A Suburban Model For Incremental Transit Improvement

The City of Brampton is the quintessential American suburb. In 1951 it was a rural town with some manufacturing, and a surrounding township revolving heavily around agriculture. It had a population of 8,389 people. As soldiers came back from WWII, they wanted to start families. In a region rapidly adopting car culture—highways were being built by 1934—the solution was car-oriented suburbs, backed with government home loans to veterans. The city expanded and expanded, replacing prime farmland with subdivision after subdivision. In 1962, a subdivision boasted a shopping center that was “the world’s largest all electrically heated and air conditioned mall.”

By 1971, Brampton had 41,211 people and the township boasted having built the nation’s first satellite community, Bramalea. Touted to “potentially end suburban sprawl,” Bramalea was a master-planned community, complete with its own town center, a police station, library, etc. It was to be a balanced community with industrial, commercial, and residential land uses, with many walking trails and small lakes to provide recreation.

In 1974, the entire township was amalgamated into Brampton, and by 1981 had grown to 149,000 people as city officials fully adopted suburban development strategies, with single-family residential subdivisions as its main growth plan. By 2001, Brampton reached a population of 325,000 people, and by 2016 a staggering size of approximately 600,000 people.

Residential Brampton is now about 73% single family homes, and of those, 52% are detached. It is filled with strip malls, and monstrous stroads, some spanning eight lanes with speeds as high as 50 miles per hour.

You are probably wondering why you have never heard of this “American” suburban city. That is because this city, which is perhaps an exemplar of American suburban design, is in Canada. The US is not the only nation whose postwar growth has been dominated by car-dependent suburbia; Canada in many ways is similar.

Toward A More Complete Transit System

With all the suburban expansion, more and more cars moved in and out of Brampton, inducing traffic, and congestion became a serious issue. People were spending more of their time trapped in an increasingly hellish commute, and something had to be done.

In the 1990s, the city of Brampton had a bus system that ran infrequently, with long and circuitous routes. In the early 2000s, it was decided it wasn’t working, and in 2005, the transit system was reoriented into a grid system. Bus routes aligning with the city’s long straight arterial roads were deemed to be the new backbone of the transit system, and a two-hour free transfer was put in place. The residents recognized the value, and Brampton Transit became one of the fastest growing transit systems in Canada in 2006, surpassing 10 million rides that year.

Ridership continued to grow, and Brampton increased the grid routes to a minimum standard of service: they now ran at least every 30 minutes, seven days a week. In 2004, a new transportation and transit master plan was created, recognizing higher-order rapid transit systems being layered onto the current structure. In 2006, the Province of Ontario partnered with Brampton to introduce Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), and in 2008 the Canadian federal government added money to the pool.

A Brampton stroad with dedicated right-turn lane from which buses alone are allowed to proceed straight. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

With this funding, Brampton introduced Züm, a limited stop bus service, which would run in parallel with regular Brampton Transit routes and stop only at main intersections. The limited stop service was combined with bus pullouts (bays where the bus can pull out of traffic to load, or unload passengers), large bus shelters (the fact that they have heaters is appreciated during Canadian winters), traffic signal priority when the buses are running late, and queue jump lanes. The queue jump lanes are at the major intersections with channelized right turns for regular traffic. Buses alone are permitted to go straight, allowing them to cross the intersection, thus ‘jumping the queue.’ These improvements help buses keep to their time tables and be reliable from the user’s perspective.

The first Züm buses were introduced In 2010 on the busiest East/West corridor known as Queen Street, connecting the downtown of Brampton to the core of the former community of Bramalea, and further East into a neighbouring city, terminating at York University. Following the debut of Züm service, ridership grew by 18% in 2011.

In 2011, the city put in a north/south Züm on Main Street, intersecting the Queen Street Züm at the downtown transit terminal, running north to Sandalwood (a major parkway in the north end of town) and south into the neighbouring city of Mississauga, terminating at its downtown transit hub at Square One Shopping Mall.

Züm service map (Source: Brampton Transit. Click to view larger.)

2012 saw the introduction of the first articulated buses, and another East/West line on Steeles, the southernmost arterial road with two regional rail commuter stations, two colleges and a community mall.

By the close of 2014, Brampton Transit hit 20 million rides, and saw the addition of it’s third East/West Züm, on Bovaird, an enhanced bus service line that was put in place to increase the system’s coverage, build out the grid of routes, and grow service as the city continued to add population.

As ridership grew, Brampton Transit also added more buses to existing lines, and reconfigured other lines to better reflect ridership patterns. For 2018, Brampton is on track to surpass 30 million rides, a tripling since 2006, which works out to averaging ~9.5% growth per year for 12 years. Even after adjusting for Brampton’s ~50% growth since 2006, that still works out to a doubling, for an annualized growth rate of around 6% a year per capita.

What Did Brampton Do Right?

Amid U.S. transit agencies’ alarm about falling ridership south of the border, how has Brampton managed to double its per capita ridership in only 12 years? In a suburban city of mostly single-family homes and only moderate population density (5,772 people per square mile, much less than that of famously car-dominated Los Angeles)? And not with glamorous rail or streetcars, but good old-fashioned buses?

Brampton Transit didn’t make any massive bets; they placed some medium sized bets, and many small ones, where each individual experiment was thought likely to succeed. And if one didn’t, the agency just reallocated buses accordingly. Where changes succeeded, they were rewarded with more resources, as bus lines initially introduced with 15 minute headways later became 12, 10, and then 8 minutes apart. The original Queen Züm is now at 6 minute headways during peak times, with ridership likely to exceed 20,000 per day in 2018. Planning has begun for implementing a true BRT line on Queen Street with dedicated bus lanes. The day it opens, it will already have the ridership to make it a continued success.

Brampton Transit’s system map shows the clustering of routes along a regularly spaced “super-grid” of arterial roads. (Click through to view full-resolution version on original site.)

Brampton Transit’s system map shows the clustering of routes along a regularly spaced “super-grid” of arterial roads. (Click through to view full-resolution version on original site.)

Lest you think that this growth is being heavily subsidized by the city, Brampton Transit now has a farebox recovery of over 50%, putting its ratio well above that of metropolitan core cities in the American West and Sunbelt, cities which have a similar development pattern. You don’t have to have a tight grid system like the old cities of New York City, Boston, Washington, Toronto, and Chicago, where the cores were laid out before the mass adoption of the automobile. Even a grid based on large blocks like one sees in Sunbelt cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Tampa, and Phoenix, can experience what Brampton has achieved with its adaptations to the way it operated.

For Brampton, switching to a grid for major routes was a big start to improving farebox recovery, because it represented money being shifted from coverage to frequency. Because these routes were now more frequent, they became actually useful, and so people started taking them more. As this occurred, the city rewarded the routes that experienced growth with more funding. Because the portion of the budget that went to routes that had a higher farebox recovery increased, overall the system lost less and less money as a proportion. This became a positive feedback loop: more investment begat more ridership, and more ridership begat more funding.

In 2017, the budget finished with 54% of operating costs coming from fares, and another 5% from other sources such as advertising, for a total of 59% of operating costs coming from revenue, and total city subsidy rate of 41%. That increase was due to higher than expected ridership growth. And when it came time for increases, 80% of the city-allocated budget increase came from expected fare revenues. At this point, ridership growth is being constrained by operating hour increases.

What was the ‘higher than expected ridership growth’? 2017 saw an 18% ridership increase; the previous year was 9%. For the 2018 budget year, the city projected for an 8% increase, and nine months into the current year, Brampton Transit is already seeing increases well within the 15-20% range.

Where is Brampton’s ridership coming from? Brampton Transit may be reaching a tipping point where more and more people who used to drive are now opting to park their cars and taking transit.

Brampton has now hit the point where it is attracting the mythical “choice rider”: people who very much have the choice to drive a car or take transit, and opt to take transit. It really goes to show that you don’t have to spend massive amounts on rail transit with fancy stations to attract middle-class riders to transit. Charlotte, North Carolina’s Lynx Blue Line cost more to build than Brampton’s Queen, Main, and Steeles Züm lines combined, yet the former carries 16,900 passengers per day, while those three lines in Brampton carry 48,000 passengers each day, a factor of 2.8x (ridership data for both is from the 4th quarter of 2017). The smaller capacity of buses actually becomes an advantage, as you don’t need to add a massive amount of capacity to increase the frequency by one vehicle per hour. The more fine-grained capacity addition of buses greatly lends itself to incremental improvement across many lines in any city.

Take-Home Points

The lessons to take from Brampton are:

  • Grids are highly efficient for transit systems (even if they are super-grids like in Brampton, or U.S. sunbelt cities like Phoenix)

  • Frequency is more important than coverage for ridership, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to build out a good transit system.

  • Redistribute your resources to form a grid of higher frequency routes. Then as ridership goes up, start prioritizing routes for more resources according to ridership.

  • Keep fares paced with inflation, and just keep incrementally improving the system. If some chunks of the route experience much higher demand, feel free to use buses that only run that segment, so you can deliver more service to busier areas.

Putting in limited-stop buses on busier routes is great. They cost very little to implement, yet for people who take longer stretches it can offer substantial time savings when instead of stopping every couple hundred feet, the bus stops every quarter mile or less. Brampton Transit favours 750m to 1500m stop spacing (a little under a half mile to a mile). People are willing to walk further to get on a faster bus route. Traffic signal priority when buses are late (allowing the bus driver to trigger a green light as he/she approaches) can also help put buses back on schedule and improve reliability; people hate it when the bus is late and they miss their connection.

The funny thing is, to most transit planners, very little of this is likely new. The core reasons most transit systems in the US and Canada struggle are a lack of political will and a lack of funding. People don’t like change, and politicians don’t like major change-ups, because they will have constituents complaining about their route going away—especially older people who vote in disproportionate numbers. Politicians also favour rail over buses because the former is seen as politically attractive, with fancy ribbon cuttings.

A good path forward is to separate transit from being entrenched heavily in the city administration. Push for more autonomy for transit agencies, where the City actually gives them enough funding to do their job, and grants them the flexibility to decide how best to use the allocated money. This could be the tipping point that sees more and more bus-based systems being adopted in an already car-centric society.

Buses may be stodgy, and rail seems to have pizzazz, but for most North American cities, the bus is the backbone of the transit system.

(Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons)

About the Author

Strong Towns member Sylvia Menezes Roberts is a passionate advocate for the importance of municipal government, based out of Brampton, Ontario. In her free time, she attends city council meetings, and city open houses where she live-tweets them @BramRecorder.