Recently I was reading an old Scientific American article about urban planning in Curitiba, Brazil. The 1.8 million resident city in southern Brazil is a mecca of urban solutions, especially as related to transportation. Much of the city’s visionary accomplishment is due to the leadership of former mayor Jaime Lerner, who is an architect and urban planner.
According to that Scientific American article:
Most cities grow in concentric fashion, annexing new districts around the outside while progressively increasing the density of the commercial and business districts at their core. Congestion is inevitable, especially if most commuters travel from the periphery to the center in private automobiles. During the 1970′s, Curitiba authorities instead emphasized growth along prescribed structural axes, allowing the city to spread out while developing mass transit that kept shops, workplaces and homes readily accessible to one another. …
The details of the system are designed for speed and simplicity just as much as the overall architecture. Special raised-tube bus-stops, where passengers pay their fares in advance (as in a subway station), speed boarding, as do the two extra-wide doors on each bus. The combination has cut total travel time by a third. Curitiba also runs double- and triple-length articulated buses that increase the capacity of the express bus lanes. …
To build a subway system would have cost roughly $60 million to $70 million [in 1996] per kilometer; the express bus highways came in at $200,000 per kilometer, including boarding tubes.
This bus rapid transit system carries 75% of the commuters to work every day. To get a better picture of how this system operates I recommend the short documentary below.
Curitiba was fortunate to still be developing while they built much of their transit system, something cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas can still to some extent take advantage of. However, I am enamored with the philosophy of both the bus rapid transit system and the tubes servicing them.
I firmly believe that what frequently makes subways more attractive than buses is their permanence and hence perceived reliability. Having buses that more closely resemble subways and having permanent stops not only creates permanence, but creates efficiency. We have all been on the bus and sat there waiting for all the passengers to feed their money into the fare box. By allowing people to pay before boarding there is a huge efficiency advantage over most bus systems in the US.
Of course most buses tend to pick up curbside where there is no room for something as large as a Curitiba tube. However, the potential for a dedicated lane is not dependent on new systems. Every city has thoroughfares that are essential to traveling through the city and many of them are multiple lanes. Dedicating one of those lanes, even walling it off such that regular traffic cannot access it would make buses much more desirable.
Currently most buses not only are crowded but go slower than the speed of traffic due to stops. If buses had dedicated lanes they travel much faster than the rest of the traffic as they will not have to compete with cars. Imagine as opposed to building a 2nd ave subway in Manhattan one or two lanes of 2nd avenue was just dedicated to rapid transit buses. Now this isn’t as advantageous in New York, which already primarily travels underground, but you get the idea.