Can the U.S. Make Bus Rapid Transit Work as Well as Latin America?

Bogotá's Transmilenio system. Photo: Streetfilms

In suburban Maryland, the debate about transit has often been cast as a decision between a light rail “purple line” and bus rapid transit. Democrat Martin O’Malley and local environmentalists lobbied for light rail while Republican Bob Ehrlich’s push for bus rapid transit was largely seen as an effort to “obfuscate, alter, study and delay” the progress on light rail. So in the D.C. area, BRT is sometimes seen as the choice of people who don’t really want transit to succeed.

But that’s selling BRT short, according to a panel of experts at Brookings this morning. For inspiration, they looked to Latin America, the motherland of bus rapid transit, housing 26 percent of the world’s BRT systems, according to Dario Hidalgo of EMBARQ, the sustainable-transport arm of the World Resources Institute.

It all started with Curitiba, Brazil, which pioneered BRT in 1972, reducing congestion, improving air quality, and shortening travel times. The Curitiba system has been a model for others, including powerhouse systems like TransMilenio in Bogotá, which carries 44,000 passengers per hour per direction during the peak period. Car use has gone down, and traffic fatalities have declined by 56 percent.

“What’s important isn’t if the tire is a steel tire or a rubber tire,” said Hidalgo. “What’s important is the service that’s provided to the people.”

Logic like this flies in the face of entrenched biases in favor of one mode or another. Rail, especially, has its adherents among those who think buses are a lower-class form of transportation, ridden only by those with no other option. But more than 20 percent of TransMilenio riders own cars. “We can’t be religious about modes,” said Robert Puentes of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

BRT is characterized by three principal traits, as articulated by ITDP Director Walter Hook in a Streetfilm about BRT released today. 1) BRT runs on exclusive lanes, so it’s not slowed down by traffic jams. (That allows the TransMilenio to average 20 miles per hour while New York City buses crawl along at under eight mph.) 2) the station is on a platform at the same level as the floor of the bus. Usually, those stations are designed by architects and aren’t substantively different from the experience of being in a rail station. Passengers pay upon entering the station, not the bus, speeding up the boarding process. Another time-saver is that all the doors open at once and passengers can board quickly en masse, like they do on a subway. And 3) BRT is that the buses have priority at intersections, often through some kind of priority signaling.6

Hidalgo and other experts noted that one of BRT’s best features is also one of its weaknesses: its fast implementation time. It can take decades to acquire rights-of-way and lay the track for a new rail system, but a city already owns its medians and can launch a BRT system relatively fast. In Latin America, Hidalgo says, it’s often rushed to correspond to the election cycle, as politicians hurry to get it up and running in time to get re-elected. And rushing a complex transportation system won’t usually yield the most ideal, carefully-planned system a city could hope for.

It’s not surprising that the developing world has been the pioneer of BRT, since it is a far less costly system to build than rail. Operating costs of rail can be lower, since it requires fewer drivers for more cars. (Rapid transit buses can be articulated, but even the longest bus won’t compete with trains.) However, rail ridership has to be very high for the operating costs of rail to end up lower than BRT. And almost all of Latin America’s BRT systems’ vehicles and operational costs are fully paid for out of the farebox.

Mark Elrich, a BRT supporter on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland, says when looking for ways to alleviate the county’s notorious traffic congestion – the fourth worst in the country, behind only Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago – he went looking for rail alternatives, not buses. He said he was biased toward rail. But he was eventually drawn to the flexibility of BRT, which allows one corridor to be used to travel southbound in the morning and northbound in the evening. But what really sold him was the price.

Courtesy of Mark Elrich

Sam Zimmerman, who spent 28 years in the USDOT and is now an urban transport advisor at the World Bank, says those costs shouldn’t tempt those who want to lower them even further.

If you have a BRT plan and people are nervous about the costs, they’ll say, ‘Do you really need dedicated vehicles? It’s OK to run a two-door articulated bus with the floor 90 inches off the ground. You don’t have to spend the money on new buses. Do you really need a dedicated right-of-way? Run it in mixed traffic, we don’t want to piss anybody off. Do you really need an architect-designed station? This is a bus! We’ll get it delivered off the back of a flatbed truck.’ At the end of the day, will it work as just another bus route? Sure! Will it be BRT? No. Now imagine if someone was proposing a light rail line and you said, ‘Do you really need the track?’

Zimmerman said even environmentalists and livability advocates repeat slander about buses, saying that they’re inherently polluting and noisy, as well as slow, unreliable, and uncomfortable. None of those things are true of well-designed BRT systems, he says.

You’ll never get everybody out of their cars, Elrich said. But if you can get enough people to ride the bus enough of the time to reduce vehicle miles traveled by just 8.3 percent, Montgomery County would return to 2002 carbon emissions levels. Double that and you could get down to 1990 levels.