Bus rapid transit creep (BRT creep) is a phenomenon where bus systems that fail to meet the requirements for being considered "true bus rapid transit" are designated as bus rapid transit regardless. These systems are often marketed as a fully realized bus rapid transit system, but end up being described as more of an improvement to regular bus service by proponents of the "BRT creep" term. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy published several guidelines in an attempt to define what constitutes the term "true BRT", known as the BRT Standard, in an attempt to avert this phenomenon.
Proponents of the "Bus Rapid Transit" term cite it as a form of mass transit that uses buses in a dedicated right-of-way, ideally providing speed and volume of service similar to light rail. A commonly cited advantage of BRT is the lack of need to build new rail infrastructure, as new rail has greater initial capital costs than using existing roads and cannot be changed easily.
The flexibility of BRT, with its greater similarity to other forms of bus transportation, also means that there are fewer obstacles to removing expensive or difficult-to-implement features such as dedicated lanes. On the downside, however, this flexibility can lead to service enhancements being whittled away in a manner that is not possible once rail solutions have been built. (Transit agencies have incentive to strip down service after a BRT route is initially presented, partially because BRT might have up to 24% higher operating costs than rail solutions of a similar size according to a parametric cost model, if traffic signal priority is not effective. On the other hand “For trunk line capacities below about 1,600 spaces per hour, the headway-versus-cost trade-off favors BRT”.) This type of stripping down service is known as BRT creep.
The most extreme versions of BRT creep lead to systems that cannot even truly be recognized as "Bus Rapid Transit". For example, a rating from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) determined that the Boston Silver Line was best classified as "Not BRT" after local decision makers gradually decided to do away with most BRT-specific features.: 45 The study also evaluates New York City's Select Bus Service (which is supposed to be BRT-standard) as "Not BRT".: 47
Some American systems reviewed had so few essential characteristics that calling them a BRT system at all does a disservice to efforts to gain broader adoption of BRT in the United States.
Worried about similar circumstances, Virginia writer Kevin Beekman urges residents in areas planned for BRT development to use the ITDP scoring worksheet (BRT Standard) as an assessment tool. Another Washington-area writer, Dan Reed, furthers this sentiment, writing that if BRT creep is allowed to reach its full conclusion, it's "bad for commuters, but it's also bad for taxpayers who were sold a high-end service only to find out that we just painted the buses a different color".
According to Dan Malouff, a transit planner who was one of the earliest people to use the phrase, says that the slippery slope towards BRT creep varies widely from system to system. He says in a piece republished by The Washington Post that "there are a thousand corners like that you can cut that individually may or may not hurt too much, but collectively add up to the difference between BRT and a regular bus". Major compromises in service are highlighted by one or more common symptoms: buses run in shared general purpose lanes or HOV lanes rather than dedicated lanes, using traditional bus stops instead of full-featured stations, eliminating fare pre-payment and all-door boarding which slows passenger boarding, and offering no priority at traffic lights.
Detroit writer Michael Jackman mentions the removal of "signal pre-emption, dedicated lanes separated by concrete berms, heated, ADA-compliant stations, preticketing, and more" as indicators of BRT creep.
Author and activist Matthew Yglesias has argued in Slate Magazine that BRT creep is a very real worry, but that the issue is not "a problem with buses, it's a problem with cheapskates".
Houston Tomorrow points out some ways local legislation can prevent BRT creep: "The new section on Bus Rapid Transit specifically defines it as having a separated right-of-way (at least for the majority of the line and during peak periods), defined stations, short headways and signal priority."
One drawback to the phrase is that it uses "creep" in a way that is contradictory to other terms such as "scope creep", "feature creep", and "mission creep". "BRT creep" refers to how features can be eaten away due to lack of funding or political will, while the other terms typically refer to an expanding scope. This counterintuitive phrasing is due to the term "BRT" itself having a "creeping" expansion over systems not properly evaluated as such, rather than the features of such systems.
The majority of the [Boston] system lacks basic BRT features.