The Demand and Challenges of the Sprint Public Transport System in Birmingham

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Sara Hassan and Magda Cepeda-Zorrilla discuss whether a Bus Rapid Transit system could help reduce passenger travel times.

This article was written for the Birmingham Economic Review.

The review is produced by City-REDI / WMREDI, the University of Birmingham and the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. It is an in-depth exploration of the economy of England’s second city and a high-quality resource for informing research, policy and investment decisions.

According to WMCA, by 2035, the population of the West Midlands is set to increase by up to 444,000 – that’s 100 people per day – and 215,000 new homes are set to be built by 2030. If every person drives a private vehicle the travel time will increase severely due to traffic and congestion. Not to mention the negative externalities in the environment. Therefore, it is paramount to provide reliable and accessible public transport options for people.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system

To date, there are several options for public transport in Birmingham such as bus, train and tram. Also, there has been the introduction of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system which promises to reduce passenger travel time.

A BRT is a high-capacity bus-based transit system that provides dedicated lanes, with busways and shelter stations normally aligned to the centre of the road and off-board fare collection. It is argued that it delivers a fast and comfortable service and that this BRT is more reliable, convenient and faster than regular bus services.

The BRT system in Birmingham consists of multiple phases that aim to connect various areas within the city. Phase one of the Sprint BRT network in the West Midlands consists of a 20km link (20 stops) connecting Walsall with Birmingham city centre and Birmingham Airport. It will connect the A34 and the A45 to create one continuous route, as well as to provide links to the two HS2 stations. In the West Midlands, the Transport Authorities (TfWM) claim that transport is being transformed and stated that these buses will reduce journey times by up to 22% on key routes.

For example, the BRT route can benefit access to Birmingham Airport, the seventh largest airport in the UK. While road access around the airport is usually smooth, there is little resilience as the road network operates near capacity at peak commuter periods. Birmingham Airport’s surface access strategy states that public transport solutions can further enhance connectivity. BRT can reduce the pressure on surrounding networks, but also improve the efficiency and capacity of the road while increasing the use of sustainable transport. This is vitally important, particularly if HS2 is to be delivered in 2026.

Advantages of BRT

There are several advantages and disadvantages of the BRT system as researchers have stated. For instance, advantages provided by the BRT system are that at peak times, the system can carry more than 18,000 passengers per hour per direction; it represents an intermediate solution between the current system and a high-capacity model; they are of relatively low implementation cost; safe since they have a maximum commercial speed of 25km/h; there are short time intervals between vehicles and they are higher capacity vehicles, which can contribute in reducing the emission of pollutants.

While BRT can have several advantages, some potential challenges of BRT are to be expected and are often the dominant issues in public debate regarding transport options when compared to rail alternatives. However, these challenges need to be evaluated and further alternative fair analysis should be conducted to better inform decisions and to mitigate negative outcomes.

Disadvantages of BRT

One of the biggest challenges in implementing BRT systems is that they can be expensive. This is significant as BRT requires infrastructure changes, from dedicated bus lanes to sheltered stations and alternative ticketing systems. There are also challenges associated with integrating BRT systems with existing transport networks, such as train services and other bus routes. This can be complex and requires careful planning to avoid challenges for operation and passenger convenience. In addition, there might be competing transport priorities or limited availability of funding.

While novel BRT systems can rely on alternative fuels, it is important to mention that those still relying on diesel engines and traditional fuelling systems can have a negative environmental impact. Fortunately, the BRT Sprint planned in Birmingham supports its clean air policies and reflects the region’s commitment to combatting climate change with the new zero-emission and multi-door vehicles. However, it remains to be seen how efficient the operation of such a system can be and its impact on reducing journey times and increasing comfort.

BRT systems operate on fixed routes and schedules rendering them less flexible than other modes of public transport such as bus and rail systems, causing inconvenience to some passengers with fewer options and travel routes. Some space constraints are also challenging, particularly in urban areas with limited space. Acquiring the necessary right of way may also be faced with resistance from stakeholders, leading to delays and compromises in designing the BRT system. In addition, there are claims that BRT systems can vary in effectiveness depending on overall traffic situations. In areas with higher traffic volumes and inadequate enforcement of regulations, BRT systems can further exacerbate traffic congestion. Vehicles can still experience delays and thus reduce overall system efficiency.

Despite the many benefits of BRT systems, they can sometimes be perceived as a less attractive mode of transport compared to rail-based systems such as trams and metros. In places where public transport has a negative stigma, this can lead to lower ridership among certain demographic groups. There is an increased risk of gentrification of the low-income areas with middle-income groups more willing to have housing near these BRT routes. This can have serious impacts on property values, particularly in the poorest households. It can also be perceived as less safe for vulnerable passenger groups. Finally, we argue that with proper planning, design, and stakeholder engagement some of these ‎drawbacks can be avoided and the benefits of Bus Rapid Transit in Birmingham can be maximised.

This blog was written by Dr Magda Cepeda-Zorrilla, Research Fellow and Dr Sara Hassan, Research Fellow, City-REDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

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