Where BRT Came from, and Where It’s Going

Despite its humble beginnings in Curitiba, Brazil, BRT has rapidly expanded across the globe to meet the rising demand for public transport. And despite the many challenges facing its growth, BRT’s future seems bright. (Photo: mariordo59/ Flickr)

Bus rapid transit (BRT) and Bus of High Level of Service (BHLS) have been implemented in 197 cities around the world, with corridors extending a total of 5,000 km and carrying 32 million passengers per day.  Furthermore, as cities continue to invest in and implement public transport, awareness of BRT and BHLS has spread quickly among planners and decision makers. Knowledge is also being distributed by various international institutions, ranging from the World Bank to ITDP.

Despite the recognized importance and rapid growth of BRT and BHLS over the last 15 years, these systems are still subject to high levels of controversy and misunderstanding, with the majority of the frustration aimed at local actors in charge of implementation. This means that it is key to have a holistic understanding of this relatively new and growing transport mode. For this reason, editors of the new “Handbook on Transport and Development” included a chapter devoted exclusively to this topic, explored below.

BRT’s Origins and Why It’s Growing

BRT and BHLS have evolved from simple bus priority measures, such as designated busways and bus-lanes, which were proposed—and occasionally implemented—as early as 1937 throughout the world.

The concepts behind BRT (and BHLS) gained popularity in Latin America after two major installations: (1) busways in Curitiba, Brazil were upgraded into a full-featured BRT system in 1982 and (2) the implementation of TransMilenio in Bogotá, Colombia in 2000. BRT then spread because of its high performance, low cost and ability to be rapidly implemented; moreover, its successful adaptations in Quito, Paris, Bogotá, Nantes, Amsterdam, Mexico City, Beijing, Jakarta and other cities demonstrated BRT and BHLS’s geographical and urban flexibility—making it attractive to urban planners across the globe.

Moreover, the majority of BRT’s growth has taken place within the last 15 years; of the 197 cities with BRT, 169 implemented their BRT systems since 2001, and about 120 more cities are currently building, designing or planning BRT systems. BRT and BHLS have also proven to be attractive options for public transport delivery, applicable to a wide variety of conditions from low to very high passenger throughput.

With rapid urbanization and motorization—especially in emerging economies—as well as a lack of funding to build new road infrastructure and costly rail systems, BRT and BHLS have emerged as solid solutions for mobility.

Challenges Facing BRT Moving Forward

Like any other method of transport, BRT and BHLS are not without their faults—and it is important that they are fairly analyzed as decision makers weigh their options for transit improvements. Critics of BRT and BHLS argue that these systems are not permanent, use precious surface space, and exhibit operational and cost indicators that are inferior to rail. Furthermore, BRT implementation requires strong political leadership, sound technical planning and adequate funding levels—resources that can be difficult to come by.

Despite recent growth, BRT and BHLS have also suffered from an image problem. More specifically, BRT and BHLS do not have a single meaning and image and are often regarded as a “second best” compared to rail alternatives. Critics also question their ability to foster urban development and their use of space traditionally designated for cars, as well as their actual costs and impacts. However, on the issue of space, occupying road area formerly designated for cars may be considered a positive feature, as cars are considered the least effective (and least sustainable) means of transport.

It’s important to note that criticisms of BRT and BHLS systems vary based on geography and context. For example, several BRT and BHLS systems in the developing world suffer problems resulting from poor planning, implementation, operation and maintenance—largely due to financial, institutional and regulatory constraints. Finally, even though BRT service tends to be more reliable in comparison with buses running in mixed traffic, bus bunching (when buses intended to be spaced out clump up) still remains a large problem.

The Future of BRT

BRT and BHLS are proving to be resilient transport modes, and seem to be adapting well over time. BRT and BHLS systems  spur the development of complementary programs, such as citywide integrated bus systems, private sector participation, funding from national governments and additional bus manufacturers and technology providers. These integrative initiatives increase the effectiveness of BRT and BHLS, while also improving local mobility. Further, technological developments in vehicles—such as hybrid and electric propulsion and transport phone apps—are also improving the quality, performance and impact of BRT and BHLS.

Overall, the future of BRT and BHLS is bright but challenging, as they continue to grow as integral parts of multimodal public transport systems. To significantly reduce future dependence on cars and lower emissions, we need to build approximately 600 additional kilometers of BRT and BHLS around the world every year, which is about three times the current pace.


For more on this topic, see the full chapter on BRT and BHLS in the “Handbook on Transport and Development.”

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