Interview with Juan Carlos Muñoz: Why Bus Rapid Transit Makes Sense for Cities

Original Post by Meeting of the Minds

Meeting of the Minds took a minute to sit down with Juan Carlos Muñoz about his new book on BRT. He and Laurel Paget-Seekins edited the recently published book: “Restructuring Public Transport through Bus Rapid Transit”. Juan Carlos is the Director of the Bus Rapid Transit Centre of Excellence, Director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, and Associate Professor with the Department of Transport Engineering and Logistics at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago. 

What is the premise and motivation for your new book?

Public transport makes your city more efficient. Don’t look at public transport as a mode of moving people who cannot afford anything else. Instead, look at it as a mode that most of us need to take to make our city a better place. The need for subsidies is not just about equity, but also making it attractive for everyone else, especially those who are addicted to their cars. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a great tool for making public transit a high quality attribute of a city while also taking some space from cars. BRT can also be a tool to improve public space.

Who are you hoping will read your book?

The book is aimed not just to academic researchers or students, but also to those who are designing, implementing, and making transportation systems happen. We’ve minimized the technical language to make it easy to understand for people from different disciplines and backgrounds. The book covers strategic and tactical matters of BRT but the focus is on big issues rather than details. We’re hoping that the second edition will be printed in paperback to make it more affordable, especially for those in the developing world. 

What is BRT and what urban problems does it help to solve?

When we talk about Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) we also need to talk about the urban context they serve. BRT systems are not a silver bullet that can fit any place. However, many cities around the world have the density and the need to serve transportation to their citizens as cost efficiently as possible. The main tool we’ve chosen to serve this mobility around the world over the past 80 years is the car. However, we see strong evidence that the car is the worst possible way to serve dense urban mobility needs during rush hours. So we need to think of other solutions.

We have other alternatives, namely: walking, cycling, and mass public transit. Walking not only solves mobility needs but also improves health and increases social encounters. After all, cities aren’t just a set of buildings but much more important is what happens around them. Bicycles are similarly good for mobility and health. They are also great because in many cities most trips are within cycling distance so there is no need to spatially reorganize the city, as you would probably need to increase the proportion of trips done by walking.

The other alternative to the car is mass public transport. Its two main forms are using rails or buses. Both are great tools and cities should try to use both. However, in some cities, an underground metro system is either too expensive or doesn’t have enough demand to be able to scale the system and justify the cost. Buses under the structure of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) have recently shown that they can move a lot of people in a cost efficient way. BRTs almost everywhere are not as efficient as metros in terms of the volume of passengers they can move but instead they have flexibility that trains lack. For instance, metros are restricted to travelling along set lines. Buses are less rigid, combining main corridors in their routes and even moving through local neighborhoods. Buses also compete with cars for space – although this is often seen as negative, it can actually be positive. Cities that have invested in underground systems still have a lot of trips happening by car because metros are not seen at the surface. Cars can continue their business as usual, resulting in increasing congestion. Instead, good surface public transit has two effects: it directly competes for urban space used by cars, and becomes a highly visible alternative for car drivers stuck in congestion.

So getting back to the question about what is BRT… it is the idea of providing metro-like service with buses on the surface of the city taking advantage of bus operational flexibility. In some cities, BRTs have even actually reached metro-like capacity standards.

What are the key aspects that make for successful Bus Rapid Transit?

  • Segregated lanes to avoid having buses in same lane as cars. It is preferable to place the BRT lanes in the center of a road.
  • Large buses with a focus on comfort, not just to fit a lot of people.
  • Fast operation to keep cycle times short. This not only allows people to reach their destinations faster, it also increases the productivity of vehicles, reducing waiting times and increasing capacity and comfort provided with the same fleet. It also makes the service more cost efficient. Thus, rapidness is important. There is a reason it is not called “Bus Comfortable Transit” or “Bus Frequent Transit”! We have to remember that it is Bus RAPID Transit. Rapidness is key to maintain high level of service and cost effectiveness.
  • Pre-paid tickets and buses with several wide doors to reduce bus dwell times. People need to pay to board the station, not while boarding the bus. Stations need to be large enough to accommodate many people waiting and serve more than one bus at a time.
  • Good control system to avoid the problem of “bus bunching” where vehicles start travelling in pairs or groups instead of moving at equal distances apart. Bunching increases waiting time while it also hurts reliability and comfort, becoming a severe problem around the world. The bus industry lacks tools to actively address this very important problem. BRT should also implement a control system to give buses priority with traffic signals.
  • Stations far apart, perhaps at least 500m apart to reduce the number of stops, increasing speed overall. This will force some people to walk or bike longer to the stations. Other users will need to use smaller feeder buses to get to their station.
  • Express services, not just to speed up trips and reduce cycle times, but also to avoid station “bottlenecks”. In BRT systems the capacity limit does not come from buses or bus lanes, but from bus stations. A station without an overpass facility cannot serve more than around 80 buses per hour. Thus, stations are usually large to accommodate many buses simultaneously. They are also equipped with an overpassing lane to facilitate bus maneuvers when entering and leaving the stations, and to allow some express or limited stop services to bypass them entirely. So express services speed up trips, avoid station clogging, and reduce the need for long stations that take up a lot of space.
  • Passenger information systems – including branding and design – to make BRT attractive and become a symbol of the city. BRT should not just be seen as a service for the poor, but for everyone.
  • Integration of BRT with the rest of the transport system. Inter-modality with other transport options like feeder buses, bikes, taxis, and even cars, so that people can access BRTs as conveniently and quickly as possible from wherever they are in the city.
  • BRT as a tool for urban development. BRT can promote transit-oriented development (TOD). By this we mean high-density urban areas where people rely on the public transport system to meet their needs since BRT was there from the beginning.

How can policy makers, city managers, entrepreneurs, and others help advance BRT? What are the next areas for innovation in BRT?

There are several trends and opportunities. The main goal is to make BRT trips more attractive than using a car. It is a mistake to make public transit systems financially self-sufficient because cities deserve and need more services, more frequencies, and better buses than users can actually fund. So cities should invest – through subsidies – in public transport systems and finance part of their operation. Since affordability for low income people is also important, some of these subsidies should be allocated to provide public transport access by this sector. But we should keep in mind that it is through high quality that we will ensure people prefer public transit over cars in the long term. We must understand that subsidies make cities not just more equitable, but also efficient.

There are several features needed in future BRT systems:

  • Rapidness is key. This includes over-passing facilities, multi-corridor services, traffic signal coordination, among other features. Some BRT buses can even use urban freeways with dedicated bus lanes. Since many cities are growing and geographically spreading out, rapid bus service through freeways across large areas can be very attractive.
  • There should actually be a second “R” in BRT to become “Bus Rapid and Reliable Transit”. Reducing bus bunching is crucial. We are currently developing tools for this in our BRT Center of Excellence in Santiago with promising results.
  • Driverless buses. First, cars and metro – what about buses? It could happen within a segregated corridor where the number of possible interactions with other vehicles is greatly reduced. Autonomous buses could improve adherence to schedules, reliability, safety, smoother bus docking at stations, fuel efficiency, and emission reductions.
  • Designing public transport considering a large number of people in each vehicle is like designing for failure. BRT can be more affordable than a metro but if it is made too cheap it will not be attractive. Because buses are cheaper, there is an opportunity to design BRT to a higher standard of comfort.
  • Transfer reduction. If BRT buses must stay in their corridor, people have to make many transfers to other lines and feeder services. People hate transfers so the system should be designed to reduce them. People will see more “open BRT corridors” in which the neighborhood bus can also enter the BRT corridors, as some cities have already done.
  • Improving stations can also make the transfer experience better. Some public transport stations have more visitors than national museums in city centers. If stations are designed to serve other activities – like commerce, government services, or art – BRT can become a more complete experience, not just a transport experience.
  • Low emissions. The future is low emission, just like metros. Some BRT systems use hybrid buses. There are now also electric buses that can be charged quickly right in the station while they stop, which reduces the battery problem.
  • Urban context. Considerations must be made to merge BRT with the existing urban context so that it adds value to local neighborhoods.