A low-cost method for better transportation: lessons from Latin America's Bus Rapid Transit boom

Istanbul's BRT system in action. Photo by Dario Hidalgo, EMBARQ, via ITDP
The Brookings Institution hosted a panel discussion yesterday on the prospect of bus rapid transit (BRT) in the United States and what lessons can be learned from BRT systems currently in place in Latin America.

Unlike a typical bus route, BRT systems generally have exclusive lanes for buses, make limited stops and sell tickets at kiosks rather than on the bus. These strategies keep BRT buses efficient and fast, even in congested traffic. BRT systems provide travelers with the choice of a lower cost, reliable and fast bus service as an alternate to driving by car.

Darío Hidalgo, Director of Research and Practice at EMBARQ, spoke about the organization’s new report on BRT systems in Latin America and Asia. He highlighted the many benefits of BRT, noting that the systems are cost-effective, fast and efficient, move people quickly and more safely and can also alleviate traffic congestion. The concept is also well-suited for big cities and smaller towns alike. In Colombia, capital city Bogotá has an extensive BRT system called the TransMilenio, but the smaller city Pereira, with a population of about 700,000, also makes use of the concept. BRT’s success is so widespread that many cities in Latin America either have BRT systems already or are planning them in the near future.

Sam Zimmerman, Urban Transport Adviser at the World Bank, spoke about bus transit systems in the United States, noting that obstacles to rapid bus transit remain in many areas despite the numerous benefits such systems bring. Zimmerman encouraged communities to consider location and land design in planning bus rapid transit systems, explaining that such approaches can be a win-win situation for both municipalities and businesses: strategically placed transit stops can attract private investors and boost ridership while also supporting local businesses. Zimmerman also emphasized that well-planned, fast, efficient transit service will always be in demand.

Marc Elrich, Councilmember at-large of Montgomery County, MD, talked about the proposed bus rapid transit system that would link western Montgomery County to the Metro’s Red Line. He said the County has almost no opportunity for new roads or improved roadway capacity, and that BRT is a low-cost, effective solution for its growing congestion problems. Elrich explained that BRT is affordable for the County, especially compared to heavy rail or light rail, and achievable is less time. The fact that this project would serve the Washington region, Elrich noted, would hopefully make it a model for sustainable transportation across the country.

The concise 90-minute discussion drove home the point that BRT is an excellent, affordable and achievable transportation system. As other countries’ examples demonstrate, BRT could serve U.S. communities well – especially in today’s tough economic climate.