Albuquerque Rapid Transit operated by ABQ Ride. Photo: ART

Albuquerque Rapid Transit operated by ABQ Ride. Photo: ART

We are seeing that BRT Systems (Bus Rapid Transit) seem to be positioning themselves better and more quickly as a viable transit solution for medium to large cities. When we attempt to explain why this is so, a comparison is often made between this system and other modes of transit, such as metros or light rail systems. Nevertheless, such comparisons are irrelevant if we consider that all of them are complementary to each other — none is completely good or bad; its value is relative and depends on the demand and reason for its use. So, why are BRT Lines being frequently chosen over other systems of mass transit?

One of its main characteristics has to do with its capacity to cover a large range of passengers, from 50,000 to 350,000 riders per day. In other words, a BRT Line is a very flexible and adaptable system considering the levels of demand and number of riders.

Adaptability and flexibility are the characteristics of BRT Line that are considered to be its most favorable aspects as they can be configured according to each project — city’s needs, budget, demand size, existing road infrastructure, etc. Let’s look at some of the general characteristics of a BRT Line:

  • Optimal utilization of current road infrastructure, by adding a preferential or exclusive lane;
  • Allows the possibility of taking advantage of existing urban spaces and linking them with the flexibility of a BRT Line route;
  • Adapts to the financing capacity of budgets and investment capabilities of in most cities;
  • Operation costs are minimum, even when there are low levels of demand;
  • Has a low urban impact due to the short period of its implementation, less than 2 years;
  • Ability to use a greater variety of buses, from conventional 40-passenger buses with a low floor to an articulated bus with a capacity of 60 passengers;
  • Ease of physically and operationally integrating the fixed bus routes with the BRT Line, improving the connectivity of all trips;
  • Speed, safety and reliability of trips offered through an exclusive lane;
  • Optimal use of monitoring, operational and automatic fare collection technologies, as well as rider’s information solutions.
  • Safe and quick boarding process, due to conventional type of platforms and buses

Eugene, Ore.-based Lane Transit District's Emerald Express (EmX) bus rapid transit system. Photo: Lane Transit District

Eugene, Ore.-based Lane Transit District's Emerald Express (EmX) bus rapid transit system. Photo: Lane Transit District

But, are there limits to adaptability? There is a risk given the complexity of any BRT line city-solution; misunderstanding such “adaptability” can end up breaking down any project, not only in terms of arbitrary differences or the taste of decision-makers, but due to a lack of understanding of an integral design. In other words, a distinction must be made between constants and variables, the essential attributes of those accessories and what can be chosen from what must be defined. To achieve a system-wide design, scalable, modular in any BRT project; assumes to integrate the parts within the whole and understanding the correlation that exists between them.

In this way, every decision that must be made and that is made, corresponds to and creates another series of decisions that go with them, they are never alone; where technical requirements, financing, legal or infrastructure and social aspects, must not be confused with non-essential parts, luxury or disposable features because it’s not about a list of flavors to select from, it means rather that such decisions within one aspect must match up with the other aspects and their implications. To ignore this elemental principle could result in a domino effect of undesirable, unforeseen consequences, that lead to a chain of ridiculous fixes, going over budget or a lack of functionality in the whole project. We will see several examples that illustrate this later.

Now, let’s look closely, separately and from their own nature of “The Six (6) Components of All Sustainable Transit Modes”; all of the six (6) elements that integrate the aspects to be configured when a BRT system is implemented (or any other form of public transportation, for that matter) and how these must be completely aligned with regard to the whole system and to one another, as has already been stated, to consolidate a functional, profitable, operational and sustainable BRT project, which are:  

1. Road Infrastructure and Facilities;
2. Fleet of Buses;
3. Technology;
4. Operation Management;
5. Government and Other Institutions; and
6. Laws and Regulations

1.    Road Infrastructure and Facilities:  Within this first component, in which the features related to road infrastructure are defined (those already existing or those that will be developed) as well as the permanent structures necessary for the implementation of a BRT project, there are several options available. For example, when the roadways are wide, it is possible to take advantage of that to assign an exclusive lane for BRT, but on certain stretches of the road it may only be a preferential lane if it is faster than cars during rush hour. It is flexible because you can use passing lanes and if the streets are narrow, the directions of traffic can be divided, for example, in some city downtown areas, on two streets with “half platforms” that merge together into one platform. In extreme cases, you can even negotiate the section with private business owners to find a solution that will allow them to take advantage of the influx of users of urban transportation through the placing of stations in advantageous locations. There may even be tiny platforms for narrow streets in the downtown areas of a city that can be in the middle of an avenue, on the left or right side without taking into account the direction of traffic. It can also be adapted to the climate, by having them open or closed with air conditioning and completely transparent so as to offer better security.

Mexico City BRT system. Photo: Pedro Jimenez

Mexico City BRT system. Photo: Pedro Jimenez

With respect to the platforms, handicapped accessibility is important. The BRT system can be configured to be inclusive and it operates the same way with 12-inch platforms as with 36-inch platforms. Both options facilitate access without the need for elevators or complex solutions.

To sum it up, the infrastructure is adaptable and definitely responds with a great dose of creativity and design to respond to the specific requirements of the urban space and the budget in question.

2.    Fleet of Buses: With respect to the fleet of buses, flexibility when selecting it offers practically unlimited options. You can configure buses with 12-inch-low platforms or 36-inch-high platforms, 40-foot articulated buses, or there are even systems that combine different types of buses, with smaller and faster ones in some cases for express routes and for passing. They can be gasoline, diesel, hybrid or even completely electric-powered buses. These internal configurations can also be modified based on the demand of the BRT route. In other words, the adaptability of the selection and configuration of the fleet of buses can be adjusted to the conditions of the project, demand, topographical conditions or even climate.

Of course, configurability, the number of buses to be included in the BRT corridor, has a limit that cannot be exceeded. In Mexico City, Line One of the Metrobus BRT has already reached its limit with 350,000 passengers per day. No more buses can be added during rush hour nor can they have articulated buses with more than three articulations. When you reach the BRT limit, the time has come to search for alternative and complementary options for mass transit, such as a metro.

3.    Technology: The technological equipment that generally goes along with BRT systems is diverse and serves several functions and requirements. They may provide monitoring of daily operation, statistics and management data, fare collection, as well as information for riders.

We understand that information systems for users are critical in BRT systems. Whether or not they have an exclusive lane, the reality is that buses run on the same level as general traffic in cities, which makes information for users a priority to enable them to get the best possible use of this system. We could say that BRT systems have encouraged the development and improvement of information systems for users.

Passengers at CTfastrak station. Photo: Connecticut Transit

Passengers at CTfastrak station. Photo: Connecticut Transit

On the other hand, systems for charging customers have also shown that they can be less complicated without compromising the security and efficiency of charging customers. Creative solutions have been developed that offer possibilities to grow, such as intelligent cards. The cities and transit authorities can choose between secure systems or closed systems with booths or turnstiles, but when open platforms are chosen, forms of advance payment with credit or debit cards can be offered, or even flash-type payment systems can be implemented. Even when you can continue receiving cash payments, this can be handled intelligently in a manner in which the operation itself will not make the final ticket price of each TVM (Ticket Vending Machine) more expensive.  

4.    Operation Management: Not everything can and should be resolved with technology. Technology is the means, not the end. When we believe that the implementation of “things” involved in the first three components have been resolved, we have the challenges that involve “subjects” in the following components. The operation requirements of a transportation authority must be defined. It is then possible to take on the challenge of reconfiguring the corporate or concessionaries’ modes of corporate organization. Within the social and collective dimensions of the people involved in the project design as well as in its daily operation, alternative technologies may be found to encourage new forms of internal organization, anywhere from a new mechanism for charging customers to a smart dispatch system. Additionally, those people who operate information technologies can use them to design better incentive and supervision systems and therefore have an impact on the performance of conductors, inspectors or the same people responsible for administrative or maintenance tasks. BRTs can be attended to and operated by the same transportation authority and its personnel, which differs from metro systems, which require specialized support.

5.    Government and Other Institutions: When the rest of the features of the BRT project have been defined, this must be done within the framework of the institutional infrastructure on which it depends, and it must involve the participation of its officers, who are also essential participants in the model as a whole. By the same token, “the city” must be taken into account in terms of financing, decision-making, and operation. When the organisms responsible for planning transportation in a city make the decision to improve the current transportation system, they always come to a crossroads: optimizing the current system, which is usually collective transportation provided by conventional buses or, to the contrary, and if demand requires it, seek mass transit options such as metros, light rails or BRTs.

We are going to briefly analyze some of these consequences. The process normally evaluates demand, urban roadway, financial capacity of the city, among other factors. BRT has a specific way of being presented that will allow its benefits and great social impact to be easily appreciated. In other words, the equation becomes an apparent win-win situation. The time and effort that it takes to decide about a metro versus a BRT is significantly less. This may be one of the reasons that authorities tend to find it easier to decide on a BRT than on a light rail, without even mentioning the incomparable cost of investment in the infrastructure by the mile.

Aside from the official transportation institutions, there are also corporate organisms and specialized consultants who are getting more involved every day and who participate through citizen accountability mechanisms in the process and who make decisions that will affect them. It would seem that BRTs offer a great opening to receiving and incorporating ideas from all social participants in a more dynamic, agile way than other modes of transportation.

6.    Laws and Regulations: When cities find themselves in the process of selecting BRT as the best option for their cities, and they are analyzing it within their legal framework, in most cases it has been shown that it is relatively easier for a BRT to adapt itself to current laws and regulations, since it may comply with regulations for conventional transportation in several ways. In most cases, it is simpler and faster to modify technical regulations than to modify land-use to allow a rail or metro pass through, with it all of the regulations that would entail. In other words, the BRT mode of transportation adapts itself more easily with a lesser legal impact, which accelerates the decision-making process.

We can sum up that BRT systems have shown that formulas may be modified to benefit cities and that its “Six (6) Components” are versatile and diverse, and that there is no one formula. The adaptability of BRT offers new opportunities for modernization and better transportation, since it responds with creative and flexible, less orthodox solutions. Originally, BRT systems covered a gap between conventional buses and metro or light rail type mass transit systems, but they have demonstrated that, even if they continue to cover that gap with dignity, that gap has now widened even more, and I’m not only referring to its ability to satisfy demand, but also to its financial aspects. It allows shorter implementation times and, with proper planning, better socialization amongst the users of the system.

However, we must remember that it is not about a combination that is defined at will. Balancing the requests of society, the investors in the project, governments and their budgets, are not a minor challenge. BRTs have an “elasticity” limit and we have frequently observed that the participants in the project attempt to cross that adaptability line, not without its corresponding costs and effects.

Even though every BRT project is different and unique, when we analyze them retrospectively, we have identified that, the chain effect of some decision that doesn’t line up with the rest of the components becomes clear. Therefore, we reiterate that there is no one unique, identical and duplicable formula for implementing BRT, but we can see that in most cases, where we have implemented the technological component of BRT, there have been good and bad results. Now, let’s go over some cases that illustrate this.

  • In one BRT project whose goal was to have a smart card that could incorporate several products and forms of payment, we were asked to design, and we designed, a card that was so strong and flexible that it could activate or deactivate products. The end goal was to be able to apply and integrate that range of products into the Metro system of the city. When it seemed that the technical discussions seemed to be taking off, we discovered that the law and regulatory framework of the city did not include or obligate the providers of both BRT and Metro systems to create an applicable integration of both systems. Therefore, in this case, by not taking into consideration one of the six components, the fare integration fell apart.
  • In another case, the selection of the design for the platform was presented as a completely open platform with a particularly high roof. We could see the impact of this decision reflected in the choice of technology, since it was necessary to waterproof all devices.
  • With respect to the security of a platform in another case, it was only possible to resolve the situation through the appropriate architectural design of the platform and the physical disposition in the entrance space. It was necessary for the technology to perform a double role and efforts, not only with videotaping, but it was also necessary to make the customer payment system peripheral, where the gates or turnstiles would serve an additional function other than that of charging customers, making it necessary to move them to facilitate access entering and exiting from the station in an orderly and safe manner.
  • Finally, let’s look at this case: in the same BRT line, a city decided to contract with two different providers for the TVMs. After some time, it was discovered that on some platforms there were long lines to buy passes, so that the first thought was that the TVMs were insufficient and therefore the logical solution seemed to be to buy and install more TVMs. Upon analyzing the problem, we discovered that the machines from the second provider processed the transactions in half the time. It was only then that an adjustment was made to those machines, which not only avoided the purchase of more machines, but that also would have caused a need for finding and building new spaces on the platforms. In other words, a decision that appeared to be innocuous and perfectly flexible, buying technology from two providers, had consequences as to how the users interacted with the interface and how timing complicated traffic on the platforms. As a result, users were unable to understand how it worked and the city had a peculiar situation where each platform or bus or technology selected wouldn’t run in sync with the rest of the equipment, which was an obstacle for intuitive and logical interpretation on the one hand and, learning and accumulation of experience on the other.

In closing, a combination of successful factors is not always achieved in all projects. The costs and benefits of this learning curve are diverse.

A city’s transportation network stands for its circulatory system, just as in a living organism. Those of us who take part of the decision-making process in designing solutions for public transportation, have the mission to answer the following basic question: Are all the components aligned to make the entire city's transit system fully accessible and effective for all of its inhabitants and visitors?

About the Author: Pedro Jimenez is the CEO/president of BEA Transit Technologies a company that develops, implements and operates fare collection solutions for the transit industry.