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BRT in Iran: Beneficiary of country's transportation reforms [free access]

July 1, 2011

Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East which is fast revamping its public transport system. The current focus of the government is on the development of mass-transit systems in some of the busiest cities in the country, where the demand for public transport has increased manifold with rapid urbanisation. Rail-based mass transit systems have been leading this much-desired transformation, with several cities embracing metro rail following the success of the Tehran metro. However, more recently, the growing need for integration of transport services for improved accessibility has given way to the modernisation of bus-based travel.  Three of Iran’s major cities already have operational bus rapid transit (BRT) systems with plans for further expansion. The success of these systems sets the stage for the future development of bus transit in the country.




With a territory of over 1.6 million sq km, Iran is among the world’s largest countries. It is the most populous country in Central and West Asia and the most urbanised country in the Middle East. Its urban population has increased rapidly in the last 50 years growing, from just 27 per cent of the population in 1950 to over 60 per cent in 2000, and is estimated to reach 80 per cent by 2030. The country has several cities with more than a million residents, and its capital Tehran is among the largest metropolises in Asia.


Till the last decade, urban transport system in the country was largely dependent on private automobiles, given the liberal subsidy regime on petroleum products. Iran is notably the fourth largest producer of crude in the world and, like most oil-producing countries in the region, its domestic consumers have for long enjoyed low energy prices. Additionally, Iran’s automotive industry is the second most active industry of the country (after the oil and gas industry), making the country the12th largest automobile manufacturer in the world and the largest in the Middle East. Its fuel subsidy policy combined with the abundant supply of automobiles, has been anti-public transport; therefore, the government is now undertaking policy measures to disincentivise the growth of private automobiles and to promote public transport.


Since the last decade, Iran has witnessed rapid development of mass transit systems led by metro rail service. Although the construction of the Tehran Metro began way back in 1980, the project faced severe delays due to the unstable economic and political environment.  Within a decade of the introduction of commercial operations in 2000, daily ridership has reached 2 million. Metro services are also being developed in each of the six cities with populations of over a million. The future of public transport in Tehran and other major cities has been planned with the aim of creating an integrated rapid transit system of bus and rail services.


Development of bus-based transit


Apart from metro services, a new traffic study undertaken in 2005 also recommended development of bus rapid transit systems (BRTS) in the cities. Accordingly, projects were undertaken in Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz to construct BRT corridors and the first BRTS was finally operational in Tehran in 2008. Today, Tehran has six operational BRTS lines, Tabriz has four, and Shiraz has one line. The BRTS has been developed by the public sector but are operated by private entities under lease from the government.


Tehran BRTS


Tehran, the country’s capital, is experiencing mass migration from rural areas and undergoing rapid expansion. The current mono-centric city structure with a defined central business district already faces logistical problems. As the city’s population and size grows, it will become increasingly difficult to transport millions in and out from the business district especially during peak hours. To address mobility concerns, the city’s administration is planning to transform Tehran from a mono-centric to a poly-centric city with several satellite townships each with its own central business district.  Such a development model will require express transport between satellite cities requiring rapid mass transit systems.


A study conducted by the government in 2005 concluded that Tehran will require 12 metro lines and a BRTS network to meet the city’s requirement of 20 million daily trips by 2030. Accordingly, a BRTS was constructed, with its first line becoming operational in 2008. Presently, there are six operational BRTS lines (covering 115 km) and one line which is under construction. Total ridership has touched 1.8 million daily trips as of 2011 which is far higher than the estimated 400,000 trips for the network. Box 1 gives the operational routes of the BRT.



Box 1: Operational lines of the Tehran BRT


Line 1 was inaugurated in January 2008. It comprises an 18-km route in the east-west direction between Tehran-Pars and the Azadi Terminal. The line is characterised by a segregated corridor with median arterial runway, median-located stations, and low-floor left-door buses. It does not operate express buses. Investment on Line 1 was USD80 million.


Line 2 also operates in the east-west direction along a 20-km route between Khavaran Terminal and Azadi Terminal. It has its own segregated corridor, reserved platforms and stations located at the side of the roads. The line operates about 250 express and normal buses. It was inaugurated in September 2008 and currently carries more than 270,000 commuters daily.


Line 3 runs in a north-south direction between Khavaran Terminal and Elm-O-San’nat Terminal over a distance of 14 km. The route operates 120 buses, carrying 150,000 commuters daily.


Other lines which have started operations in 2010 include:

  • Line 4 between Parkway and the South terminal,
  • Line 5 between the Elm-O-San’nat Terminal and the Olympic Village,
  • Line 6 between Parkway and Hafte Tir, and
  • Line 7 between Tajrish and Railway Square.

These lines together operate more than 2,000 articulated buses.


Source: Global Mass Transit Research


All articulated buses in the Tehran BRT system are low-floored and equipped with passenger information systems. Ticketing services are on platforms and the magnetic tokens used as tickets can be used for the metro as well.


The introduction of the BRTS in Tehran has been an extremely successful event by all counts. The number of passengers has more than quadrupled in three years, with 35 per cent of passengers being first-time users of public transport. The BRTS service has reduced travel time by 55 per cent and pollution by 45 per cent by taking private cars off the roads.


Future plans


The tremendous growth observed in the number of BRTS users in just three years has led to plans for an increase in the number of buses and routes.


The success of Tehran’s BRTS has also catalysed the development of similar systems in other Iranian cities such as Tabriz and Shiraz.


Tabriz BRTS


Tabriz is the fourth most populous city in Iran after Tehran, Mashhad and Esfahan. With a population of over 1.4 million, the city supports major Iranian heavy industrial and manufacturing facilities. Tabriz is the second city in Iran with an operational BRTS. The system, inaugurated in 2009, includes an 18-km line from Baseej Square in the east to the railway station in the west of the city covering 50 bus stops along the route. It currently has three operating BRTS lines with one more expected to start operations in 2011.


Shiraz BRTS


Shiraz is the sixth most populous city in Iran with a population of over 1.4 million. It is the capital of Fars Province and the economic centre of southern Iran. Shiraz became the third city with an operational BRTS when its system was inaugurated in 2010. It currently has four operational BRTS lines.




Given the rapid urbanisation levels, environmental concerns and economic realities, Iran’s fuel subsidy policy is presently being phased out and by 2015 it is expected to be able to do away with its USD100 billion annual subsidy bill. This major change raises transportation affordability concerns and therefore, the government has proactively combined removal of the fuel subsidy with policy reforms for the development of rapid mass-transit systems in cities. Metro railway is already being developed in all the major cities and as the country gains success with the BRTS, complementary and well-coordinated transportation networks seem feasible in areas facing high congestion and pollution levels. As the country realises the social and economic benefits of the BRTS (in comparison to metro systems), more BRTS projects are expected to come up in future to complement existing and upcoming metro networks.