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Are Trains Better Than Bus Rapid Transit Systems? A Look at the Evidence

Brisbane, Australia’s South East Busway saw both a ridership increase and time travel reduction, in comparison to previous commutes. Photo by Harshil Shah/ Flickr

The world’s great public transit systems: Tokyo’s Metro, London’s Tube, Honk Kong’s MTR…and Mexico City’s bus rapid transit corridors? Trains are often seen as the pinnacle of modern urban transport infrastructure. They’re green and efficient, supported by permanent, complex track infrastructure. Bus rapid transit systems, on the other hand, are less flashy and often associated with their slow cousins, the local buses.

But in a new study published in Transport Reviews researchers Jesper Ingvardson and Otto Nielsen from the Technical University of Denmark point to data that suggests there’s little that separates the two approaches in many contexts.

Ingvardson and Nielsen compare 86 metro, light rail transit (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors using several variables: travel time savings, increase in demand from riders, modal shift, and land use and urban development changes. In some cases, the much more economical BRTs matched and even outperformed rail.

Travel Time and Ridership

The study starts by looking just at whether BRT can reduce travel times and improve mass transit ridership on its own.

There are large variations across BRT systems regarding travel time, making it difficult to draw broad conclusions, but overall they saw declines. While Metrobüs in Istanbul produced travel time savings of 65 percent compared to previous commutes, the Bus-VAO lane in Madrid led to 33 percent savings and the South Miami-Dade Busway just 10 percent.

Ridership gains after a new BRT corridor also varied: 150 percent in Istanbul, 85 percent in Madrid and 50 percent in Miami. Ridership gains are associated with travel time savings, but also derived from other factors such as the frequency of buses, station quality, vehicle type and user information systems.

Converting Drivers to Mass Transit

An interesting impact of mass transit implementation is its effect on drivers. In the 13 cities where Ingvardson and Nielsen studied BRTs, the number of riders who shifted from car trips ranged from 5 percent (Stockholm) to 40 percent (Adelaide), with a simple average of 17 percent. This figure is similar for the 24 LRTs (average 16 percent) and slightly lower than for the two metro systems included in the study (average 23 percent).

One caveat to these conclusions is that BRT and LRT corridors tend to be much smaller than metro corridors in terms of total volume of riders. The notable exception is Istanbul’s Metrobüs, which serves more than 600,000 passengers a day, 4 to 9 percent of which would otherwise be car users.

Land Values and Development

Despite the permanence of train tracks, Ingvardson and Nielsen found no significant difference in how BRTs, LRTs or metro impact land value. Land value increases ranged as high as 30 percent for BRT corridors; 32 percent for LRT; and 20 percent for regional rail and metro corridors. In several BRT and LRT cases, no increase in land value was observed; for the Coaster rail corridor in San Diego, a negative value was recorded.

Land value comparisons are difficult, however, because of varying assessment methodologies, distances to stations, and before and after time periods. It’s likely these conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. The particular mass transit mode is less important than other factors, like access conditions, the urban environment, and service characteristics (e.g., frequency, speed, comfort and pricing). For the 41 projects with quantitative data, the differences in land values achieved by the different modes are not significant.

BRT, LRT and regional rail also show increased residential and commercial development around stations. Nevertheless, the improved access provided by transit is an insufficient driver of better land use. Other complementary activities, like changes in regulations, government support for investment in real estate, and investment in pedestrian connectivity, are required to achieve urban development goals. The most recognized case is Curitiba, Brazil, where 45 percent of the long-distance motorized trips in the BRT vicinity use the buses. There is also evidence of positive urban development impacts from the BRTs in Ottawa, Boston, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

There Is No Superior System

Ingvardson and Nielsen recognize that there are limitations in the data collected, analytical methodologies and even in the distinction between transit modes. There isn’t always a clear difference between light, regional or metro rail, for example, or between bus rapid transit and bus priority corridors.

Despite these limitations, the researchers conclude that BRTs can improve travel times, modal share and urban development at rates similar to those reported for light rail and metro. This evidence contradicts conventional wisdom. It is not possible to categorically say trains have greater benefits than BRT; they are not always superior. Context matters, not just the material of the wheels or the permanence of the tracks.

Dario Hidalgo is Director of the Integrated Transport Practice for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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  • JacobPereira

    Because you need to move more in less, that is the profitable model, like cattle transportation.

    A dry container with people piled up could reduce cost even more but it doesn’t mean public transportation should be molded in that direction.

    At the end the big conclusion, based on the headline, is: ” This evidence contradicts conventional wisdom” after saying the authors “recognize that there are limitations in the data collected, analytical methodologies and even in the distinction between transit modes.”

    Brilliant analysis.

    The author should present a disclaimer knowing he is one heavily supporter of Bogota’s mayor who has been selling BRT around the world for almost two decades.

  • SA

    Yes, but such a long tram car rarely works in an urban environment where there can be 2 intersections in the length of a single MU.

  • SA

    Most of the systems where the comparison is made meet this description.

  • Novacek

    Your graph doesn’t support your assertion.

    Even your graph shows 4.7X not 6X.

    Then there’s the fact that you only realize that cost savings if you have such a huge demand (32k per hour).

  • samuelrockwell

    I am echoing some of the other comments, but it is crucial to define “BRT” for the purposes of this article (and the underlying study — paywall, so I don’t know if they did). As other commenters have noted, BRT is likely comparable to rail *if* that BRT acts as rail: with its own right of way (grade separated or with signal preemption), weather protected stations, etc. In many or most American cities, “BRT” means something much less: buses in traffic, etc.

    And of course if a BRT is fully built out, the capital cost advantages of BRT over rail are dramatically reduced: the station costs will be similar, the construction of an entirely new right of way will be high (or the political cost of taking right of way from personal autos will be high), etc. In addition, the ‘flexibility of buses’ argument diminishes.

    This is not an argument against BRT, but to say that the comparison between BRT and rail should only be considered it the service/trip time/infrastructure commitments are similar.

  • Bobby Jones

    Interesting read especially from a country that has plans to expand of train system. Should we go for that massive train transport for an effective and faster construction or look for some alternative, such as BRT. Thanks!

  • ZweiSystem

    Operating costs are not factored in. One tram (1 driver) is as efficient as 6 buses (6 bus drivers) and one needs to employ at least 4 people to manage, maintain and operate either a bus or tram.

    It was the operating costs that compelled Ottawa to build with LRT on its BRT route.

  • Anthony

    Too often it appears to me that light rail is preferred because it achieves bigger headlines than a busway and the artist impressions of light rail get more coverage.
    The cost savings on developing bus rapid transit systems over light rail don’t seem to get much consideration. Also the flexibility of buses in been able to travel anywhere gives it a major advantage over light rail.

  • kclo3

    When you evaluate transit performance along these metrics, it’s not useful to use mode as the variable, because the things that really matter for baseline success of routes is the supportive stuff outside the technology, like development incentives, automobile restrictions and congestion pricing, and use of exclusive right-of-way. The most meaningful comparisons between BRT and rail are revealed in their marginal capacity and operating/maintenance costs. In the high-wage, high-cost 1st world, BRT systems are far less cost effective in the long run than rail, and Curitiba-style systems aren’t feasible.

  • arvsr1988

    Great Write up Dario.

    I think the problem with a BRT is that its really easy to screw up the implementation since there aren’t standards in terms of how it is designed. Whereas if you look at most of the world’s metro rails, most of them are quite similar. This is probably why BRTs aren’t so popular.

    BRT is definitely more cost effective to build. Its much cheaper to lay out roads and bus stops than to build metro rails and the infrastructure around it. This could probably mean that there is more lobbying around building metro rails (since there is more money involved for businesses).

    It would be good to do a study on the power consumption is per person km on a BRT and a metro rail. That would be a good factor to decide which transport system to go for. Since most buses use fuel, the study would have to also look at the power consumption of electric buses and fuel powered buses.

  • Neil Ghu

    As long as transit has it’s own independent track separate from the “road”, whether it be LRT or BRT, it will be effective. BRT isn’t as flashy but I argue the cost savings make it the better choice as you can have more for the same cost.