Bus versus rail: Costs, capacities and impacts


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: | Last updated: 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.

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