Latin America’s BRT boom

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Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is booming in Latin America. The cost-effective mass transport option, which aims to make bus transit as efficient as light rail or metro systems, is spreading rapidly across the region and is helping city planners reduce traffic congestion in some of Latin America’s largest cities. This map shows over 30 Latin American BRT systems in operation or under construction.

Following the example of the mid-sized Brazilian city of Curitiba, which pioneered the idea of using committed bus lanes to channel buses to fixed stations in the 1970s, comprehensive BRT systems were developed in Quito, Ecuador (Ecovía in 1995) and Bogotá, Colombia (Transmilenio in 2000) to help cash-strapped city governments bring structure to their respective chaotic transport systems (image above courtesy of Nexus). The success of the initial BRT models has led to rapid uptake in other regional capitals (such as Santiago, Chile and Mexico City, Mexico) and peripheral cities (in Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador) in recent years. The second phase of BRT implementation is steadily spreading and small and medium-sized cities are quickly drawing up their own BRT plans and established BRT systems are expanding by adding feeder routes. In Colombia alone there are four BRT systems (in Cali, Cartagena, Medellin and Pareira) recently implemented or under construction in addition to the Transmilenio in Bogotá.

So, why such a rapid uptake? This report from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) highlights the cost effectiveness — “a developed world transit system at developing world prices” — and impact on everything from reducing commuting times to raising property values. When done properly BRT can replicate the services of light rail for less than a tenth of the costs (a km of BRT costs an average of approximately US$2.9m compared to around US$70m per km for light rail). BRT can also increase bus speeds to match and in some cases exceed the speed of many metro systems. BRT systems have also proved politically popular, which is always a plus for Latin American mayors and governors struggling to looking for successful projects to tout during re-election campaigns. Cost-effective, efficient and modern projects which have direct impact on citizens’ lives are proving to be highly attractive.

Why Latin America? Transportation in Latin American cities is disorganized, dirty and expensive. South America is the world’s most urbanized continent and many cities are spread out, rather than built up, and commuters, particularly those on low incomes, have to travel long distances to reach centrally located jobs. The most common mode of mass transport before BRT was fleets of loosely regulated private buses which ran on routes without organized stops or stations. As populations and economies have grown in recent decades, the problems have only gotten worse. For many city governments expensive metro or rail systems were out of the question and the main alternative has been BRT. It helped that the world’s first BRT system was constructed close by in Curitiba and that BRT is relatively adaptable; initial replications in Quito and Bogotá each added their own innovations.

What does this mean for urban transport in the region? The COHA report rightly points out that BRT is not a transport panacea but rather an important option that can bring some order to mass transit systems when properly managed. The most successful BRT systems have had a well planned implementation and involved projects to scrap a number of old buses, which if not taken off the streets can increase congestion outside BRT corridors.

The initial burst of BRT in Latin America has proved to be relatively successful but traffic congestion, stressful commutes and pollution remain a problem (image courtesy of El Comercio). For many cities the implementation of BRT has been a first step in the development of a more expansive transport system. It will be interesting to see how the current boom will impact transportation in the later-adopting cities. There are likely to be both some failures and some advances. But given the recent rapid spread of BRT, not to mention an increase in information-sharing and transport innovation across Latin America, it is likely that the advances will continue to make their way around the region, this time at an even faster pace.


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