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How to deliver a successful bus rapid transit business case

Demonstrating an attractive and robust business case is critical to securing funding and statutory approval for BRT schemes

Adil Chaudhrey and Alan Brett
A new Eclipse Gosport-Fareham BRT service arrives at a high quality busway stop (picture courtesy of Hampshire County Council)
A new Eclipse Gosport-Fareham BRT service arrives at a high quality busway stop (picture courtesy of Hampshire County Council)
High quality passenger environments and facilities are part of the package of BRT measures delivering a step change in quality that can influence the business case (picture courtesy of Hampshire County Council)
High quality passenger environments and facilities are part of the package of BRT measures delivering a step change in quality that can influence the business case (picture courtesy of Hampshire County Council)


The HM Treasury guidance on business cases provides a key point of reference for schemes where public sector funding will be required and, as such, a strong BRT business case should demonstrate that the scheme:

  • Has a robust case for change that provides strategic synergy – the ‘strategic case’;

  • Delivers value for money – the ‘economic case’;

  • Is commercially viable – the ‘commercial case’;

  • Is affordable – the ‘financial case’; and

  • Is achievable – the ‘management case.’

BRT schemes often pose particular challenges where achieving a strong business case is concerned.  Many of these challenges revolve around BRT’s relationship with the bus and highway networks and the associated travel market.

At the heart of BRT schemes that deliver a strong business case is a specification and design that focuses on the areas of greatest opportunity with respect to the market for travel. Putting sufficient effort into understanding and analysing market potential, and how well the variety of travel modes available will serve it, is critical to determining where BRT can deliver a strong case. Current and future markets should be considered in establishing routes with a genuine prospect of delivering increased bus patronage.

BRT business cases will often be particularly sensitive to the balance of services anticipated to be operating between BRT and non-BRT services. BRT schemes for which strong business cases have been established have largely involved the conversion or replacement of some of the bus network’s conventional service routes to BRT and have taken advantage of new BRT infrastructure in the form of priority measures and upgraded stop provision, while significant upgrades have been made to the quality of vehicle and the associated passenger experience.

Establishing a balance of service that will deliver benefits to passengers while also being financially sustainable is central to a robust business case. Careful consideration at the business case stage of the potential adaptation of the public transport network can help to minimise any additional ongoing operational costs attributable to the introduction of BRT services, while ensuring acceptable levels of accessibility on conventional bus services are maintained.

One of the key risks to achieving a strong BRT business case is the potential for it to have an adverse impact on other non-BRT transport users.  The majority of BRT schemes involve prioritising bus operation on highways and in many cases reallocating some highway space to buses. Given the number of car users relative to bus users, however, any worsening of travel times or journey reliability to car users introduced by BRT can prove damaging to the business case.

Taking a holistic approach to BRT design that aims to deliver win-win or, at worst, win-neutral outcomes for all highway users is central to addressing this. A proper operational examination of locations of congestion and delay can often provide a basis for solutions that achieve this goal, recognising that the causes of delay are impacting on both bus and car users. In these instances, design can enhance performance for all users but bias improvement in favour of bus to give BRT a net advantage. This can lead to the delivery of wider urban realm or streetscape enhancement for which benefits can be captured and included in the business case.  

Keys to effective BRT design in support of the business case include delivering attractive and competitive door-to-door journey times. At the heart of a successful BRT business case will be the perceived journey time savings delivered by the introduction of the BRT scheme. BRT schemes need to be designed and specified to deliver improved access times, reduced waiting times and the avoidance of interchange where possible, as well as enhanced on-bus journey times. This will improve user benefits both directly and indirectly through increased patronage. Higher public transport patronage will in turn tend to reduce highway usage and thus reduce highway user disbenefits. Measures to deliver attractive journey times can include:

  • Enhancing pedestrian access routes to stops;

  • Improving the location of stops to optimise access to and from key trip generators and attractors;

  • Limiting the number of stops and hence in-vehicle times (as in the Cambridgeshire and Gosport – Fareham schemes);

  • Delivering truly effective priorities (especially at junctions); and

  • Minimising dwell times at stops (through measures including off-bus ticketing, level boarding and high-quality bus stop design).

Monitoring of the Cambridgeshire BRT scheme indicates the high importance attached by users to the perception that buses stop infrequently. A fully featured BRT system (similar to an LRT system) should deliver:  information, stops/halts, vehicles (comfort, facilities etc.), service speeds and frequencies. Use of a ‘close-to-LRT’ mode constant enhances the perceived attractiveness of the BRT service, increasing forecast patronage.

The business case for the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway scheme utilised a rail mode constant (reflecting relative perceived attractiveness of one mode over another) and those for Bristol and Belfast have used ‘close-to-LRT’ mode constants. Importantly the outturn for the Cambridgeshire scheme has shown the use of a rail mode constant to be justified and the characteristics of the busway’s users (particularly those originating on sections of the busway itself) closely resemble those for users of rail stations. Atkins’ and Cambridgeshire County Council’s recent research on busway users found that, of the previous car drivers who switched to the busway, two thirds now had access to free parking (and so in a traditional mode choice model have low car travel costs).

Delivering a genuine step change in quality, as reflected in the incremental improvement in service characteristics, is essential if significant mode constants, akin to those for LRT, are to be legitimately used in BC preparation.

System design that builds upon existing traffic restraint/demand management measures is also important. An example of this is the Cambridgeshire Busway scheme, which benefits from the very high levels of bus priority and traffic restraint already in place in the city centre.

Maximising segregation off-highway can also be vital. Most of the systems delivered to date include a significant amount of off-street segregation, so delivering bus priority without affecting general traffic. The entire length of the BRT route should be considered and designs prepared to treat all areas of ‘threat’ to the BRT services. ‘Threats’ include areas of high frontage activity (such as shopping streets), non-signalised junctions (where vehicle actuated priorities cannot be delivered), lane obstruction by vehicles turning right, and areas of on-street parking.

There also needs to be the political and financial will to tackle key hotspots, which may ‘unlock’ the business case for BRT. Park-and-ride (P&R), meanwhile, has the potential to deliver mode shift downstream from the P&R site. With P&R sites located at or towards the extremities of the BRT system (as in Cambridgeshire and proposed in Belfast and Bristol), BRT patronage will be increased and highway congestion downstream will be reduced.

Other services that continue to operate after the BRT service has been introduced may also benefit from the BRT infrastructure measures and it is important that these benefits, such as the operation of high volume intersections, are optimised and captured.

For BRT systems in Great Britain outside London, the nature of the bus operator market in the location being considered needs to be understood. A properly designed BRT system should be attractive to operators who should gain commercial advantage by operating BRT services, rather than competing with the BRT service.

The Cambridgeshire busway is served by two companies using a common ‘busway’ branding. The operators have responded to the high levels of demand with additional services and vehicles, and are now operating direct services to more destinations off the busway including Peterborough (around 20 miles north of the busway) – an extension not envisaged in the original business case.

Other parties central to BRT scheme delivery should also be engaged and, where possible, established as partners or supporters of the scheme. Local Economic Partnerships (LEPS), planning authorities, land owners and developers, government departments and statutory agencies can all strongly influence the strength of the business case.

In conclusion, there are a number of key factors in achieving a strong BRT business case. The starting point needs to be a realistic assessment of the market potential for BRT in a given area. This will be crucial in scoping the objectives for BRT and the associated benefits to be unlocked that can lever in investment.

The specification and design needs to be developed with business case performance in mind. Adopting a holistic and integrated approach with all transport users being given consideration is critical, as is recognising the key characteristics and areas of service improvement that will be fundamental to deriving good business case performance.

Placing a strong focus on effective engagement and partnership working will ensure that all necessary aspects of the business case are addressed while also unlocking opportunities for enhancing and optimising business case performance.

Discuss BRT in more detail on the 1-2 October at the BRTuk Annual Conference:
Bringing forward BRT: 21st Century City Transport


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