Bus Rapid Transit: a step toward fairness in China’s urban transportation

Source : Worldwatch Institute

Rush hour is usually a nightmare for Beijing’s bus commuters. Squeezed from all sides, riders endure polluted air and chilly winter winds that seep in through gaps in the windows, or suffer en masse in the scorching summer sun. They look down in envy at their fellow residents, zipping through the paralyzed traffic in tiny sedans and enjoying much-coveted air conditioning and personal space. But with the opening of Beijing’s first exclusive Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line on December 30, car owners may soon be jealous of bus riders for the first time ever.

The new 18-meter-long BRT buses.
The new 18-meter-long BRT buses.

The 16-kilometer, 17-stop route, dubbed “Southern Axis BRT Line One,” links eight residential areas, with a total population of 200,000, and four bustling commercial circles in the city’s southern districts. In its two months in service it has attracted overwhelming ridership, with daily passenger flows averaging around 80,000 commuters. Officials originally expected the peak flow—estimated at around 150,000 passengers per day—to occur in 2007, but on the third day of operation, ridership already neared 130,000. “It’s very likely the flow will exceed 150,000 during the golden week of the Labor Day,” noted Yan Yabin, Vice President of Beijing BRT Company, Ltd., which manages the line, referring to the seven-day holiday in early May when Beijing sees a huge influx of tourists and commercial activity.

Bus Rapid Transit, the term for a high-speed bus system that operates within an exclusive right-of-way, was first developed in Brazil in the 1970s. But it has quietly taken hold in China, where more than 20 cities, including Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdou, and Shenyang, are now constructing or designing BRT systems. BRT combines the single-corridor quality of rail transit with the flexibility of buses. It is also considerably cheaper than rail, at one-tenth the construction and operational costs, and takes less time to set up—typically less than three years from design to completion.

Beijing BRT Company currently operates more than 40 buses and is expecting another 50 by April, bringing the total fleet to 90. According to Yan, the major attraction of the new line is that it is convenient, cheap, comfortable, and fast—taking 37 minutes to complete what is usually a one-hour journey. The 18-meter buses are equipped with an electronic stop announcement system and air conditioning, which most regular city buses don’t have. And the buses’ low entry step allows access for wheelchairs, a feature that Beijing only recently began incorporating into city transport. “We are trying to make BRT into ‘luxurious sedans for common residents,'” Yan proclaimed, expressing his pride and confidence in the new system.

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Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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