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Buses are one of the cheapest ways to reduce traffic and air pollution in cities, says the International Energy Agency. This lucid report shows how planning, good management, and in some cases new technology can make urban bus travel a pleasure instead of a last resort. T he citizens of Bogotá, Colombia, are so proud of their TransMilenio bus system that they often dress up to ride on it. Begun in 2000, the TransMilenio has only three lines in place so far, but already carries up to 700,000 passengers every day, peaking at 42,000 per hour during rush hour.

The TransMilenio is an example of BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), a new paradigm that can make the humble bus an urban transport system of choice, rather than a last resort. BRT is particularly appropriate for cities in developing countries, and Latin America is its cradle. Cheap and cheerful

All over the world, cities are being choked by traffic congestion and air pollution caused by road transport. Cities in developing countries often suffer worst because they are growing fast, yet have poor public transport systems, old and dirty vehicles, and rudimentary traffic control. Even a city like Dhaka in Bangladesh, where fewer than a third of journeys are by motorised transport, can suffer from gridlock.

Public transport carries more people in fewer vehicles using less fuel, so it cuts both congestion and pollution. For high capacity and minimum physical impact, nothing beats an underground metro system - but at $60-180 million per kilometre, metros are expensive to dig. Buses, says the International Energy Agency (IEA), can carry half as many passengers for between 1% and 10% of the investment cost.

This report explains that BRT can be defined as any urban bus system that is customer-oriented, fast, comfortable and cheap. Typical features of BRT include clean and modern buses, helpful staff, dedicated bus lanes, multi-door buses that "dock" with enclosed bus stops containing comfortable waiting areas, pre-board ticketing, integration with other modes of transport, and real-time information on bus arrival times.

First demonstrate, then invest

The most important environmental message, says the IEA, is that any reasonably full bus is better than no bus. A bus displaces between five and 50 other motor vehicles, often including very dirty two-wheelers as well as cars, so it benefits the environment even if by the latest Western standards it is old and dirty.

Unfortunately, many bus services in the developing world are trapped in a cycle of low investment, poor service and low income. The key, says the IEA, is to use a little basic planning to improve service. Once people realise that the bus system works well, more of them will ride the buses and the resulting increase in fare income can be used to fund investment.

To get basic bus services running profitably, the most important factor is speed. By creating bus lanes and giving buses priority at junctions, says the report, it is not hard to double the average speed of buses. Assuming the number of passengers on each bus remains the same, this will double the income from the service without raising fares. But the real improvement will be greater than this, because the faster the buses, the more people will use them.

Once a service is making money, its operator can move up the ladder of environmental improvement. First comes better maintenance and cleaner fuels, followed by new buses with cleaner-burning diesel engines. In some cities it also makes sense to investigate natural gas, LPG, alcohol or biodiesel as fuels. The cleanest fuel options - hybrid diesel-electric buses and soon fuel cells and hydrogen power - are likely to be too expensive for many years.

Public planning, private investment

The report shows how private companies can operate efficient bus services, but only with the co-operation of the authorities. An obvious example is the need for bus lanes and other traffic management systems, without which buses cannot prosper.

Another important area is licensing; in many poor cities, bus services are run by small companies which cannot afford to invest because they compete with other bus companies on shared routes. The IEA suggests that each route should be licensed to one bus company, with provisions on the level of service to be provided.

And finally, the IEA points out, buses should be part of a proper urban transport policy that discourages the use of cars and motorcycles. As long as it is cheaper or easier to go by car, public transport will be fighting a losing battle.

Bus systems for the future: achieving sustainable transport worldwide
ISBN 92 64 19806 7
International Energy Agency, Paris, 2002
Fax + 33 1 40 57 65 59,
Contact: (email removed) ,
See website
English, 188 pp, EUR 110




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