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

Bogotá's Transmilenio system. Photo: ##

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.

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

  1. Sam Zimmerman is right, people will just take away until its not BRT anymore. And that is the problem with building it in the US. I’d be all for it if we could do it right, but you see what LA is doing, exempting Wilshire pieces from the dedicated ROW and you see why its so hard to support it.

  2. I agree with Sam Zimmerman and the comment from “The Overhead Wire”.

    We can see people in Chevy Chase neighborhoods supporting BRT for the Purple Line because they think that if it is BRT, then they can take away use of the dedicated ROW in the Georgetown Branch Corridor and replace it with buses running in traffic on Jones Bridge Road and Woodmont Avenue instead. The result would be to double the time it would take for a trip between Silver Spring and Bethesda on the Purple Line.

    BRT is an excellent idea when done right. But the opponents of transit will try to play a “take away game” until it is not BRT anymore.

  3. To say that BRT will not work in the US is silly. Even in Latin America, the systems did not appear overnight. Cleveland’s Health Line is very near high quality BRT, as is the BRT in Eugene Oregon, and so progress is being made. Policy pakers and planners need to understand more how to create a high quality product. With limited federal and local resources and plenty of road space this is a no brainer.

  4. One of the reasons that BRT works well in Latin America, may also have to do with lower operating costs of buses versus rail. In Latin America they can achieve rail-quality BRT at a much lower cost (construction, vehicles, and operations) than rail. On the economic comparison, in the US, a full life cycle calculation of BRT v Rail for any given corridor may favor rail because of the replacement costs of buses versus rail vehicles (rail vehicles are more expensive but last twice as long, and can add capacity more easily). Also running more buses to match the frequency and capacity of rail incurs more driver hours. In the US driver wages and benefits are probably a much higher proportion of the operating costs than in Latin America. In addition most of the planning and engineering for rail-quality BRT is going to be just as costly. In the US adding all the costs, BRT may still be cheaper, but not the complete blow-out implied by the graph above. Which leads to the situation described above where opponent will strip out all the “bells and whistles”.

  5. “We can’t be religious about modes”. Interesting way to put it. Some of us are “religious”, in that we will work zealously to get railways built, but wouldn’t lift a finger for a busway. “Real transit systems are railways” but the “Road to Hell is paved with asphalt” and (this is a direct quote dating back to Oct. 1951) “Buses are for poor people.”

  6. Perhaps the greatest reason that BRT hasn’t been embraced in the United States is that no American metropolitan area has embraced the system wholeheartedly. In every execution thus far, it’s been a component of a larger system, or a basic bus upgrade, or an Express Bus with BRT features. I’d love to see the metro that says “BRT is the cornerstone of our overall transit plan,” and really go for it.

    I think BRT has the most potential in one of the top 10 metropolitan statistical areas that has minimally used transit, or poorly received rail transit, and yet, is at their limit regarding the amount of space left to give over to a ten-lane “local road.” South Florida, with it’s 5.6 million people and relative density, would make an ideal test case for a full, multi-county, comprehensive BRT deployment. Aside from the obvious need, the metropolitan statistical area is also highly grid-centric in its street layout, making deployment even easier.

    While I think there’s a place for BRT in more established cities, if they have a respected and used train-set at their core, all that will do is prove that BRT (and it’s derivatives,) can act to supplement the core, rather than act as a core system in and of itself. And what BRT must do in this country is demonstrate that a complete system can and will provide a strong mass transit benefit, especially where rail isn’t available nor politically viable.

  7. It’s interesting that the transit advisor talked about BRT planning as a subtractive process — I think of it as an additive one. BRT has many elements, and it’s beneficial for transit providers to implement as many features on as many lines as they can.

    Better bus features should be added everywhere. Transit riders in the U.S. get by with the bare minimum way too often: My morning bus stop is a patch of concrete (currently buried under a snowbank) with a signpost next to it, while my evening stop is a patch of dirt with a signpost next to it — and I live and work in a central city.

    I’m a big believer in frequent limited-stop and express bus service. Busy routes should have limited-stop variants which only stop at between one-quarter and one-half of the normal stops. That doesn’t require any exclusive lanes, yet can improve travel times significantly. If the faster buses can run frequently enough, any increased travel time due to larger walking distances can get effectively wiped out.

    I also don’t think it’s that hard to implement exclusive lanes where they are needed. Think of it as an in-progress construction project: use plastic bollards or jersey barriers to separate cars from buses. That can be implemented quickly and cheaply, and can easily be reconfigured if necessary. Traffic signals might be a problem, but a solvable one. Working like that could allow several configurations to be tested experimentally before choosing a particular layout to make permanent.

  8. Here in Los Angeles, the Orange Line BRT is at peak capacity during rush hour, years ahead of schedule. BRT doesn’t have the scalability of LRT so even though it’s capital cost is lower, you in essence get what you paid for. The focus of this article is on capital costs while in actuality here in the US what kills you are the operating costs because labor is much more expensive here than in the third world. And because rail has lower operating costs for higher passenger loads, it always will make more sense here for medium or high density regions. And yes, BRT is too vulnerable to devaluation. Another issue is that the buses chew up the pavement, the Orange Line has already had to repave. This is a problem for cities like LA that have poor street maintenance where major arterials haven’t been repaved in decades. The street in the Bogota picture actually looks to be in very good condition.

  9. It’s generally possible to get a BRT-“lite” up and running fairly quickly and inexpensively, but the cost savings get eaten up when you consider that rail equipment lasts much longer than buses, and rail operational expenses are generally less as well.

  10. I like Aaron’s idea, and Miami may be a good place to start, but don’t they already have a single rail line?

    But what about targeting a big medium city in the the Midwest. It would be great to find a small ‘c’ conservative leader who would embrace comprehensive BRT. As cost effective public transit.

  11. Mulad,

    the problem with exclusive lane implementation is political not technical. One more note, don’t forget Enrique Penalosa (major of Bogota) famous story about getting a hwy expansion plan from an international engineering firmbut being able to point to very very low car ownership as low justification for that plan, changing gears to BRT. like it or not most US mayors are not in the same position(except Bloomberg)

  12. The difference that is immediately notable with BRT is the poorer ride quality. A safely maintained railway is always a far smoother ride than even a well maintained BRT system. With the rate that buses hurt pavement, the ride quality then deteriorates rapidly.

    Yes, rails need to be trued, but this is less often and only requires a rail truing car rather than the heavy contruction equipment that repaving requires.

    There ARE rubber tired systems (peoplemovers at airports, etc.) that have a relatively smooth ride, but these have fixed guideways (unlike almost every BRT implementation) and they run lighter vehicles that do not chew up the concrete track. BRT buses are still build to crashworthy standards, which means they’re a lot heavier.

    Even then, peoplemovers sway noticably more than a rail vehicle on track that is well serviced.

    IMHO BRT is a poor way out, and in the US politicians tend to like having busways in order to convert them later into lanes open to general traffic.

  13. The lovely thing about Rail Transit is that its Right-of-Way rarely gets morphed into an HOV lane (El Monte “Busway”) or an extra parking lane for delivery trucks (NYCMTA’s new BRT) nor does it often require one-off expensive-to-replace equipment (Las Vegas Irisbus, Seattle and Boston Dual-Mode Trolleybus).

    And I can write on the train.

    I can barely stand up on what passes for BRT in my city.

  14. This paragraph…

    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.

    … misses the key point. The cheapness of BRT operations in the developing world is the result of low wage rates that a wealthy country like the US can’t and shouldn’t match. Latin American systems can inspire but don’t show the way.

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