Lessons and new directions as bus rapid transit turns 40

Walter Hook, CEO of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP/ flickr/ CC)

Compared with other cities in South America, Buenos Aires is a bit late to the bus rapid transit party. But its new BRT system on the city’s iconic Avenida 9 de Julio makes a powerful statement about transit, cars and how to think about urban mobility these days. That’s why Citiscope featured it as our urban innovation this week.

The new BRT is also one reason why Buenos Aires won this year’s Sustainable Transit Award. Walter Hook is the CEO of one of the international organizations behind that award, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. He’s also one of the world’s leading experts on BRT and the co-author of the Bus Rapid Transit Planning Guide. I caught up with him last week to find out more about what’s happening with BRT around the world. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Christopher Swope: It’s been 40 years since Curitiba pioneered the bus rapid transit concept, yet it still seems brand new to much of the world. Where are we in the arc of the BRT story?

Walter Hook: Technologies go through periods of innovation and then they sort of take off at a certain point. I think the BRT field is still changing pretty quickly. Even if you look just at Curitiba, you’ll find that what was implemented roughly 40 years ago was only a few elements of what’s come to be known as the gold standard of bus rapid transit.

What Curitiba implemented that long ago was the exclusive bus lanes. And they also changed the zoning to allow for higher density development along the radial busway corridors. But they didn’t implement the off-board fare collection and tubular stations until the late ’80s or early ’90s.

And then there was a lack of any innovation from the early ’90s until TransMilenio opened in Bogotá in 2001. It was TransMilenio that proved that bus rapid transit could reach speeds and capacity levels competitive with metro systems, but at a fraction of the cost.

That technological breakthrough really changed the game internationally in terms of which cities could afford mass transit. So if you look across the world, what you’re finding is the countries and cities that had some pretty significant financial constraints tended to go for bus rapid transit. Even in the United States for instance, it wasn’t the rapidly growing West Coast cities like Seattle or Portland which have pretty robust economies, it was the Rust Belt city of Cleveland that built the best system in the United States. And it was because they didn’t have a prayer of coming up with the state and local tax revenues to build a light-rail system.

A similar situation happened in India in the city of Ahmedabad, because it was controlled by the party of the Hindu Nationalists, there was no way they’d get the money from the national government, which is under the Congress Party. So they had to look for lower-cost solutions. And they ended up building the best bus rapid transit system in India, again costing a fraction of the cost of what the Delhi metro cost, but at a very equivalent quality of service and speed.

We’ve seen that kind of story replicated a lot around the world.

Q: What projects now speak to where this movement is headed?

A: The next round of innovation was the Guangzhou BRT system that opened in 2010. It was next-generation in the sense that the services on TransMilenio and in Curitiba are what we would call a “trunk and feeder” service. It’s very similar to a light-rail system. If you built tracks up the exclusive bus lanes, the services wouldn’t look that different.

What Guangzhou did is they built the exclusive trunk BRT infrastructure, but the services that use it continue on into mixed traffic without requiring passengers to transfer. Cali, Colombia and Johannesburg also did this. That ends up saving a lot of money because you don’t have to build transfer terminals and it means people don’t have to get off the bus and change to another bus. So that’s a direction that most of the newer systems are moving towards.

Q: Your organization has these different standards of BRT — gold, silver and bronze. What’s that all about?

A: The BRT standard, which you can download from our website, lays it out with a great deal of care. But there are certain elements which we consider basic bus rapid transit. And that means dedicated lanes — ​a dedicated right of way. It means enclosed bus stations where you pay to enter the station rather than paying when you get on the bus. And the platform of the bus station needs to be level with the floor of the bus, like you have in a metro system where you can roll on or roll off if you were in a wheelchair or stroller. It means giving the busway priority at intersections. These are the critical elements of gold standard bus rapid transit.

And then you’ve got other design elements which the best systems also have. The very best systems have passing lanes inside the dedicated bus lanes. And the reason for that is you can then introduce express buses into the same dedicated infrastructure using the same stations. That’s a critical advantage of bus rapid transit over light rail is you can introduce express buses.

Q: The new system in Buenos Aires on Avenida 9 de Julio doesn’t have all of those elements but still won the Sustainable Transit Award. Why did it win?

A: Well Buenos Aires does have passing lanes, so it has very high capacity and multiple services. Buenos Aires also pedestrianized a large section of its city center. It’s also built a whole lot of very high quality bike lanes. It’s introduced bike sharing. It’s embarked on a major city-wide on-street parking reform. There weren’t really parking meters in most of the city. We give the Sustainable Transport Award to cities that have made changes on a number of fronts, usually not just one.

Q: Most of the cities I’m hearing you talk about are in Latin America or China. Is that where BRT is growing fastest now?

A: China has gone through two waves. When TransMilenio opened, China got excited about BRT and thought that all it meant was to paint a bunch of bus lanes on the street. So they went out and built a bunch of things that were really badly designed that didn’t actually help people.

It took very heavy intervention on our part to work with the city authorities in Guangzhou for almost five years to get their engineers trained to actually make a system that was really good quality. And one or two other systems opened up that were pretty good also. The system in Jinan. Now there’s another good system in Lanzhou that we designed and just opened. So there’s now becoming a critical mass, a second wave of BRTs in China that are much better quality than the first wave. We’ve got Tianjin, Wuhan, and Yichang, three big cities all poised to open BRTs in the next two years that will be of very good quality. So I think we’re going to see a very rapid acceleration of BRT in China.

India is moving a little slower. But we’ve got new systems in Surat about to open, Indore just opened, Rajkot just opened, Pune is about to open this year. So India is moving a little slower but also a lot of kilometers are coming.

Colombia of course was replicated fastest because they’re all right next to TransMilenio. So after Bogotá we saw BRTs open in Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Cartagena is supposed to open. So Colombia really took off.

Mexico has a lot of new ones. Monterrey just opened a system. Mexico City has already opened five lines of BRT and it’s actually a bigger system now than Bogotá. And they’re planning to build another two or three corridors under the new mayor.

South Africa, they’re now on phase three in Johannesburg. Cape Town has finished a corridor and there’s corridors planned that are pretty far along in Randburg and Ekurhuleni. Probably other systems are going to open in South Africa.

We’ve got one about to open in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. They’re almost done with construction, so  in 2015 that one will open. That promises to be the best one in Africa.

Q: I don’t hear you talking much about North America or Europe. Why is that?

A: In North America, they’re on the cusp of a pretty good system in downtown Chicago. And there’s a second corridor we were hoping would reach gold standard in Chicago on Ashland. But recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has gotten beat up politically because of crime and the teacher’s strike and he’s gotten more timid. And so he’s sort of pushed a couple of the more aggressive BRT proposals to after the next election.

San Francisco is going to build maybe 5 miles of pretty good BRT. It’s going to be good but not great. But because of the very encumbered community participation process, things tend to take forever, so we’re looking at like 2018.

Boston has a very aggressive BRT planning program going on but it’s probably not going to be 2018 until we see any infrastructure.

It’s harder in the U. S. because we don’t have the public transit ridership that we have in some of our other countries. Taking that road real estate for bus lanes is easier when there’s 10,000 bus passengers an hour than when there’s 500.

Q: And why not Europe?

A: They’ve tended to opt mostly for rail-based systems because they can afford them. France has two very high quality BRTs, one in Rouen and one in Nantes. And Cambridge in England has a good guided BRT. And there’s standard busways that don’t quite qualify as BRT in various parts of the Netherlands and Germany. But Europe mainly hasn’t caught on because the really rich corridors tended to be built as rail just because their tax base is so much richer than a lot of the rest of the world.

Q: In the U. S., at least, BRT is often seen as less sexy as rail. Do you encounter that bias around the world?

A: Yeah, it’s a problem everywhere. People don’t necessarily design BRT to a high quality standard and as a result they get mediocre systems, because they think they can do it on the cheap. And it doesn’t occur to them that they could do a really good quality BRT.

But more cities are realizing that’s not a bad play. Chicago’s central Loop is going to have a few really beautiful stations with all the features, and that should seed the public’s appetite for it. Cleveland is pretty good. It’s silver standard, probably the best in the U. S.

Q: Transit-oriented development is another thing that a lot of people say rail does better at. You often hear about developers preferring fixed rail infrastructure because it can’t be moved as easily as a bus route. 

A: The people who are making those comments are talking about bus improvements that aren’t full bus rapid transit. If you build a full bus rapid transit line there’s pretty extensive fixed infrastructure. There’s stations, there’s permanent structures in the middle of the road and dedicated road dividers and other infrastructure.

In Cleveland, BRT leveraged $5.8 billion of real estate development along that mass-transit spine. Which is more real estate development than any other surface mass-transit project in the U. S., with the exception of Portland’s light rail.

It turns out other things matter just as much to the developers as the transit piece does. The empirical proof is there that if you have built a bronze-or-better-quality BRT system, it leverages as much transit-oriented development as a rail-based system.

The thing that makes it confusing is that the transit-oriented development impacts are mostly driven by other things. They’re driven by whether the corridor passed through a site with a bit of development potential, whether the government intervened to do proper land assembly, rezoning and other things. There’s lots of light-rail systems all over the country that didn’t stimulate any transit-oriented development at all. There are also some BRTs that didn’t. That’s because the city didn’t do much to promote the sites, or the sites didn’t have much inherent development potential.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Specifically in the U. S., the real question is to what extent is NIMBYism making it impossible for us to develop higher quality bus rapid transit systems? When you’ve got a light-rail line going, you’ve got big money behind the project. And big money will buy a pretty good advertising campaign. If you’re sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into a project, you’ve got a lot of money to buy public opinion.

If cities want to do a busway, what ends up happening is they say, OK, it’s a bus improvement so we’ll go out to the community and ask them whether they think drivers should be allowed to make left hand turns on the corridor or not. Whereas if it’s a light-rail project they might say, well, you can’t make a left turn here — there’s a rail system going through.

You end up with BRT systems getting watered down. All those little things when you make a compromise here and a compromise there, you end up with something that fails to deliver benefits for people.


Transforming Buenos Aires’ most iconic street 

Photos: Changes are more than BRT

Q&A: Transportation expert Walter Hook on the state of BRT


Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.