Bus Rapid Transit Hits the Tipping Point

By Jonathan Marshall

Cleaner cars can only do so much to help the environment. Comfortable, efficient and fast transit options that move people rather than cars will be an essential part of any global climate solution.

To that end, more and more urban planners worldwide — including the United States — are taking a serious look at the proven potential of bus rapid transit (BRT) to carry people more flexibly and cost effectively than ever before. BRT lets buses shine by granting them dedicated roads and other facilities so passengers can enjoy many of the traditional advantages of trains without the high cost.

Bus Rapid Transit systems, such as the Transmilenio in Bogota, Colombia, are expanding worldwide.

Urban transport experts at the World Resources Institute note that “BRT systems can carry up to 46,000 passengers per hour per direction — matching some of the world’s busiest metros — and can be implemented at one-tenth to one-half of the time and cost as subways or light rail.”

Buses can sweep up passengers from a much larger catchment area than trains and deliver them to a wider variety of destinations over existing roads. And because dedicated busways can be shared with high-occupancy cars and vans, they offer more flexibility than rail lines, while still permitting high average speeds by minimizing traffic delays.

Since the first system was founded in Brazil in 1974, BRT has expanded to 166 cities. Together they carry more than 29 million passengers daily on dedicated routes.

“The BRT concept has now reached a tipping point, with massive new investment and significant expansion planned on all continents,” according to the World Resources Institute. “105 cities around the world are expanding existing or planning new BRT or busways, giving citizens access to safe and equitable transport, and a higher overall quality of life.”

A new report issued last month on four city systems documents dramatic quality-of-life advantages for urban residents. Regular users of the Metrobüs in Istanbul cut annual travel times by about 28 days each year. In Mexico City, a BRT system reduced enough pollution to prevent 2,000 lost work days due to respiratory and other illness. Bogotá, with its celebrated TransMilenio service, projects that it will save $288 million in avoided traffic injuries and fatalities over a 20-year period.

The United States has been relatively slow to adopt full-blown BRT systems, according to a report by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, which works with cities worldwide to promote clean transport solutions. Its cites a handful of systems in Cleveland, Eugene, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh as “bronze” level implementations of BRT, compared to the gold standard represented by systems in Colombia and China.

But the limited number of success stories in the United States doesn’t reflect any unsuitability of BRT to American conditions, the report contends:

“BRT is in many ways optimal for American transit needs. Ultimately, to convince the American public that BRT could be something exceptional and desirable, the United States needs a world-class system that not only improves conditions for bus passengers but also inspires the rest of the country and the rest of the world to do better, and puts the United States back at the forefront of transportation innovation.

“Given the fiscal crisis facing most city and local governments, the growing traffic congestion, and the increasing importance of weaning the United States off of oil, BRT needs to become a cornerstone of American mass transit system development, instead of a consolation prize for cities unwilling or unable to implement light rail. If not, the United States is likely to further cede its competitive advantage to cities elsewhere in the world.”

Email Jonathan Marshall at jonathan.marshall@pge.com.

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