Discussions of transportation in China tend to be dominated by awe-struck descriptions of massive infrastructure projects: the nation-wide bullet train system, or the elaborate metro networks being tunneled underneath most large cities. Amidst the imagery of sleek trains and rails, however, it is easy to neglect another trend that is quietly changing the face of urban transport in many Chinese cities: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
BRT is often summarised as a metro rail system with tyres, and at its best can achieve the advantages of a modern subway at costs closer to conventional bus lines. Its signature distinction compared to regular buses is dedicated lanes that are off limits to other vehicles, allowing speedy passage even in rush hour traffic. Planners often add other sweeteners like comfortable stations, metro-esque payment gates, and spacious carriages. Early successes in Latin America proved that BRT could boost transit ridership while reducing congestion and pollution. BRT has been embraced over the past decade in over 130 cities, many in developing countries that lack the scale or resources to build true metro networks.
China’s first BRT route was implemented in 1999 in Kunming, and today there are BRT systems in fifteen cities, with a dozen more planned. The cities range from Tier 1 metropolises like Beijing and Guangzhou to Tier 4 and 5 towns like Yancheng and Yinchuan, and the BRT systems vary from one or two lightly-implemented routes to fully equipped metro substitutes with multiple offshoot ‘feeder’ lines. Some efforts work better than others: planners can be tempted to treat BRT as a poor man’s subway, skimping on amenities or forcing buses to sometimes intermix with regular traffic, defeating the purpose of dedicated lanes. BRT succeeds when cities put their full muscle behind it: see Guangzhou’s massive BRT system, whose 273 km network extends along a main trunk line to a number of feeders. Buses stop at stations as frequently as every ten seconds, and the system has daily ridership of over 800,000 people – more than most Chinese metro lines.
Well-designed BRT systems are capable of supporting urban development. Xiamen’s BRT network facilitates access to emerging decentralised residential and commercial clusters. BRT routes also can create natural urban hubs as they concentrate workers, consumers, and residents at key stations, boosting property values and rents within the system’s catchment areas. BRT’s more closely-spaced stops and generally lower ridership may mean the effect on real estate will be less pronounced than near metro stops. BRT thus may be outshone in cities where it coexists with flashier subway networks, but it can play a larger role in Tier 3 cities which are too small for metro systems. A case in point is Jiangsu Province’s Changzhou, which has 50 km of dedicated lanes stretching from the suburbs to most retail clusters. On a retail survey this quarter, we observed several upcoming projects that emphasised convenient BRT access as a primary selling point. Developers there are embracing the necessity of serving this promising new mode of consumer access.