Making Buses Cool Again

Transmilenio municipal buses are seen on a street of Bogot¡, Colombia (from a post first published here).

Transportation is responsible for roughly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. This means that bold changes in transportation policies””for both the developed and developing world””must be part of solving the climate crisis. The trick is to curb the world’s emissions””from industry as well as transportation””without preventing poor countries from developing and lifting their people out of poverty. The New York Times recently highlighted a promising mass transportation solution that could help make this possible: bus rapid transit, or BRT. This mode of transportation, which works like an above-ground subway, is already helping reduce emissions and fight poverty around the world, and could do even more if it gets a boost from the U.N. treaty in Copenhagen this December.

BRT puts long, sleek buses on exclusive lanes protected by physical barriers. In well-designed systems such as Bogot¡’s, the buses stop at enclosed, elevated stations. Passengers pay their fare before boarding. These features””along with clear route maps, feeder buses, and free transfers between lines””allow BRT to achieve the speed, capacity, and reliability of a subway at a fraction of the cost. The idea has been around for decades, but has only gained momentum since the triumph of Bogot¡’s TransMilenio. Good planning, rather than novel technology, is the key to a successful BRT.

BRT reduces smog and traffic. Bogot¡’s TransMilenio has made Colombia’s sprawling and chaotic capital city much more livable: A 40-percent drop in air pollutants was reported in the first year of the system’s use, and average travel times were 32 percent shorter.

The system also reduces greenhouse gases by introducing fewer, cleaner buses and coaxing people from their cars. By removing 7,000 small private buses, TransMilenio has allowed BogotÙ”¡ to reduce its emissions by more than 59 percent since the system’s opening in 2001. And BRT could cut nearly three times more emissions than light rail powered by coal-based electricity.

It’s cost effective, as well. BRT is much cheaper than subways and faster to install. This makes it an attractive option for booming cities in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East facing massive transportation problems.

Bogot¡’s system is a flagship and a model for cities worldwide because of its excellent planning and implementation and its success in helping to lift the city out of poverty. BRT systems are now under construction in all of Colombia’s major cities and around the world: Sixty-three systems are operating on six continents, and 93 more are being planned. Notable BRT cities include Jakarta, Istanbul, Mexico City, Johannesburg, and Beijing.

Massive deployment of BRTs, where appropriate, could be part of the answer to avoiding catastrophe while ending poverty. Globalemissions linked to transportation are set to double by 2030. Eighty percent of this growth will come from the developing world, where major cities are already struggling to provide mobility to their exploding populations. The global climate treaty that will be hammered out in Copenhagen must confront this problem in addition to addressing energy generation, efficiency, and deforestation.

The treaty could finance the massive planning and construction that will be needed to expand BRTs through carbon offsets. In fact, Bogot¡’s BRT was recently the first transportation project to receive funding through the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM. Under the CDM, industries in the developing world that manage to reduce their emissions receive credits that they can sell to polluters in industrialized countries looking to reduce their footprint. Bogot¡ will be selling 250,000 tons of CO2 equivalent to the government of the Netherlands in the coming years. This offset scheme could be a way for developed countries to meet emissions caps, as is currently being proposed to fund anti-deforestation efforts.

Thankfully, China and India””the two major emitters in the developing world””seem to be embracing such a technology. More than 30 projects are being implemented or studied in China alone. Their robust adoption of this and other efficient mass transport solutions will be critical.

But there’s no good reason why industrialized countries shouldn’t also consider BRTs as they look for ways to decarbonize their transportation systems. BRTs are cheap and could be deployed rapidly where appropriate. Most of the barriers to bringing them here are political””unsurprisingly, they face stiff opposition from the car industry. Still, the Obama administration and local communities across the country should take a hard look at this emerging solution. Electric cars are good, but fewer cars are even better.

17 Responses to Making Buses Cool Again

  1. Phil Eisner says:

    J.R – I am so pleased you brought this to our attention. I never heard of this wonderful transportation infrastructure improvement. Sounds great! It does take space as shown in the photo, but no doubt can be adopted to more crowded streets. It looks to be a very important part of the solution to the woes brought on by our love of the individually owned transportation system called automobiles. The world’s automobile culture seems to be heading us to a nasty future.

  2. Leland Palmer says:

    Put WiFi on the buses. Some Sonoma County, California buses already do this, although the system is incomplete and you can’t count on it.

    Reliable WiFi access to the internet would be a way to attract ridership, and attract business people, who could get on the internet on their laptops while riding the bus.

    Put WiFi on all public transit, for that matter.

    The dedicated lanes thing is a really good idea. Buses could be run on natural gas, or some more carbon neutral fuel like cellulosic ethanol or algae based biofuels. With Stirling engines, it would even be possible to run buses on biohar, and achieve nearly complete carbon neutrality. And of course, the bus lines could be run on electricity, and the electricity gotten from carbon neutral or even carbon negative sources.

    Here in Sonoma County, we have lots of old railroad right of ways, which could be used as dedicated bus lanes.

    It would probably be better to refurbish the rail lines, and build separate bus lanes, though.

  3. paulm says:

    Good point.

    Enforced (good) public transport ( use of tolls, reduced and expensive parking etc) all encourage people to work closer to home and so reduce emissions even more!

  4. Frank C. says:

    BRT can and will be a piece of the transportation solution. Light and heavy rail are still better due to speed and capacity in dense areas. Once rail lines are in, maintenance is lower than for BRT, but BRT construction is far cheaper than rail.

    The U.S. suburbs are going to need a mass transit solution of some kind — I’m referring to the ones (most) that won’t be able to become dense enough to support real mass transit. I think it won’t be BRT, but a form of bus transport.

    People in the burbs will be more than willing to get on a bus when gas is 6,8,10 bucks a gallon and there is substantial savings in the pocket from doing so.

  5. One topic that needs to be mentioned as a great transportation solution that is never mentioned on this blog is Personal Rapid Transit. It is on the cusp of being available from multiple different vendors. There is currently an installation being done at Heathrow Airport connecting parking lots to terminals. It is being done with a system called Ultra. Also, there is a test track built in Upsula Sweden that demonstrates another design. Finally a PRT system is integral to the design of the Masdar city transportation system.

    For those that don’t know, Personal Rapid Transit is an automated system of cars (driven by computer) that are on a set of tracks that are separate from the road system (generally elevated) so that they don’t interfere with car traffic at all. The rider on such a system enters a station, picks a destination, gets into a car and goes there without stopping. All stations are off-line on exit ramps so that traffic that isn’t stopping there can just drive on by. It is a lot like a horizontal elevator. Get on, pick your destination and get off.

    The issue is not one of technology, as the technology is here now to implement such a system. It is an issue of somewhere gutsy enough to try out a new system so that it can be proven as successful. There exists one such system that has been functioning since 1973 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Despite its bumpy start, it has been running well since its inception. It is more like Group Rapid Transit, but it functioned well using 1973 era technology. Imagine what could be accomplished with today’s technology.

  6. Brooks Bridges says:

    To give the credit where it’s due, it was Curitiba, Brazil where the BRT system originated. Wikipedia has this:

    “Curitiba has a master planned transportation system, which includes lanes on major streets devoted to a bus rapid transit system. The buses are long, split into three sections (bi-articulated), and stop at designated elevated tubes, complete with disabled access. There is only one price no matter how far you travel and you pay at the bus stop.[37]

    The system, used by 85% of Curitiba’s population, is the source of inspiration for the TransMilenio in Bogotá, Colombia; Metrovia in Guayaquil, Ecuador; as well as the Orange Line of Los Angeles, U.S. State of California, and for a future transportation system in Panama City, Panama as well as Cebu City, Philippines.”

    Bill McKibben had a chapter on this remarkable city in his book “Hope, Human and Wild”. The BRT was just one of many remarkable accomplishments.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Even better if the buses were painted white.

  8. From Peru says:

    Here at Lima, Peru, the buses are the MAIN polluters. These were imported already with decades of use , reprocessed at homemade factories and then sold. There are thousands of this decade-long units. In some streets , there are more buses than cars.

    The numbers are disastrous.Half of the peruvian cars and buses are trashed units( that is, the cars were obsolete and some countries thought that selling their junk to our corrupt government was a good opportunity to trash them while gaining lots of money), each one emitting huge plumes of dark smoke that cover tens of metres.

    When there are only few clouds in the sky, the horizon is brown instead of blue even at noon!In my university there is a weather station, I was collecting the data of solar insolation in last 40 years.According to my first data, in recent years the smog dim nearly 50% of the sunshine.

    The city major, Castañeda Lossio, is building a BRT corridor inside Lima. But he is doing it at an turle-like speed. The work is just the first stage , and should have been finished more than one year ago. It appears that may be finished in 2010.

    Meanwhile, the citicens of Lima will continue to suffocate in a fog made of soot(black carbon) and sulfate aerosols for a lot years more.

  9. Leif says:

    Lima sounds like a perfect place to start deploying this new steam engine technology.

  10. Leif says:

    I tried to post a link but no dice. Google “Cyclone Power” Way cool technology.

  11. From Peru says:

    Leif, what “new steam engine tecnology” are you referring to?

  12. Eduardo says:

    Joe excellent post, is always nice to hear good things about my country.

    I want to tell you that if you want more imformation about the BRT projects that are in development in other cities, I will be glad to send you more information.

    We have already to other cities with BRT (Cali and Pereira) and in other 4 major cities BRT systems are under construction.

    Transmilenio is a very good initiative (It has some problems) but it is a good and cheap alternative to fight pollution and global warming.

  13. Alek F says:

    Nice article,
    but it’s a bit one-sided…
    How about mentioning some of the drawbacks, to be more objective?
    Limited capacity, lower speeds, MUCH lower safety ratings, bumpy ride – are just to name a few. Oh yeah, and high operating costs is another significant drawback.
    Our own Orange Line BRT (in Los Angeles) is a clear indicator of how “innovative” and “wonderful” those sardine-packed lousy buses are, giving an uncomfortable, lousy ride, and which takes almost twice as long than it would take for a train to get from North Hollywood to Warner Center. (and – don’t you just love this pathetic slow-downs before almost every intersection? – which adds up to the already long commute).
    All in all, BRT is just a mediocre service, not comparable to efficiency and appeal of Light-Rail or Subway.

  14. Interurbans says:

    BRT’s are not the answer for dense routes. If the daily ridership is above around 15,000 riders a rail alternative is a much better choice. If a LRT line was built to the same standards as the Bogota and Curitiba BRT systems the cost of construction and equipment would be one third more but the cars would last at least twice as long, cost less than half as much to operate carry doubly the riders much more comfortable with less pollution because they operate on electricity not imported oil and would probably operate much faster.

    There is not a successful BRT line in the US that was built on a privet right of way. Miami, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are all failures.

    The Orange Bus Line was a failure from the start. It was at capacity and could not begin to handle the required ridership. The busses are small and cramped inside though very heavy, rough riding and very difficult to handle a wheelchair. Capacity can not be increased do to blocking traffic of the cross streets. It now takes twice as long to make the trip that it would if it were a light rail line. It cost three times as much to carry a passenger on the Orange bus as it does on a LRT train in Los Angeles. LRT trains use electricity and do not require imported oil based fuels including CNG with less pollution. The costs to service the busses and maintain the right of way is also higher than if it were a rail line. Because the busses are full, cramped and uncomfortable, many people who would be riding an Orange Line LRT train are now driving. The Orange bus line is a failure, not the successes that it is touted to be.

    PRT, Monorail and other gadgetbahns do not have the capacity needes for moving high volumes of people.

  15. Re: The Orange Line BRT. You definitely make some intriguing points on why there should be LRT service along the Orange Line now, but I would hardly call it a failure. The fact that the system far exceeded ridership projections and has crowded busses at many points during the day is something that most places could only dream of. It’s a one-of-a-kind type of system in the US (even though there are other systems, none are like this) and it provides a good example of how BRT can be done.

    Aside from the Gold Line LRT, most LRT systems around the country are horrible. I’ve ridden many (if not most) of them, and live in a city that has a system. In most cities, they are a hybrid of commuter rail and streetcar, and combining the two doesn’t work. Commuter rail needs limited stops and fast service, and streetcar is slower and more localized–LRT often tries to do both. The Orange Line is a unique specimen in that it connects to a subway. If it went all the way to Downtown LA, it would be just as horrible as most LRT systems when going on the streets.

    I think you’d really have to do a costs/benefits/pollutants analysis to determine just how “bad” the Orange Line is. I think when you look at the whole picture (and factor in the LRT experience around the country), I think it’s probably a lot better than you give it credit for. Oh, and the Orange Line BRT is definitely not in a dense area and it’s a way more comfortable ride than most LRT or subway systems I’ve been on (aside from the sardines part, but real transit systems have that problem).

  16. Summer Bartholemew says:

    I’m thrilled to read this story. I just got back from Bogota last week. Yes, the traffic was horrible despite the fact that everyday 40 per cent of the city’s cars are off the road (this is a result of the many streets undergoing repaving or some sort of renovation or expansion.. at a snails pace, I might add.) And riding the transmillenio was like riding on a San Francisco BART train during rush-hour.. packed! But what was most amazing was the fact that the air was SO CLEAN!! From Monserrate or from El Parque Simon Bolivar you could see for ever. You could clearly see all the mountains that surround the city and the sky was the most amazing shade of blue. To me it’s almost unbelievable that a major city’s air could be so clean. It did rain while I was there.. which of course helped clean the air.. but I still can’t believe how clean that air was. I was expecting.. L.A. type smog… but instead got really good air quality. KUDOS to the folds that made it happen in Bogota! There’s hope for other cities throughout the world!

  17. Seth Masia says:

    Why use diesel engines? If you have dedicated lanes, we can revive the trolley bus and run all-electric. See