My First Love Affair, Mr. BRT

Just so you know I had a life before you. My heart belonged to mother earth and the only way I knew how to protect it, economic incentive. But then…you found me when I was still young and impressionable. It started innocently enough when a guest lecturer in my undergraduate class showed a chart similar to this one:

Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2012

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The first BRT in Curtibia, Brazil creates the feel and speed of rail. Tunnel stations protect against weather and off-board fare collection allows for speedier service.

The transportation sector was one the largest producers of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Sixty percent of those emissions came from personal vehicles. The proposed solution was devastatingly handsome and undeniably attractive. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) was a bus system that imitated the swag (coolness for you old schoolers) of rail with a similar high passenger capacity, but with a lower price tag.

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Exclusive Lanes separates from traffic.

The man who stole my heart was attractive (rail-like), fast (off board fare collection, exclusive lanes separated from traffic), reliable (ran every few minutes), very well connected (a station within a 10 minute walk and stations connected to other lines), and not to mention fiscally responsible (more affordable than rail). Seriously, I was drooling…

It hit me hard. People weren’t making environmentally harmful choices simply due to economics, but because they didn’t have viable choices. That was my first taste of urban planning and I decided right then, I wanted to provide the choice.

Since then, I have fallen even more hopelessly in love when I learned about the capabilities of buses in increasing social equity. In my last project, I looked at gentrification indicators along a Light Rail Transit (LRT) line and a BRT line in Los Angeles. I would say this is all preliminary, but comparing gentrification indicators that measure displacement of low income population, my results indicate it is possible that BRTs produce less negative impacts than LRTs.

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Source: Chang, L. (2014). Bus Rapid Transit: A More Equitable Alternative to Light Rail Transit. Author’s Analysis of ACS & Social Explorer

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Source: Chang, L. (2014). Bus Rapid Transit: A More Equitable Alternative to Light Rail Transit. Author’s Analysis of ACS & Social Explorer

Percent Change of LA Educational Attainment from 2000 to 2008-2012

There is less of an increase of those with bachelor degrees or higher along the BRT line than the LRT line.

Percent Change in People of Color in LA from 2000 to 2008-2012.

There was an increase in the percentage of people of color both in LA city and the BRT while there is a decrease along the LRT line.

So it has been seven years since the affair began, and finally, in the great city of Beijing, I had the chance to meet the man who started it all for me. Beijing was the first city in China to adopt a BRT (2004) and my colleague was so kind to take Christine and I to see it. 

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The fare was only .40 Kuai or 6 cents!

The line featured many of the elements of my beloved BRT. We took the subway line 2 and got off at Qianmen, a central area in Beijing not too far from Tiananmen Square. It was only footsteps from the BRT station which featured an elevated platform, off board fare collection, and sliding doors. The bus itself had a low-floor for easy access from the elevated platform. It was also very affordable at .40 Kuai or 6 cents. There were long distances between the few stops. Most of the trip the bus was in an exclusive lane. My colleague also told us that the BRT had signal priority. It was indeed traveling quickly between stops. We traveled to what felt far from the center of Beijing in the suburbs with many tall residential buildings and less activity.

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The Beijing BRT is in an exclusive lane, separate from traffic for most of the route.

However, overall it didn’t feel too much like a rail experience, but more like an express bus. Unlike the BRT in Curtibia, there was no tunnel like structure at the station, but there was a cover to protect the people from the weather. The gap between the bus and platform was rather large which is not especially good for the elderly. There were two long lines, especially compared to short metro lines. Each line had a picture over it that indicated that one line was for those who wanted seats and the other was for standing room. My co-worker said the pictures were “fake” and that it does not mean anything because seats weren’t guaranteed in either line.

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Signs were deceiving. Seats weren’t guaranteed in either line.

When the bus arrived and the doors opened, I understood. It felt like someone had turned on a vacuum and we were getting sucked in. People from all sides pushed and pulled us in. We were in the seat line and we definitely did not even have a chance at a seat. It was much more overwhelming then getting on the subway which I had already was a compact experience. Christine said from a smooshed corner, “It’s like China is giving me a big hug”.

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Unlike the well maintained subway, the BRT was not as well kept.

We rode the line to the end and it was uncomfortable to stand like that for about 30 minutes.The bus itself was not in the best condition. It did not announce the next station audibly. I also don’t remember seeing any real time announcement for the next bus at the station itself.

However, this could have been an unusual experience. My colleague said the buses usually run every 2 minutes during peak time and 5 minutes all other times. It was a Saturday around 6pm.  and we waited for about 15 minutes.

According to the Institute for Transportation and Development’s BRT scoring standard of Gold, Silver, or Bronze, only one corridor (out of 4) is bronze, which is the corridor I rode. This was also the first real BRT built in China and they have made great strides since. I know they say that you should never compare men, but I heard Guangzhou has a gold BRT and I cannot wait to compare away. I will be visiting GZ in a few weeks.

Don’t worry this love affair is only going to get more juicy. I will update ya’ll when I get to GZ, but don’t go falling in love with Mr. BRT too. Oh heck, I’m a lover, I’ll share.

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