Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bus Rapid Transit in Taichung

During my conversation last week with Mr. Huang (黃崇典), Taichung City Director of Urban Development, a key topic of discussion was Taichung’s transportation system. Taichung has the highest per capita car ownership out of Taiwan’s large cities and insufficient public transportation infrastructure. Construction of Taichung's mass rapid transit (MRT) system has been a contentious issue due to high costs (the first line alone will cost over $51 billion TWD or $1.67 billion USD). Director Huang confirmed that construction on Taichung’s first MRT line has begun and operations are scheduled to commence in four years. The second line to be built will most likely be the blue line, running along Taichung Harbor Road (台中港路) into the city center. However, construction on the blue line hasn’t broken ground, and four other lines are still in their planning stages. It appears that final completion of Taichung’s metro system is still years, if not decades away.

As an alternative method of traffic alleviation and carbon emission reduction, Director Huang mentioned the development of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Taichung, citing the example of Curitiba, Brazil, the model of BRT systems internationally. In this post, I want to examine the concept of BRT, explore how a few cities have adapted its principles to fit their specific transportation needs, and evaluate its future potential in Taichung.

What is Bus Rapid Transit?

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a high-quality bus public transportation system that emulates best practices from various public transportation options. Consequently, BRT systems aim to achieve levels of speed and efficiency close to light rail or subways, at a much lower cost. Some BRT practices include:

  • exclusive busways
  • alternative fuel vehicles (biofuels, natural gas)
  • rapid boarding and exiting
  • free transfers
  • enclosed stations with prepayment
  • realtime tracking of arrivals
  • bi-articulated busses
  • improved marketing

BRT's major advantages are its low upfront cost and flexibility. Cost is a major factor in determining a city's options in improving its public transportation system. Underground MRT systems cost between $45 million and $320 million USD per kilometer. Taipei's MRT system is generally hailed as a success, but its costs will exceed $30 billion USD upon completion of its second phase. A cheaper option is light rail transit (LRT), featuring above ground electric rail cars and ranging in price from $30 million to $100 million USD per kilometer. BRT systems are cheaper than both LRT and MRT options, with costs varying between $500,000 to $15 million USD per kilometer. Although many city-specific factors determine the precise cost of each option, BRT's substantially lower investment price offers cities lacking upfront capital an alternative to inaction. Another appealing quality of BRT systems is their flexibility. BRT can comprise a city's entire public transportation network, supplement/feed-into existing metro systems, or be converted to rail transportation at a later date.

BRT also has its drawbacks. In many cities, there exists a strong, negative public perception about public transportation in general, with bus transportation ranking at the bottom of the public transport hierarchy. Critics have been skeptical of high-quality BRT systems applicability in developed nations, regarding them as "a third world solution for a third world problem." In his excellent overview of BRT system development, Lloyd Wright observes:

The negative stigma of existing bus systems is a formidable barrier to overcome in selling the BRT concept. In most parts of the world, the words “public transport” have the same connotation as some other public goods such as “public restrooms”. Thus, public transport is something that is not clean and not particularly nice, and should only be endured when truly necessary.

In addition to the stigma associated with bus travel, there are legitimate concerns regarding overcrowding, pollution, and labor productivity.


Any reference to BRT development will likely cite the Brazilian city of Curitiba*, the birthplace of modern BRT systems. Faced with a lack of funding for a metro system, rapidly expanding urban area and increasing reliance on private cars for transportation, Curitiba implemented the world’s first BRT system in 1974. Under the guidance of Curitiba architect and Mayor Jaime Lerner, the city’s BRT network has expanded into a comprehensive and popular form of urban transportation. Curitiba utilizes what many now consider to be staples of a high-level BRT system including: exclusive busways, prepayment, free transfers, alternative fuel vehicles, same-level boarding, and quality stations.

In the article, Curitiba’s Bus System is a Model for Rapid Transit, the authors summarize the successes of the system:

“The popularity of Curitiba’s BRT has effected a modal shift from automobile travel to bus travel. Based on 1991 traveler survey results, it was estimated that the introduction of the BRT had caused a reduction of about 27 million auto trips per year, saving about 27 million liters of fuel annually. In particular, 28 percent of BRT riders previously traveled by car. Compared to eight other Brazilian cities of its size, Curitiba uses about 30 percent less fuel per capita, resulting in one of the lowest rates of ambient air pollution in the country. Today about 1,100 buses make 12,500 trips every day, serving more than 1.3 million passengers—50 times the number from 20 years ago. Eighty percent of travelers use the express or direct bus services. Best of all, Curitibanos spend only about 10 percent of their income on travel— much below the national average.”

Curitiba's BRT system continues to modernize and develop. Its latest green line added 9.4 km of BRT expansion while integrating green space and bicycle paths along the route's axis. Despite the successes of Curitiba's BRT system, discussions are still ongoing regarding the construction of an MRT system. Issues such as rapid urban development at Curitiba's periphery, increasing car ownership, and image for the 2014 influx of World Cup tourists still color the debate.

*For additional background information on Curitiba's urban development history and future challenges, see this May 2007 New York Times Magazine piece


Taipei is the home of Taiwan's first BRT system, beginning operation in 1996 and running as a supplement to its MRT system. In contrast to the Taipei MRT's astronomical price tag (one of the most expensive in the world), the 57 kilometers of Taipei BRT cost a modest $500,000 USD per kilometer. Taipei utilizes exclusive bus lanes (although not segregated physically from traffic), digital payment cards, and feeder service to MRT stations. Taipei's BRT has been a measured success, and bus lanes have increased average speeds for both busses and private vehicles.

Taipei has also begun to integrate alternative fuel busses into its fleet. Taipei City has offered subsidies to its bus companies to encourage purchasing hybrid busses, and 75 electric-diesel hybrids are now in operation.


Xiamen, the TSCCI project’s mainland sister eco-city to Taichung, has implemented one of China’s most successful and comprehensive BRT systems. Xiamen had long looked to alleviate traffic congestion through improved public transportation. By its own calculation, every kilometer of subway line would cost the city 500-600 million yuan, ($73-88 million USD) and a light rail would cost 150-200 million yuan ($22-29 million USD). Instead Xiamen embraced a cheaper option and BRT has become the city's main mode of public transportation. Xiamen’s BRT system began operation in September 2008. With its ease of use and ticket prices below 1 yuan, rides have increased to 22 million/day. In a January 2009 WRI Center for Sustainable Transport report, Xiamen's BRT system received the second highest evaluation out of thirteen Asian cities (Taipei tied for 10th place). The efficiency of Xiamen's BRT system has played a major role in Xiamen's status as China's top city in transportation convenience for six years running.

The Xiamen BRT relies on five lines and a supplementary series of shuttle busses that connect to BRT stations. The BRT links downtown Xiamen Island to the outlying areas of the city, achieving the same effect as an MRT in developing adjacent communities through greater public transportation access at a fraction of the cost. Xiamen’s BRT system not only utilizes specialized bus lanes, but also includes its own elevated network of roadways (China’s first elevated BRT network). As a result of its designated BRT highways, Xiamen’s buses can reach speeds of 60 km/hr.

Xiamen has also utilized its BRT system as to showcase its green efforts: 300 compressed natural gas (CNG) busses were purchased in March 2010 as part of a larger plan convert 40-50% of Xiamen’s bus fleet to CNG busses by 2015. Additionally, Xiamen is integrating renewable energy into its BRT stations as it launched China’s first solar powered BRT station in May 2010.

Despite the successes of Xiamen's BRT system, the city is continuing with plans to develop a network of public rail transportation. The city has announced that construction of the Xiamen Urban Rail Transit program will begin in 2011. Underground rail is planned for the city center and above surface stations outside Xiamen Island. The future of Xiamen's BRT is uncertain; it may continue to operate connected to light rail and metro networks, although there is an ongoing movement to convert the BRT to an LRT system. Irregardless of whether Xiamen's BRT system will serve as a bridge or supplement to a future MRT system, it has effectively garnered widespread public approval and utilization, and potentially laid the infrastructural groundwork for more expensive and advanced transportation systems.

Taichung's progress towards a BRT system

Taichung has recently taken steps to enhance its frequently maligned public bus system. While stations along Taichung’s busy thoroughfare Taichung Harbor Road (台中港路) do not have boarding platforms, many offer shelter, seating, and real time digital tracking of bus arrivals. Taichung is transitioning to electronic fare payment and is in the process of outfitting all its city busses with GPS, allowing potential riders to track bus locations on their computers and mobile phones.

In May 2009, Taichung launched the Taichung Traffic Jam (TTJ) bus service. The TTJ bus features seven new express lines (some mirroring Taichung's future planned MRT lines) that stop at key areas of the city. Through its interconnected route network, exclusive use of automated pay-cards, and express routes, the TTJ busses are a positive attempt to increase the efficiency of Taichung's bus system. Furthermore, all rides on the TTJ busses were free for the first six months of operation, a measure aimed at increasing Taichung citizens' ridership.

The TTJ busses are a good, but small, step towards creating an efficient BRT system in Taichung. Taichung’s bus system still lacks many hallmarks of a quality BRT network such as widespread usage of special bus lanes and prepaid boarding. Perhaps equally important to upgrading its busses, stations and routes is the need to change the negative perception of the bus system in Taichung. When speaking to many people in Taichung about the busses, reactions range from puzzlement to disdain. Most people conclude that a scooter or car is essential to life. Without first working to increase public awareness and usage of public transportation options, Taichung could face problems akin to Kaohsiung City's once its MRT comes online later this decade.

Future Outlook

I believe that a comprehensive BRT system in Taichung is a good fit as its low upfront investment cost presents a good risk/reward ratio to Taichung's City government. While the soaring BRT-exclusive highways of Xiamen aren't likely to materialize in Taichung, measured steps to upgrade the city's busses, stations, lanes, and marketing of its BRT system are pragmatic and cost-effective options to stimulate increased ridership. Paramount among Taichung's BRT challenges is to reverse the negative image of Taichung's bus system. GPS tracking and free express busses are a good beginning. Taichung still needs more exclusive bus lanes and enclosed stations with prepayment, giving its bus system a more sophisticated and integrated feel.

Although the public perception of Taichung's public transportation system is largely negative, the city's parallels to Curitiba offer room for optimism. Both cities underwent rapid urbanization and expansion which necessitated a re-think regarding their urban planning models. Both Taichung and Curitiba coveted underground metro systems, but a lack of funding prevented them from rapidly developing a subterranean public transit option. As of 2004, Taichung's high levels of private car ownership (276 vehicles/1000 people) were still less than Curitiba's rate (333 vehicles/1000 people), indicating that public and private transportation options can co-exist.

When examining successful BRT systems worldwide, it seems that no city's public transportation system is complete (in the opinion of its planners) without some form of public rail transportation. It easy to get lost in a debate over which form of public transportation is best while small, practical changes are delayed. In this respect, Taichung is ahead of the curve. The city has already begun construction on its long-awaited MRT system and can now focus on developing a low-cost BRT network to supplement it. Similarly to Taipei, Taichung can utilize its BRT system to connect areas of the city that will lack access to its new MRT. The years between now and the planned opening of the Taichung MRT mid-decade present Taichung City with an important opportunity to lay the groundwork for a culture of public transportation usage at minimal cost and risk. If the city fails to act however, Taichung's citizens may continue to prefer scooter over subway.


  1. Nice post man. Very informative. Keep up the good work homie

    Have you read this:

  2. I agree that a BRT is a more appropriate system for Taichung. There is a lot of potential for improving the way buses run on major roads like Zhonggang Road and Wenxin Road.

    One of the reasons why the MRT was successful in Taipei was that there was already a large number of people using buses who immediately became MRT users. This culture doesn't exist in Taichung and just makes it likely that any MRT line would have poor ridership.

    Another issue to consider is that the reasons for building an MRT might be political rather practical. There are a lot of contracts involved which present opportunities for patronage and kickbacks. While a BRT might have a better cost/benefit ratio it lacks the prestige of an MRT system too.

  3. You missed one of the most important aspects of a BRT system- signal prioritization. This can significantly speed up a bus, since it won't have to wait for lights. I suspect Taipei's "BRT" system lacks this- buses often seem to bunch up at traffic lights. I've even been caught in traffic jams on the BRT system. Another major problem is poor marketing. I was not even aware Taipei was supposed to have a BRT system until a year ago, and even now I am not sure which lines are BRT and which roads have a BRT line. If there were a map showing BRT lines with the MRT system it would be much more user-friendly.
    I'm skeptical of the success of any mass transit system outside Taipei in general. It's too easy to drive a scooter and find free parking, often in places that block pedestrain movement- which in turn makes mass transit even less appealing because you have to walk to get to stations. Even if this weren't a problem, many areas simply have no sidewalks at all. Additionally there's no gas tax, so driving is artificially cheap.
    Anyway, I'd agree that a BRT system, if it actually is rapid, would be a better first step rather than building an MRT system. I'm guessing this will go the way of KMRT.