BRT: an opportunity for ‘Big Society’?

Posted: 30 June 2010 | John Carr, Events Coordinator, BRTuk | No comments yet

“BRT: the time is right” was the opening heading for my previous contribution on Bus Rapid Transit to Intelligent Transport (Issue 4 2008) at a time when most developed economies were reaping the fruits of prosperity, even if urban public transport in the UK continued to experience the pains of growing demand but lack of capacity. This was partly attributable to years of under investment, arguably the result of public investment appraisal techniques in sufficiently rewarding the benefits of good public transport and more efficient goods distribution whilst over compensating time saving and taxation impacts for car users.

“BRT: the time is right” was the opening heading for my previous contribution on Bus Rapid Transit to Intelligent Transport (Issue 4 2008) at a time when most developed economies were reaping the fruits of prosperity, even if urban public transport in the UK continued to experience the pains of growing demand but lack of capacity. This was partly attributable to years of under investment, arguably the result of public investment appraisal techniques in sufficiently rewarding the benefits of good public transport and more efficient goods distribution whilst over compensating time saving and taxation impacts for car users.

“BRT: the time is right” was the opening heading for my previous contribution on Bus Rapid Transit to Intelligent Transport (Issue 4 2008) at a time when most developed economies were reaping the fruits of prosperity, even if urban public transport in the UK continued to experience the pains of growing demand but lack of capacity. This was partly attributable to years of under investment, arguably the result of public investment appraisal techniques in sufficiently rewarding the benefits of good public transport and more efficient goods distribution whilst over compensating time saving and taxation impacts for car users.

In the intervening two years, the excessive risks being taken, primarily by bankers but perhaps by governments too, resulted in the ‘credit crunch’ with consequent cuts in both public and private investment. In the UK, a very public exposure of shortcomings in its political governance has led to the country’s first coalition government in peace-time since the similarly depressed years of the 1930s. It is too soon to speculate that the UK’s tradition of single party government may have come to an end and that future governments will be coalitions in the form of cross party alliances familiar in many other countries in Europe. However, despite the austerity measures that the new government proposes already substantially reducing funds available both for capital investment and revenue support, the likelihood of consensus policies that favour public transport and give higher prominence to social and environmental goals should increase.

A widely held view of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is as a lower cost option where rail based transit was not affordable or achievable in land use terms. In the past decade, BRT has come to be seen around the world as a significant tool in its own right for providing rapid transit whether this is to assist regeneration in older urban areas, to improve travel conditions in densely populated and expanding conurbations or to reinforce inter-urban public transport links. BRT is adaptable, relatively easily scalable and integrates well both with existing transport systems and into the urban realm. Some commentators persist in seeing BRT as a competitor to light rail in much the same way as enthusiasts for heavy rail see buses as an inferior good. Such thinking can do no good for the cause of effective public transport at a time when transfer from cars to shared mode systems is necessary to reduce congestion and emissions. Fully integrated multi-modal networks designed to meet a wide range of travel needs from occasional journeys to daily commuting should remain the goal of transport policy and the systems thinking inherent in the widely accepted definitions of BRT encapsulates that goal.

For the UK, the past two years have seen both undoubted successes and setbacks. East London Transit and Swansea ftrMetro have both opened for business, whilst Fastrack in Kent Thameside and Fastway in Crawley continued to grow patronage. In Edinburgh, the guided busway used by Edinburgh Fastlink services was closed early in 2009, surrendered as always intended for inclusion in the alignment for the Airport line of the Edinburgh Trams network expected to open in 2014 after substantial delays and contractual disputes. The Cambridgeshire Busway has been tested very successfully and the operators are using the new buses for services on the existing route network. Unfortunately, the opening of the guideway itself is mired in disputes between the client and the design and build contractor and will not happen until these are resolved. Meanwhile in Luton, 16 years of waiting for work to start on the Luton-Dunstable busway, with 13.4km of the route being guideway along a disused railway alignment, ended on 1 June 2010 when Cllr Roy Davis, Portfolio Holder for Regeneration at Luton Borough Council, ceremonially broke the ground and designated the remaining railway track for removal to a nearby preserved railway centre.


BRTuk has continued to provide a forum for the exchange of practical information on developments in the world of BRT and quality bus services or BHLS, Buses at a High Level of Service as the French research institute CERTU describes them1. In 2009, study visits were made to Swansea ftrMetro shortly before its formal opening, and the Netherlands. In Eindhoven, Advanced Passenger Transport Systems of the VDL group, originators of the Phileas magnetically guided ‘tram on tyres’ participated in a vigorous discussion of their system followed by a tour provided by the Hermes company, first users of Phileas in public service. From Eindhoven, Connexxion took over, taking the BRTuk party to Harlem where the regional planning context for the Zuidtangent was presented prior to a trip on the system from Harlem to Schiphol Airport via Amsterdam Zuidoost. In February 2010, Transport for London previewed the East London Transit system prior to public services commencing, including a trip in one of the distinctively branded Wright Gemini double-deck buses.

The BRTuk 2009 Conference in Cardiff was an outstanding success, even if numbers were down on expectations as a result of the recession. This year’s theme ‘BRT in Action’, focussed particularly on delivering real on-the-ground BRT systems. Topics discussed included the impact of BRT systems on property and development values, high capacity bus lanes, integrating rapid transit within a public transport network, innovative technology and updates on BRT projects in the UK and around the world. The Conference also included a presentation on the work undertaken for the first BRTuk Student Bursary, a precedent that BRTuk hopes to build on by awarding up to six bursaries each year.

Another development in research and scholarship based around BRT systems was the announcement in the spring of 2010 that the Volvo Research and Education Foundation’s Centre of Excellence in BRT would be based at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, leader of a consortium of five institutions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Instituto Superior Técnico of the Technical University of Lisbon, the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies at the University of Sydney and EMBARQ (The World Resources Institute Centre for Sustainable Transport) Network2. In the words of the Director of the new CoE, Juan Carlos Muñoz, “We envisage that our CoE will be an agent for change in cities worldwide seeking to transform their public transport systems. On one hand, we expect to participate through different links, in specific projects needing our scientific background and tools. On the other hand, we expect to become a valuable resource for cities looking for advice on what type of transformation their public transport system needs; how to promote it among decision makers, citizens and the media; and how to design, implement and operate it.”

Whilst disappointed that neither of the two consortia that included academic institutions from the UK succeeded in the competition for CoE funding from the Volvo Foundations, the emphasis on comparative studies and the transferability of results is welcomed by BRTuk.

Might the Perfect Storm help BRT?

In the keynote address to the BRT in Action Conference, Professor George Hazel of MRC McLean Hazel said that at present there was almost a perfect storm with “a growing economic crisis and a lack of funding looming ever larger on the horizon. However, we also have the growing needs of both cities and people for better connectivity. The global trend is for an increased demand for transport and that doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down any time soon.”

George Hazel stressed that transport investment is important for all economies, and recent research suggests that transport infrastructure is a major driver of city com – petitiveness3. However, with public funds likely to be in short supply, innovative funding streams must be employed to stimulate investment and sustain services, including work place parking levies, developer contributions and a French-style Versement Transport. George Hazel concluded that transport providers must act more like successful retailers, “We need to understand the market, adopt a transport retail model and deliver an investment plan for complete mobility.” BRT is an obvious candidate for this if promoted as an affordable and efficient solution within an integrated package of land use and transport options that can be developed incrementally as funding becomes available.

Professor Robert Cervero from the Berkeley Centre for Future Urban Transport at the University of California4 also addressed the funding question. Traditionally, bus-based development was muted by poor accessibility benefits, a lack of permanence and negative externalities such as noise and pollution. “The exception to this rule is dedicated busways or bus-based rapid transit networks”, he asserted, going on to review a number of primarily North American BRT networks that had realised a scale of development gains more normally associated with light rail schemes, land values having increased rapidly after the introduction of high quality BRT schemes in Cleveland, Los Angles and Pittsburgh. BRT had also facilitated urban realm improvements, Rob Cervero claimed, citing in particular Bogota’s TransMilenio scheme and – almost certainly the most radical example – Seoul, capital of South Korea. Here BRT had been a crucial element in urban regeneration through the creation of public spaces where previously there had been multi-lane highways. With road space returned to pedestrianisation schemes and other public spaces, it was found that the only effective way of countering the reduction in road space was the introduction of a flexible but high quality public transport network, in other words a bus-based rapid transit scheme.

Africa utilises BRT expertise from the UK

BRTuk stalwart Colin Brader, Managing Director of Integrated Transport Planning Limited, was honoured as the joint recipient of the Transport Planning Societies 2009 Transport Planner of the Year Award. Colin and Dr. Dayo Mobereola, Managing Director of Lagos Area Metropolitan Transport authority, won the award for the development and delivery of Bus Rapid Transit in Lagos, Nigeria. Working from a base of poor quality, unregulated and unsafe existing buses, this remarkable project was developed from conception to operation in 15 months making it Africa’s first BRT scheme. It consists of a single 22km route carrying almost 200,000 people per day into Lagos Island, immediately putting it amongst the top five most heavily used BRT routes in the world. Approximately 85% of the route is segregated by kerbs of a height to dissuade unlawful entry. Buses run at approximately 30 second headways and serve newly designed stations. Buses are owned and operated by a newly established co-operative of retrained transport sector staff given access to finance for vehicle purchase. The 200 new vehicles are 11.5m high-floor vehicles driven by trained and uniformed ‘pilots’. Colin Brader described the project as “an almost perfect client-consultant partnership”, and is now working on an extension to the existing line and a new orbital line. Both are targeted to become operational in 2011.

Colin’s presentation to the 2010 Transport Planning Society AGM contrasted the different approaches to BRT throughout the world using Lagos to highlight the importance of a thorough understanding of user needs and adapting the concept to the local environment, in this case a practical low cost implementation that meets local needs. Key messages were the need to make clear the effects of diluting key BRT principles (like failing to give priority through congested areas) on the scheme’s ability to perform, the need to work with politicians to understand and respond to their key priorities and the role of marketing to ensure a high level of ‘public ownership’ to ease the scheme through its early construction and initial operation.

In Lagos we see transferability of the BRT concept with the high levels of segregation and quality approach – not ‘drivers’ and ‘stops’, but ‘pilots’ and ‘stations’ for example – all reinforce the system feel, even if the high-floor rolling stock used would hardly satisfy European and American standards of quality. It may be that our more developed towns and cities can learn from the ‘can do’ attitudes of non-western administrations such as Lagos and Seoul to drive low cost but effective adoption of BRT solutions to urban mobility and the environment.

BHLS and ‘BRT Lite’

The BHLS (or Buses with a High Level of Service) project led by the French National Research Institute, CERTU, is a wide-reaching study aiming to review more than 20 quality bus schemes around Europe to understand how the concepts have been translated into implementation strategies. BHLS brings together many quality bus elements, from sophisticated schemes such as the Busway of Nantes and the Zuidtangent in Holland (visited by BRTuk study tours in 2008 and 2009 respectively), to ‘BRT Lite’ approaches using relatively low key bus priority measures in conjunction with packages of service level and quality enhancements. It is anticipated that over the next two years, the BHLS project will publish findings identifying best practice. The ‘BRT Lite’ theme is exemplified by the QBCs (Quality Bus Corridors) championed by the Dublin Quality Bus Network Office. The Irish capital has progressively introduced bus priority measures, backed up by increased enforcement, to great effect. Evidence suggests that reduced and reliably predictable bus journey times has driven passenger growth and leading to real modal shift. In 1997, car trips were dominant in Dublin, accounting for 55% of movements. In 2009, this had fallen to 38%, and the bus is now the most used mode of transport with 62% of trips.

East London Transit (ELT), visited by BRTuk in February 2010, could be classified as BRT-lite. In essence, the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham and the London Borough of Redbridge together with Transport for London, examined the competing requirements of traffic movements and kerbside parking in the densely developed corridor between Ilford and Dagenham Dock and taken opportunities to rationalise parking provision, introduce bus priorities sensitively to reduce delays at junctions but without extensive segregation, and improve bus stops, waiting shelters and information seamlessly within an overall programme of urban realm improvements. The high specification and distinctively branded ELT Buses have been admitted to previously pedestrian only streets in Barking town centre. A further phase of ELT which will serve Barking Riverside is planned to open in 2013. ELT is important as an example of a rapid transport scheme that leads urban improvement and regeneration within a congested urban area poorly connected by conventional rail and underground services.

The future

As the world claws its way out of the shock of the credit crunch, simultaneously coping with the rising costs resulting from peak oil and demanding carbon emission targets, BRT is a necessary part of the urban transport and regeneration toolkits for ‘Big Society’, offering solutions that complete the spectrum from heavy rail systems right the way through to flexible transport such as Demand Responsive Transit and taxis. New schemes are planned in the British Isles in Belfast (described at the BRTuk 2008 Conference in Belfast) assisting regeneration of the Titanic Quarter, Dublin as part of the Docklands redevelopment complementing Luas tramway extensions, Leeds with the NGT (New Generation Transport) trolleybus scheme and the Luton-Dunstable busway now under construction. Progress will, as always, depend on funding but BRT is coming of age as the solution of choice for affordable and flexible rapid transit applying the lessons learnt around the world from pioneering systems such as Ottawa Transitway, TransMilenio in Bogata, the Curitiba BRT with its distinctive ‘Tube’ stations and, one of the oldest of all, the Runcorn New Town Busway.


  1. CERTU and associates web-site developed for the BHNS (“Bus at a High Level of Service”) concept,
  2. Volvo Research and Educational Foundations, A Centre of Excellence for BRT development, Santiago, Chile, santiagochile.4.78316c6a1281a671 ab580004771.html
  3. Miller, D & G Hazel, Megacity Challenges: A Stakeholder Perspective, research for Siemens, press/pool/en/events/megacities/media_ mrc_globe_170107_d_1431329.pdf
  4. Volvo Research and Educational Foundations, UC Berkeley Center for Future Urban Transport, Berkeley, USA, berkeleyusa.4.46d8812211a06b927 e7800017755.html

About the author

John Carr
John Carr is a Director of Elan Public Transport Consultancy and Events Coordinator for BRTuk. He is the independent chair of the York Quality Bus Partnership, a Director of the Dales & Bowland Community Interest Company and a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Transport Studies, Leeds University. John left Metro (West Yorkshire PTE) in 2003 after a full-time career embracing many aspects of public transport management, planning and co-ordination. He is an innovative market oriented strategist committed to improving public transport through partnership drawing on best practice in the private and public sectors.

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