The buses of the emerging geographies have an image problem. Imagine lurching, creaking buses, bolted together back in the '70s, lined up bumper-to-bumper on an exhaust-choked thoroughfare and under the hazy sky of a chaotic urban center somewhere outside the Western world.
That's the standard vision of an outdated, ramshackle approach to moving millions of people around a growing city (throw in the bus driver's collection of saints and other idols glued up on the dashboard to complete the picture).
In Bogotá, Colombia, though, the much-maligned city bus has been getting a decade-long makeover. TransMilenio, a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network in Bogotá, was among the first to tackle the massive challenge of urban mobility by focusing more, not less, on buses. In fact, TransMilenio was the first new major mass transport system in the world to use only buses.
Bogota's success has resulted in dozens of other cities around the world following its path. Mexico City, Beijing and Bangalore, India, are among the cities seeking relief from traffic congestion through the BRT approach to bus transport.
It helps that each BRT system takes only two to three years to build, compared with the much more complex and expensive process of getting a subway system up and running—35,000 passengers per direction per hour, with a capital cost of $18 million to $20 million a mile, as compared with $1 billion per mile, the price of a typical New York subway line.
Energy-friendly hybrid electric commuter buses—used widely in the United States—are for now prohibitively expensive in developing countries. Nevertheless, the International Energy Agency has concluded that only 10 percent of a bus transit system's climate friendliness has to do with the bus itself.
It's how the bus is used—rather than what makes the bus keeping running—that really counts.
The BRT model is designed around a fleet of buses that travel in dedicated lanes, board at sheltered stations and bypass boarding delays through prepaid fares, provisions that make for a speedier and more hassle-free journey. The BRT model also dramatically changes how the poor—who have been shown to prefer the cheaper buses to the metro—can access goods, services and jobs.
The BRT era began with a pioneer trunk line built in Curitiba, Brazil, but it has found its most famous expression in Colombia, a country known for its 75 percent rate of city dwellers in the world's most urbanized continent—80 percent of South American residents now live in cities and 90 percent will do so by midcentury, according to a U.N. report.
TransMilenio "proved that you can serve passenger levels equal to what metro systems were carrying but using BRT," said Dr. Walter Hook, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (IDTP).