The Explosive Growth of Bus Rapid Transit

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) existed in just a few cities twenty years ago but has quickly turned into a viable solution for the massive transportation challenges facing cities. With more than half of the world now living in cities and total global population expected to reach nine billion, perhaps more cities should be looking at how to include BRT, a relatively cheap, sustainable, and flexible transportation option in comparison with building more highway overpasses and underground metro systems.

Dario Hidalgo with EMBARQ, the sustainable transportation think tank at the World Resources Institute (WRI), kicked off a session at Transforming Transportation 2011 by explaining that 120 cities now have BRT with bus corridors. Worldwide, there are now 200 dedicated bus corridors running over 4,000 kilometers. These networks have 7,000 stations, providing stops for 30,000 buses. Each day, 27 million people, or about one percent of the global urban population, is now riding BRT. Los Angeles, the site of one of the few major BRT systems in the U.S., is in the lead in terms of number of kilometers covered, but falls behind when considering the number of residents using the system each day. Both China and India are seeing exploding growth in BRT ridership.

In addition, more cities are catching on — more than 15 cities started BRT operations in 2010, representing 13 per cent growth over 2009. Another seven cities are expanding their systems, 49 cities have BRT under construction, and 31 are starting to plan out new systems. Still, with the rapid expansion of BRT, there are growing issues as well, including “rushed implementation, tight financial planning, high occupancy rates, deterioration of infrastructure, and fare system fragmentation.”

BRT Expands Across the Developing World

Walter Hook, head of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), outlined some of the better designed BRT in developing countries as well as those facing challenges.

In Guangzhou, China, the BRT is a “hybrid full-featured direct service” system that carries some 800,000 passengers each day. Combined with a set of walkable, bikeable paths along the BRT stations, the system “has totally transformed the way the city feels.” The system is very smart: Existing municipal bus lines can rapidly enter and exit the dedicated BRT lane, which enables the city to leverage existing municipal “feeder” bus networks. Stations along the BRT route are off-set so there’s “more right of way.” In addition, BRT is integrated with the undeground metro system — “there’s a seamless network” and “no transfer penalty.”

In contrast with Guangzhou’s system, TransJakarta, the BRT in Indonesia’s largest city, has had some teething pains. The buses run on clean natural gas (CNG), but the CNG refueling depots were placed way off the BRT paths, creating lots of logistical issues that raised the cost of running the network. While CNG was used to address Jakarta’s air quality issues, Hook says it’s important to deal with the “logistical problems” first when trying to reach environmental goals. In addition, lane enforcement in Jakarta has been “lax” in many places, meaning cars and bikes have taken over the lanes dedicated to rapid bus.

In Ahmedabad, India, there’s a 30 kilometer long system that serves 50,000 each day. It has all the features of BRT but includes new “squared roundabouts” that have been tricky because they require faster timing with traffic lights if only BRT is going to use them.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, Rea Vaya, Sub-Saharan Africa’s first BRT, is off to a solid start. Created in advance of the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, Rea Vaya has “world class stations” and European buses. There are also plans to implement express and limited stop services, only possible because the city’s BRT infrastructure has multiple dedicated lanes. In addition, in some areas, stations were plopped down in the middle of one way streets, which was “very bold,” but they’ve largely worked.

Still, rolling out that city’s BRT system wasn’t easy. “There were regulatory and institutional issues,” largely due to the number of taxi associations involved and their ongoing wars with each other. “The taxi wars have led to a number of deaths.” One result of all of this has been revised certification processes for the city’s cabs, with the goal of making it easier to track cabs and deny some access to new BRT paths. This has been controversial because while denying cabs access to some routes is needed to preserve demand for BRT, it also means a loss of revenue for cab drivers. To address the cab drivers’ losses, the city had to spend extra, an almost 30-40 percent premium, to get the BRT in place.

Bogota’s Model BRT

Bogota’s BRT, TransMilenio, has been going for more than ten years now. There are 1.7 million daily trips but still “lots of politics” around BRT in the city, said the system’s general manager, Fernando Paez, largely because they’ve meant removing car lanes. The network is now 52 miles in length and will soon reach 72 miles. That’s just the first few phases — more than eight phases are planned. The city’s BRT has one control center, 1,215 buses and 515 feeder buses. More than a quarter of all bus trips in the city are now on TransMilenio’s dedicated lanes.

Interestingly, Paez said there were some two million square meters of public plazas and parks along the BRT network. When asked, Paez said the BRT network and plazas were developed together as part of an “integrated design strategy.” The adjacent parks and plazas help drive BRT usage. Research has been done on per capita usage of the public spaces around the BRT stations. In addition, Paez said they now have a “green street” pilot project along one of the lines to test how they can leverage the BRT infrastructure for stormwater management.

Overall, there have been many upsides — economic development, an increased sense of civicness caused by the positive identity of the BRT, and improved safety and security. However, Paez said the city still needs to do more to “consolidate opportunities in urban development” offered by the BRT. Also, the city needs to increase the number of buses to deal with high occupancy rates, and address traffic control through feeder buses, an issue caused by congestion.

Implementing BRT in “Challenging Situations”

Colin Brader, a consultant for the World Bank, reviewed some challenges in implementing the BRT in Lagos, Nigeria and other cities like Jakarta and Johannesburg. He explained that “all have BRT in place so have been successful.” However, getting each system live “involved significant institutional or regulatory changes,” quite a bit of compromise, and flexibility so systems could “evolve to optimize and meet changing demands.”

Lagos residents previously faced horrendous travel conditions: Public buses had “variable fares,” passengers were subjected to “violence and intimidation,” and on top of that, there were “multiple transfer points.” A 12 kilometer ride could take 2-3 hours, certainly not unheard of in many big developing world cities like Bangkok. “Users want safety, security, and reliability” and the city largely gave them what they wanted. All major local politicians in the city got behind the concept, seeing it as a “people’s project,” and a massive consultation helped “depoliticize the implementation.”

Now Lagos’ BRT, which runs at 13 km per hour, has “dramatically improved” the lives of 170,000 people each day at a cost of $1.4 million per kilometer. In addition, it also exemplifies gender-sensitive design. Before the addition of queues, only the strongest could push their way aboard. “Women appreciated the imposition of the queuing systems.”

In a separate session, there was discussion on the need to collect better transportation data worldwide in order to build the case for more sustainable transportation options. While almost all countries have pretty good international air and rail travel data, very few have solid local data on walking, biking, or transit, which is crucial to putting funds behind more sustainable, low-cost urban options. Given good data is often at the foundation of good policy, more funds should be allocated to gathering and sharing data and even getting existing pockets of local data moved up to the national and international levels, enabling comparisons in the process.

One group, the Partnership on Sustainable Low-Carbon Transport, is calling for “Global Transportation Intelligence.” The Inter-American Development Bank also called for a set of urban “observatories” that can track transportation usage in cities and help inform sustainable transportation investments. As Sanjiv Lohia, Ministry of Urban Development in India, said, “instead of gazing at the stars, these observatories should be rooted at the ground level” where there is still so much unknown about human travel behavior.

Image credit: TransMilenio, Bogota / Fast Company

9 thoughts on “The Explosive Growth of Bus Rapid Transit

  1. Peter Smith 01/28/2011 / 6:06 pm

    where does this quote come from?

    “rushed implementation, tight financial planning, high occupancy rates, deterioration of infrastructure, and fare system fragmentation.”

  2. Peter Smith 01/28/2011 / 6:08 pm

    oh – nevermind – i see it’s a direct quote from Hidalgo.

  3. Justin N 01/31/2011 / 12:55 am

    Los Angeles is far from the only city in the U.S. with a BRT system. Currently operating systems include the HealthLine in Cleveland, the EmX in Eugene, OR, Boston’s Silver Line system (two lines), and New York’s Select Bus service Bx12 and M15.

  4. Owen Dell, ASLA 01/31/2011 / 1:15 am

    I’m surprised there’s no mention of Curitiba, Brazil. That’s where the whole idea of BRT originated. The city government persuaded Volvo to develop the first bi-articulating bus at their local factory. Separate bus lanes, color-coded buses, super-fast passenger loading facilities, nodal development were all part of the pioneering efforts in Curitiba, decades ago. It’s an impressive system. All the others mentioned in this article are derivative of the work done in Curitiba, and many of the cities mentioned sent their transportation people to Curitiba to study what they had done.

  5. Alek F 01/31/2011 / 12:58 pm

    I wish the websites and various news-sources would stop imposing this ridiculous BRT upon us. Folks, BRT is only a bus. And a bus is just a bus. Even on dedicated routes. The drawbacks of the current Orange line in Los Angeles are obvious: very limited capacity, leading to sardine-packed, overcrowded buses, an extremely lousy ride, high operating costs, low speeds, high accident rates (especially in the beginning, upon the line just opening), all of those factors are an indicator that BRT is just a mediocre service, not comparable to efficiency of Light-Rail, and especially – subway.

    P.S. Certainly, BRT is better than regular bus service (or so-called “Rapid” buses) but if you want to create a truly reliable & fast transit line – BRT should be completely out of the question. You get what you pay for. The lower initial investment (into BRT) will result in low-quality service and higher operating costs, as already mentioned.

  6. Laura Byrne Paquet 02/04/2011 / 2:44 pm

    Here in Ottawa, Canada, the city council is about to replace part of the almost 30-year-old BRT system with light rail. While light rail is a great idea, replacing one of the only parts of our local bus system that actually works seems misguided. The original plan was to build the light rail along a route not currently served by BRT. That made more sense.

  7. Ben 02/04/2011 / 4:05 pm

    I was comparing the timetables of the Red Line (66) heavy rail to the timetables of the Euclid Corridor BRT. The BRT takes 35 minutes to get from downtown to Superior Station, while the Red Line rapid takes only 20 minutes for the same trip. Thats a 42% increase in trip time. I am not impressed. Source:

    • Ben 02/04/2011 / 4:06 pm

      Correction: Public Square to Stokes-Windermere rapid station.

  8. Perez 07/21/2012 / 1:45 pm

    I must add that the BRT in Ahmedabad is almost 90-100kms now and carries a lot more than 4million passengers every month. It is the most successful BRT project in India and has received many international awards.

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