On the buses – the rise of rapid transit travel

15 July 2014



Bus rapid transit travel is an increasingly viable option for cities looking for a sustainable mass transit system. Dr Darío Hidalgo, director of research and practice at EMBARQ, the sustainable transport programme at the World Resources Institute, explains why.


There has been a very rapid uptake of bus rapid transit (BRT) and bus of high level of service (BHLS). Currently, there are more than 168 cities with bus corridors, 78% of which have been introduced in the past decade. This fast growth is a result of bus corridors' relative low cost, speedy implementation and excellent performance, as shown by pioneering applications such as Curitiba (1982) and Bogotá (2000), and large-scale systems in Istanbul (2008), Guangzhou (2010) and Rio de Janeiro (2012).

The current status of BRT worldwide, and the relative merits, opportunities and challenges such a system entails, as well as considerations to take into account when selecting the BRT model as part of city-wide integrated public transport systems are therefore well worth discussing.

All around the world

BRT can be defined as a 'flexible, rubber-tyred form of rapid transit that combines stations, vehicles, services, running ways and information technology into an integrated system with a strong identity'. The first full-featured BRT was implemented in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1982, and then adapted to places such as Quito in 1995; Los Angeles and Mexico City in 2003; Jakarta in 2004; Beijing in 2005; Istanbul in 2008; Guangzhou in 2010; and Rio de Janeiro in 2013. The influence of Bogotá has been particularly relevant: the TransMilenio BRT System became the tipping point for BRT implementation after its introduction in 2000.

"BRT is expanding rapidly as a transit option due to its relative low cost, rapid implementation, and high performance and impact. Costs are a fraction of those of comparable rail systems."

The 'bus high level of service' expression was introduced in the '90s to differentiate European applications from their US counterparts. BHLS focuses on internal integration of the system with the rest of the public transport network and urban features to improve the passenger experience. BHLS is present in 35 European cities, with the most advanced applications in places such as Paris (TVM), Nantes (Line 4, Busway), Amsterdam (Zuidtangent), Almere (trunk network), Kent (Fastrack) and Jönköping (Citybussarna).

According to BRTdata figures released earlier this year, 168 cities currently have BRT, served by a total of 4,424km of busways or bus lanes that carry 31 million passengers a day. As of March 2014, 82 cities were planning or advancing construction of new BRT systems, with a further 23 expanding their corridors.

BRT and BHLS are no longer rare; they are usually considered in analyses of transport alternatives, and are part of multimodal transport systems or plans in multiple cities worldwide. Most cities with BRT or BHLS have introduced them since 2000.

BRT is considered a very important element in advancing sustainable transport. For instance, the IEA suggests the introduction of 25,000km of BRT before 2050 as part of their two-degree scenario - the package of measures that may help the world avoid catastrophic climate change. BRT also features prominently in the most recent UN Habitat 'Global Report on Human Settlements'.

Selection criteria

BRT is expanding rapidly as a transit option due to its relative low cost, rapid implementation, and high performance and impact. Costs are a fraction of those of comparable rail systems, and BRT has been able to achieve high commercial speeds and passenger capacity through the introduction of special design features such as bus lane segregation; priority at intersections; longer platforms; large vehicles with multiple doors; level boarding; prepayment; dual lanes at stations allowing overtaking between express and local buses; and advanced information technologies.

Most BRT systems have shown better performance than the bus operations they replaced, regarding passenger demand, user satisfaction, travel time, reliability, and externalities such as reductions in air pollution and traffic crashes. Formal evaluation of existing systems shows high positive impacts and redistributional effects.

Nevertheless, most systems in developing countries use very high capacities, which are not comfortable. High capacity levels are the result of financial restrictions, as systems often lack operational capital. Service quality needs to be improved in many cases to make BRT attractive to choice riders.

"BRT requires less capital and construction time than rail options but may require a wider right of way. It may also result in a less comfortable ride and higher tailpipe emissions."

The selection of BRT, or any mass transit option, should not be the result of snap judgments but of careful analyses. In general, BRT requires less capital and construction time than rail options but may require a wider right of way. It may also result in a less comfortable ride and higher tailpipe emissions.

Life-cycle analyses often indicate that BRT may outperform rail, and it is very important that BRT is not ruled out as an option early in the decision-making process. It is also important, however, that BRT is not rushed into without considering its special requirements:

  • BRT uses at-grade right of way in most applications. This usually requires the reduction of general traffic lanes and parking. The presentation may be that the assignment of bus lanes increases overall capacity to move people, not vehicles in a given facility. A single bus lane carries around 10,000 passengers an hour in each direction, while a general traffic lane carries
    around 2,000.
  • Implementation of BRT requires the coordination of multiple agencies. It is a city-wide effort involving several departments and, in many cases, several municipal jurisdictions.
  • In many developing cities, implementation of BRT also requires the transformation of existing private operators. The operators are often dispersed and may have not evolved as organised companies. This requires a very special effort by the local government to find ways to involve incumbents while protecting the users' interests.
  • High-quality performance is the result of the inclusion of multiple design elements. There can be a tendency to cut some components due to implementation difficulties, such as not assigning segregated lanes in a congested section, keeping manual fare collection systems, not replacing road structures to save time, or not advancing user information and education processes. The result may be problematic, as systems may not perform well, particularly during the first weeks of operations, generating backlash.
  • Impacts on land use require planning and managerial effort. Several studies show that BRT can have positive impacts on urban development, land values and population densities. Nevertheless, the impacts could be enhanced if an additional effort is made in the planning and implementation of the system.
  • Low-income populations can be priced-out from BRT when the fare is set in a way that fully covers operations. Targeted subsidies to low-income and vulnerable populations are being considered to increase equity in systems operations.

A BRT future?

BRT and BHLS are now a feature in multiple cities and a component of multimodal transport networks; 168 cities worldwide feature bus corridors, many of them as a complement to metro and light-rail transit corridors.

"Studies show that BRT can have positive impacts on urban development, land values and population densities. These could be enhanced if additional effort is made in planning and implementation."

Bus systems are very attractive due to their lower relative cost. Several applications show high performance and positive impacts, fostering replication in other cities. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that high-performance BRT requires the inclusion of multiple elements: dedicated lanes, special stations, larger vehicles with low emissions, and advanced information and telecommunication systems.

While BRT often has lower life-cycle financial and socio-economic costs than rail alternatives, it also requires special institutional arrangements and requires complete implementation to deliver quality and be attractive to riders. Targeted subsidies to low-income demographics may help the economic performance of bus systems and also support the mobility needs of low-income and vulnerable populations. There is also evidence of positive urban and regional impacts of BRT, but there seems to be a need for integrated land-use and transport planning.

BRT and BHLS are becoming increasingly attractive options worldwide, however, their deployment should only follow careful, in-depth analyses and consideration.

© T photography/Shutterstock.com
Source: BRTdata.org (2014)


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