Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Transportation: The Rapid Expansion of Bus Rapid Transport



The concept of bus rapid transit (BRT) is not new, but in the past decade urban planners began to focus on it as a way of increasing transportation efficiency and getting cars off the road in highly congested cities. And they are increasingly turning to Latin America—the cradle of BRT— for ideas that work.

While there is no single definition for BRT, the systems generally involve dedicated and separate bus lanes, permanent stations similar to those of rail transportation, longer distances between stops, and the use of information technology to improve operational efficiency. The goal is to offer fast and low-cost urban mobility through a system that provides service approaching rail quality, but at a fraction of the cost to build and operate.

Curitiba, Brazil, became the first city in the world to implement dedicated bus lanes when 12 miles (19 kilometers) of service was introduced in 1974—an initiative upgraded to a fully functioning BRT in 1982.

Since then, 31 additional cities have launched BRT systems across Latin America, serving 17 million passengers daily. Systems include: El Trole in Quito, Ecuador (1995); TransMilenio in Bogotá, Colombia (2000); Metrobús in Mexico City, Mexico (2005); Metropolitano in Lima, Peru (2010); and Metrobús in Buenos Aires, Argentina (2011). Additional BRT operations are running in other cities in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Panama, and Venezuela.

The world has followed Latin America’s lead in BRT. As of January 2011, at least 118 cities globally—from Los Angeles to Istanbul to Guangzhou, China—have launched BRT systems, with 27 cities doing so in the past 10 years alone.

But while transportation planners increasingly look to BRT to reduce congestion, pollution and road fatalities at a time of reduced city budgets, its implementation in Latin American cities has not been without difficulties.

A Magic Bullet?

The main driver of BRT is its low price tag. Capital costs range from one-tenth to one-third of comparable rail systems. Systems also can be implemented in a short timeframe. For example, Macrobús in Guadalajara, Mexico, began operations in March 2009—just two years after the idea was proposed. Such quick turnaround makes these systems an attractive option for city mayors wishing to show results before the next election.

Across the region, BRT systems also get high marks for their performance. Bogotá moves 45,000 passengers per hour per direction at a speed of 16 miles (26 kilometers) per hour. Guayaquil boasts more than 13 passengers boarding its Metrovía buses per kilometer driven, and in Mexico City, 3,000 passengers ride each bus on an average day. High performance brings low operational costs.

BRTs also save time, emissions and accidents. For instance, with the implementation of TransMilenio, Bogotá enjoys an average commuter time savings of 31 percent. Add to that the 302,000-ton reduction in carbon dioxide per year and the 16 lives saved and 260 injuries prevented from road accidents. Similar results have been reported in other BRTs.

As the concept advances, interesting trends are emerging. BRTs can increasingly count on integrated citywide bus systems, improved processes for private-sector participation in operations, increased funding from national governments, and a rise in the number of bus manufacturers and technology providers. These changes are already being seen in countries like Brazil, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico.

New information systems that enhance bus quality and performance are also coming on line. For instance, passengers using select BRT systems are now able to plan their route online and to receive real-time information about bus arrivals on their cell phones. At the same time, global positioning systems and advanced control systems are improving system reliability.

But challenges remain for BRT implementation.

First, there is the political hurdle. A mayor needs to be firmly committed to the concept. Inevitably, detractors and opponents—some of them quite powerful politically and economically, such as private bus operators and car users—will emerge. In Quito, Santiago and Bogotá, private bus owners and operators—afraid they would be pushed out of their routes by the new systems—staged protests against the local BRT.

Bogotá car owners—organized by community and business groups—blocked the dedicated bus lanes in the Carrera Séptima BRT corridor to protest the reduction in traffic lanes available for private use. In every case, strong leadership in the mayor’s office and special provisions that allowed existing groups to be part of the new programs preempted opposition.

The second difficulty is institutional, both in the public and private sectors. The public sector needs to develop new institutions and attract a labor force to manage and work on these relatively complicated and technical systems. For its part, the private sector must develop formal companies with the capacity to retain and train drivers, mechanics and operational personnel.

Finally, cities need to find new revenue sources to support construction and maintenance of BRT infrastructure, such as transfers from state or national governments,  new taxes, bonds or privatizations.

One key decision remains: should  governments provide subsidies for students, the elderly and the poor so that they can use the more expensive BRT system? Santiago and São Paulo subsidize public transportation riders, including those who use the BRT. In Quito and Guayaquil the system offers discounted fares for students, elderly and the handicapped, using the revenue from their overall fare collections.

But subsidies largely remain out of the question, since systems typically operate on tight budgets that rely on the revenues generated by user fares.

Other issues seen in BRT systems across Latin America and other developing countries include lack of maintenance, insufficient user education, low quality of service, high occupancy levels, and safety and security concerns. These issues are mostly the result of institutional and financial constraints and are not intrinsic to the BRT concept.

But still, overcoming these issues is critical for the future of BRT systems and will only come with political leadership, adequate funding levels and good planning and management.

A Promising Future

BRT operations will continue to grow, with innovation and adaptation of existing models in cities around the world. But progressive policies and greater knowledge sharing are still needed to address present and future challenges.

One initiative, the Asociación Latinoamericana de Sistemas Integrados y BRT (SIBRT) established in 2010, provides a forum for agencies to share experiences on how to foster BRT system development. In addition, the Center of Excellence in BRT, a research institution established in Chile in 2010, seeks to advance best practices in BRT design and implementation.

These types of new forums offer an important space to address critical issues, such as high occupancy levels, which must be resolved for the BRT model to become an increasingly important transit alternative in a budget-constrained environment.

Urban areas must find new solutions to traffic. With the right tweaks to its BRT systems, Latin America can be a model for transportation planners.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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