Bus Rapid Transit – Sustainable Solutions for Cash-Strapped Cities

As urban populations grow, city planners need sustainable mass transit solutions that save, but don’t cost, the Earth. Could Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) hold the key?

First implemented in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1974, BRT has experienced a growth spurt in recent years. Today, along with improved bus-way systems, it moves over 32 million people in 200 cities around the world.

BRT involves a series of measures to improve speed, frequency and efficiency so busses approach a similar level of service to a tram, including a dedicated, physically separate lane; prioritization in traffic management; green wave signaling; increased capacity stations (both passenger and vehicle) with platform-level boarding; and pre-paid ticketing.

Foremost among the benefits are cost and time-to-implementation. Subways or trams provide faster, higher-capacity services and are preferable for high-density thoroughfares. However, BRT is relatively cheap and simple to install and can be implemented in stages—either from zero or by modifying an existing route—according to budget or existing infrastructure limitations. Obviously, the more elements included, the greater the efficiency.

Reduced cost also equals reduced risk, allowing authorities to test the waters. In France, for example, the bus à haut niveau de service has created demand for services in certain areas prior to greater investment in, say, tramways. Also, since BRT is unconfined by rails, it can continue in mixed traffic at the end of its line, an extension which in time could be upgraded to BRT.

However, it’s developing regions like South American and Asia—with limited car ownership and transit budgets—which have pioneered BRT and seen perhaps the greatest benefits: 80% of travelers—around 2 million passengers per day—ride Curitiba’s BRT; Rio’s TransOeste corridor cut inner-city travel times from 1 hour 40 mins to 45 mins; and in Mexico City, reduced travel times should translate into US$141 million in regained economic productivity.

There are also benefits for public health: Latin American streets with BRT have seen a 40% reduction in fatalities and injuries, and Mexico City stands to save an estimated US$ 4.5 million in recovered workdays lost to illness, four new cases of chronic bronchitis and two deaths per year.

Of course, fully realizing the benefits requires attitude and behavior shifts. For instance, fixed-route/scheduling and off-board ticketing may be a novelty to passengers in some regions. Also, urban planners need to rethink development around transit, rather than the reverse, and commit to prioritizing BRT over other modes where they coexist. As public transit consultant Jarret Walker notes, the key element is physical separation from other traffic. Otherwise: “Many, many US BRT projects start out with exclusive lanes, but then make too many compromises along the way. In the worst cases, they end up as a bunch of nice infrastructure but little or no improvement in travel times.”

Coordinated, high-occupancy public transport is always preferable to move large number of passengers in high-density areas. However, an opportunity now exists to bridge the gap with low-occupancy transit, placing this at the service of BRT through on-demand shuttles providing first-mile, last-mile connectivity. In addition, particularly in developing areas, Shotl’s technology could be used to digitize informal, unregulated microtransit, improving safety and reliability and converting it from competitor to collaborator.

There is obviously no transit silver bullet, but BRT offers an excellent, sustainable compromise between capacity, speed and cost. And if the potential for public-private partnerships with mircotransit can be harnessed, we could see even greater uptake in the future.

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