Everyone is aware of the benefits of using public transport over the car: less pollution in crowded city streets, less congestion on busy urban roads and fewer per capita CO2 emissions to name but three.
What is often less obvious is which form of public transport is the best to advocate in an urban area such as the West Midlands. Buses are often slow and get caught in the same congestion as private cars, as well as having an image problem (some people not wanting to catch the smelly old bus). Suburban train services are generally quicker and more popular but have the disadvantage of often using the same lines as longer-distance services, especially in the West Midlands conurbation, and there are often issues of cost and space for new lines. Rapid Transit seems like the best middle-ground option, but in these challenging economic times this is often very costly to set-up, so what is a transport campaigner to do?
Well, one answer is an idea known as Bus as Rapid Transit (BRT). The idea, like metro-tram lines, is to have dedicated road space for the route with stops further apart than traditional bus stops (every kilometre as opposed to every few hundred metres) and longer vehicles than normal buses. The crucial difference between bus and light rail rapid transit is that, although the vehicles may look like modern day trams, they are in fact buses running with tyres and powered by an internal engine as opposed to overhead wires. Like all forms of rapid transit, stops should be local transport hubs, with other local bus feeder services connecting with the route, and there should be plenty of space for bikes, so that people are not disadvantaged by having further to go in order to reach their nearest stop.
The advantages of the scheme are obvious. It has all the benefits of a light rail system: quicker journey times, more comfortable vehicles, more reliable service, therefore encouraging more people to use public transport on arterial routes, but without the larger infrastructure cost of rails and wires. This is especially important in the current economic climate, where local authorities and national government are less likely to give funding to expensive capital expenditure projects. Once the bus line has been built, it can always be converted to light rail operation at a later date, often more easily because the stops and dedicated road space will already be in place, and the case for the line’s value has been made.
There are already working examples of this type of system in several cities around the world. One example is in Curitiba in Brazil, home of the world’s first BRT system, which has a network of lines radiating out from the city centre along main arterial routes. South of Paris in the suburbs of Val-de-Marne, there is a bus route with many of the characteristics of the Bus as Rapid Transit system albeit with more traditional bendy-bus vehicles. There are examples of this in Britain with a guided bus route in Crawley, but the closest example to this form of BRT is the Swansea metro currently nearing completion, which will cut journey times on its new cross city route from 75 to 55 minutes. Centro are thought to be considering the idea for the West Midlands conurbation as part of its Rapid Transit strategy.
Business leaders are also getting on board with this idea, as was in evidence at the Birmingham Transport Summit at the beginning of March, when influential developer Gary Taylor of the Argent Group was proposing this as the key to problems of connectivity in the city centre. He is suggesting three circular routes in the city centre linking Eastside, Westside and the Jewellery Quarter, which would be a good start if something can be done to free up the road space to allow them to run freely, without being stuck in traffic. Many other business people also spoke of the need to have effective public transport and taking cars off the road as a way of creating prosperity through regeneration in Birmingham.
The benefits of Bus Rapid Transit routes in Birmingham and the West Midlands are obvious especially in areas where there are currently no rapid transit routes, either heavy or light rail, notably the Hagley Road or the main route between Birmingham and Chelmsley Wood. So next time you think you could do with a new transport system, but don’t think it could ever happen in the current economic climate, think again, the “smelly old bus” in new form might just be the answer!
Bus Rapid Transit system in Curitiba Brazil