Boston Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Community Engagement


The development of transportation improvements in any city poses a range of challenges, including meaningfully involving relevant stakeholders. With many members of the public generally skeptical of government’s ability to generate solutions that will work for them, transport agencies and community organizations are looking for better ways to engage each other and the general public in developing project ideas. One problem is that existing representational tools are not well suited for allowing diverse stakeholders to understand, evaluate, and provide feedback on the geographically distributed benefits and tradeoffs of potential transport decisions. These decisions range widely, from local pedestrian flows around public transport stations, to parking provision on streets, to corridor alignment and priority schemes that can affect regional connectivity.

In recent years, however, new cooperative planning tools have emerged, made possible by the rapidly growing availability of open-source data platforms and interactive computing technology. These technologies promise to facilitate the inclusion of local knowledge in a way that could transform public participation. 

Starting from the premise that meaningful public engagement is fundamental to doing transit right, together with the Mobility Futures Collaborative at MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), we developed several interactive planning tools to see if they can enable inclusive and authentic dialogue. Open dialogue is a cornerstone of meaningful engagement and learning in collaborative planning settings. We designed the interactive tools to allow individuals to explore impacts and alternatives at the regional, neighborhood, and street scales. With support from the Barr Foundation, and in partnership with Nuestra Comunidad, a local community development organization, the tools were deployed in a series of public workshops held in October 2015 in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. These pilot workshops focused on the potential for implementing Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). While the tools were tested using the case of BRT corridors in the Boston area, we believe they have applicability to planning for a broader range of transportation alternatives in a variety of settings. 

These tools include the CityScope—an interactive platform that utilizes physical models (built from LEGO bricks) and 3-D projection—to enable community members to engage in neighborhood and street-level decisions including alternative bus corridor designs and station-level variations (such as pre-pay boarding). The second tool, CoAXs, is a new interactive platform for collaborative transit planning that builds on open-source urban analytics tools such as Conveyal Transport Analyst.

This set of new tools is designed to work in concert to bring key stakeholders from the community, non-governmental organizations, government, and planners to engage in constructive discussion, and to encourage participation through new technology. By developing an understanding of BRT concepts, trade-offs, and impacts, users can also use the tools to design their own proposals, and thus contribute their ideas to future scenario planning. Finally, these tools intend to help build consensus through data-driven interactions and dialogue.

Why Bus Rapid Transit?

Like many cities across the world, Boston faces the challenge of needing transit expansion to better serve current and future demand while struggling to operate and maintain the existing system. Improved bus service can certainly help. Examples of high quality, bus-based, surface-level public transit exist in places from Mexico City to Malmö (Sweden), Cleveland to Cape Town. But, effectively running high-quality bus service on city streets can be difficult, as Boston’s own Silver Line attests. The best examples include separated rights of way (i.e., dedicated bus lanes) and payment of fares prior to boarding at quality stations—an approach widely known as bus rapid transit (BRT). Despite its promise for Boston and growth worldwide, BRT remains controversial. Operating on surface streets can pose salient and difficult tradeoffs in allocating limited space; exclusive bus lanes often require the removal of an existing car travel lane or parking, and they have a greater impact on the pedestrian environment than underground transit. In addition, the association of BRT with the "second class" service provided by typical buses (slow, unreliable, with long, uncomfortable waits and rides) pervades the mindset of the public.

Believing that BRT has a potential worth serious consideration in Boston, in 2013 the Barr Foundation convened the Greater Boston BRT Study Group , which consisted of individuals with deep roots across Greater Boston and expertise in transportation, development, community and environment. The study group worked together with the nonprofit Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) to analyze a number of potential corridors for BRT in the metropolitan area. The findings were released in a 2015 report titled Better Rapid Transit for Greater Boston: The Potential for Gold Standard Bus Rapid Transit across the Metropolitan Area, which identified five corridors with particular promise for BRT implementation.

Street- & Neighborhood- scale Impact Simulation


CityScope is an urban observatory, decision support system, and an urban intervention simulator developed by the City Science group at the MIT Media Lab.  CityScope uses 3D physical scale models (built out of LEGO bricks) and a series of projectors mounted directly above the models that project digital information—both static and dynamic—onto the physical model.  When acting as an urban observatory, CityScope helps to illustrate urban flows, like vehicular and pedestrian traffic, energy consumption in buildings, wind, aggregate sunlight, shadows cast on buildings, as well as geo-located social media (like Twitter). Users interact with the tool by moving bricks to alter urban design and/or land uses; the urban flow implications of those changes are calculated via simulation. Those implications, like pedestrian flows, can then be visualized, projected back on the model, and summarized in other displays. For this project, we adapted the CityScope to be able to display predicted traffic performance (of buses and cars), based on the outputs of SUMO, an open source traffic modeling software which we applied to the Boston area.


For the street segment/intersection CityScope model, users had the choice of different placements of bus lanes (curb, median) and different bus stop types and could also add/remove bike lanes and on-street parking. Similar to the neighborhood scale model, the changes in the street scale generated summary statistics, based on pre-run SUMO simulations, which were displayed on an accompanying large screen; vehicle movements were also projected on the physical model. 


For the neighborhood model, users could select from different LEGO pieces representing different types of bus stations (e.g., regular, pre-pay boarding) and activate different corridor alignments. Based on the user selections, traffic simulations pre-run in SUMO for the specific selections were used to generate summary statistics, showing, for example, the bus speed changes or changes in estimated emissions levels. These statistics were displayed on an accompanying large screen. 

Regional-scale Accessibility Analysis


Short for Co-Creative Accessibility-Based Stakeholder Engagement, CoAXs is an open source, web-based mapping and visualization tool intended to give users a way to evaluate the benefits and costs of public transport projects. CoAXs builds on the basic idea that regional accessibility is an important measure of transport system performance. In this context, accessibility refers to the potential for individuals (in a given place) to reach destinations (such as jobs of a certain type) by specific types of transportation. Developed by MIT’s Mobility Futures Collaborative, CoAXs has two modules: the regional accessibility module, for mapping public transport opportunity space across a given region; and the modification module, allowing users to activate and modify corridors in a region and then display the results in the accessibility module.

CoAXs is a user interface built upon Conveyal Analyst, an open source online tool developed for professional planners to analyze land use and transportation scenarios. The software uses various open data sources, including GTFS, which is the format in which transit agencies publish their networks and schedules for web-based mapping (such as for the transit directions that appear in Google Maps). Road and pedestrian network data come from OpenStreetMap. In our application, locations of possible interest (homes, workplaces) come from the EPA Smart Location Database (aggregated to the Census block-group level).

In the workshops, we displayed it on a large, horizontally mounted touchscreen, to allow groups of people to interact with the tool together. The core of the CoAXs accessibility module consists of software and data which enable the rapid calculation (in about six seconds) of estimated public transport times from a chosen point on the map to all other points in the region. For example, if a user selects their house on the map, the software will use the road, pedestrian, and transit networks to calculate estimated transit times to all other parts of Greater Boston. The results displayed to the user on the map and in different summary figures and tables include travel time maps (areas reachable by transit within different time windows) and user-specified destination types (such as number of jobs by certain industries) available within different amounts of transit travel time. On the touchscreen, users can change assumptions about transit service, such as activating or deactivating routes and changing route frequencies.

CoAXs’ second module allows users to modify the service characteristics of transit corridors by, for example, adding buses to a route, adding new stops, and/or changing the types of stops (such as pre-pay boarding at the bus stop). Users can also create different combinations of corridors and save them as scenarios. The Corridor Editor provides direct feedback to users including estimated costs of the options selected as well as estimated corridor performance according to key transit service indicators. In addition, this module feeds back to the regional accessibility module, to allow users to see how the new corridors and/or corridor changes impact the range of opportunities (such as jobs) available by transit across the metropolitan area. 

CoAXs can report, both visually and in summary statistics, measures of accessibility which may be more meaningful to users and encourage thinking about broader potential impacts. The intention is to allow a user to examine accessibility in a number of ways. For example, from a given location, a user could estimate how many health care jobs could be accessed by transit for her household within, say, 25 minutes—across the entirety of the metropolitan area. After selecting a scenario of improvements, the user could then see how those changes affect the number of health care jobs that could be reached, and their locations, within the same 25 minutes. 

Learning Outcome

In this project we attempted to see if new interactive and tangible tools have the potential to help create meaningful public engagement around transportation planning. The pilot planning workshops where the tools were tested used BRT as the transportation option of focus, but the project itself was about testing the value of new collaborative planning tools, not about any particular transportation innovation. 

The series of six workshops, held over four days with over 50 different individuals from a range of backgrounds, reveal some evidence of learning among the participants. Not only did participants report having learned “a great deal,” but they also provided evidence of deeper, longer-term learning potential. Participation also seemed to generate better knowledge about BRT. The evidence collected during the workshops hints at some mechanisms through which the tools contribute to learning, such as enabling: high levels of interaction with the tools and conversation with others, questioning of the tools and their assumptions, and users to somewhat easily relate to other peoples’ points of view. Among the three different tools used in the workshop, participants judged the LEGO-based one representing the street scale to be the easiest to use, while they judged the regionally scaled interactive touch screen map to be the most relevant and credible.  In addition, in the preliminarily gauge of possible impacts learning might have on eventual behavior change (increased use of public transit), findings indicate that the tools and workshops as delivered in this pilot engagement could potentially lead to changes in future behavior.

For more details on the engagement process and learning,  refer to the downloadable PDF report below, which was delivered to the Barr Foundation in May 2016:

Further Development: