When it's done properly, bus rapid transit -- known as BRT -- ranks among the cheapest and quickest ways to cut CO2 emissions from transportation.
But it is not often done properly -- least of all in the United States, according to a new report.
In the complete vision, buses zoom down their own lanes of traffic, facing no competition from cars. They pull up to raised bus stops where people can step on or off quickly. They come every few minutes, so missing one won't wreck a commuter's morning.
The cities that have delivered this vision most successfully while cutting the most carbon are not in the United States or even Europe. They are in South Africa, Colombia, India and China.
The United States' top five systems fall well short of these countries' systems, according to findings by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a nonprofit that tracks transportation issues around the world.
On ITDP's 100-point scale, Bogotá, Colombia scored highest: Its BRT system got a 93. The new system in Guangzhou, China, ranked second at 89 (ClimateWire, April 27; ClimateWire, July 16, 2010).
The United States' leading BRT is Cleveland's, which scored a 63. The BRT system in New York City received a 35 -- by ITDP's standard, it cannot even technically be called BRT.
Backers see hope for improvements in U.S.
Walter Hook, ITDP's executive director, said the point is not that U.S. efforts are hopeless.
It's that the U.S. systems can refine and improve themselves to rival the best in the world. He thinks just one high-profile success would give the country a new transportation option for a cash-strapped era.
"Given the fairly significant financial crisis we're facing in the United States, the ability of cities to build out networks of light rail or metro system is pretty severely compromised," Hook said.
Modifying roads to let buses run loose? Not as hard, according to Hook and BRT supporters.
Cities already have road networks, so there is less new infrastructure that needs to be built. Most cities have buses, so they don't have to spring for brand-new vehicles if they don't want to.
These factors make BRT cheaper to build than rail, and they may shore up its bottom line while operating, an element that may appeal to congressional conservatives focused on the deficit.
In the United States, direct comparisons of BRT's cost to light rail's are few, since there are no examples of top-tier systems. But Bogotá's system, which ITDP identified as the most effective BRT system in the world, cost about $3 billion for 240-mile network. Just one 18-mile rail corridor would have cost about the same, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Conservative backing for lower-cost BRT systems
The Reason Foundation, a conservative think tank that has criticized rail projects, has expressed some support. In a report last month, it joined pro-transit group Transportation for America and budget watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense to put out seven common recommendations for transportation.
One item was BRT: The groups called it a "cost-effective investment for local governments."
That is, BRT can fill seats without costing as much as rail. As the argument goes, BRT is more likely to break even than rail projects, which critics say underestimate cost and overestimate revenues.
Even so, creating a world-class BRT system does not happen in a snap, according to ITDP.
Take the New York City system, Hook said. It is a good one by U.S. standards: ITDP looked at 20 cities claiming to have some form of BRT, and New York made the top five.
The buses cruise in exclusive, red-shaded lanes. Passengers can pay before they get on, which saves time at each stop. The buses are long with accordion hinges, so they can carry more people. The floors are low, so stepping on or off is quick.
But if Bogotá is the aspiration, there is room for improvement. New York's buses do not arrive at raised bus stops, so boarding isn't as quick as it could be. The city had originally planned bus stops that extend out into the road, so buses do not have to pull over to the curb. But this was canceled for the early stages of the project.
Experts warn BRT 'not a panacea'
Hook said New York intends to phase in some of these features over time, so the quality of its BRT system will rise.
Hook believes BRT can appeal to U.S. cities because all buses can use it. Most cities already have buses, so they can run their regular routes as they do today. But those buses can also turn onto a major corridor, enjoying the private lanes and quick boarding featured in the world's best BRTs.
Transport experts say that can handle a large volume of people, but there is a limit. At some point, moving thousands of people efficiently demands a larger vehicle, like a train.
David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, said one good fit for BRT would be along the highways that spike out from cities. These would help bring people to the struggling strip malls that they would normally ignore in a time of pricey gas.
The road's already there, he said, BRT could be the catalyst to help these far-flung neighborhoods transform into neighborhoods less dependent on driving.
Nevertheless, Goldberg said BRT is "not a panacea by any means." He thinks the very flexibility of buses -- their ability to drive anywhere -- may be a weakness.
When a city puts rail lines down, he said, businessmen take note. "The fixed guideways stay there for a long, long time, and so investors know that it's going to be there," Goldberg said.
Soon, they are setting up businesses along the rail lines. Property values rise along the tracks, and the buildings get taller. Instead of just shuttling people from their homes, Goldberg argued, trains shape neighborhoods.
Bus lines can change, and so Goldberg's not so sure they can do the same: "It's the perception of permanence that's kind of the unknown factor with BRT."