Answering BRT’s Biggest Questions: Interview to BRTCoE's book editors

Source: The City Fix – part I (January 27, 2016 ) & part II (January 28, 2016 ) – By: Ryan Winstead and Alex Rogala

On January 11, 2016 the BRT Center of Excellence launched a new book called “Restructuring Public Transport through Bus Rapid Transit.” The new resource provides researchers, students and decision makers an overview of how cities can effectively implement BRT in a variety of contexts to solve local transport challenges. “The goal of this book is to illustrate the opportunities BRT provides along with our research, addressing the challenges of meeting this potential,” said Laurel Paget-Seekins, Director of Strategic Initiatives of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. To learn more about BRT trends, model cities and challenges, TheCityFix talked with the editors of the book, Juan Carlos Munoz and Laurel Paget-Seekins. Drawing on their work, the two offered us their insights on some of the major questions facing BRT moving forward.

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The editors of the book, Juan Carlos Munoz and Laurel Paget-Seekins.

What are some of the emerging trends in BRT across the globe?

In this book we are not making the case for BRT; instead we are exploring its potential. Bus Rapid Transit can play a significant role as part of integrated public transport systems and is gaining support around the world in both developing and developed cities. BRT has shown its ability to carry large passenger volumes, while retaining the flexibility of bus service, with low capital costs, fairly short implementation times, and significant greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Initially BRT was conceptualized as Metro operation with buses. The goal was to achieve the great level of service usually offered by Metro, but on the surface. This service is often characterized by being fast, frequent, high capacity and reliable. And this takes us to the Metro vs BRT question. Is BRT a substitute of Metro? Sometimes yes, but most of the time not. These are modes that can complement each other really well. While Metro can provide fast long distance travel due to very limited stops to serve high demand volumes, BRT can exploit the flexibility of buses that can shift between corridors providing non-stop multi corridor trips. Buses can also overpass providing express services. Buses can enter and leave local neighborhoods and freeways, etc. We need to be more innovative when thinking about buses. Fare integration involving multiple modes (which we see as a growing trend worldwide) provides much more opportunities for network design that we would have if passengers were expected to reach their destinations through a direct service.

So BRT offers the potential to create an efficient network design, with room for flexible service options like express services and inter-corridor services. Recently, some cities are experimenting with open BRT corridors in which buses enter and leave the corridor into local neighbourhoods providing a direct trip and avoiding transfers. However, open BRTs are much more difficult to coordinate and operate less efficiently than a closed corridor in which buses never leave it. Even though open BRT corridors are gaining momentum, the question regarding under which conditions they are preferable is still arguable.

A third trend we would highlight is the need for BRT to add value to the urban context. In many cities BRT is seen as an urban scar dividing neighbourhoods which contradicts its mission of improving accessibility and mobility. Recently, we have seen BRT corridors as part of international architecture contests, which should lead to more attractive stations, less conflicts with built heritage and more space for non-motorized transport modes and social activities.

What’s an example of a city that has used BRT effectively? What can we learn from it?

We tend to look at Curitiba, Bogota and more recently Guangzhou as the iconic and symbolic Bus Rapid Transit systems. They have been pioneers of this new way of thinking and structuring urban buses. But this is a young industry and as such still has much to improve on and learn. We think that Rio de Janeiro is an interesting example to learn from. They are building a network of 4 corridors that interact with bikes and Metro. And these corridors show the flexibility of the BRT concept in action. While Transoeste was built in the middle of an expressway, therefore providing fast trips with few interruptions, Transcarioca sneaks into local neighborhoods displaying a more subtle intervention, adding overpassing lanes only next to stations. Buses in this corridor enjoy not only segregated paths, but also specific infrastructure which has been built to overcome particularly congested areas. Soon we should also learn from the inauguration of Transolimpica which should be ready for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Finally Transbrasil, built in the middle of a highly congested freeway, is expected to provide an unheard capacity of 60,000 passengers per hour in each direction. BRT in Rio has received very high approval ratings from its users and its level of service should improve once the network is ready to provide a more complete connectivity.

Finally, this month Yichang received the 2016 Sustainable Transport Award because of its impressive new BRT corridor. It is good to know that the BRT concept is still evolving to meet users and cities expectations about its capacity to provide high quality mobility and accessibility showing high safety records and reduced urban impact.

What are some of the unique challenges facing BRT in developing countries?

Funding and affordability are always a problem in developing countries. And we know we will not attract car drivers towards public transport through low fares, but through high quality of service instead. To provide this service, the funds gathered through fares will be insufficient to provide such service. Thus, subsidies are needed. The developing world must realize that these subsidies are needed not just for equitable reasons, but because it is efficient to do so. In the developing world we should try to allocate some of the funding into low income people that would consider high quality public transport systems unaffordable otherwise.

Another important challenge is to avoid a disconnection between the architecture projects that define where each of the stations will be built and their associated design, and the operational plan that will give life to this corridor. This is a big mistake when the corridor is expected to handle a large volume of passengers and buses as is often the case in developing countries. In this case the operational plan should consider a mix of different limited stop services and regular services visiting all stops. This scheme is used mainly to increase the capacity of the corridor, otherwise limited by the capacity of stations. But this operational scheme will therefore determine the rate at which buses will visit the stops and the number of passengers boarding and alighting at every station. So it is the operational plan defining how large each station should be and how many passengers should fit in each of them.

Another key aspect that needs to be addressed to improve the quality of service is comfort. The developing world must stop designing service based on 6 passengers for every square meter. This figure is the average across many buses and many areas inside buses. This is the best recipe for long term failure.

Finally, the developing world lacks capacity in the public sector with the knowledge to design and operate, while at the same manage contracts with private operators. And very often in these cities the government has not played this regulatory role before, so they face a high chance of making important and expensive mistakes.

What role do you see BRT playing in the development of sustainable cities?

The promise of BRT is that it can serve as a catalyst for reshaping urban space and embedding sustainable transport into the fabric of the city. As a surface mode it requires space, and in order to provide high quality service, that space has to be dedicated to public transport. This means clear prioritization for public transport vehicles and their users, including pedestrians and cyclists, in the design and enforcement of public street space.

Prioritizing surface public transport means deliberately challenging the use of surface space by cars—either in traffic or parking lots. Very often in cities where public transport is underground or elevated (i.e. Metro), the streets are left for cars. By reallocating street space, BRT can make car travel less attractive and public transport a more competitive and visible alternative. However, the prioritization of the movement of people and not cars is also the most controversial and politically difficult aspect of BRT.

Since BRT invests in infrastructure, including dedicated lanes and pre-boarding stations, it indicates a commitment to high quality public transport service. While one benefit of the bus is its flexibility, this flexibility can mean service is easily moved or cut. BRT on the other hand indicates a level of permanence for service. This permanence (sending a message of presence and visibility) is necessary to shape transit oriented land use, which can help build ridership long term. This can occur regardless of the level of development of a city or the existing public transport network.

What would you say are some of the major take-aways from the book?

There is a general sense that BRT is a key tool for urban sustainability, but in order for it to achieve that potential it has to be more than just a public transport mode. We have to think about more than just mode share or the peak passengers per direction per hour. BRT has to be part of a restructuring of transportation and urban space. The goal of this book is to illustrate the opportunities it provides along with our research addressing the challenges of meeting this potential. It is organized into three sections: institutional relationships, BRT in the city, and operations and design.

BRT is being used as a tool in the formalization of informal transit and this requires significant changes to institutions and the development of new capacity for the public sector. It transforms the relationships between the private operators, government authorities, and civil society. In addition to new challenges, these changing relationships create opportunities, such as an increased role for public participation and the setting for a debate about the proper level of subsidy and fares.

The second section recognizes that any changes to the public transport network take place within a complex urban context. From city-level to the individual passenger-level, change is hard. Even for just a single corridor, political power and perceptions of BRT shape the choice of mode and conflicts over public space for mobility. In both developing and developed cities it is a challenge to coordinate land use planning around public transport corridors. For passengers, new service means having to learn new routes and this requires the design and implementation of a passenger information system.

The third section examines the issues in operations and design. Clearly there are challenges to creating a surface rapid high capacity transit system, regardless of the type of city it is located in. But new technology is also bringing opportunities; for example, automated data collection can improve service efficiency, planning, and real-time information to users. Well-planned network design can increase capacity and reduce transfers. The switch to a formal system can improve working conditions and the efficiency of scheduling vehicles and driver shifts. An analysis of performance on BRT corridors can determine the factors that increase boardings, speed, reliability, and safety.

We would like to highlight that the book has been written so that all of these different elements interact and connect, providing a comprehensive view based on a multidisciplinary approach.

What should we expect from BRT in the near future?

In the future, BRT must not surrender its need for rapidness. Rapidness allows it to provide not just a fast trip, but also a low waiting time, and permits it to become a high capacity transport mode. Speed is not just good for users, it also increases operators’ productivity, therefore reducing its cost. To provide rapidness, a segregated busway is often needed. Also, high demand stations must be equipped with off board payment facilities, stations must not be too close to each other, and overpassing lanes must be provided.

The special infrastructure needed for BRT speed triggers two concerns: safety and urban impact. When BRT is adequately designed it usually reduces traffic crashes in comparison to having buses operating in mixed traffic. An ordered flow of buses and cars should also be easier to understand for pedestrians. It is important to avoid the temptation to make pedestrians take flyovers to reach stations. Instead, buses and vehicles are the ones that must stop to allow pedestrians to cross at ground level.

Regarding its urban impact, BRT may seem an intervention that is too large for cities. Still, when we think of the space taken by BRT infrastructure we should also consider how the space would be distributed otherwise. The space needed for mobility reflects the mobility needs of rush hour traffic. Of course, the space taken from the city for rush hour mobility stays fixed. So it is very important to have efficient solutions during peak periods. Cities must make public transport and non-motorized transport as attractive as possible. The alternative based on cars takes significantly more space, not just along the corridor, but in local streets and parking as well.

When we compare BRT and Metro, one of the aspects in which BRT is way behind is reliability. To earn the respect of public transport users and of citizens, BRT must overcome this important hurdle: it must be not just fast, but reliable. We need BRRT, Bus Rapid and Reliable Transit. Also, during off peak periods BRT must incorporate schedules so users can plan their trips while transfers are adequately coordinated.

The world is seeing more and more automated cars. We also have driverless Metro. I think we will see driverless BRT very soon—at least while the buses are in the corridors. It will help to keep regular headways, stick to schedules, dock smoothly at stations, implement eco-driving and reduce crashes. It seems that the industry is already realizing the opportunity here.

BRT is often built according to a trunk and feeder network. This may be effective for reducing costs, but it forces passengers to transfer. So we need to reduce transfers by implementing open BRT corridors, and run multi-corridor services. We also need to improve the design of the transfer experience to make it less exhausting. We can turn this experience into one of culture, commerce, and fun.