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Can the US make BRT work as well as in Latin America?

In the DC area, bus rapid transit is sometimes seen as the choice of people who don't really want transit to succeed.

Bogotá's Transmilenio system. Photo by Streetfilms.

Democrat Martin O'Malley and local environ­menta­lists lobbied for light rail on the Purple Line, for example, while Republican Bob Ehrlich's push for BRT was largely seen as an effort to "obfuscate, alter, study and delay" progress.

But that's selling BRT short, according to a panel of experts at Brookings yesterday. For inspiration, they looked to Latin America, the motherland of bus rapid transit, housing 26 percent of the world's BRT systems, according to Dario Hidalgo of EMBARQ, the sustainable-transport arm of the World Resources Institute.

It all started with Curitiba, Brazil, which pioneered BRT in 1972, reducing congestion, improving air quality, and shortening travel times. The Curitiba system has been a model for others, including powerhouse systems like TransMilenio in Bogotá, which carries 44,000 passengers per hour per direction during the peak period. Car use has gone down, and traffic fatalities have declined by 56 percent.

"What's important isn't if the tire is a steel tire or a rubber tire," said Hidalgo. "What's important is the service that's provided to the people."

Logic like this flies in the face of entrenched biases in favor of one mode or another. Rail, especially, has its adherents among those who think buses are a lower-class form of transportation, ridden only by those with no other option. But more than 20 percent of TransMilenio riders own cars. "We can't be religious about modes," said Robert Puentes of Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program.

BRT is characterized by three principal traits, as articulated by ITDP Director Walter Hook in a Streetfilm about BRT released today.

  1. BRT runs on exclusive lanes, so it's not slowed down by traffic jams. (That allows the TransMilenio to average 20 miles per hour while New York City buses crawl along at under eight mph.)
  2. The station is on a platform at the same level as the floor of the bus. Usually, those stations are designed by architects and aren't substantively different from the experience of being in a rail station. Passengers pay upon entering the station, not the bus, speeding up the boarding process. Another time-saver is that all the doors open at once and passengers can board quickly en masse, like they do on a subway.
  3. BRT is that the buses have priority at intersections, often through some kind of priority signaling.
Hidalgo and other experts noted that one of BRT's best features is also one of its weaknesses: its fast implementation time. It can take decades to acquire rights-of-way and lay the track for a new rail system, but a city already owns its medians and can launch a BRT system relatively fast. In Latin America, Hidalgo says, it's often rushed to correspond to the election cycle, as politicians hurry to get it up and running in time to get re-elected. And rushing a complex transportation system won't usually yield the most ideal, carefully-planned system a city could hope for.

It's not surprising that the developing world has been the pioneer of BRT, since it is a far less costly system to build than rail. Operating costs of rail can be lower, since it requires fewer drivers for more cars. (Rapid transit buses can be articulated, but even the longest bus won't compete with trains.)

However, rail ridership has to be very high for the operating costs of rail to end up lower than BRT. And almost all of Latin America's BRT systems' vehicles and operational costs are fully paid for out of the farebox.

Mark Elrich, a BRT supporter on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland, says when looking for ways to alleviate the county's notorious traffic congestion, he went looking for rail alternatives, not buses. He said he was biased toward rail. But he was eventually drawn to the flexibility of BRT, which allows one corridor to be used to travel southbound in the morning and northbound in the evening. But what really sold him was the price.

Courtesy of Mark Elrich.

Sam Zimmerman, who spent 28 years in the USDOT and is now an urban transport advisor at the World Bank, says those costs shouldn't tempt those who want to lower them even further.

If you have a BRT plan and people are nervous about the costs, they'll say, 'Do you really need dedicated vehicles? It's OK to run a two-door articulated bus with the floor 90 inches off the ground. You don't have to spend the money on new buses. Do you really need a dedicated right-of-way? Run it in mixed traffic, we don't want to piss anybody off. Do you really need an architect-designed station? This is a bus! We'll get it delivered off the back of a flatbed truck.'

At the end of the day, will it work as just another bus route? Sure! Will it be BRT? No. Now imagine if someone was proposing a light rail line and you said, 'Do you really need the track?'

Zimmerman said even environmentalists and livability advocates repeat slander about buses, saying that they're inherently polluting and noisy, as well as slow, unreliable, and uncomfortable. None of those things are true of well-designed BRT systems, he says.

You'll never get everybody out of their cars, Elrich said. But if you can get enough people to ride the bus enough of the time to reduce vehicle miles traveled by just 8.3 percent, Montgomery County would return to 2002 carbon emissions levels. Double that and you could get down to 1990 levels.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Tanya Snyder is the former editor of Streetsblog USA, which covers issues of national transportation policy. She previously covered Congress for Pacifica and public radio. She lives car-free in a transit-oriented and bike-friendly neighborhood of Washington, DC. 


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After dropping my car off for scheduled maintenance in Olney this morning, I took the Z2 bus from Olney to Silver Spring, simply for a change of scenery from the Y buses that sit at the 8,000 lights on Georgia Ave. between the two towns.
I have long wondered what dedicated bus lanes on either Georgia Ave. or Colesville Road would look like, and the reversible corridor idea intrigued me. But how would the bus that runs southbound in the morning avoid the still significant traffic to make a deadhead run back northbound to start its next run? With lights cycled (effectively, I might add) for the peak direction, it generally takes almost as long to reverse commute through the busiest areas as it does to travel in the peak direction. Those areas are also where real estate is tightest, so the reversible lane would be the most necessary.

by Joe in SS on Mar 9, 2011 8:28 am • linkreport

" But more than 20 percent of TransMilenio riders own cars."

Yes, because in Bogota, private cars are only allowed to circulate three weekdays per week. It's called "Pico y Placa." (Mex. City has a similar system.) Any study of the effects of Transmilenio will be nearly impossible to filter out the effects of Pico y Placa.

by Simon on Mar 9, 2011 8:30 am • linkreport

Granted, I'm a big fan of Transmilenio, I ride it all the time when I'm in Bogota.

by Simon on Mar 9, 2011 8:31 am • linkreport

One has to consider rising gas prices though now when looking at BRT vs Light Rail (as in the purple line). Coal is still rather cheep and will be for the next 10-20 years. Power can also be generated via Nuclear etc.

Gas in 10 years will easly be above $5 a gallon.

by Matt R on Mar 9, 2011 8:55 am • linkreport

Matt R: Who says BRT has to run on gasoline?

by Simon on Mar 9, 2011 8:59 am • linkreport

'Buses are for poor people"

IN europe, I've experience it the other way. Subways are for poor people, buses are more middle class. Light, better air, and the ride quality on the roads is better. More frequent stops means more convenience. Buses also go into the nicer suburbs, where you don't have too much density and subways lines.

by charlie on Mar 9, 2011 9:00 am • linkreport

I like it. People have so little respect for buses here, though, that it will be a tough sell.

by aaa on Mar 9, 2011 9:11 am • linkreport

The reason LRT lines in the US cost more than BRT is that we build our LRT lines to a higher standard.

A big reason that BRT tends to be cheaper is that you can just "stick it on the street" through crowded areas. The problem is, crowded areas are where buses are slowest, and causing buses to operate in mixed traffic there kind of defeats the purpose. If you build it to the same standard as LRT, with a fully dedicated, curb-guided corridor (NO shared lanes anywhere) with full signal priority and even some grade separations at heavily traveled crossings, the construction costs start to approach that of LRT.

by orulz on Mar 9, 2011 9:22 am • linkreport

I lived in Pittsburgh for a few years, and they have something akin to BRT - bus-only lanes called busways, though you still pay on the bus. Parking rates downtown are high, and there's not much rail.

While the buses could be crowded and dirty, they were also insanely quick. And some of the same development that we see in DC around Metros eventually came to the Pittsburgh Busway - the area's first Whole Foods opened up in its shadow.

They really can work, and I knew people who wouldn't take a regular bus, but didn't hesitate to get on the Busway.

by Abby on Mar 9, 2011 9:25 am • linkreport

One of the main things that worries me about BRT is how easily it can be taken apart. We've all seen how easy it is to end or re-arrange bus routes. With BRT, it's only a little harder: spend a few million dollars to either re-purpose the lanes for general traffic or restore the median, either mothball the buses or use them for normal bus traffic and poof, no more BRT. If BRT were as common in the US as it is in South America, I'm sure the government budget cuts of the last few years would have taken a toll on it.

Related to that, since the investment in BRT is so low, it's not very fiscally irresponsible to abolish the service. A major argument against cutting something like a Metro line is that you've invested billions upon billions of dollars into it.

Then you have Zimmerman's comments, when I think are spot-on. Hell, a lot of people in this country think dedicated bus lanes are a big deal (not the people who actually ride in those lanes though).

by Tim on Mar 9, 2011 9:27 am • linkreport

>Can the US make BRT work as well as in Latin America?

No, I don't think we can.

The biggest problem with BRT in the US is that it's too easy to strip down. There are too many corners that can be cut that save you money and result in a transit line that's almost as good, but not quite. You put the bus in HOV lanes instead of dedicated lanes, or you leave out pre-pay, or you don't give the bus unique branding. There are 1,000 things you can strip down that individually don't make that much difference, but collectively add up.

In large US cities, generally speaking, the only reason people build BRT rather than LRT is to cut a corner and make it less expensive. Once you've adopted that view of your transit system - that cutting corners is OK - it's too easy to cut all those other corners as well. Once you've made the decision to cheap out and go with BRT rather than LRT, then the temptation to cheap out in other ways is too strong to pass up.

The only way to make BRT live up to its potential is to treat BRT seriously as a desirable mode that has to be built up to proper standards, rather than a cheap alternative to doing things correctly. As long as BRT is the mode of choice of planners and politicians who have to be dragged kicking and screaming to fund transit lines, BRT will not be built up to its full potential.

by BeyondDC on Mar 9, 2011 9:53 am • linkreport

My biggest gripe about BRT is the lack of permanence it conveys to riders. IMHO, if an agency were to invest billions of dollars into a transit system, it may as well be rail.

-Usually run on petrol, diesel, or CNG (Very few electric buses are available today, especially the articulated variety found on Latin American systems)
-Don't have automatic control, which make the smoothness (or not) of the ride dependent on the driver's skill.
-Have less capacity than LRT, Metro, or trams.
-Need to be replaced more often than rail vehicles.

Besides these disadvantages, I don't entirely believe the numbers referenced in the post. In order for a BRT system to be truly effective, such as the ones in Latin America, there needs to be true separation from traffic; not just dedicated lanes and signal priority (which should be a feature of any bus line on a major road anyway). This includes overhead structures and yes, subway tunnels.

by John M on Mar 9, 2011 9:54 am • linkreport

@BeyondDC; you logic there also applies to streetcar lines, no? Pretty easy to bury them under some asphalt?

I'd agree though, their cheapness is actually a huge problem, and most of the proposals but forward don't really work well. Combine that with a national habit of not taking care of things, you've got a disaster.

Would something like BRT work on i95 to Woodbridge?

by charlie on Mar 9, 2011 10:00 am • linkreport

To second Tim, one of the more convincing arguments I've heard against BRT and for LRT or Streetcar is that with the investment in LRT or Streetcar, private developers will build dense, pedestrain oriented developments around them, but are hesitant to do so around BRT, for the reasonable fear that it could be dismantled by a change in government priority. The success of BRT in less car-dependent, already densely built environments (a la Latin America) needs to be weighed against the current low density of the U.S. From that perspective, an investment in Rail or Streetcar would also be an investment in more dense, sustainable development.

But Abby's example of the Pittsburg Busway offers a good counterpoint to my above statement. Perhaps BRT could spark development. Still, a revitalization of downtown Pittsburg with a BRT-esque system is different than a BRT in suburban-exurban Maryland.

by Lou on Mar 9, 2011 10:01 am • linkreport

Charlie - BRT was built on I-95 to Woodbridge. What are now the HOV lanes, mostly soon to be the HOT lanes, were built as bus-only lanes. Think about that when you're in a bus stuck in traffic on those lanes behind a bunch of Priuses.

by Ben Ross on Mar 9, 2011 10:13 am • linkreport

@Charlie: Sure, it can be a problem anywhere, even subways. Example: Metro has no express track. But IMO the fact that BRT's raison d'etre is basically to cut as many corners as possible makes "cheap creep" a much more inherent problem to that mode. At least in the US.

by BeyondDC on Mar 9, 2011 10:15 am • linkreport

@ John M

"-Usually run on petrol, diesel, or CNG (Very few electric buses are available today, especially the articulated variety found on Latin American systems)"

Why does this matter; its not like we reside in a place with clean air and no smells or if you're talking about the environmental effects electricity isn't so good either since alot of comes from coal.

by kk on Mar 9, 2011 10:25 am • linkreport

Don’t settle for Bus Rapid Transit! Light rail is far superior to BRT for several reasons:
1. Light rail vehicles are less expensive in the long run, with useful lives of 40 to 60 years. Reconditioned LRVs from the 1950s are still running in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Where do you see a 60 year old bus in regular service?
2. Light rail vehicles have better acceleration than buses do, and can run a route much faster than buses. This means that you need fewer LRVs and fewer drivers to cover the same route. This is a major factor. San Francisco's MUNI says that if it raises average transit vehicle speed by just 1 mile per hour, it saves $72 million a year in operating expenses.
3. Light rail vehicles can run in much narrower lanes than buses can, so they take up less space. This is especially important in crowded urban areas.
4. Light rail vehicles only use energy when they are accelerating. When they decelerate, the momentum is turned back into electric energy. When they’re at rest, their motors use no energy at all. Most buses use energy continually, whether they are accelerating, decelerating, or standing still.
5. Light rail vehicles give a smoother, bump-free ride far superior to the bouncing around bus passengers are subject to.
6. Operating expenses for light rail vehicles are significantly less than for buses, according to the Federal Transit Administration's 2001 National Transit Database. Boston’s light rail line had costs of $1.25 per trip vs. $2.04 for buses. If you want the figures expressed as costs per passenger mile, Boston spent $0.51 for LRVs and $0.71 for buses.
7. In city after city (St. Louis, Denver, Phoenix, Boston, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas ……) people prefer light rail to buses. Ridership on the entire transit system increases when even a single light rail line is opened.
8. Light rail stations often spur development around them that doesn’t happen around bus rapid transit stations.

For extensive information about the benefits of light rail, go to
– David R. Yale

by David R Yale on Mar 9, 2011 10:38 am • linkreport

@ben_ross; yes, I know it was a bus lane, but the other elements of BRT (articulation, stations, multiple boarding points, etc) are missing.

by charlie on Mar 9, 2011 10:41 am • linkreport

BRT is not just in Latin American.
I have seen it working quire well in both Tubingern Germany and in Ottawa Canada.

by w on Mar 9, 2011 11:30 am • linkreport

Charlie - Why would articulated buses, raised curbs at stops, or multiple intermediate stops have prevented conversion of the bus lanes to HOV?

by Ben Ross on Mar 9, 2011 12:28 pm • linkreport

"In Europe, I've experienced it the other way. Subways are for poor people, buses are more middle class. Light, better air, and the ride quality on the roads is better. More frequent stops means more convenience. Buses also go into the nicer suburbs, where you don't have too much density and subways lines."

Um, no. Those who ride the Tube of the Métro are of any socioeconomic class, but if you're really rich you just don't use public transport, like here.

by Phil on Mar 9, 2011 12:42 pm • linkreport

In most cases in the U.S., BRT is just an excuse to not build rail where rail is warranted. So a municipality will buy some old diesel buses left over from the Reagan administration, run them on regular streets instead of their own ROW, slap a new logo on the side, not build boarding stations/platforms, and call this resulting service "BRT". People aren't fooled by this "BST", and if it fails to deliver, this can be chalked up as just another American public transit planning SNAFU.

The main reason some pols promote bus over rail is the much vaunted "flexibility" of bus. That is to say, buses are flexible in that as a bus runs on existing streets, all that's necessary to kill bus service is recalling the buses and scrapping them ("budget crises, and all that"). With rail, there is dedicated infrastructure and ROW that makes this more politically difficult (though not impossible--witness the dismantling of America's streetcars and interurbans in the 50's and 60's). Thus transit-hating pols often use "BRT" as a sop to show that they too care about public transit, as long as it isn't that awful, Communist, 'European' rail service with its dedicated infrastructure so resistant to the gutting they wish to accomplish.

by Ralph G. on Mar 9, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

Abby: "I lived in Pittsburgh for a few years, and they have something akin to BRT - bus-only lanes called busways, though you still pay on the bus. Parking rates downtown are high, and there's not much rail."

Abby, Pittsburgh's BRT runs on a dedicated busway between the downtown and the dense area around the city's two large Universities...these are some reasons it's more successful than most American "BRT" (it doesn't wait and traffic, and goes from "somewhere" to "somewhere"). And there's talk of converting the busways to LRT or at least joint BRT/LRT.

by Ralph G. on Mar 9, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

I'd like to see electric trolleybuses included in this analysis, given that these seem to offer a reasonable compromise between BRT or trolleys/light-rail.

They've been used successfully in several US cities for decades now.

by andrew on Mar 9, 2011 1:51 pm • linkreport


It really does matter thought - fossil fuels are all finite, even coal and natural gas. As supply of these resources goes down, prices will shoot up. Having a rail car draw power from OHW or 3rd rails is much preferable in the long run.

by John M on Mar 9, 2011 2:03 pm • linkreport

BRT's role as the first half of a bait-and-switch operation is well established.

Unfortunately, BRT could help a lot of people in rapidly growing or underserved areas due to its theoretically lower costs per square mile compared to LRT or most streetcar projects. BRT is not good everywhere, but it's still a better use of street space than more cars.

Might it not be a better idea for transit proponents to pick up the call for legitimate BRT infrastructure, call it Advanced BRT and then argue for it? If it works, underserved areas get better transit access. Even if no BRT gets built, transportation advocates would at least take the weapon out of the highway lobby's hand.

Do you really need an architect-designed station? This is a bus! We'll get it delivered off the back of a flatbed truck.'

There is a lot of work going into having it both ways. If anything the need to make 10-20 roughly identical stations is a reasonable cause to use offsite prefabrication, and it's possible reduced labor costs could be instead spent of better durability or aesthetics. Besides, it looks like Transmilenio's stations are prefab.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 9, 2011 2:14 pm • linkreport

Just because something is implemented in Latin America, Africa or Asia doean't mean it will be a success in the U.S.

In fact, all BRT systems are not created equally. Most have not been implemented at the scale of sosphistication of the system in Bogota, Colombia. A lot of these system implementations have not been successes to date.

Implementing a transit system is about more than just the narrowly focused internal cost/benefit analysis. Quality of life and economic development impacts do matter! Will a BRT system improve the value of the surrounding real estate the way a LRT system will?

Determining whether people will ride these systems is another important factor that needs to taken seriously. The "people" today in most U.S. cities and counties want light rail. In fact, so much so, that there will not be enough federal funding to go around nationally to satisfy all the competing requests for "New Starts" funding.

by Pres on Mar 9, 2011 2:26 pm • linkreport

"Related to that, since the investment in BRT is so low, it's not very fiscally irresponsible to abolish the service. A major argument against cutting something like a Metro line is that you've invested billions upon billions of dollars into it."

Not that I don't love the Metro (escalator issues and weird smells from the rancid carpet aside,) but is not the reverse logic that had we invested at least some of that money into a comprehensive BRT system, the primary complaint about Metro (that it doesn't go everywhere you need it to go,) might be addressed? I understand that perhaps the reality is that "because you went with BRT, you'll get less cash to invest," but in a more resource starved economic reality, I don't think we should write it off.

by Aaron on Mar 9, 2011 4:00 pm • linkreport

One big advantage of BRT is it will never have the massive initial capital costs of rail, or the fairly significant recurring capital costs, or the massive capital costs to rebuilt it.

Rail is definitely permanent. The drain of the constant capital costs never end. It needs to be rebuilt every 30-40 years.

Where is the 10 billion needed to rebuild Metrorail going to come from?

Why am I not surprised that not one rail advocate commented on the capital costs of rail transit?

Is the significant amount of time it takes to get rail transit approved and built a good thing?

Maybe we should spend less time speculating about potential problems of BRT systems that haven't been conceived and more time on the huge capital liabilities that most rail transit systems in the US currently have.

by Mark Jones on Mar 10, 2011 1:12 am • linkreport

I do have to wonder about light rail advocates that compare the operating numbers of a light rail system to a typical municipal bus system.

I would hope that a light rail system in a higher density corridor would outperform a bus system acting as the transportation of last resort in mostly lower density corridors. Having a light rail system that outperforms a bus system that is inefficient by design isn't a great accomplishment. Plus when you include the capital costs of the light rail and bus system, the numbers for light rail look even worse.

by mark Jones on Mar 10, 2011 1:24 am • linkreport

The moneys for maintaining rail transit will come from the same place as the moneys for maintaining roads/highways: user fees and taxes (via the government). Other countries (U.K., France, Japan, Germany, Russia, Spain) do this just fine. The London Underground is 150 years old and has been revamped several times, the money was always forthcoming.

If capital costs were a concern, we should have never built the interstate highway system since these roads/bridges/tunnels require constant maintenance. By your logic, we should have stuck with post roads--much lower capital costs with those than with high maintenance Interstates!

by Ash on Mar 10, 2011 7:27 am • linkreport

@Ralph G.: Outside of the "buses from the Reagan Administration" (almost all of which aren't transit worthy due to engine/disabled access issues) what you describe could define WMATA's limited stop routes which put on no airs of being BRT. And in all honesty, they do the job quite well.

Next month, a much-ballyhooed BRT line in New York's Capital Region (Albany-Schenectady area) will be opening after several delays including one due to a funding deficit. When the line opens, there will be fancy stations that are already in use but riders will have to pay upon entering and they'll be paying a higher fare than usual for a service whose run time will be around the same as the current service along the route. In fact, due to a reorganization of routes, many mid-route suburban commuters may have longer commutes and due to a lack of parking may push many commuters to their cars*. Add in that CDTA bought buses that arrived a year before the eventual opening that were mothballed and the situation looks like a waste of money.

For all that, they could've done something a la the 79/S9/X9/37&39 in DC for a fraction of the cost and have had a lower running time with less capital investment.

* Since most of said riders work for New York State and get free parking, it's a much different dynamic than here though the newer the employees the farther they park out which entails the use of shuttle buses.

by Jason on Mar 10, 2011 9:54 am • linkreport

The capital costs of roads and highways are pretty low relative to the amount of travel and freight they support. The problem with rail transit is that you are spending a disproportionate amount of capital costs on a relatively small amount of trips.

Look at the long range transportation plan of DC:

BRT in whatever form does not have the rail and electrical capital costs of a rail transit system. You can justify the cost of a heavy rail system in an area with significant density (New York, Tokyo). Building vanity light rail systems in every metro area in the US is another story.

Look at the 2009 national transit database. The total light rail numbers are pretty horrid. The capital costs for light rail are about the same for bus, even though buses carry about 10 times the passenger miles.

by mark jones on Mar 11, 2011 12:07 am • linkreport

The trouble with bus rapid transit in the US is labour costs. You simply can't afford to run the sort of very frequent service that you find in a place like Bogota or the BRT system in Guangzhou, China because bus drivers are too expensive, so in the US or Europe you are forced to use rail at these levels of demand to cut labour costs, even if the capital costs of rail are higher. Ottawa is running into this problem, one of the main reasons it is replacing its BRT with light rail is that running large numbers of express buses in rush hour is very costly.

by Andrew on Mar 11, 2011 11:29 pm • linkreport

Regarding bus labor cost problems, if you are using transit union bus drivers that make over 100K a year in total compensation, and they drive standard length 40 foot long buses, you are going to run into operating cost problems, regardless if you have a so called BRT system or standard municipal bus system. Less expensive competitively contracted/tendered bus drivers with buses that are over 80 feet long (the South American Volvo buses) can help limit that problem.

by mark jones on Mar 15, 2011 11:23 pm • linkreport

In the UK BRT has existed in a town called Runcorn for 35 years where the town was actually built around the BRT network:

A more recent example is Fastrack - a new system being built to serve North Kent Thameside, a region east of London and south of the River Thames:

There is an excellent blog produced by US transit planning consultant Jarret Walker that readers may be interested in:

He has extensive coverage of the excellent BRT system in Brisbane Australia:

Plus an article on Almere in The Netherlands, where, like Runcorn a network of busways serves the town:

by Pete on Mar 30, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

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