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Commuters ride a 'Metrobus' as night falls in Mexico City.

Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press

It’s one of the busiest spots of the busiest bus route in Mexico, and the vehicles come fast and furious.

Over 10 minutes of a morning rush hour, nine extra-sized buses rolled through Buenavista station on Line 1 of Mexico City’s Metrobús. Each was jammed with people, some vehicles packed so tightly that passengers had to muscle their way in, and the swinging doors struggled to move against the crush of bodies.

It’s a bit hectic, but it's a system that's able to move a remarkable number of people. To put this performance in Canadian terms, carrying so many passengers in Toronto would require a regular local bus every 20 seconds.

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Evidence of the incredible volumes that could be transported in the dedicated lanes of Mexico’s bus rapid-transit (BRT) network helped kickstart a BRT boom in Latin American and Asian cities, freeing the streets from other traffic and leading to big increases in transit capacity.

But the concept has had limited acceptance in most of the United States and Canada, where buses have traditionally operated in regular traffic, often moving very slowly. Transit watchers say that this lack of respect for bus passengers is related to the vehicle’s broader image problems in North America, where they have long been saddled with the nickname “loser-cruiser,” and light rail is all the rage among urbanists and developers.

The BRT concept has had limited acceptance in most of the United States and Canada, where buses have traditionally operated in regular traffic, often moving very slowly.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

That may be starting to change, however. Electric bus and rechargeable-battery technology is advancing quickly, making these vehicles a more environmentally friendly option. And road space reserved for buses is gradually becoming less rare in North America.

In York Region, north of Toronto, about one-third of a 34-kilometre BRT line has been built. Montreal is planning to open an 11-kilometre BRT line by 2022, with work beginning this fall . A bus plan rolled out this spring in New York called for more dedicated space. And Boston decided recently to make permanent a pilot bus lane.

These changes matter because most transit agencies still rely heavily on the bus, which remains the only public-transit option in much of Canada. And buses play a major role even in cities that have rail networks.

One of the busiest transit routes in Vancouver is the 99 bus, which carries more passengers than the West Coast Express commuter rail line. In Toronto, the Dufferin bus carries more passengers than five of the city’s eight streetcar routes. Making buses work better can bring big dividends for huge numbers of riders.

With this in mind, Toronto Transit Commission board member and City Councillor Joe Mihevc received board approval earlier this year to have the agency look at implementing a single BRT line in the city within the next half-decade.

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“The unsung heroes of public transit in Toronto are buses,” Mr. Mihevc said. “They’re the workhorses for the system. So finding ways for them to get unstuck in traffic, that’s got to be part of the future”

What is BRT?

Although the vehicles operating on Mexico City’s BRT network – dubbed Metrobús – are basically bigger versions of transit buses seen across Canada, the system as a whole has key differences.

For most Metrobús lines, people tap their fare-card to access a secure area in the station. Having paid already, they can use any of the doors on the bus to enter instead of having to file past the driver, which speeds up boarding.

The buses also come far more quickly than they do even on the busiest surface routes in Canadian cities – as often as every 48 seconds at peak service – meaning that big crowds don’t have time to build.

Fast boarding and a very high frequency of service contribute to remarkably short wait times for passengers.

Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press

Fast boarding and a very high frequency of service contribute to remarkably short dwell times – the industry term for the length of time vehicles sit at a stop. With only 10 to 15 seconds spent at the station, buses can leave before the next arrives, preventing them from bunching up.

The ride itself has the jerkiness familiar to bus passengers, making it hard to read if you are fortunate enough to find a seat. It’s faster than many buses, however, because it has its own space. Existing lanes have been marked off with low dividers. Intrusion by other vehicles is dissuaded by signs and camera enforcement, which locals say is enough to deter most scofflaws.

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Launched 12 years ago, Mexico City’s BRT network now carries more than half a billion passengers annually with a fleet of more than 700 buses.

“Don’t take exactly the solution that Mexico City has implemented to other cities, that is a mistake,” said Marco Priego, the urban mobility director for the Mexico branch of the World Resources Institute, which helped provide technical assistance as the city launched its BRT system.

“What other cities can actually take from Mexico City is to see that ... in a very complex city, in a very problematic city like this, it’s possible to have sustainable transport as a solution. It is possible to have high-income people using public transport. And that is, I think, what matters the most.”

The buses come far more quickly than they do even on the busiest surface routes in Canadian cities – as often as every 48 seconds at peak service,

OMAR TORRES/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Why BRT?

The value of the Metrobús has always been about more than just transportation.

One of the original aims of the project was to help remove hundreds of high-polluting private minibuses from the city's roads. An early supporter was the city’s secretary of the environment, Claudia Sheinbaum, who is now mayor-elect of Mexico City.

The project also had the backing of Mexico City’s mayor at the time, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who was recently elected to the presidency on a social-justice platform. According to one insider, the first route was chosen with an eye to improving transportation for low-income residents. Although another route would likely have produced more riders, planners decided that they needed to balance that goal with the desire to have an equitable system.

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Another benefit of the system is that it is seen to be safer than what it replaced. Instead of minibuses swerving all over the road as their drivers jockey for position, the Metrobús vehicles move predictably in their dedicated lanes. The buses have cameras and the stations have guards. Surveys show that one of the network’s most popular attributes is the sense of personal safety it brings passengers.

But amid the various elements of the case for BRT, one value proposition stands out.

“With one kilometre of subway, you can make one line of the Metrobús,” said Adelina Reyes Ortega, an official with the government entity that oversees the BRT network

She was referring to the first section of Line 1, which stretched 20 kilometers. A high-capacity transit service that could be created for 5 per cent of the cost of a subway was a compelling economic argument for the city, which has expanded the system dramatically from that first effort.

Line 1 has been extended by 10 kilometres, and five other lines have been added since. Line 7, running along the grand Paseo de la Reforma and using double-decker buses so that passengers can better enjoy the sights, opened in February. The system now extends across the city. The heaviest used is Line 1, which tops out at 16,000 passengers an hour, better than any light-rail line in Canada.

The cost of building is low because the infrastructure demands of Metrobús are minimal compared to a subway. The road was already there, and just needed small barriers to separate its centre lanes from other traffic. While the stations have a substantial foot-print – they are up to 100-metres long, allowing several extra-long buses to load and disgorge at once – they are at ground level and much cheaper to build than subway stations.

In many cities, the political cost of taking the road away from drivers is the hardest part. In that regard, Mexico City had an easier fight than some other places. More than half of commuters here take transit, making their convenience politically important, and drivers could take solace in the fact that the remaining lanes would be free of minibuses chasing after passengers.

The Metrobús vehicles move predictably in their dedicated lanes. They have cameras and the stations have guards. Surveys show that one of the network’s most popular attributes is the sense of personal safety it brings passengers.

Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press

Would it work?

Mr. Mihevc, the Toronto city councillor championing the idea, acknowledges that it can be an uphill battle convincing some people that buses deserve their own space. That’s why he pushed for what he admitted was an unambitious goal of just one BRT line, seeing it as a way to demonstrate the idea’s potential.

“People need to touch it, feel it, experience it in a way where the pain is minimal,” he argued, adding that he has no doubt space can be found on some of Toronto’s roads. “Most of our roads, they are so wide you can land planes on them. They should be candidates.”

He mentioned Finch Avenue, in the city’s northwest, as one possibility. There are close to 50,000 people a day riding the Finch West bus, whose average speed, over the course of its route, is less than 15 kilometres an hour in rush hour. Light rail is being built on the western end of the route and, if BRT were added to the remainder, transit vehicles would have their own dedicated space all the way from Yonge Street to Humber College.

However, such a plan would likely ruffle the feathers of those drivers who resent giving up road space. And even if part of a road is dedicated to transit, it can be a chore keeping it clear. An attempt now under way to restrict traffic on King Street in downtown Toronto has resulted in thousands of tickets, as many drivers continue to ignore the rules.

These problems are not unique to Toronto, though, and other cities have made strides toward solving them. Cameras are a simple and effective way to enforce bus lane restrictions in a number of places, including Mexico City. And the mayor of Bogota, who launched that city’s extensive BRT network, had a simple answer to drivers upset about bus lanes.

“If, in a democracy, all citizens are equal before the law, then a bus with 100 passengers should have the right to 100 times more road space than a car carrying only one person,” argued Enrique Penalosa argued.

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