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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How getting a dog made me hate London less

A dog called Martha. Image: Jamie Ross.

I never have been anything but a staunch hater of London. Growing up in what a friend from Chicago called “a forest reserve”, my entire life has been split between a suburban one in a leafy town near Dayton, Ohio and an urban one, spent in stupidly pretty, and still fairly leafy, Edinburgh. I moved to London for a hot second in 2016, hated my job as well as my surroundings, and left, pretty much immediately.

And then, almost two years later, I was offered my current role at the New Statesman, and I packed up my shit and dragged my reluctant boyfriend with me to do it all over again. I sort of enjoyed my summer in London – but I felt strongly that living in the city would never feel like anything other than a necessary evil.

I live in – this is your moment to laugh and call me a posh prick – Notting Hill. It’s a decent location, has more trees and parks than other parts of the city, and, most importantly, is the closest I could get to replicating my old neighbourhood of Stockbridge in Edinburgh, which I loved dearly. But even this isn’t enough to entirely counteract the fact my physical surroundings, on my commute to the office by the Temple, made me feel constantly claustrophobic and stressed. London is cold and unfriendly, compared to many parts of this country, and it is filthy – not in a snobby, prissy, precious fuckhead way, but in a “My life expectancy has probably dropped by three years breathing in this polluted air and stepping on broken glass” way. For my first few months in London, in the middle of the heat wave, walking the streets was like walking through an endless sludge: this was not a city I liked nor one I, really, wanted to live in.

Until I got a puppy.

The one condition my boyfriend imposed when he agreed to trudge down to London with me was that we find a flat where our letting agreement said that we could have dog. So, three months after our move, we got Martha, a twelve-week-old black cockapoo.

Getting her changed our lives in a lot of ways. It’s made it impossible for us to leave the house without having a human being on attendance to watch her like a hawk. It means I now have to wake up at 6:45am every day, weekends included, so that she can take a shit. She has improved our lives remarkably - I mean, we have a living floof doing sweet and adorable shit in our house – but she has changed things a lot.

And the thing I least expected this goddam dog to change has been the way has made me feel more integrated into this godforsaken city: she’s made me appreciate London, even with its downsides.

Actually, something else happened, without which I don’t think my point of view would have changed. Almost immediately after getting Martha – and I mean, like, within hours – I contracted a disgusting cold. The day after that cold cleared up, I got violent conjunctivitis, like the disgusting seven-year-old I am, which took a week to get over.

These two illnesses, combined, lasted around two weeks, so I was trapped at home for roughly seven days of the ten I would normally have been at work. That meant I was around to relieve the puppy burden from my home-working boyfriend.

I was tasked with dragging my puss-filled eyes out to let our dog have a run around, and to get her to piss every couple of hours. This new responsibility forced me to explore the neighbourhood that, for the three months previous, I had generally ignored. What I thought was the worst timing known to man was, not to exaggerate, life-changing. I’m not sure I would have come to this realisation about my new home had it not happened.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Another great day at the park! Pic by fellow small creature @esther.dominy.

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a book all about how urban planning can make or break our wellbeing – what commutes, cars, bikes, and greenspace do to our mental health. One portion of the book is spent debunking the idea that the sheer amount of greenspace in an area is what makes us happy. Montgomery argues that it’s actually the regularity of greenspace that makes a real difference – it’s not just how much grass and trees there is in the city you live in, but how often you get to see it.


Pre-Martha, my exposure to grass amounted to the occasional lunch in a garden and a visit to Hyde Park once or twice a month. But within a matter of days of getting a dog, I learned that I had not one, not two, not three, but five (five!) piss locations within five (again: five!) minutes of my house. Some were suitable for little more than the aforementioned – but others gave her enough room to run after sticks, leaves, tennis balls, and, her favourite, other dogs, so that she’d be pleasantly exhausted for the rest of the day. What I originally thought was just an expanse of buildings and pavement stretching from my flat to Hyde Park was actually filled with pockets of green spaces that made this trash-laden hell-hole feel a lot less oppressive.

Spending time at parks where other dogs also go to piss meant I started to make relationships with other dog-owners too. For the first time in any place I’ve lived in outside of my home town, I actually started to meet my neighbours, and learn about things that were happening in my neighbourhood, that I would never otherwise never known about. I now know Tiggy, Rex, Bubba, and Charlie, as well as their respective owners. I also know about good pubs, family-run restaurants, and free events that are far better than the deeply average, pretentious brunch place recommended to me by The Culture Trip. My neighbourhood has feeling like a dead space between Tesco, my bus stop, and the tube, to a place I can see as a respite from the rest of this stressful city, full of people I know and new places I’d have otherwise not thought twice about.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Me and some new friends from the other day! Hoping for some more social time this weekend 

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

And taking her out at the same time every day, around the 7am mark, means we then almost always run into the same people. A very sweet kid walks to school around the same time and always smiles at her. We see the same woman with her dog, who always greets Martha with aggressive barking, ultimately ending in a congenial ass sniff. We let her jump up at the incredibly patient builders doing construction on a building at the end of our street.

This morning ritual, seeing my neighbourhood when it’s not rammed with tourists but is quiet and reserved for people who live or work nearby, has become a way to decompress at the start of every day. And as a woman, being up and out when it’s often dark, but seeing people I now recognise, means my neighbourhood has become less intimidating. For the first time in London, I feel safe and comfortable even late at night.

Beyond the confines of my neighbourhood, Martha has made me see London, not for what it does for me, but for what it provides for her. Never have I ever had such an appreciation for London’s public transport system than when I got my dog, who wears a big stupid grin at all times when riding the bus. (Her internal monologue honestly appears to be an endless loop of, “ALL OF THIS STUFF WOW MORE STUFF OH GOD REALLY COULD THERE ACTUALLY BE MORE STUFF HELLO EVERYONE HI OH HI WOULD YOU LIKE TO PET MY HEAD?”)

Even long journeys are now a delight, because watching your puppy be amazed, fascinated, and happy at all times, eventually passing out from exhaustion at all the energy expended, is incredibly heart-warming. Faced from the bus, London, even at its busiest, feels far better with my dog than on my own: her pure, unadulterated excitement is enough to make holding a wild animal on a packed motor vehicle worthwhile.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dad taught me love • dad taught me patience • dad taught me pain

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

I’m almost certain I will never love London. I don’t think I will ever feel charmed enough by the charming parts to outweigh the onslaught of the, often, literal shit it brings with it. Not everything about having a dog in London is great, of course: there is trash everywhere, trash I used to pass nonchalantly but now have to heave my dog away from in case she eats a used condom or even another dog’s shit. And, obviously, living in a city is probably never great for an animal compared to, say, a suburb or the countryside.

But through my dog I’ve learned what’s actually around me, not just what I narrowly perceive on my begrudging walk to work. Doing that has made London feel a lot less like my own personal hell. Slowly, Martha is making London like some kind of twisted, imperfect, home for me.

Sarah Manavis is the digital culture and tech writer at the New Statesman. She tweets as @sarahmanavis.

Martha Ross-Manavis is small and cute dog. You can follow her on Instagram at @heythereitsmartha.