Global Expansion of Rapid Transit Slows… Outside of China

By Walter Hook

In 2000, Bogotá opened TransMilenio, the first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to reach the speeds and capacities of heavy rail. Soon after, consensus began to grow — among philanthropy, the development banks, the technical community, the advocacy community, and governments — that a rapid global roll-out of BRT could accelerate the growth of rapid transit across the globe, resulting in significant CO2 reductions and poverty alleviation benefits.

For the same budget, governments could build much more BRT than rail-based rapid transit, they could do it in less time, and still offer a similar — and in some cases a superior — level of service. Cities that went all-in with a BRT network, like Curitiba and Bogotá, managed to stabilize public transit ridership for decades while cities that invested all their resources into just one or two heavy rail/subway (MRT) or light rail (LRT) corridors had not. Most cities just didn’t have the resources to build a whole network of rail-based mass transit fast enough to keep pace with growing motorization.

I co-authored a report a few years ago that showed that cities added density around BRT stations just as readily as around light rail stations. All this was music to the ears of those worried about climate change. The unified efforts of many led to a historically unprecedented boom in new BRT development across the world, and as a result, a boom in rapid transit systems generally.

Where are we twenty years on?

In 2019, Cornie Huizinga, formerly of SLoCaT, tweeted a graph from brtdata.org.

Global Bus Rapid Transit construction 1966–2020. Source: brtdata.org

It showed the number of new kilometers of BRT built each year globally. It showed a huge uptick in BRT construction between about 2000 and 2015. This was pretty clearly the TransMilenio effect. But after 2015, the kilometers of new BRTs dropped sharply. Was it real? Had interest in BRT dropped off dramatically? Had all rapid transit slowed down? Is there something wrong with the data? WRI Brazil kindly sent me the raw database to interrogate. It is an amazingly complete and up-to-date guide of what is going on with BRT around the world, but it has a few issues:

  • It’s missing some recent data. Some more recent systems, and recent expansions of existing systems, were not included.
  • It includes many non-BRT bus systems. The aggregate data includes a lot of bus systems that do not qualify as BRT under the , and many others that have not yet been evaluated. Almost any bus route can be considered BRT if not assessed against a precise definition.
  • It is restricted to bus-based mass transit. The database does not include MRT or LRT

I corrected these issues in the database, using the to root out non-BRT bus systems and pulling from Wikipedia, the Eno Foundation’s cost database, and NYU Marron Institute’s cost database to populate it with LRT and MRT. One result was the graph below.

The downward trend for BRT is less pronounced than what the original graphic indicated, but it’s real. BRT’s rising star from 2002 until 2013 helped achieve accelerated annual growth in rapid transit at the global level. Since then, aggregate rapid transit kilometers continued to expand, but the growth came mainly from a growth in MRT kilometers.

Outside of China, Rapid Transit Growth Has Slowed Since 2013

About 60% of new MRT construction has occurred in China, and most of this was in the last decade. “Other Asia” — predominantly Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Japan in that order — is responsible for another 13%. India and the Middle East are also building significant amounts of new MRT. There are only marginal amounts of new MRT being built in the rest of the world. Latin America, Japan, Europe, the US, and Russia are not building much new MRT. The US is having a hard time maintaining the MRT systems it already has, we dont like to pay taxes for urban things, and as Alon Levy has documented, there are a host of cost issues associated with building new subways in the US. New lines are rare.

When China is removed from the global data set, the number of new kilometers of any form of rapid transit has fallen since 2013. The decline in new kilometers of BRT contributed to a global drop in new kilometers of rapid transit more generally.

LRT is for Europeans and some Americans

LRT is primarily a Western European and US phenomenon. Together, these regions make up 67% of all kilometers of LRT built since 1995.

Km of LRT by Region, 1995- 2020

A lot of the European systems are in France, though there are some in Spain, Italy, the UK and Sweden. There are an enormous number of LRTs in Germany but they are predominantly upgraded from trams that have been in operation for decades, so not much of it is classified as ‘new’. LRT in the Middle East is primarily in Turkey. LRT never really caught on in China. Latin America also hasn’t gone for LRT. In Africa, other than in Ethiopia, all of the LRT is in the former French North African colonies.

BRT dominates Latin America, but is fully global

BRT, by contrast, is dominated by Latin America, where it was invented. The big numbers are coming from Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, in that order. However, there is a reasonable amount of BRT in virtually all of the major transit markets in the world.

Prior to 2005, virtually all BRT was in Latin America, and the numbers were low, even there. By 2020, true BRT as a mode had spread to all regions of the globe, with the exception of the former Eastern Bloc countries. New BRTs are still coming online in most of these regions, though indeed the pace has slowed.

Km of BRT 1995–2020 by Region

Continued growth of rapid transit networks is not a given

The efforts in the early part of the 21st century by NGOs, philanthropy, and development institutions to use BRT to rapidly expand the roll-out of rapid transit were reasonably successful. Some 3,400 km of real BRT worldwide has been built since 1995, increasing by about 20% the total kilometers of new rapid transit built.

New rapid transit built since 1995, by mode and region

A conservative estimate of the impact of global BRT systems on CO2 emissions (not including land use changes) is a net reduction of around 82 million tons annually.

The optimism of 2014, when it seemed the roll-out of BRT would continue to boost the overall growth of rapid transit without further advocacy intervention, has not panned out. Other than China’s historically unprecedented — and perhaps unsustainable — investments into MRT, overall global rapid transit growth has slowed since 2013. The slowing of BRT investments is a big part of this story. A continued effort on the part of advocates, development banks, and philanthropies will be needed in order to accelerate rapid transit growth to the levels needed to counteract continuing global motorization and climate change.

Reorientations is a blog by the staff of People-Oriented Cities. Each post provides a novel idea for “reorienting” cities away from cars and towards people.