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Policy Review

Bus Rapid Transit : Lessons from Latin America [free access]

November 1, 2009

The past few years have seen a renewed interest in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) as a cost-effective and sustainable solution for better public transport in congested cities. Several new BRT systems have been put into operation in recent years in different parts of the world: Jakarta, Beijing, Istanbul, Sydney, and Lagos to name only a few. While some have been highly successful, others have faced challenges. Many more systems are being planned, designed or are under construction. Most of them have been modelled on the successful early examples from Latin America.


Brazil was the first country to introduce a BRT in the late ‘70s in the city of Curitiba, Parana. The system, called Rede Integrada de Transporte (RIT), with its modern bi-articulated buses put the city on the world map. Twenty years later, Bogota in Colombia and Quito in Ecuador implemented BRT systems, largely based on Curitiba’s RIT.


However, it was the instant success of Bogota’s TransMilenio system which primarily led to the surge of interest in BRT. Other Latin American cities followed suit - Goiania and Sao Paulo in Brazil, Guayaquil in Ecuador, Guatemala City in Guatemala, and Mexico City and Leon in Mexico. Colombia now has two more operational systems: MIO in Cali and Megabus in Pereira.


BRT systems have succeeded in reducing travel time and offering greater comfort and safety for passengers. Moreover, most of them are financially self-sufficient and need no government subsidies. The policies, institutional and operational measures undertaken by city governments have contributed to the success of these Latin American BRT systems.  


Most of these systems are based on a public-private partnership (PPP). In general, a public entity is responsible for the planning and control aspects and for providing infrastructure (busways and stations), while operations and fare collection are provided by private companies through concession contracts.


However, contractual arrangements with private operators vary. In Curitiba and some other Latin American BRT systems, a monopoly of the former bus operators was allowed to take control of the new business. In Bogota, the new services were competitively tendered to four separate operating companies.


The performance of these companies is continually monitored against a set of performance indicators spelled out in their contracts. If they fail to meet the targets, they are fined.  


As a policy decision, the contracts with the private operators were structured in such a way that the operators were reasonably insulated from the demand risk, namely, that ridership being lower than anticipated. BRT operators are paid per km in Curitiba and Bogota which means they are paid a certain amount regardless of demand. This structure ensures that operating companies have a vested interest in maintaining good service and promoting the system in order to retain ridership.


In most cases, the PPP model has ensured financially sustainable BRT systems. Private control over operations shields the system somewhat from the political process. For instance, in Bogota, profits from the BRT system cannot be diverted directly to other public funds. The city government gets only about 4 per cent of the farebox revenue. It is allowed to reduce the passenger fare but operators then have to be compensated. Private operators are consequently protected against arbitrary tariff changes by the government.


Another important measure that ensured smooth implementation of the BRT systems in the region was involving former operators in the planning process and offering them the opportunity to be a part of the new system. This participatory approach helped to avoid protests and work stoppages.


An important challenge in implementing the BRT systems is sourcing finances for infrastructure development. In the Latin American cases, the financial resources came from fuel tax, local city revenues, credit from global and regional lending institutions such the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and CAF, and grants by the federal governments.


In order to popularise BRT, Bogota’s local administration launched a structural change in public transport conditions with a view to reduce the use of motorised transport. The measures included constructing pedestrian walkways and bikeways, imposing vehicle restrictions in peak periods, raising parking prices, and imposing day-long automobile bans. Proper urban planning, compatible with the new BRT systems, has been another contributing factor. This synergistic approach was possible due to the strong political will of the city governments.


Most Latin American BRT systems are very similar from a technical perspective as well, with operational features being regularly copied from Bogota’s TransMilenio and Curitiba’s RIT. The most common features include the feeder-trunk scheme, the use of articulated or bi-articulated buses, limited stop and express services, and prepayment of fares. Most systems use bus lanes segregated from the rest of the traffic and at height boarding.


While a consensus of sorts has emerged on the policies and frameworks (institutional and operational), implementation varies in different cities. In Curitiba and Bogota, the BRT systems have been built in gradual phases, giving enough time to the public to understand and use it.

In some other cities, such as the Chilean capital, Santiago, the city government’s decision to change all former bus routes to BRT on the same day backfired. Public transport restructuring, when introduced gradually, has a greater chance of being accepted. Guatemala City’s Transmetro and Guayaquil’s Metrovia followed TransMilenio’s example and have proved to be successful.


The Latin American experience indicates that BRT is a highly effective solution to improve and upgrade public transport, especially in today’s tighter financial scenario. BRT systems can be built at one-third of the cost of a light rail transit (LRT) system or at a fraction of the cost of a metro rail system with relatively faster implementation.


BRT is also an eco-friendly solution. Climate change will continue to be an important issue confronting the global economy. As major cities across the world continue to prosper, the demand for increased mobility will also rise. It will then become even more important for these cities to implement strategies that aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector which is precisely what BRT systems offer. In fact, TransMilenio is the first BRT project to be registered under the Clean Development Mechanism for carbon credits.


While most of the new BRT systems are less than a decade old, it may be premature to be definitive about their long-term sustainability. Nevertheless, drawing from various detailed studies of Bogota’s TransMilenio and the long-standing success of Curitiba’s RIT, mass transit planners are becoming more and more certain that well planned and executed BRT is an excellent solution for congested cities which want to improve public transport and urban mobility in a sustainable way.


What is a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system?


A BRT is a high-quality bus-based transit system that enables fast, comfortable and cost-effective urban mobility through the provision of segregated right-of-way infrastructure, rapid and frequent operations, and enhanced customer service. It is a flexible system that offers solutions to mass transit challenges in congested and fast growing cities and towns. The basic aim of a BRT system is to enhance ridership and reduce operating costs with increased service levels and quality.


A BRT system, in general, combines the technology of intelligent transportation systems (ITS), traffic signal priority, cleaner vehicles, rapid and convenient fare collection, and integration with land use policy. While no two BRT systems in operation around world are identical, each comprises some basic elements such as:


  • Exclusive right of way through dedicated bus lanes separated from the rest of traffic;
  • Transit priority at signalised intersections (traffic signal priority);
  • An integrated network of routes and corridors (system consists of one or more trunk lines on which the vehicles travel in a high cycle frequency and which are fed by several feeder lines from all areas of the city);
  • Clean, secure, and comfortable stations and terminals;
  • Rapid boarding and alighting;
  • Pre-board fare collection and verification;
  • Comfortable vehicles with easy access and level boarding, sufficient seating and standing capacity (often articulated or bi-articulated buses) and low-emission technologies;
  • System management through centralised control centre, utilising ITS applications such as automatic vehicle location; and
  • Effective regulations for bus operators.