As a gb&d reader, you by now know that the merits of retrofitting as a means for environmental engineering are abundantly documented. The process of furnishing existing buildings with newer energy efficient installations has produced countless positive results. What happens, though, if this method—optimizing an existing system rather than supplanting it—were applied to localized municipalities such as roads and transportation? That’s precisely the concept behind the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s (ITDP) Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. Here, we spoke to the ITDP’s global communications manager, Jemilah Magnusson, about the history, impact, and progress of BRT.

gb&d: The ITDP has been promoting green transit practices since 1985. When approximately did you integrate BRT into this mission, and how has the focus of it influenced ITDP’s work since?

Jemilah Magnusson: ITDP started advocating for BRT in the mid-90s, but it didn’t really take off as a major initiative for us until Transmilenio, Bogota’s BRT, opened in 2000. Transmilenio really changed the paradigm for BRT as a high capacity urban transportation model. Transmilenio was the first to integrate passing lanes and use bi-articulated buses, which, among other design advancements, allowed speeds and capacity equal to, and sometimes greater than, most metro systems. After the success of Transmilenio, ITDP began bringing delegations from cities around the world to Bogota to see what a gold-standard BRT system could be, and many other high quality BRTs were inspired by that model. One evolution we encourage is integrating BRT into downtown areas. This has been done extremely well in Mexico City, for example, Metrobus was a major part of the revitalization of the historic center, with narrow streets typical of an old city downtown.

gb&d: What are some of the environmental benefits to be gained by implementing BRTs?

Magnusson: The most basic, and the biggest benefit to all mass transport systems is that they provide an alternative to cars. We estimate that the Guangzhou BRT reduces CO2 emissions by some 86,000 tonnes annually, mostly through improved bus operations efficiency—buses emit a lot more pollution if they are stuck in traffic than moving quickly through a corridor—and because it is faster to take the BRT than drive.

gb&d: We’ve seen companies begin to test automated, self-driven automobiles, and for longer now, certain developed countries have enjoyed high-speed rail train transportation. How does BRT fare when compared to alternatives like these?

Magnusson: Whether a car is self-driven or not doesn’t really change much for the vast majority of people in the world’s cities who rely on walking, cycling, and public transportation to get around. Putting everyone in a car, no matter the technology of that car, is not a sustainable solution for cities. Our focus is on improving quality of life for people in cities, and in the biggest, fastest growing cities of the world, people need infrastructure such as sidewalks, safer paths for cycling, and reliable public transport that improves their commutes. This is the model we support.

gb&d: Where in the United States has BRT found most success? What has allowed such progress to occur?

Magnusson: Cleveland is the most successful in the US so far, and here as in everywhere where BRT is successful, it has been about political will and government support, along with a commitment to design a high quality system. Placement of the corridor, for example, is a hugely important thing, and Cleveland picked a great place, right in the center of the city. So this is where development is taking place, where people want to go, so it’s much more likely to be successful.

gb&d: What are some noteworthy projects that exemplify ITDP’s progress in advancing the BRT system?

Magnusson: Our most successful projects are more about using BRT as part of transit-oriented development, for example in Mexico City. As part of a revitalization of the historic center, ITDP worked with the city to redesign streets for pedestrians, cyclists, and transport. The Metrobus BRT now has five lines, and line 4 runs through the center to the airport, a route that was previously only accessible by car and took about 90 minutes in traffic.

Guangzhou is the highest capacity BRT the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy has developed, moving about a million people a day.

Guangzhou is the highest capacity BRT the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy has developed, moving about a million people a day.

Another example is Guangzhou, which is the highest capacity BRT ITDP has developed, moving about a million people a day. The success of this system is due to its excellent design, which puts the busway in the middle of the roadway bordered by the stations on either side, allowing the buses to move quickly, pass each other, and allow boarding and alighting to happen quickly without any interference from traffic. Another advantage of BRT compared to rail is that local buses can come in and out of the BRT corridor, speeding up that part of the trip, and then continue on local streets to get people to their destination without transfer, which is what Guangzhou does so well.