The Cleveland HealthLine is a great example of BRT in the United States, spurring billions of dollars of investment along the corridor. But how come not many people know about it? Photo by Center for Neighborhood Technology.

The Cleveland HealthLine is a great example of BRT in the United States, spurring billions of dollars of development along the corridor. But why don't many people know about it? Photo by Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is often the most feasible, quickly implemented and cost-effective way to improve mobility in the United States, concluded a distinguished panel of transport experts at this morning’s event at The Brookings Institution, “Latin America’s Bus Rapid Transit Boom—Lessons for Improving U.S. Public Transportation.”

The event, organized by the Latin America Initiative, invited guests to discuss lessons learned from some of the widely regarded best practices of BRT in Latin America and their applicability in the U.S., where rapid population growth, increasing congestion and shrinking municipal and federal budgets present an urgent need to find appropriate transportation and infrastructure improvements.

Panelists included Marc Elrich, councilmember for Montgomery County, Maryland; Robert Puentes, senior fellow at Brookings; Sam Zimmerman, urban transport advisor for The World Bank; and Dario Hidalgo, director of Research and Practice for EMBARQ (the producer of this blog). The discussion was facilitated by moderator Mauridio Cardenas, senior fellow and director of the Latin America Intiative at Brookings. The looming question: If BRT works so well in Latin America, how come we don’t see as many examples of it in the U.S.?

BUS RAPID TRANSIT BOOM

EMBARQ’s Dario Hidalgo gave an introductory presentation, “BRT: Made in Latin America,” on some of the global trends of BRT, highlighting examples of successful systems in Latin America. He recently compiled key indicators and status updates on major BRT systems around the world, showing that there are about 120 cities with BRT or bus corridors, with 97 of the cities launching their bus systems in just the last 10 years. Latin America, China and South Asia are leading this growth. (Click here to see a list of cities with BRT in operations, as well as a list of cities with BRT in planning or construction.) According to Hidalgo’s research:

The existing BRT and bus corridors comprise about 280 corridors, 4,300 kilometers, 6,700 stations and 30,000 buses, serving about 28 million passengers per day.

In 2010, 16 cities completed new systems—including 14 in the developing world—and seven cities expanded their current systems. As of January 2011, about 49 new cities are building systems, 16 cities are expanding their corridors, and 31 cities are in the initial planning stages. This impressive growth may be attributed in part to the successes of Curitiba, Brazil; Bogotá, Colombia; México City, Mexico; Istanbul, Turkey; Ahmedabad, India; and Guangzhou, China. These cities show low-cost, rapid implementation and high performance BRTs, with significant positive externalities.

In Latin America, alone, there are 32 cities with BRT, representing one quarter of the world’s total length of BRT corridors. These systems serve a whopping two-thirds of global BRT ridership, or 18 million people per day.

Like all stories about BRT, the starting point of this morning’s discussion began with a short history of Curitiba, Brazil, commonly known for being the birthplace of BRT. The city launched its first bus corridor in 1972 and expanded it into a high-level BRT system 10 years later, with features like off-board fare collection and multiple entryways onto the buses. In Curitiba, BRT became the “backbone of a very well-thought out and developed land use and transport plan,” Hidalgo said.

The success of Curitiba spread across the continent, inspiring other cities to build similar systems, like Transmilenio in Bogota, Colombia, which has the highest throughput of all cities with BRT, with 45,000 passengers per hour in each direction—a rare feat, even for rail corridors. In short, Bogota became like “Curitiba on steroids,” Hidalgo said, adapting to the conditions of an already built city with bigger transit needs. Bogota proved that it could reduce car use, while increasing biking and walking and maintaining the level of mass transit ridership. The results? A drastic reduction in traffic fatalities, lower emissions, less congestion and faster travel times.

WHY BRT?

“[BRT] is mainstream now; it’s not on the edge of what you do,” Hidalgo said. He provided a dozen examples of new BRT systems in Latin America, including cities like Sao Paulo, Brazil; Leon, Mexico; Pereira, Colombia; Santiago, Chile; and Guatemala City, Guatemala. The ridership on these systems is comparable to what some mass transit systems in the U.S. see in one day. Operational speeds average at about 20 kilometers per hour (potentially, this could be even higher, like in Istanbul, where the Metrobus BRT runs 40 kilometers per hour on expressways.) Capital costs are also relatively low, making the systems attractive for cash-strapped city budgets. What we’re seeing now is that “BRT is a feature or an aspiration of most Latin American cities and should be for the U.S.,” Hidalgo said.

However, BRT is not a cure-all and does not exist without some barriers, Hidalgo stressed. Often, they face rushed implementation, especially as politicians struggle to meet election deadlines. (Luckily, the flexibility of bus-based systems allows for them to adapt and improve over time, even after they’ve started operations.) There are also obstacles with tight financial planning. User fares on BRT are low, so the solution requires high occupancy rates, but that can make the passenger experience less than ideal. An advantage worth noting, however, is that the vehicles and operations of all BRT systems in Latin America, besides Santiago, are fully paid by user fares.

Brookings Maruicio Cardenas noted that BRT in Latin America goes beyond pavement and buses. “These are more than transit systems; these are cultural transformations,” providing an anecdote of a member of the Bogota City Council who got kicked out of office because his car unlawfully invaded a dedicated BRT busway. “The community does not tolerate that.”

OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME

The World Bank’s Sam Zimmerman noted several other impediments to BRT, particularly in the United States. For one, there are aggressive lobbies for rail, as well as aggressive lobbies against BRT and buses. Railway manufacturing and engineering companies also have a stake in making “big money” from rail projects, so often discredit bus systems. But even “traditional bus operations people” threaten support for BRT by simply making the case for better quality bus systems, which ironically gives rail lobbyists ammunition to claim that BRT is “just another bus.” Finally, there are the upwardly mobile politicians and transit officials who think the best thing for their reputation is to build a rail system or rail line extension. “How many mayors who want to be president are running on the basis of promoting a metro?” Zimmerman asked.

There are also many misconceptions and “myths” working against BRT. Among them: buses are slow, unreliable, polluting, noisy, uncomfortable and low-capacity. In the case of high-level BRT systems, this simply isn’t true. Part of the problem contributing to these myths is that BRT doesn’t have consistent branding or marketing, or even a common definition, which we’ve written about before. There may also be some racial or economic discrimination against bus systems, left over from a time period when people who rode the bus couldn’t afford any other choices.

Finally, there’s the notion that bus systems can’t be permanent, and therefore, aren’t appealing to real estate developers.  Howeever, this has been untrue in places like York, Ontario; Pittsburgh, Penn.; and Cleveland, Ohio, where there have been billions of dollars in public and private development around BRT stations. Of course, to truly spur development around BRT, there must be some supportive public policies, like “upzoning” or tax abatements. The argument of “impermanence” is itself a myth, according to Zimmerman. “It’s important to remember that BRT “is not a bus service; it’s an integrated system that includes stations, terminals and running ways,” he said. “We have to start thinking of BRT as a development tool, not just transportation.”

In the United States, there is an added obstacle to BRT at the federal level, among Federal Transit Administration staff, independent consultants, and local and regional authorities. The rigorous “alternatives analysis,” which forces planners to consider all transit options (not just their preferences) and the cost-effectiveness evaluations of transport projects are about to be eliminated. Part of the reason is that the process takes too long, Zimmermand said. Or, the evaluation criteria don’t always satisfy the particular stakeholders in question. “There is political pressre on the administration and Congress to dumb the process down to include foggy evaluation criteria,” Zimmerman said. “Land use and economic development are key issues, but there has to be be some kind of objective analysis of those effects.”

BRT IN THE ‘BURBS

Montgomery County’s Marc Elrich offered his experiences of generating support for BRT in Maryland as a concrete case study of how BRT might apply to the United States. The suburb of Washington, D.C. is home to 1 million people and boasts several “mini-cities” or nodes of high-density development, especially along metro corridors. The county experiences the same dismal rates of traffic congestion as big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. In response to these trends, based on an origin-destination study, the county has an aggressive plan for 120 miles of transit corridors to connect residential communities to job centers.

Elrich, who ran his election campaign based on “no growth without infrastructure,” realized there was no way to “build our way out of this problem” with traditional roads. When searching for alternatives, he admitted that he was biased towards rail. But he quickly realized that rail solutions wouldn’t be feasible for his county, considering the cost (too expensive) and capacity (a quick Google search on “bi-modal rail vehicles,” for example, showed an example in Japan that could accommodate only 25 passengers.)

The most convincing argument Elrich found for BRT was by presenting to his skeptics the cost-effective of all the other options, including light rail, the county’s proposed Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), busways and rapid bus. “Rail-like vehicles,” as he described BRT, proved to be the most attractive option, and it showed that it could adequately meet the county’s transport demand. “You don’t have to love buses, but what else are you going to do?” Elrich asked.

MODE NEUTRAL

While BRT is attractive for many reasons, it still is only one option. Brookings’ Robert Puentes urged the audience to be open-minded about all types of transportation ”We can’t be religious about these different modes; it’s just not that helpful,” he said. “We can’t have ‘the bus guys’ and ‘transit people’ and ‘highway guys.’…We have to think about this more as an integrated system, as opposed to what particular mode is best overall, because all of these things matter as part of a larger metropolitan plan.”

As Hidalgo said, “It’s not important if it’s a steel tire or a rubber tire; what’s important is the service to the people.”