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.

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