Bus rapid transit station with colorful illustration over it filling in lines of people and buses.

Phase I: Seeding the Vision

Exploring and building awareness of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)

Greater Boston is home to a comprehensive public transit system that is the envy of many other cities. But within this system, bus riders have historically faced slow, unreliable, and inefficient commutes.

The MBTA is committing a racial injustice by providing inequitable bus service, with research showing that in one year, Black bus riders spent, on average, 64 more hours traveling than white bus riders.

In many other cities around the world, particularly in the Global South, buses are among the fastest ways to get around. Bus rapid transit systems from Mexico City, Mexico to Guangzhou, China carry millions of people each day and are an integral part of the mass rapid transit system that includes subway.

With this global inspiration, the Barr Foundation Mobility team made improving the bus rider experience a primary funding strategy, including by spearheading a new effort to explore the potential for BRT in the Boston region.

BRT Study Group

The effort began with the 2013 formation of the Greater Boston Bus Rapid Transit Study Group, made up of local leaders representing community groups, area universities, think tanks, design and engineering institutions, and economic development agencies.

In partnership with the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, an international nonprofit and BRT expert, the group studied BRT in other places, discussed opportunities and challenges of adopting BRT in Boston, and ultimately came together around five potential BRT corridors to recommend the MBTA explore further.

In 2015, the Study Group released their findings in Boston’s first-ever report on BRT – Better Rapid Transit for Greater Boston.

2015 Backdrop

Boston Snow Banks; Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

As the BRT report was being finalized, Boston was hit with a series of four winter storms in quick succession, each dropping more than a foot of snow. The storms paralyzed the MBTA rapid transit system for weeks due to issues with tracks and trains. Boston’s buses kept the city moving.

Read more in the NYT

BRT Brand Development

Communicating what a better bus experience could look like

In developing the report, project consultants faced two early challenges that influenced the direction of the project moving forward: BRT was so underutilized in the United States, the team lacked any pictures or renderings that could feel relatable to people in the region; and transportation reports were generally so technical as to be impenetrable to everyday people.

Barr and the group deemed that the BRT report and any subsequent BRT advocacy should be different. We paired a creative director and a communications firm to ensure that throughout the initiative, the conversation around BRT would be engaging and inspiring, focused on people (not infrastructure), and inclusive to a wider community of people, beyond experts.

Colorful illustration of a Bus Rapid Transit station with people and buses

Ad Hoc Industries

The BRT report visually connected the dots between BRT possibility and Boston’s current infrastructure via graphic overlays like this example of a BRT bus in the Nubian Square station in Roxbury – with a person in the forefront.

As a subset of the Study Group moved from research to education and advocacy, the effort got its name, BostonBRT, accompanied by a colorful, eye-catching brand.

Learning from the Best

With the lessons of the report in hand, the nascent BostonBRT initiative began a campaign of education and listening with local elected officials as well as civic, business, and community leaders to determine which of the five corridors in the report might appeal to them for further exploration.

To help paint a picture of the interventions that would improve the bus rider experience, Barr sponsored multiple study tours to Mexico City, where local leaders rode the city’s gold standard BRT system themselves.

Through these trips, along with briefings and community events, local leaders over time became more familiar with the consistent challenges (such as traffic congestion and long boarding times) that create a poor bus experience as well as the specific, practical changes that can speed up the system and make it more reliable for riders (such as dedicated bus lanes or all-door boarding).

A movement in support of better buses for all was growing.

News Articles about Boston Learning from Mexico City's BRT System