Guangzhou’s BRT: Revolutionizing Perceptions of Bus Travel in China
The recently-launched Guangzhou BRT is expected to change public perception about bus-based travel around the world.  Photo: Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP.

The recently launched Guangzhou BRT is expected to change public perception about bus-based travel around the world. Photo: Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP.

In the past several weeks, we’ve covered some ground-breaking bus rapid transit (BRT) systems on TheCityFix, including Ahmedabad’s Janmarg, the first full-featured BRT in India, and Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya, which will eventually be the first full-featured BRT in Africa. The newest of these pioneering transit systems recently opened in China – the Guangzhou BRT, known as GBRT.

After a ten-day test run over the Chinese New Year holiday, the 22.5-kilometer system launched on February 21. The GBRT is a system of superlatives, like so many other things are in China: it has the world’s highest number of passenger boardings at BRT stations, the highest BRT bus frequency, and the longest BRT stations. What’s more, it is the first BRT to directly connect to a metro system and the first BRT system in China to include bike parking in its station design. In its first month of operation, the GBRT’s ridership levels are second only to Bogotá’s Transmilenio, with more than 25,000 passengers per hour in a single direction at rush hour,and more than 800,000 boardings per day.

The GBRT also includes the following features:

  • 26 stations
  • 42 bus routes operate in the corridor, all but one of which operates both inside and outside the BRT corridor
  • A smart card system
  • Connecting tunnels from the BRT platform to the Guangzhou metro at three stations
  • Bike lanes along the trunk line
  • 5,500 bike parking spaces at stations (planned)
  • 5,000 rental bicycles at stations (planned)

GBRT is noteworthy for its provision of “direct service.” This takes advantage of the ability of buses to operate both inside and outside a BRT corridor, greatly reducing passenger transfers compared to a trunk-and-feeder system. Experts also point to good corridor selection and station design (in terms of dimensions, placement, architecture and configuration). Additionally, Guangzhou takes a novel approach to bus operations. All of the other Chinese BRT systems have one BRT operator, typically the dominant state-owned bus operator. In Guangzhou, there are seven operating companies in three large corporate groups. This makes some aspects of regulation more complicated, but ultimately, gives regulators more options in terms of ensuring good service.

GBRT’s launch was not without challenges. The media coverage was hostile prior to the opening. The system was also plagued with a few operational problems later in February as demand returned to normal levels after the Chinese New Year holiday.

However, the media now reflects generally positive views, and officials are working to further improve the system in the coming months. Currently, it relies on some regular urban buses, which are unable to meet the high demand. The city is now procuring new 18-meter BRT buses to add to those already in operation. Additionally, planners are working on BRT route adjustments, with technical input from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) and a public consultation process. Minor route changes, combined with the phased introduction of express routes and larger buses, will result in dramatic operational improvements even as passenger demand continues to grow.

Shidajida station.  Some GBRT stations see more passenger boardings per day than many BRTs achieve system-wide.  Photo: Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP.

Shidajida Station. Some GBRT stations see more passenger boardings per day than many BRTs achieve system-wide. Photo: Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP.

So far, GBRT’s achievements are impressive. The system is already thought of as a top contender for next year’s Sustainable Transport Award (Ahmedabad’s Janmarg took home this year’s top honor.) What’s more, it is expected to have impacts around the world.

In the words of Karl Fjellstrom, ITDP’s Vice Director for China:

“GBRT is revolutionizing perceptions of bus-based travel. The system is already having a significant demonstration impact in China, but we expect an eventual international impact as well. Never before has an Asian BRT system carried more than 8,000 passengers per hour per direction, and the Guangzhou BRT is already carrying more than 25,000 passengers per hour per direction, with significant future growth expected. It is not just the high capacity that is changing public perceptions, but also the high-quality station design, radical bus priority (with 22-24m of road width in the middle of the road given to BRT at all of the main stations), provision of bike parking in the BRT station design, direct connections from the BRT platform to three metro stations, and sheer passenger volume. To give an idea, two stations (Gangding and Tangxia) both have more than 70,000 passenger boardings per day, more than many BRTs achieve system-wide.”

Fjellstrom points out that local support for the system is also strong. All of the key provincial and city level officials have ridden and endorsed it, and there is still a regular line of people along the pedestrian bridges who come to watch it in operation. In a sense, Fjellstrom observes, GBRT has created a million new bus rapid transit experts.

Check out this GBRT photo gallery. And if you’re visiting Guangzhou anytime soon, this blog posted some handy users’ tips.

(Read our post about congestion pricing proposals in Guangzhou here.)

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  • Alifandi Tranggono

    Jakarta has it too :)

  • http://www.americancharterbus.com/ bus charters Los Angeles

    With the help of Guangzhou BRT, travel would be a lot
    easier because people would no longer be having a hard waiting for the next
    ride. Thank you for sharing your thoughts regarding this matter as this
    enlightens those who are not familiar with the mode of transportation in other
    places.

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  • http://thecityfix.com/members/ericaschlaikjer/ Erica Schlaikjer

    Thank you so much for your insider’s perspective of Guangzhou’s new system. It’ll be interesting to see how other cities in China replicate it. Back in 2005, EMBARQ, the producer of this blog, helped develop transport indicators and identify potential bus corridors in Shanghai, which now has a BRT system, too.

  • CalPlanner

    I’m a planner that’s been doing some work in Guangzhou in recent months and have had a bit of an inside look at the system.

    First off, I stay a couple blocks from the corridor and the congestion levels, bus speeds, and bike-ability and walk-ability are noticeably improved with the BRT system, new pedestrian fly-overs, and the new dedicated bike lanes installed all along the corridor (which the article did not mention). I also think the stations and overall bus-rider interface are really convenient and attractive, especially when compared to congested corridor and confusing, cramped streetside bus stations that were there previously. Buses are definitely over-crowded at peak and there is still some bus queuing, but overall the speed and experience are definitely improved.

    Guangzhou’s Metro is expanding considerably, but even its expansion doesn’t get rid of the need for surface buses. Beyond the fact that building a Metro costs 10-20 times more than a BRT and takes many more years to implement, the BRT system here also enhances bus routes for riders beyond just this corridor. The BRT corridor reduces bus congestion in a critical corridor, but bus routes that use the BRT corridor start and finish far beyond the the BRT system, providing access to origins and destinations all over the city.

    //c

  • Damian

    michael d: ugly? pedestrian unfriendly? You are clearly not an aesthete, and don’t understand how the station access works. I live in Guangzhou & saw this system recently. The stations are stunning; architecturally very impressive. meanwhile all of the main stations have at least 2 access points, all of which include high quality pedestrian crossings of the roadway. the result is 40 or so (just a rough estimate) quality crossings, most of which were not there before. try to cross other major roadways in a big chinese city, and you’ll find it much more difficult than crossing this BRT road. further, all those people now waiting for buses in the BRT station were previously blocking the walkways.

  • http://capntransit.blogspot.com/ Cap’n Transit

    Here’s what we did with a corridor that wide. I should note that the trains were put in before the buildings. It’s also not ideal: it would be much better if there were one more set of train tracks and the sidewalks were wider, removing at least one car lane in each direction. But you can cross the street.

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • CroMagnon

    From the photo, it looks like the street isn’t meant to crossed at all in that section. There are bridges crossing the street with steps to the respective platforms.

    My gut says that at these ridership densities only heavy would make sense, but I’d have to see the geography. A branch and trunk layout with a barrier-bottleneck might make BRT pretty reasonable.

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • http://www.humantransit.org/ Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

    Alon. Chinese cities are building lots of transit of all kinds. But there are many, many BRT projects going all across the country. (My firm is professionally involved in that market, so we know how huge it is.) They are trying to build what makes sense in each corridor.

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • http://abstractnonsense.wordpress.com/ Alon Levy

    Usually, Chinese cities build metros, not BRT. They’re rich enough to afford the technology, poor enough for labor costs to be low, and new enough that they don’t get as much community opposition to els.

    Ironically, having grown up in Tel Aviv and Singapore, I don’t have a problem with how Guangzhou looks in those photos. It’s actually a lot more like what I’m used to cities looking like than most New York street scenes. Granted, it’d be a nightmare to cross this street, but each side seems to have a lot of ground-level retail and is teeming with pedestrians.

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • http://www.humantransit.org/ Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

    Joseph. I’m sure they did consider metro rail. But you have to remember that in a developing country, cheapness is an overwhelming consideration, as well it should be. Efficiency ranks high and subjective attractiveness of design, I’m afraid, usually ranks pretty low. China is trying to retrofit transit to massively dense cities on a scale never seen in human history, and they’re not rich. I’m sure they’d have gone to metro rail if they didn’t have this great wide street to work with, but since they did, they built a BRT and got the positive mode-shifting side effects of reduced surface car capacity as well as the benefits of through-running to other corridors. Makes sense to me.

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • Joseph E

    CroMagnon is right. 25,000 per hour in one direction is about 300 biarticulated buses, or one bus every 5 seconds! No wonder the stations require 4 bus lanes and super-long platforms.

    If you tried to put this sort of BRT on a city street, you would need at least 8 or 9 lanes of travel and parking to start with, and would end up with only BRT. It looks like the right-of-way for "GBRT" is wide enough for a 14 lane highway (or a freeway with 4 travel lanes, 2 shoulder lanes and an off/on ramp, in each direction).

    Did they consider Metro rail / heavy rail for this corridor?

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • Joseph E

    How many cities have wide enough rights-of-way for this level of BRT? In the photos above, the GBRT station takes up about 7 lanes of space, including 4 bus lanes and two wide platforms. Also, the pedestrian overpasses take up another 2 lanes of space for staircases on the sidewalks, despite lacking elevator access.

    In Los Angeles, the Orange Line BRT only takes up the space of a 5 lane road (or 3 lanes plus parking and sidewalks) and is in a former freight right-of-way, but the max capacity is much lower. (It does connect to our metro / heavy rail subway, so we had that first!) Transit advocates here are already suggesting that it needs to be upgraded to light rail to handle future increases in ridership.

    The capacity of the GBRT is much higher due to the larger stations, extra passing lanes for buses, and the way the system combines many different bus routes onto one trunk thru the BRT area. However, I wonder why surface rail was not considered for this corridor, instead of BRT.

  • CroMagnon

    ^It probably can’t if it has to haul 25,000 passengers/hour/direction!

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • http://psystenance.com/ Michael D

    I’ve already seen Guangzhou touted elsewhere as a shining example of BRT, and I have to say: That corridor is one of the ugliest and most pedestrian-unfriendly streets I’ve seen. BRT can and should do better.

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • bjc

    The Lehrer piece and the paper he cites seem like a shining example of FAE.

    This comment was originally posted on Human Transit

  • http://twitter.com/shmooth2 shmooth2

    in a surprise move that nobody saw coming, BRT propagandists proclaim, ‘We are awesome!’ http://j.mp/cu1QQ1

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/marcelinomoreno marcelinomoreno

    Guangzhou’s BRT: Revolutionizing Perceptions of Bus Travel in China
    http://tinyurl.com/ykpok49 #transport

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/AndyFitz AndyFitz

    Interesting article about Guangzhou BRT bus system: http://ping.fm/WPfKN (via @rejon)

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/alttransport alttransport

    Guangzhou’s BRT: Revolutionizing Perceptions of Bus Travel in #China http://bit.ly/aCKYt5 #transit (via @TheCityFix)

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/TheCityFix TheCityFix

    Guangzhou’s BRT: Revolutionizing Perceptions of Bus Travel in #China http://bit.ly/aCKYt5 #transit

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter