Bus Rapid Transit: A Step Toward Fairness in China's Urban Transportation

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Rush hour is usually a nightmare for Beijing's bus commuters. Squeezed from all sides, riders endure polluted air and chilly winter winds that seep in through gaps in the windows, or suffer en masse in the scorching summer sun. They look down in envy at their fellow residents, zipping through the paralyzed traffic in tiny sedans and enjoying much-coveted air conditioning and personal space. But with the opening of Beijing's first exclusive Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line on December 30, car owners may soon be jealous of bus riders for the first time ever.

The new 18-meter-long BRT buses.
The new 18-meter-long BRT buses.

The 16-kilometer, 17-stop route, dubbed "Southern Axis BRT Line One," links eight residential areas, with a total population of 200,000, and four bustling commercial circles in the city's southern districts. In its two months in service it has attracted overwhelming ridership, with daily passenger flows averaging around 80,000 commuters. Officials originally expected the peak flow—estimated at around 150,000 passengers per day—to occur in 2007, but on the third day of operation, ridership already neared 130,000. "It's very likely the flow will exceed 150,000 during the golden week of the Labor Day," noted Yan Yabin, Vice President of Beijing BRT Company, Ltd., which manages the line, referring to the seven-day holiday in early May when Beijing sees a huge influx of tourists and commercial activity.

Bus Rapid Transit, the term for a high-speed bus system that operates within an exclusive right-of-way, was first developed in Brazil in the 1970s. But it has quietly taken hold in China, where more than 20 cities, including Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdou, and Shenyang, are now constructing or designing BRT systems. BRT combines the single-corridor quality of rail transit with the flexibility of buses. It is also considerably cheaper than rail, at one-tenth the construction and operational costs, and takes less time to set up—typically less than three years from design to completion.

Beijing BRT Company currently operates more than 40 buses and is expecting another 50 by April, bringing the total fleet to 90. According to Yan, the major attraction of the new line is that it is convenient, cheap, comfortable, and fast—taking 37 minutes to complete what is usually a one-hour journey. The 18-meter buses are equipped with an electronic stop announcement system and air conditioning, which most regular city buses don't have. And the buses' low entry step allows access for wheelchairs, a feature that Beijing only recently began incorporating into city transport. "We are trying to make BRT into 'luxurious sedans for common residents,'" Yan proclaimed, expressing his pride and confidence in the new system.

Exclusive Lanes for Beijing's Southern Axis BRT Line One.
Exclusive Lanes for Beijing's "Southern Axis BRT Line One."

He Dongquan, program officer for transportation with the Beijing office of The Energy Foundation, believes that the southern-axis BRT line is a very successful technical model. A second line, the Chaoyanglu Line, is currently under construction in Beijing's eastern districts, and two more lines cutting across the north and the west are in the planning stages. All three lines are scheduled for completion by 2008, in time for the Beijing Summer Olympics, and will extend the total distance covered by BRT routes to 60 kilometers.

According to He, BRT is a good way to tackle colossal urban transportation problems. "Many people don't realize that it's a dead end to develop small automobiles," he said. The city of Beijing, with a population of 14 million, is now home to around 2.8 million cars, or an average of roughly 20 cars per 100 people. More than twenty percent of city residents use cars to get around—roughly the same number as those who utilize public transport—while more than 40 percent rely on bicycles or walk.

As Beijing continues its rapid expansion, residents of the city's older core districts will increasingly be pushed out into the suburbs, making it nearly impossible for them to bike or walk to workplaces and other destinations in the city center. Most of these people end up being dependent on public transportation. Yet over the past decade, the lion's share of Beijing's transportation dollars has gone to expanding roads, crossroads, and parking lots, which mainly benefit car users. "The problem is, the wider the streets become, the more cars they will attract," said He.

An influx of cars inevitably slows down traffic, while inadequate investment in public transportation leads to decaying services and a shrinking customer base. In Beijing and throughout China's cities, many former bus riders have been forced to resort to cars to avoid increasingly long bus rides and exhausting walks to local stops—only adding to the worsening road congestion. To break this vicious cycle, cities will need to invest in highly efficient public transportation, such as BRT.

BRT construction will inevitably go against the interests of current car users, since it requires an exclusive right-of-way. But it doesn't just involve the construction of a few roads; it calls for a fundamental change in how people think about their right to mobility. "Transportation is indeed a political issue," explained He. "It requires the redistribution of benefits among different groups."

Fortunately, China's government now recognizes the value of public transportation and has made it a long overdue priority. In 2005, six departments of the central government issued a joint document promoting BRT construction. Beijing's inaugural southern line has received a green light and strong government support ever since it was first proposed.

The Chinese public should recognize the relative freedom it enjoys in choosing from a variety of transportation modes. People will increasingly need to weigh their own comfort and privacy against the benefits of mobility and speed. "Beijing's BRT system gives attention to both fairness and efficiency for all," said He. "We have to guarantee the mobility of the city first, then consider how to assign the remaining resources to small cars."

Photos provided by Beijing BRT Co., Ltd.