Bus Rapid Transit Systems

Bus Rapid Transit Systems, or BRTs, are not a new technology. Called subways on wheels, they date to the 1970s and were first implemented in Curitiba, Brazil but until Bogotá, Colombia copied and improved on the system a decade ago they remained more of a novelty. Today, BRT systems can be found the world over with more cities studying the feasibility of adding lines. In 2006, Los Angeles opened its Orange line and on Monday, the city of Everett, Washington is opening a $29.6 million 17-mile bus line, called Swift. By comparison, Charlotte's light rail project is running $44.5 million per mile.

Curitiba is a city of 1.7 million with some 3.2 million people in its metropolitan area. The city is about the same size as Phoenix. While in Curitiba 75 percent of commuters use public transportation to get to and from work, in Phoenix only 1 percent do. The BRT system in Curitiba is used by more than 2 million people a day. There are more car owners per capita than anywhere in Brazil, and yet per capita gas consumption is the lowest in Brazil. And while the population has doubled since 1974, auto traffic has declined by 30 percent in that same time frame. The result is atmospheric pollution that is the lowest in Brazil which then translates into better health metrics for Curitiba's citizens.

Light rail is now all the rage in the United States since Portland's widely-respected system came on line. Not to rain on light rail's parade, but BRT systems have several key advantages. A light rail project is ten times more expensive and it can take a decade or more to build. A BRT system can be implemented in less than three years at a fraction of the cost. Because BRT builds off existing infrastructure and has a high carrying capacity of up to 270 passengers per vehicle compared to 180 per train for light rail, it is simply more economical than light rail. A typical BRT system costs between $1 million and $35 million per mile, while a light rail or subway system typically costs $13-$336 million per mile. Moreover, BRT systems always run at capacity with buses added as passenger demand requires it. And though derailments are rare, a derailment can shut down a whole system as occurred earlier this month in San Francisco. The other key advantage to the Curitiba and Bogotá models is that their BRTs are not publicly subsidized. That frees up city budgets to pay for needed investments in healthcare, education and parks.

Jaime Lerner, the three time mayor of Curitiba who created the basics of the BRT system back in the 1970s, likes to say that simple solutions to complex urban problems are generally the better answer. With transportation responsible for as much as a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, reducing fossil fuel use in the sector is considered critical.  A 2006 study found that Los Angeles' Orange Line BRT is saving more than 18,600 barrels of oil per year. Getting American out of their cars five days a week is a national security imperative. If Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has never been to Curitiba, he should hop on the next plane. Below a video on the Los Angeles BRT and below the fold some projects currently being considered for San Francisco (which I am working on), the Oakland-Alameda East Bay Metroplex, Birmingham and Washington DC areas.

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