:::: MENU ::::

Infrastructure, Municipal, Transportation

Bus versus rail: Costs, capacities and impacts

Tags: , , | Last updated: November 20, 2009

Last updated: November 20, 2009


There are four primary options for urban transit systems: bus, bus rapid transit, light rail and heavy rail. There has been considerable debate over the systems’ comparative advantages, from lower construction costs to greater carrying capacity.

A 2009 University of Texas metastudy, “Bus Versus Rail: Meta-Analysis of Cost Characteristics, Carrying Capacities and Land Use Impacts,” looks at the cost, operational characteristics, and land-use impacts of different mass-transit technologies. The study’s main purpose, as the author writes, is to “provide a balanced view that will help identify conditions under which a particular transit mode, bus or rail, is most appropriate.” Factors such as transit supply and demand, availability of public resources and potential land use impacts of the system are considered.

The study’s cost conclusions include:

  • On average, bus rapid transit (BRT) costs $10.24 million in 1990 dollars per mile to build. This figure is less than half that of that for light rail transit (LRT), $26.4 million and one-tenth of metro rail transit (MRT), $128.2 million. However, in some situations BRT can be more expensive per mile than LRT, and some LRT systems have exceeded the per-mile cost of MRT projects.
  • Compared with LRT systems, bus rapid transit is associated with greater land-acquisition costs ($3.018 million per mile, versus $1.52 million). In addition, dedicated BRT guideways average $6.459 million per mile versus $4.289 million for light rail. Station costs are also slightly higher for BRT than LRT.
  • Bus systems have the lowest cost per vehicle revenue mile and revenue hour, $3.1  and $45, respectively, but the highest cost per thousand passenger mile, $616.4.
  • BRT systems cost per vehicle revenue mile were almost as low as bus systems’, $3.6, and the cost per thousand passenger mile was 24% lower, $496.9.
  • Light rail systems have the highest cost per vehicle revenue mile, $9.3, and the second highest cost per passenger mile, $578.
  • Metro systems cost less than LRT systems per vehicle revenue mile, $6.5; the most per vehicle revenue hour, $152; and the least per thousand place mile and thousand passenger mile, $49.2 and $282, respectively.
  • Buses have the lowest average line capacity per hour, 3,800 to 7,200. BRT can carry 9,000 to 30,000 per hour and LRT can carry 12,200 to 26,900. The highest potential line capacity is of MRT, 67,200 to 72,000.

In concluding, the author concludes that, on average, “BRT can outperform LRT in providing a moderate to high level of service capacity at a moderate level of capital and operating costs in neighborhoods with moderate population and job densities.” While MRT are the most expensive to build, they can achieve over five times the capacity of BRT or LRT, and are associated with the largest positive impact on property values in the vicinity of stations.

The author cautions that there is no one answer, however. “Each transit technology is efficient when it is in the right place serving the right market.”

Tags: congestion, metastudy, municipal, infrastructure

    Writer: | November 20, 2009

    Citation: Zang, Ming. "Bus Versus Rail: Meta-Analysis of Cost Characteristics, Carrying Capacities, and Land Use Impacts". Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board . Transit 2009, Volume 1, 87-95. http://dx.doi.org/10.3141/2110-11.

    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related St. Petersburg Times article titled "One of Rail's Biggest Critics Gets Millions to Study and Promote Alternatives."

    1. If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the University of Texas study, what key changes would you make?

    Read the full University of Texas study, "Bus Versus Rail: Meta-Analysis of Cost Characteristics, Carrying Capacities, and Land Use Impacts."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.


    You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

    Marge Early Jul 5, 2011 13:31

    I found this to be a very valuable teaching tool, particularly the 40-word summary. Turning this information into something concise is a good challenge for students.

    Teaching Certification Oct 15, 2011 19:00

    Teaching Tool…

    […]Bus Versus Rail: Costs, Capacities, and Impacts – Journalist's Resource: Research for Reporting, from Harvard Shorenstein Center[…]…

    Why do so much people hate on the Suburbs?? - Urban, city, town planning, land use, zoning, transportation and transit, environmental issues, urban design, community development, subdivisions, revitalization - Page 101 - City-Data Forum Sep 21, 2012 2:29

    […] When Salt Lake introduced LRT, the net effect was to increase BTU/passenger mile by nearly 20%. Bus Versus Rail: Costs, Capacities, and Impacts – Journalist's Resource: Research for Rep… (cliff note version) Transit 2009, Volume 1 | Blurbs | Main (need access to LexisNexis or similar) […]

    Atlanta Streetcar (Downtown Loop) progress - Page 20 - City-Data Forum Oct 12, 2012 7:07

    […] you can pay 30 bus drivers for 55 years. Is that really what you are basing your argument on? Bus Versus Rail: Costs, Capacities and Impacts – Journalist's Resource: Research for Repo… An articulated bus can carry up to 120. Switch to this and suddenly the capacity advantage for […]

    Leave a comment

    Please prove you’re not a robot *