is not likely to be a welcome one. Here’s one potential solution: Instead of building new fixed guideway systems, think about building Bus Rapid Transit systems, a far more agile and affordable alternative to light rail.
Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, has proven an effective and popular transit service in Los Angeles, Boston, Cleveland, and smaller cities like Eugene, Ore., and Hartford, Conn. Chicago recently invested $150 million in a BRT service to provide six routes into the Loop, with more BRT lines in the planning stages.
Where expanding light rail systems require a minimum of five years in planning before construction can begin, BRT systems can be planned, constructed, and operating in less than two years.
According to Federal Transit Administration data, BRT service in the United States has grown more than 8 percent a year since 2012, more than doubling its capacity in less than a decade.
What is BRT?
BRT systems should not be confused with a standard, if perhaps elaborate, bus service. BRT systems have several critical and distinct features that enable faster service:
- Segregated bus lanes: BRT systems provide a right-of-way lane where the bus is separated from traffic and can travel at higher speeds.
- A level platform with off-board fare collection: BRT stations are level to the ground, providing for faster service.
- BRT platforms typically includes a pay station where riders pay before entering the bus, shortening the “dwell time” needed to onboard the riders and get the bus moving.
- Fewer stops and shorter travel times: BRT systems stop far less frequently than normal bus services, enabling faster service.
Cities in Europe have provided BRT service for several decades, and Mexico City now provides BRT service for an estimated 1.5 million riders a day, but the service has yet to catch on in the United States. Only about a dozen major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Cleveland, currently provide BRT service, and according to Federal Transit Authority data, an estimated 170,000 riders a day across all U.S. transit systems travel on BRT.
What amounts to a BRT service can be a point of contention. The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) recognizes 123 BRT corridors in 51 cities across the globe, evaluating each on designated right-of-way lanes, off-board fare collection, and other critical features of BRT. Those services deemed to have insufficient BRT features are not included ITDP’s surveys and research.
Why we think BRT systems are about to become more prevalent
Say a city needs to provide a transit service to a new neighborhood, and city planners have two options, expand existing light rail service or build a new BRT system. Let’s compare these two options.
To expand light rail service, planners must acquire the land – through eminent domain if necessary – to build new rail lines and stations. They must confront a host of local and federal regulations, including hiring an archeologist to ensure development is not done on tribal burial grounds. And they must confront the cost.
The fixed costs of building new light rail lines and new stations are enormous; for BRT service, the fixed costs amount to no more than building platforms and a designated lane. The cost of onail car is typically between $1.5 million and $3.5 million. For a diesel-fueled bus, the price tag is about a half of a million dollars.
According to the Greater Boston BRT Study Group and ITDP, implementing a BRT service can be as much as seven times more affordable than light rail.
Finally, BRT is more able to facilitate changing demands of the city. If the demographic trends continue after COVID-19 and more city residents move to the suburbs, public transit will need to respond quickly. BRT provides a way for transit agencies to quickly respond to changing demands without prohibitive fixed costs.