Creating Multi-Jurisdictional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Policies

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BRT is expanding as a global transportation strategy. Project sponsors and planners will benefit from the early efforts in multi-jurisdictional engagement presented here.

As more jurisdictions within urbanized regions consider bus rapid transit (BRT), there are opportunities for improved interaction and coordination, creation of a larger, more “seamless” regional BRT network, and increased conflict among decision-makers. To maximize the benefits and limit delays and costs that can arise from such disagreements, public agencies are considering the creation of BRT policies so that project sponsors can make efficient use of investment dollars while creating more efficient, equitable and effective urban transport networks. 

BRT is a mode of public transport that combines frequent, all-day bus service with elements of urban passenger transport found most often in rail systems, such as dedicated lanes or rights-of-way, priority at signalized intersections and architecturally significant and permanent stations, on routes that are simplified and include fewer stops than typical bus services. The result is a much more cost-effective public transport system, which is why BRT has grown so rapidly throughout the world. 

Undertaking a new BRT project presents its own set of programmatic, environmental, fiscal and operational challenges, but such a job is made even more complicated when others seek to do a similar BRT nearby or within the same region. The result can at best be a set of disjointed operations that are confusing to passengers; at worst, lack of coordination can lead to redundancies or poor project selections, leading to inefficient or even wasteful use of scarce funding.

This article describes the current state of multi-jurisdictional BRT policies – across the globe – and provides detailed information on the US state of Maryland’s BRT policy. Some regions offer rules to help policy makers and project sponsors determine investment priorities, and others provide interagency “rules of engagement.” However, none of the policies provide guidelines or conditions to create a multi-jurisdictional network with a similar, “seamless” look to passengers. 

Multi-Jurisdictional Policies Around The World

Although few nations in the world have comprehensive multi-jurisdictional BRT policies, some, such as the US, Colombia, and China, have elements of national policies. Perhaps the most thorough example is Colombia’s national policy which provides BRT-related technical and financial assistance to targeted cities of more than 600,000 inhabitants, monitors local project sponsors and private projects for environmental and other regulatory compliance, and offers partial funding and financial guarantees of projects through co-financing agreements. This has led to one of the most successful expansions of BRT in the world.1 

China also has a national policy that targets BRT investments for certain types of applications (e.g., feeder routes to rail networks) and for smaller cities, but only in terms of offering financial support for projects. Although China has traditionally been perceived as highly centralized, roles and responsibilities for BRT project delivery are even more decentralized than in the US, and roughly on par with Germany and France. Approximately 70 percent of infrastructure spending, including for BRT, resides at the municipal and provincial levels.  Moreover, Chinese governance at the national or provincial level is not typically organized into departments or ministries of transportation as in the US and many other countries. Transportation policy is a shared responsibility of various ministries within the central government and, at the local level, by municipal government organizations. This institutional structure has been cited as a contributing factor for the general lack of regional transportation planning and interagency coordination in China.2  

In most developed European nations, such as in France and Germany, BRT policy is treated like other public transport investments with some funding support at the national level, but with most of the planning and development policy the responsibility of local governments. As such, though more formally and consistently organized than it is in China, there is little coordination among regions, even contiguous ones.  

An interesting exception occurs in Great Britain. Although each BRT project must undergo central government scrutiny that results in a private act of Parliament, there is a recent trend of increasing regional governance in the nation as the central government has stepped up devolution of some powers to local authorities in recent years, including for transport. This has given rise to regional public transportation management and investment strategies, including for BRT oversight, for example, Transport for London (TfL) and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM).

As in European countries, BRT policy in Canada, Australia, and the US tends to be identical with urban transport development policy as a whole. Such policies do not exist at the state or provincial level, with a possible exception of attempts at better BRT coordination in the Canadian province of Ontario. Recent developments suggest this could change in the US, however.

Case Study: Maryland’s BRT Policy and Program Development

With more local jurisdictions in the US state of Maryland expressing interest in or beginning to plan for and pursue BRT as a potential transportation strategy, the state’s transportation agencies felt there was a need to provide state-level policy and program direction.  In Maryland, the state government has more oversight in transportation planning and policy than may be the case in other jurisdictions. 

Most of Maryland’s major roads – the ones that would be likely BRT candidates – are owned and maintained by the State Highway Administration (SHA). This means that SHA must be involved in discussions related to possible changes to the roadway or right-of-way so that BRT projects are in compliance with state guidelines and policies for design and highway system performance. 

In addition, while many counties operate or contract out transit services within their boundaries, in Maryland transit services need to be coordinated with the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA).  The MTA is the grant recipient for federal transit funds dispersed across the state and provides oversight to locally-operated transit systems. Its involvement in what would perhaps be considered local projects in other jurisdictions is not unprecedented. The MTA is currently managing the planning and project development for three large-scale transit projects:

  • the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail line outside Washington, DC extending from New Carrollton in Prince George's County to Bethesda in Montgomery County; 
  • the Corridor Cities Transitway, a nine-mile BRT line from the Metropolitan Grove MARC Station to Shady Grove Metro Station in Montgomery County; and 
  • Southern Maryland Rapid Transit Project, a potential 18-mile rapid transit line (decisions regarding mode and technology yet to be made) extending from Branch Avenue Metro Station in Prince George's County to Waldorf and White Plains in Charles County.  

To enable state agencies and local jurisdictions better understand how locally-initiated BRT projects should proceed, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff worked with the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Office of Planning and Capital Programming (MDOT-OPCP), SHA, and MTA to develop policy guidance. This guidance will ensure that proposed BRT projects are feasible, follow consistent planning and design guidelines, have the appropriate level of state involvement, are consistent with the 2035 Maryland Transportation Plan and other state policies and goals, and have a reasonable phasing plan for implementation. 

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff supported the MDOT in producing Bus Rapid Transit: A Guide for Local Jurisdictions to Evaluate the Feasibility of Bus Rapid Transit3 , which is posted on the MDOT website and being shared with local officials at MDOT’s Consolidated Transportation Program regional tour meetings. The guide provides information on:

  • land use and transit service characteristics supportive of BRT;
  • the influence of different BRT elements on system performance;
  • opportunities for phasing BRT elements into service;
  • roles and responsibilities of project partners; and
  • methods for examining BRT feasibility at the corridor and project level. 

A key component of the guide was inclusion of a high-level screening tool for local project sponsors. This two-step process is used to evaluate the feasibility of a proposed BRT corridor and project. The first step screens the potential of a corridor to support BRT, and the second step evaluates preliminary project criteria more specific to the intended implementation of BRT in that corridor. The intent of the screening criteria is to help local jurisdictions think through a BRT project prior to requesting state assistance and to develop a consistent approach for the state to consider BRT’s feasibility. Figure 1 illustrates the corridor and project screening criteria. 

BRT CorridorFigure 1 –Summary of BRT Corridor and Project Screening Criteria.

In addition to the guide, which has an external audience, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff provided background information to be used by an internal audience (i.e., MDOT, SHA, MTA, and local jurisdiction transportation planners). The focus of that material was on developing a general cost estimating tool and an interagency coordination process, and providing summary best practice information on evaluation criteria and non-traditional financing alternatives.


Although Maryland’s policy and program support materials have yet to be fully implemented, the state’s BRT developments represent the second such BRT policy in the nation, and one of the first such policies to be promulgated worldwide.   California is the first US state to make a formal commitment to what was then a new public transport mode in the state. However, its statewide policy contains little in the way of screening tools or rules of interagency engagement as contained in Maryland’s policy.

Bus rapid transit policies will become increasingly important as BRT is expanded into multiple corridors and networks, some of which will invariably intersect with other BRT lines and networks. Cooperation among project sponsors and planners will inevitably be necessary, and they will want to seek lessons from these early efforts in multi-jurisdictional engagement. 

1 Garcia D., Government Policies for Bus Rapid Transit Delivery, January 2007. World Bank Conference January 2007. Accessed November 15, 2015.

2 National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, Bus Rapid Transit Developments in China: Perspectives from Research, Meetings, and Site Visits in April 2006. Final Report July 2006. Washington, DC: Federal Transit Administration, Project Number: FTA-FL-26-7104.02 U.S. 

3The report can be found at: 

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