The Evolution of a Successful and Safe Bus Rapid Transit System

By Christina Olsen

For the past 15 years, Christina Olsen has provided research, advisory services, project management, planning, and general management to a wide range of sustainability organizations and projects around the world. She holds a master’s degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard and a BA in Environmental Studies – with a joint major in Anthropology – from the University of Victoria.

This interview series is made possible by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations. Each month we feature a leading thinker from VREF’s Future Urban Transport program.

Meeting of the Minds talked with Dr. Dario Hidalgo about the evolution of BRT and what makes it a successful part of an integrated urban public transit system. Dr. Hidalgo guides the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities international team of transport engineers and planners and also coordinates the Observatory of the BRT Center of Excellence. He has more than 25 years of experience as a transport expert, consultant, and government official. He has taken part in urban transport projects and taught training courses in 15+ countries. He is also a lecturer in transport planning and is the author of 83 publications. He holds Ph.D. and M.Sc. degrees in Transportation Planning from Ohio State University, and a Civil Engineering degree from Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.


What kind of work do you do that’s related to Bus Rapid Transit in cities?

We started as a “think and do tank” for World Resources Institute (WRI) and are members of the BRT Center of Excellence. Our program, called EMBARQ, is about sustainable mobility in global cities and we began by taking over responsibility for what we call the Observatory, which was trying to document what was going on with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems. We built a database which has become the place to go to get basic information about BRT and bus corridors around the world.

Right now, we have a little more than 160 cities in the database, covering bus corridors that move more than 30 million people every day. It’s very interesting to see the differences around the world. The BRT concept started in the city of Curitiba in Brazil and almost all of the big cities in Latin America now have some sort of BRT corridor. There’s now a lot of growth of BRT in China and it has also started in India. There are some in Europe and the US as part of their integrated transport systems, but very few corridors in Africa.

We create trend reports on the evolution of BRT that describe its physical characteristics and what seems to be working and not working in different places. One report that I find really interesting is the benchmarking report that compares BRT with other forms of mass transit. We see that, in general, the highest capacity BRT corridors are performing better than the best performing light rail, and that metros have more capacity and speed than most of the BRTs. Our understanding is that BRTs are an excellent option to complement other mass transit in cities as part of integrated transport systems. There’s a lot of relevant information in the BRT Centre of Excellence book “Restructuring Public Transport through Bus Rapid Transit: An International and Interdisciplinary Perspective” by Juan Carlos Muñoz and Laurel Paget-Seekins.

We also produced another paper with Juan Carlos Muñoz of the Universidad Católica de Chile on whether to go for “big bang” or for gradual implementation of transport reform. We reviewed the implementation of the Santiago system which was very chaotic at the beginning but then improved a lot over time. We then produced another paper on the implementations in Cali and Bogota that have been more gradual but have also a lot of difficulties.


If a group of transportation planners came to you and said they were thinking about implementing BRT in their city, what would you tell them to consider?

We have seen a tendency to overstress the infrastructure side of the planning process with less emphasis on the business models and operations of the systems over time. BRT is considered a lower cost option so I also see a tendency to cut corners. Many times, some of the critical BRT elements for high performance are not implemented as planned, which can lead to problems either with initial operations or with the performance of BRT over time. So the main recommendation is to have a balanced approach to planning. It’s important to understand that all the components need to be in place for the system to have the highest performance and deliver what it promises. For instance, a lack of sufficient right of way for providing bus priority means that some sections of the BRT will operate in mixed traffic. When that happens, the performance of the whole corridor gets compromised.

The other thing that we have seen, particularly in developing countries, is that BRT is often expected to deliver too many things related to broader transport reform. For instance, a BRT system may be used as a way to attempt to reform informal or semi-formal operations. This can bring additional challenges and the BRT becomes almost like a Christmas tree with more and more things hanging on it. When you have so many objectives, some of the objectives will not be met.

Equity is an example. There is a general feeling that, because it is public transport, BRT is already providing low-income users with mobility options and access options. But what we have found in some research is that the user fares are too high for very low-income populations. The general trend on the equity of Bus Rapid Transit is that BRTs are progressive but that there is a need for targeted subsidies to low-income groups, something that is not always considered in the BRT planning.


What kinds of technological innovation makes for better BRT systems?

There are multiple aspects in which information technologies and propulsion technologies can improve BRT performance and also reduce some of the harmful impacts on the environment. In general, all BRTs around the world have some sort of centralized control. However, these systems are usually very manual so they depend a lot on a person in the control center providing instructions to the bus drivers. Instructions usually come very late so if the vehicle is already delayed it is very difficult to pick up time and get back to a normal planned schedule. A group of researchers at Universidad Católica de Chile have developed really interesting software which helps real-time information to improve the reliability of bus services. It is now also very easy to create apps that provide much better information on routing and navigation for complex BRT systems.

There are still diesel buses that consume fossil fuels, having impacts not only on local air quality but also on global warming. So we need better propulsion technologies, starting with hybrid electric buses and moving as fast as we can to electric bus fleets. Fortunately, there is good research and development on these types of vehicles by manufacturers in China, Sweden, Germany, and now in the US. The main cost of these electric vehicles is the battery and that’s where the most research and development is happening so the batteries are becoming lighter and more cost effective. What we previously thought was a long-term thing, now looks like it may happen sooner.

There is also the new trend of having autonomous vehicles which makes a lot of sense in dedicated bus corridors because they are much more predictable than general traffic bus corridors. It is expected that it will not just reduce the cost of labor but also reduce impacts on road safety. We are seeing very initial stages of autonomous vehicles being used in public transportation. There are experiments in Finland, Singapore, and Paris which we believe will pave the way toward autonomous buses. Electrification and automation are two of the most important trends that BRT may capture to improve performance and quality.


Before the autonomous future appears, there are a lot of other improvements to be made. How else are you helping cities navigate the present?

We have been involved a lot in developing guidelines for safe design of BRT corridors and have created a publication of recommendations on the most critical elements. For instance, we really recommend not having counter-flow lanes that some BRTs have used, because they pose a very high risk to pedestrians who are not used to buses coming in an unexpected direction. Our analysis shows that this is the most dangerous design feature for BRT. We also strongly recommend segregating the bus lane really well from the general traffic, not just softly separated by paint, as well as emphasizing good design at the intersections where the conflicts happen.

The new designs in terms of road safety are being implemented in Brazil, particularly in the city of Bela Horizonte and in different corridors in Rio de Janeiro. The most recent designs on Line 5 and Line 6 in Mexico City, which we have influenced a bit, are also good because a strong audit of the safety of the design was done before implementation. Systems in northern Europe generally have good practice of safe design but others that are just bus corridors in Latin America have not been as great. Unfortunately, what we’ve also seen, is that instead of evolving towards better systems, a few have even been dismantled. That was the case of bus corridors in Delhi and Jakarta. So there has been some progress but there is still a way to go and being very conscious of safety in the design of road safety is what we are advocating.


To have full BRT, five aspects are the most important:

  • Bus corridor that is fully segregated
  • Stations with off-board ticketing
  • Better and especially lower emission buses
  • Information technologies for payments, user information, and improved control and dispatch
  • Better branding; the system needs to be branded as an innovative transportation option, or it’ll be seen as just the same bus.


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