Bus Rapid Transit

Peter Jenkins (2012), Planning for Innovation: An Analysis of Bus Rapid Transit and Institutional Approaches to Transportation Innovation, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Columbia University. Full text of the master thesis available on line

Cities strive to innovate. As population centers and economic hubs, cities constantly evolve, and are in a perpetual state of development and adaptation. Whether to stimulate economic growth, overcome limited public resources, or address new and emerging policy challenges, planners and policy makers increasingly seek new and innovative ways to address urban planning needs. The transportation sector – constantly in motion by definition – is a fertile proving ground for innovative technologies, policies, and planning techniques. Given growing populations, congestion, air pollution, limited public finances, and inequitable access to mobility, amongst other planning problems, cities around the world face critical transportation investment needs. In many North America cities, transportation infrastructure is often in a state of disrepair, while local, regional and state governments are financially constrained and limited in their ability to invest in new services. Throughout much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, urban population growth is staggering, and governments struggle to provide sufficient infrastructure and services for their burgeoning populations. Sustained economic development requires an effective urban transportation system to maintain growth, without which cities face exacerbated congestion, pollution, and other negative externalities from increased motorization and automobile ownership rates.

As an alternative to rail-based mass transit systems (MRT), bus rapid transit (BRT) has emerged as an adaptable and cost-effective means of providing high quality urban mobility. BRT has been a particularly popular transportation innovation in developing cities, where the technology’s relatively low cost and simplified infrastructure requirements enable a quick and flexible implementation schedule. Yet while BRT technology is well understood, the role of actors, institutions, and planning processes is often underemphasized, despite holding the key to successful implementation. Using the emergence and diffusion of bus rapid transit technology as a research context, this study explores the institutional implications of innovation and the embedding of new planning practices into local contexts, focusing on the specific experiences of Bogota, Colombia and Johannesburg, South Africa in incorporating existing transportation service providers into new BRT system management. Understanding this process is of critical importance to urban planners and policy makers facing the complex planning and decision- making processes of the 21st century, and can also aid the growing number of non-governmental, multilateral, and private-sector stakeholders in improving the services they offer to cities. Thus, by addressing these questions, I hope to shed light on the processes of innovation and diffusion, so that planners, policy makers, and other stakeholders can be better informed when implementing new technologies such as bus rapid transit.


Defining BRT

Bus rapid transit refers to “a flexible, rubber-tired rapid transit mode that combines stations, vehicles, services, running ways, and Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) elements into an integrated system with a strong positive identity that evokes a unique message” (Levinson et al, 2003, p. 12). By combining these elements, BRT provides a cost-effective means of providing fast, efficient, convenient, and comfortable urban mobility. The most successful BRT systems achieve travel speeds, service capacity, and passenger throughput levels comparable to rail-based mass transit services at a fraction of the cost, using roadway infrastructure and bus-based vehicle platforms.

While specific BRT characteristics vary from one city to another, BRT systems generally include the following elements, which when combined provide a level of service comparable to rail-based systems:

  1. Physical infrastructure including exclusive bus lanes or bus-only roadways, an extensive network of routes and corridors, enclosed stations with prepaid boarding areas, a level station-platform-to-vehicle-floor design, and multi-door buses for rapid boarding and disembarkation;
  2. Operational features including frequent bus headways (e.g. waiting time between buses) and rapid operating speeds, limited stop services, ample passenger capacity, fare integration between routes, modes, and feeder services, and coordinated land use planning;
  3. Technological features such as automated fare collection and verification, signal prioritization and/or grade separation at intersections to minimize bus stoppage at intersections, centralized tracking and system management using GPS and Intelligent Transportation System applications, and efficient, low-emission vehicles;
  4. Business and regulatory features such as roadway access restrictions to authorized bus operators (e.g. enforced exclusivity of bus lanes) and independent quality control oversight; and
  5. Marketing features such as unique and distinctive branding for BRT stations and service vehicles, excellence in customer service and operational performance, and ease of transfer between the BRT system and other transportation options (Wright & Hook, 2007, pp. 11-12).

Though such features are neither exhaustive nor absolute requirements, they represent “best practices” in system design, which urban transportation experts generally agree provide the ideal combination for effective bus rapid transit service.

Transport and health: a look at three Latin American cities

Hodgson, Paul; Potter, Stephen; Warren, James and Gillingwater, David (2013). Can bus really be the new tram? Research in Transportation Economics, 39(1) p. 158–166. Full text available on line

Jacqueline Nivard

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

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