Transport innovation of the week: Bus rapid transit

The ‘bus rapid transit’, or BRT, was first developed in Curitiba in Brazil. It’s a public transport system that treats buses a bit like trains, giving them dedicated bus lanes and stations where people can buy their tickets and then board from a platform. Curitiba’s came into service in 1974 and is used by 85% of the city’s residents. Plenty of other cities have copied the idea since, and BRT systems now operate in over 200 cities around the world. Here’s one in Belo Horizonte:

There are a number of advantages. Buses travel on their own lanes and don’t get snarled up in traffic. People buy their tickets in advance at the station, so boarding is fast and there’s no delay as passengers pay the driver. The time savings from direct boarding and skirting the traffic make buses quick, reliable and efficient – and able to directly challenge cars as a mode of transport. They become an express service across town, and a better option than driving.

BRT systems are good for equality too. In a big developing world city, only the richest can afford to drive. High quality bus services prioritise the needs of the poor. Because buses pull into platforms, the whole network is accessible to wheelchair users too.

Finally, BRT systems are a whole lot cheaper than trams or light rail. Or at least they can be. My own local service runs on a guided busway, and the laying of concrete tracks makes it more expensive. But most BRT systems don’t use those.

Bus Rapid Transport is a 1970s idea, but it deserves a place in my transport innovation of the week series because it’s now possible to combine BRT infrastructure with electric vehicle technologies for truly low carbon transport. BRT systems are already better for the environment, because buses are one of the most sustainable forms of transport available. Great bus services can and do get people out of cars. But most of those buses are diesel, and that’s where the shift needs to happen.

Take the Sunway Line in Malaysia, the world’s first electric BRT. It opened in 2015, with electric buses gliding along an elevated bus route into Kuala Lumpur. It won’t be the last. Add in electric charging lanes, solar stations, wireless charging at bus stops and at traffic lights, and we’ll have a public transport system fit for the 21st century.


      1. Trams run on tracks, that’s the main difference with those. Trolleybuses have overhead wires, and there’s some crossover here. They could be part of a BRT system if it had dedicated bus lanes, priority at lights, platform boarding and off-board fares. The easiest thing is to consider it an express bus service.

  1. New York City’s attempt at this is the recently implemented Select Bus Service. You buy tickets on the sidewalks but, while the express stop service makes it faster than the regular busses on the same lines, there are no truly dedicated lanes and only one “platform” (the one at the Staten Island Ferry terminal at the beginning of the M15 line) that I know of.

    Interesting, I didn’t realize that the train I took in Kuala Lumpur years ago was really just an electric bus!!! Wow 🙂

    1. That sounds like a better bus service, but not a BRT just yet. The dedicated bus lanes are critical if you’re going to make buses faster than cars.

      Kuala Lumpur has trains too, so you may have actually been on a train! It’s just the one line that’s an electric BRT, and it’s pretty recent.

  2. It seems odd that, in that picture, there is a regular bus system running alongside the BRT lines. Also without the BRT I imagine the road might be a little less crowded… maybe mixed traffic with regular buses is the better option…

    1. Yes, that would be a local bus, whereas the BRT provides crosstown transit and express services.

      It is tempting to imagine how many cars you could fit on those lanes, and in some places bus lanes have been removed to make way for cars. But if you count the number of people instead of the number of vehicles, you may well find that there are more people on the bus lanes than the road in that picture.

      1. I think the point I was making here is that it is not eliminating the congestion that exists in the remaining roadway. As a bus user of course I would like to see my journey time reduced by not having to deal with congestion; as a pedestrian if I still have to deal with crossing multiple busy roads full of cars, I wonder if it is worth it. Plus I suppose the standing traffic produces far more wasteful emissions than moving traffic. As with the embedded emissions thing, BRT is wonderful if it reduces both car usage and congestion but if it doesn’t…

  3. Another idea I have is intercity BRT, and perhaps making use of existing infrastructure e.g. motorways and certain other highways. (Requires as few cars as possible, however, and I think maybe some of the lines might have to share with goods traffic, but as a way of making use of the vastly extended road network without having to build additional HS2 type railways.)

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