What we can all learn from Curitiba’s BRT

Curitiba’s system has long been touted as the best BRT system in the world. Developed throughout the early 1990s, it’s six lines service an average of 2.3 million riders a day. Seriously, this thing is incredible and reduces transit geeks from all around to tears of joy. But, what exactly makes it so effective?

Now, before we jump in, one thing has to be made clear. Curitiba’s model is crazy effective. But, not because it can be plopped into any city around the world and work nicely. Critiba’s model is crazy effective because it is perfectly suited to Curitiba.

Nonetheless, there are still a few things which could be applied to any city, or principles at the very least which could be shifted to any BRT system and make it better.

Factor #1: The tube stations

We’re all quite familiar with the fringe bus stops. Disrespected, desolate patches of land with nothing but a metal pole sticking out from the ground to indicate that this is infact a place where buses come by.

You might think “well that’s all you really need — a place where you can stand and expect that a bus will eventually come by and pick you up”.

Well yes, but what about if it’s raining, incredibly hot, windy, cold or literally anything slightly outside the perfect balance of worldly elements? What about if you are in a city center with copious amounts of pedestrians stumbling along the sidewalk, or it’s the middle of the night and you want a greater sense of security as you wait for your ride to arrive?

Well, in either of these situations, a metal pole sticking out of the ground isn’t going to do much.

Curitiba’s bus stops — called “tube” bus stops — are essentially long glass cylinders with black edging which are elevated above the sidewalk

These stops protect waiting bus users from the elements, separate them from other pedestrians and increase the sense of security for people who are waiting in the early morning or night.

Now, many people are reluctant with the idea of dedicating valuable street/curb space to a bus stop.

Why? Because there are “better, more attractive” alternatives.

But, if our bus stops looked like the futuristic, glass tubes that grace the streets of Curitiba, our bus stops wouldn’t really be taking away from the street. In fact, they’d be enhancing it.

Factor #2: Pay before boarding

32% of a bus’s journey is spent boarding (closely followed by 23% stuck at red lights). So if you are a commuter trying to go from point A to B, your travel time is 47% longer than it needs to be only because you are waiting for people to get on and off.

And yes, of course people need to get on and off the bus. But, realistically, in most cities, when people are getting on the bus, they are not just getting on the bus. One by one, they rummage around for some coins to pay their fare, a ticket or a card. If they are an older person or a person with a disability, they might have to wait for the bus driver to lower the bus platform to street level and then raise it up again once everyone is on board.

Things like this take time.

However, in Curitiba, people pay their fare before getting on the bus. How? Using turnstiles like the Tube in London or the Subway in New York City.

Factor 3: Bus platforms are level with the tube platform

So, the other significant thing that contributes to bus stall times is raising the platform up and down. This often is a necessary thing to do, because in situations with significant gaps between the curb and bus platform, riders with disabilities or even people that just need a bit more accomodation rely on this in order to get on to the bus.

Curitiba’s bus platforms are just about level with the platform of the station. As the bus pulls up to the curb, a ramp swings out just as the doors open for people to get on. And of course, 100% of the stations have completely accessible wheelchair ramps between it and the sidewalk.

This paired with the fact that people have to pay before boarding the bus has reduced the average stop times to 20 seconds.

Factor 4: Feeder-trunk model

The Curitiba model leverages something called the feeder-trunk model. What this basically entails is having a few backbone lines (called the trunks) which get people from the outskirts of the city to the interior. These lines are direct and fast — they do the heavy lifting.

Then, to complement these lines are smaller, sometimes more roundabout ones which take people between these major lines and to other locations in the city. These are the feeder lines.

One of the greatest things that makes other BRT systems ineffective is that they use lines which try to do both — they try to be the trunks and the feeders. This results in paths that try to get from the outskirts of the city to the main downtown but end up weaving through a lot of residential areas in the process. This makes things frustrating for people who just want to get to the center of the city and frustrating for people who need to go to specialized and out of the way locations.

Factor 5: Have fewer lines that are serviced more frequently

So many cities have tens and hundreds of different bus routes — so many that they can’t possibly fit all on one map. While sometimes many of these lines can be justified, oftentimes they exist only because each of them are trying to be both a trunk and a feeder. This results in redundant lines, inefficient lines and overall, more lines than are necessary.

And then when cities have a finite amount of resources to spread out over all these lines, they only end up getting serviced every 15 minutes, 20 minutes or half hour, for instance.

The Curitiba BRT system has a grand total of 6 bus lines. And in peak hours, these lines can have headways of 90 seconds.

It all fits on one map!!

Factor #6: Trinary road system

Now this one is not necessarily applicable to every city, it’s just something that works very well for Curitiba.

Curitiba’s BRT systems operate along five “structural axes” which emanate from the city center. Each of these structural axes make use of the trinary road system.

The middle road of this trinary system has two center lanes dedicated to transit and two periphery lanes dedicated to other (automotive) traffic. These two center lanes service express routes — meaning that they don’t stop at every stop. The fancy tube stations separate these dedicated lanes from the rest of traffic. Pedestrians get to and from these stops using crosswalks.

The fact that these are center transit lanes also helps to get around conflicts with commercial loading. Any trucks or vans that to surrounding stores during the day use the auxiliary transit lanes and don’t therefore run the risk of clogging up the transit ones.

The two side roads of this trinary road system are one way streets that service one lane of transit and one lane of other traffic. The one lane of transit follows direct routes, which have the same path as express routes only they stop at every stop.

In the two blocks between these three roads, Curitiba has leveraged integrated development to incentivize high density building, stores, cafes and other socially vibrant enterprises. The idea behind this is to reduce the amount of sprawl but to also position people and the places they want to go within reasonable walking distance of a transit stop. When transit is more convenient, more people will use it.

Now, why wouldn’t this work in every other city? Two main factors stand out.

The center lane of this model has a curb to curb envelope of 85 ft (or about 8 lanes). The same can not be said of most other cities where the average downtown street has four, sometimes five lanes. And even more than that, fewer cities have such roads which are also flanked by two adequate roads for the direct lines because those roads are either too wide or fragmented.

So unless cities are willing to undergo massive renovations, this simply won’t do the trick.

The second thing is that sometimes, these idyllic trios of roads simply don’t exist in the spots you want them to. You might have three perfectly good roads that meet all the criteria but they don’t run through density, so putting the bus system on it would break rule number one of public transit: put transit through density, not where it is most convenient.

But, the guiding principle of the trinary road system is to have dedicated bus lanes. Dedicated bus lanes are possibly the most underrated piece of transit technology. Rather than having transit compete with other vehicles for road space, being stuck in traffic and having to weave in and out of it in order to get to the curb, the dedicated bus lane allows it to have a space all to itself which greatly increases its reliability.

Factor #7: Make room for standing room

The average curitiba biarticulated bus can hold 270 people, but only has 57 seats. Now, most North Americans instantly cringe at this and can’t even imagine a bus ride without a metal seat upon which to perch.

However, to get from the outskirts of Curitiba to the downtown along a structural axis/trunk line takes only 20 minutes — so standing really isn’t a big deal.

This also allows 2–3 x more people to use than would otherwise be permitted with a seat. More people per bus means more people serviced.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean just eliminate seats entirely. Some people still need the extra assistance that a seat affords. Seats are not an all or nothing affair, they just have to be done tastefully and with moderation.

Factor #8: Uniform fares

The price of riding the Curitiba BRT is only 40 american cents and this gets you an unlimited amount of transfers.

Now of course, part of the reason this amount is able to be so low is because so many people consistently use the bus line.

So many cities break their fares up by zone. So, if you go through one zone, you pay a certain amount which is increased if you travel through two zones and so on. And, to make matters more complicated, these prices might change depending on the day of the week, whether or not it’s rush hour or a whole host of other factors.

And for some cities, this works. However, in Curitiba, people who are more economically disadvantaged live in the periphery of the city. So, if they were to be subject to this zoning philosophy, they would be the ones paying the most for their transit trips which is not at all equitable.

Having a constant fare indirectly has people living in the city center subsidizing the travel costs of those living on the outskirts.

So, what’s all this to say?

As we head into times where more and more people are moving back into cities across the world, we are trying to escape the dated development patterns driven by the suburbia and the automobile. However, in order to do this, we need effective ways to move people densley. And nothing has the potential to do this like public transportation.

While Curitiba is a specific case of a BRT system achieving great success, they do have some elements that can be applied to BRT systems far and wide.

  1. Have stations that protect people from the elements, are safe, separate riders from other pedestrians and are interesting additions to street life.
  2. Make riders pay their fare before boarding to reduce stall times.
  3. Have the bus platform be level with the station platform to make for more accessible boardings.
  4. The feeder trunk model reduces the number of distinct lines needed in a city.
  5. Having less lines can indirectly mean shorter headways.
  6. Dedicated transit lanes increase reliability.
  7. When trips are quick, make room for standing room so that more riders can be serviced.
  8. Uniform fares make transit equitable.

As Enrique Penalosa (previous mayor of Bogota, Colombia and perhaps the single biggest advocate for BRT systems) once said, “a developed country is not one where the poor have cars. It’s one where the rich use public transport.”

And of course, in order to reach such a coveted city — one where public transit is the status quo — our BRT systems need to get a whole lot better.

Activator at The Knowledge Society | A Sandwich or Two Founder

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