The magic bus

The *New York Times* turns its attention to one of my favoritest topics: bus rapid transit, and in particular the astounding system in Bogotá, Colombia that has been so successful in reducing traffic and the associated emissions that it has qualified for hundreds of millions of dollars in carbon credits.

Think of bus rapid transit (BRT) as an above-ground subway system on rubber wheels. All of the things that make subways relatively fast and convenient — dedicated lanes free of cars, stop signs and traffic lights; enclosed stations that allow passengers to pay before boarding; elevated platforms that enable riders to enter vehicles at multiple points without climbing stairs — all apply to BRT as well.

Citizens of Bogotá use their Transmilenio system for an average of 1.6 million rider per day, making it a more effective transit system than all but the biggest subways in the world. Part of the success of Transmilenio lies in its extensive route system. Along the outskirts of the city, green feeder buses bring riders to the main lines. Critically, these feeder buses are free, eliminating waiting times to board.

The main lines run along dedicated, separated lanes that have been carved out of Bogotá wide boulevards. The system employs a number of other nice features, such as a computerized central dispatch system that can make routing adjustments in real time, integrated bicycle parking, swipe cards for payment, and a fleet of diesel buses that replaced thousands of older, highly inefficient mini-buses — to say nothing of countless cars trips.

Best of all, BRT is cheap and easy to build — at least when compared to light rail or subways. The original system in Bogotá took three years to go from conception to launch, and was delivered at a fraction of the per-mile cost of a subway line.

Although the *Times* article does a pretty good job of describing Transmilenio, it also advances the extremely puzzling claim that BRT is mostly appropriate for the developing world, not wealthy nations like the United States:

> But bus rapid transit systems are not the answer for every city. In the United States, where cost is less constraining, some cities, like Los Angeles, have built B.R.T.’s, but they tend to lack many of the components of comprehensive systems like TransMilenio, like fully enclosed stations, and they serve as an addition to existing rail networks.

Cost is less constraining in the U.S.? Here’s an interactive map of 94 American communities facing transit service cutbacks and fare hikes as a result of the current funding crisis. Meanwhile, the federal highway fund is perennially on the verge of bankruptcy, a scenario playing out on the state level as well.

Note that the “failed” system in Los Angeles isn’t actually BRT. Because BRT doesn’t have a formal technical definition, a lot of slightly spiffed-up bus services try to assume the mantle. But unless a system combines an number of critical features — most importantly, dedicated lanes and an off-board payment system — it will be plagued by the same problems that conspire to make bus travel a second-tier option in most cities.

BRT has huge potential in the developed world, even in already transit-rich areas like New York City. As Walter Hook, Executive Director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, notes, “If you look across the globe, the only cities that have actually shifted people from private cars back into public transit are cities that have built bus rapid transit.”

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