Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
When designed the right way, a BRT line can be a smart alternative to more expensive modes of public transit.
In an era where financial resources are sparse, public transportation projects are difficult to put together. Though less popular than subway and light rail, bus rapid transit lines can be a successful and much cheaper alternative.
A major limitation to BRTs is the stigma that comes with being a bus. That can be addressed through design. Elevated and well-designed station platforms can create a sense of exclusivity. Sleek-looking and comfortable buses help craft that image as well. Most importantly, the bus-specific traffic lane makes users feel like it is worth keeping the car in the garage.
Cleveland is a good example of an American city, adopting BRT the right way. The Health Line was settled on after the projected costs of a hypothetical subway or light rail line were deemed to high. Since its debut, it has become an important link between downtown and University Circle. One might think a rapid bus line would be a hard sell in car-dependent Cleveland but it has been a success, with increasing ridership and a regenerated demand for residential and commercial activity along Euclid Street.
The first BRT system opened in 1974 in Curitiba, Brazil. For a car-dependent city that simply could not afford a subway system, this was an extremely affordable and innovate solution.
The idea took off around the continent, with cities in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela adopting their own BRT systems afterwards. It has been especially popular throughout the rest of Brazil, with nine other systems either in-use or under construction.
The BRT has become the ideal public transit solution for high density cities that don't yet have the wealth to create more expensive transit systems. Twelve Chinese cities have debuted BRT lines since 1999 with more planned to follow. In Indonesia, 11 different cities have an operating BRT system. Jakarta's will eventually include 15 different lines.
For more economically mature countries like the United States, BRTs might be a hard sell, perhaps seen as just a glorified bus. An unfortunate consequence of adopting a BRT system in a wealthier country is that it can be seen as simply a cheap alternative and therefore inherently easier to cut corners on it as opposed to a light rail or subway system. When seen as such, the chance of creating an inferior product increases and its perception is no better than any bus. But when it is seen as a progressive solution to public transit, it can be nearly as good as any other method.
Below, a sampling of some of the bus rapid transit systems throughout the world: