What Bus Rapid Transit Is and What It Isn’t

Klaus Philipsen
Sustainable Cities Collective
July 27, 2015

Indy connect vision of BRT

It isn’t too often that mayors of North American cities travel to South America to admire urban planning models. There is one notable exception, and that is Curitiba, Brazil, where forty years ago a new vision for urban mobility was created, revamping the private bus chaos that dominates many South American big cities.

I like the Curitiba example especially, for it was invented by an architect who, once he was elected mayor, immediately began to think outside the box.

He watched the clogged major arteries leading in and out of his rapidly growing mega city, the foul air and the many carless urban poor that couldn’t get anywhere, and decided that something needed to be done that was fast, relatively cheap and system-wide. Unlike the one shiny subway line that Chile’s Santiago boasts, he gave his Curitiba a whole system of fast buses that operate like trains all across town.

More or less overnight. Nobody had seen such drastic repossession of streets before. Even the buses were unheard of with their double articulation (two accordion elements) and some extra doors. Jamie Lerner and his creative transit planners left nothing untouched that could make the good old bus more efficient: of course the buses had their own lanes and signals (many other cities had that already in place, at least sporadically).

But nobody had before tried bus boarding from elevated platforms, or selling bus tickets in advance of boarding, restricting entrance to the waiting areas to those with tickets like a subway station, elegantly eliminating bus stop loitering. (At the time low floor buses didn’t exist yet and lots of time was wasted with people stepping up and down the three steep steps or deploying ramps for handicap access).

Thus in Curitiba, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was born, and North American transit planners took notice, mostly, though, for the wrong reasons, namely the lower cost compared to rail.

Curitiba BRT bus station with boarding tubes and custom double articulated buses

BRT is Bus Rapid Transit – a high quality, high capacity rapid transit system that, in many ways, improves upon traditional rail transit systems. Vehicles travel in exclusive lanes, avoiding traffic. Passengers walk to comfortable stations, pay their fares in the station, and board through multiple doors like a train. Service is frequent and fast. Vehicles can be powered by hybrid electric or clean diesel (source).

Much too much in love with the automobile, North American planners usually strip off some major features before they consider implementation here. For example, the consideration of full network implementation. What we call BRT here amounts to false advertising. Sometimes, cities do little else than add the word “rapid” to existing service, like with Rapid Bus, which isn’t the same as BRT.

One thought on “What Bus Rapid Transit Is and What It Isn’t

  1. Reblogged this on El carrer i la ciutat and commented:
    Qué és i que no és el Bus Rapid Transit.

    No és molt freqüent que els alcaldes de les ciutats d’Amèrica del Nord viatgen a Amèrica del Sud per admirar els models de planificació urbana. Hi ha una excepció notable, i que és Curitiba, Brasil, on fa quaranta anys es va crear una nova visió de la mobilitat urbana, la modernització del caos bus privat que domina moltes grans ciutats d’Amèrica del Sud.

    M’agrada l’exemple de Curitiba especialment, ja que va ser inventat per un arquitecte que, una vegada que va ser elegit alcalde, immediatament va començar a pensar fora de la caixa…


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