Catching the bus to the future

3 December 2012

Buses-only lanes and other BRT efficiencies in Guangzhou, China, cleared past congestion. China has 13 BRT systems, with 16 more under development. Photo by Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP, all rights reserved

This article appears in the latest issue of IEA Energy: The Journal of the International Energy Agency.

By Tali Trigg

Tight budgets and a rapidly warming world have governments scrambling for technology solutions that meet the energy demand of a larger and more urban population. Many cities around the world have found an answer in buses, as an innovative re-imagination of a low-tech mass transit option, to ease the modern problems of increased congestion and pollution.

From South America and now dramatically in China, the quiet revolution of bus rapid transit (BRT) reconfigures traditional bus systems and combines them with innovative land-use policies to fashion an integrated, cost-effective and highly efficient mode of transportation.

BRT systems combine speedy, articulated buses with rapid boarding and dedicated lanes to create very efficient transport systems with high load factors. Besides fast operational speeds, BRT systems have good frequencies of service (a bus shows up almost every 30 seconds in Mexico City and Bogotá, Colombia). The accompanying unique marketing identity has been shown to increase ridership by 10% to 15%. They are budget-friendly and usually politically feasible, unlike many other major infrastructure projects, which are expensive and often disrupt the urban sphere.

BRT systems were developed in Curitiba, Brazil, in the mid-1970s and then won bigger international attention with a successful implementation in 2000 in Bogotá that resulted in nearly half of commuters there taking the bus, compared with less than 10% just ten years before the programme was launched.

There are more than 140 BRT systems operating worldwide today, up from about 20 in 2000 and nearly 100 by the end of 2010. The recent surge comes as the original Latin American locus of BRT shifts to China. There are 13 systems already in operation in China, with 16 more under development. The two-year-old system in Guangzhou is already considered to be one of the most efficient in the world, outperforming many metro, or urban underground rail, systems in moving passengers per hour per direction (pphpd), the common term of measurement for bus and metro passenger flows.

The frontline of the BRT revolution may be shifting to China, but Latin America continues to innovate. Bogotá is looking at battery electric buses from BYD Corporation of China, while Argentina just started its first system, in Buenos Aires. Mexico is looking to expand its BRT success in Mexico City to several other cities. And Brazil is specifically focusing on BRT for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Not just a South-to-South export

This innovation is not merely a South-to-South expansion, but also has taken hold in cities from Cleveland, Ohio – where it raised ridership by 60% in four years – to Caen, France. One of the earliest “Northern” adopters of BRT was Ottawa, Ontario, whose BRT system started in 1983 and today serves 10 000 pphpd. Other star performers in North America include Chicago, Illinois; Las Vegas, Nevada; Nashville, Tennessee; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Montgomery Country, Maryland, a suburban area near Washington, DC. All of these regions plan to expand and enhance their BRT systems.

The innovativeness of BRT is shown by not only the rate of its adoption, but also the geographic diversity of its implementation. From Rio de Janeiro to Eugene, Oregon, and from Jakarta to Ahmadabad, India, the concept and reinvigoration of public transit is wallet-friendly, pollution-reducing, and easy and comfortable enough to tantalise new riders to adopt it. Finally, it can be planned, budgeted and implemented within one political term, a powerful alchemy for a transit innovation trying to make a name for itself.
Europe has a different approach altogether, developing an alternative, Buses with High Level of Service (BHLS), which adopted some of the features of BRT, including a system focus as well as a high level of comfort and good performance. Due to the higher urban density of European cities and the existing proliferation of metros and tramways, BRT was rarely imported whole-cloth (Ankara, Turkey, being a possible exception); instead, ideas from BRT were incorporated into existing systems, and the idea of BHLS was born.

Old-style vehicle’s high-tech makeover

BRT’s efficiencies include levelised boarding – avoiding steps by making the platform the same height as the bus, much like many metro trains – to speed the exit and entrance of passengers. Another example is the use of an intelligent transport system (ITS) that counts passengers, tracks vehicles and gives signal priority to BRT vehicles. An ITS allows for better analysis of the system performance, which translates into better service and better real-time information for the passenger.

BRT systems are not the only recent change in bus transit. More intercity coaches feature Wi-Fi and other amenities that make them more comfortable. In fact, intercity buses have been the fastest-growing transportation mode in the United States for three years running. A 2010 study from DePaul University in Chicago shows that the overall rate of US growth for curbside bus services from 2009 to 2010 was at least 33%.

Governments are realising that light rail and metro systems are not always their best option, and such projects are being scaled back around the world because of relatively high costs and the global financial crisis. In their place, urban buses are increasingly attractive, as BRT and other technological developments help bus transit spread more widely than ever before. 
Finally, minibuses continue to provide a flexible transport solution in much of the  Southern Hemisphere.

Efficient use of land and technology

Land use is the component that fundamentally ties in the system efficiencies and ends up making BRT so efficient. 
But what does system efficiency look like? Think of Japan’s high-speed rail system. When policy makers were considering how to make the trains go faster, they approached the question with a systems framework and realised that the limiting factor was not the trains but the tracks. The Japanese then set out to level ground where possible, avoid any crossings and lay as much uninterrupted straight track as possible. More than the world-renowned bullet trains themselves, this broader approach led to the system efficiencies associated with the service.

In that same fashion, BRT systems harness whole systems thinking to deliver a mobility solution that can actually benefit from urban density. BRT can symbiotically integrate into the city and evolve along with a changing city. As the number of BRT systems worldwide increases, so do the urban corridors they serve. For example, Leeds, England, and Beijing are two cities adding capacity as their BRT systems mature.

The key trend running in parallel to BRT system uptake is the increased urbanisation of the world. According to United Nations estimates, about 50% of the world lives in cities today, and that share should rise to 75% in 2050 – a demographic revolution. Increased urbanisation very likely will exacerbate congestion and pollution, unless cities make sustainable and long-term decisions that address this demographic shift. Urbanisation is paramount for transportation since public transit systems are viable only with density and the resulting high ridership potential. BRT could become part and parcel of an increasingly appealing path towards efficient and sustainable cities, transporting citizens safely, comfortably and speedily.

What not long ago was the most maligned urban transit solution, bus systems  may come to redefine the spaces of hundreds of cities clamouring for a solution against increasingly urbanised space and concomitant pollution and congestion. Watch this space for a low-tech path towards sustainability.  

Tali Trigg became an IEA Energy Analyst in 2010. He specialises in transportation technology policy, with an emphasis on smart growth, electric vehicles (spearheading the Agency’s work on the Electric Vehicles Initiative) and bus-centred rapid transit.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) produces IEA Energy, but all analysis and views contained in the journal are those of individual authors and not necessarily those of the IEA Secretariat or IEA member countries, and are not to be construed as advice on any specific issue or situation.