What is Bus Rapid Transit – and why doesn’t every city want one?

A station on Bogotá’s TransMilenio BRT system. Image: P_R_/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine you’re the mayor of a fair sized city.  You want to improve your public transport network: to improve the local economy, to get traffic off the roads and, if you’re honest with yourself, because you’ve always loved London’s Tube map and you’ve been whiling away idle hours drawing versions for your own city since you were six years old.

There’s a problem, though. You can’t afford to build an underground metro. A light-rail network would cost a fraction of the cost of a subway – possibly as little as 10 per cent. But, when you check the budget, you realise you can’t afford to build one of those either.

So, you’re stuck. Traffic will get worse, employers won’t be able to recruit staff, your tax base will fall, and then one day you’ll find yourself hounded out of office and possibly tarred and feathered in the central business district.

What you really need is a way of building a metro system, with all the reliability and speed that implies, without having to spend all that money digging tunnels and laying down rails. If only. If only...

This was roughly the dilemma that faced Jaime Lerner, the mayor of the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba in the early 70s. (I say roughly because I’ve never actually spoken to him. For all I know he hates the tube map.)

And Lerner found a way of getting a metro system on the cheap: much cheaper than a tram; much, much cheaper than a subway. It revels in the distinctly unsexy name of “bus rapid transit” (BRT).

Curitiba’s Rede Integrada de Transporte consists of five express bus routes, that operate much more like a subway (left), as well as wider bus network (right). 

The upside

Buses provide essential transport links in many cities, but are generally seen as the poor cousin of subways and trams. It’s for good reasons, too. They’re unreliable, suffering from traffic jams just as much as private cars without any of the sense of control. They also stop frequently, making progress slow, even if the road is clear.

They’re also impermanent: you can settle in an area, confident that nobody is going to rip your tube line out of the ground and thus wreck your commute. Rely on a bus route, though, and you may wake up one morning to find it doesn’t exist any more.

BRT systems do away with these problems. They use segregated lanes, inaccessible to other vehicles, to improve reliability (no more getting stuck in traffic jams). They’re often hooked up to the local traffic lights grid, to give them priority at junctions (no more waiting for the lights to change).

They also stop less frequently, and tend to characterise their stopping points as stations (buildings with names, facilities and so forth) rather than stops (bus shelters without them). Throw in floors level with the station platforms and ticketing systems in which you pay your fare before boarding, and you’ve got something that looks a lot like a proper metro network, without any of the expense of putting down rails.

 

A bus “station” in Curitiba. You need a ticket to get into the station, allowing faster boarding. Image: Morio/Wikimedia Commons.

Oh, and you get a map, too.

A number of cities have included BRT routes in their transport planning. Bogotá’s TransMilenio system includes 144 stops on 12 lines and carries 2.2m passengers a day:

Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker /Wikimedia Commons.

The Los Angeles Metro system includes two MetroBus BRT routes, the Orange and Silver lines, which are treated as part of the MetroRail network.

Even Birmingham is getting in on the act, planning to create Sprint, “the bus that thinks it’s a tram”:

The downside

So if BRT is so great – if you can get all the benefits of a metro system at a fraction of the price – then why hadn’t every city built one?

Well, they’re still low capacity compared to a proper subway system. Each train on London’s tube can carry 700-800 people. The articulated buses used on Bogotá’s TransMilenio carry around 150.

What’s more, while they’re cheaper than a full blown metro, they still require spending on infrastructure: segregated lanes, redesigning junctions and so forth. In cities where space is at a premium, it can be difficult to make a case for giving over entire chunks of road to one category of bus.


Some cities are getting around that by putting chunks of their BRT routes in tunnel. But at the point you’re going to the effort of digging a tunnel, you start to wonder whether those cost savings are still stacking up.

This points towards another more political problem with BRT: it’s prone to cost cutting in a way that can render the whole exercise pointless.

When you’ve decided to build a new subway, you’re locked in. You have to dig the tunnels and put in rails and buy rolling-stock and so on.

With BRT, though, it’s possible to nibble away at it. Does it need to be segregated for its whole route? Wouldn’t part be enough? Perhaps to save space, it can share some of its lane with private traffic. Does it really need new stations? Wouldn’t the existing bus shelters do?

And then, before you know it, what you’ve got is basically a bus. Which you just spent quite a lot of money on for no very good reason.

This phenomenon of gradual cost cutting which can render a BRT line pointless has a name: bus rapid transit creep. It’s not a theoretical problem, either. The East London Transit (ELT) was originally meant to be a fully segregated network linking the Barking Riverside development zone to civilisation. In the event, though, the bits of the network that are segregated are mostly those in the development zone, where traffic is low anyway. On the busy main road betwen Barking and Ilford, the ELT shares space with every other vehicle. The stops are the same as any other bus stop, too.

An East London Transit vehicle. If it looks like a bus, and quacks like a bus... Image: Spsmiler/Wikimedia Commons.

And there remains that old problem: buses aren’t sexy, even in their more evolved BRT form. There’s simply more prestige in a subway, or even a light rail network, than in something based on buses.

Perhaps, if Curitiba’s map were to become as great a design icon as the tube map, then that will change. Then again, perhaps not.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust