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Bus Rapid Transit System [BRT] and Road Safety

Introduction and Definition of Bus Rapid Transit System [BRT]

The Department of Transport has made it clear that the Bus Rapid Transit System [BRT] is crucial to the success of South Africa's transport system. Without a good bus service that is accessible, affordable and attractive to a broad range of people across society, local transport simply cannot work. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a mass road-based public transport system that mimics rail systems. A BRT system is a high quality, customer-oriented transport system which will deliver fast, comfortable, and low-cost urban mobility with a modern, efficient and comfortable service to public transport users.

Bus rapid transit (BRT) is a broad term given to a variety of transportation systems that, through improvements to infrastructure, vehicles and scheduling, attempt to use buses to provide a service that is of a higher quality than an ordinary bus line. The BRT will play a leading role in transforming public transport within cities to a situation where it will become the preferred mode of travel for the majority of residents, and where it will make a major contribution towards the more efficient development of the city as a whole.

Currently, a high number of daily passenger trips first go to the central parts of cities, before arriving at the final destination. These commuters no longer will have to travel via the CBD to reach their final destination. The public transport priority measures to be implemented will reduce travel times, having an enormous economic impact. Immediately after completion of the construction work, journey times for road users will reduce, having a positive impact on vehicle operating costs and savings on time in vehicles.

How does it work?

The main features of the Bus Rapid Transit System are:

  • Dedicated bus lanes which operate separately from all other traffic modes. This allows buses to operate at a very high level of reliability since only professional drivers are allowed on the busway. 
  • A side benefit is lower construction costs since busways can be engineered to tighter standards and still remain safe compared to a roadway open to non-professional drivers. 
  • Location of the busways in the median of the roadway rather than in the kerb lane
  • Existence of an integrated "network" of routes and corridors
  • Separate stations that are convenient, comfortable, secure and weather protected
  • Stations provide level access between the platform and the vehicle floor
  • Special stations and terminals to facilitate physical integration between trunk routes, feeder services, and other public transport systems
  • Pre-boarding fare collection and fare verification
  • Fare and physical integration between routes, corridors, and feeder services
  • Entry to the system is restricted to prescribed operators under a reformed business and administrative structure
  • Low-emission vehicle technologies
  • System management through a centralised control centre, utilising ITS applications such as automatic vehicle location
  • Special physical provisions to ease access for people with disabilities, such as children, the elderly, and the disabled
  • Clear route maps, signage, and / or real-time information displays that are visibly placed within stations and / or vehicles.
  • A bus street or transit mall created in an urban centre by dedicating all lanes of a city street to the exclusive use of buses. 
  • Low-cost infrastructure elements that can increase the speed and reliability of bus service include bus turnouts, bus boarding islands, and curb realignments. 
  • Comprehensive coverage: In addition to using dedicated busways, BRT's can also take advantage of existing roadways in cities that already have a comprehensive road network for private automobiles. 
  • Serves a diverse market with high-frequency all-day service: A BRT network with comprehensive coverage can serve a diverse market (all income ranges) by moving people from their current location to their destination with high frequency and reliability while maintaining a high level of customer experience.

Objectives and implementation for South Africa

The South African public transport system consists predominantly of rail and bus services that are subsidised by the government and the mini-bus taxi service which is unsubsidised. These do not work in an integrated fashion and actually compete with one another for commuters.  The principal project objective in Johannesburg is to upgrade the quality and performance level of the public transport system. A brief overview of the Rea Vaya System in Johannesburg provides more insight to the Bus Rapid Transit System:

  • The trunk routes in the Johannesburg system will make use of large buses travelling in dedicated median lanes on current roads, with smaller buses operating on BRT routes without dedicated lanes, feeding commuters into the trunk routes. 
  • The system plans to level the playing field between existing taxi and bus operators, while drastically improving operating efficiencies and costs. 
  • According to the BRT business model, bus operators will be concessioned to operate the system.
  • Rea Vaya in JHB will offer three interconnected levels of service. The largest buses with a capacity of up to 90 passengers will be articulated and are referred to as the Trunk buses. These buses will only travel on the designated median lane trunk routes. Complimentary buses which will be able to pick up passengers at stations on the trunk routes and will also be able to operate on the kerbside will have a capacity of 60 passengers. Finally, the Feeder buses, which have a capacity of 32 passengers, will bring people from the outer areas which don’t have direct access to the trunk routes. 
  • This will extend the network to areas far beyond the main trunk routes. 
  • When complete, Rea Vaya will cover more than 300km’s of trunk routes across the city. In the Phase 1 network, buses will run in exclusive, dedicated lanes in the centre of existing roads and will operate from about 150 stations, positioned half a kilometre apart. 
  • Operating companies will be paid by the kilometre, and not by commuter, meaning the emphasis is on a quick and efficient point-to-point service with no deviation. 
  • The system is expected to transport 430 000 passengers daily.
  • High-floor buses will allow passengers to embark and disembark at closed, raised stations, with level boarding. 
  • Effective security, including closed-circuit television cameras, will be incorporated into the system.
  • Rea Vaya will incorporate a geographic information system-based control centre to manage the flow of buses, which will operate at a peak-hour frequency of one to three minutes and ten minutes off-peak, running between 05:00 and midnight. 
  • Bus propulsion systems will be eco-friendly. 
  • Park-and-ride facilities will be established to encourage business professionals to use the system.

The Johannesburg BTR system will be integrated with the Gautrain project linking Johannesburg and OR Tambo International Airport with Tshwane and other existing systems.

Bus Rapid Transit System and 2010

The BRT System as a fast, comfortable and low-cost urban transport system played a major role in making the venue for 2010 World Cup accessible to spectators and projecting the image of our cities. The Integrated Transport Plan for host cities' Cape Town, Tshwane, Durban, and Bloemfontein among several others will include a BRT transport system to promote the use of public transport ahead of the 2010 soccer spectacle.

The Bus Rapid Transit System has the full support of the Ministry and Department of Transport and it is a flagship project for both the 2009 and 2010 FIFA soccer tournaments. There is an identified need for high quality, customer-oriented public transport system which is fast, comfortable and offers low-cost mobility. This bus system will also have routes leading to the training and main stadiums.

The BRT routes have been designed to link up with the inner-city distribution systems and various other development nodes and residential areas. Various public transport interchange facilities along the routes provide for connection to other road-based public transport services servicing other areas of the city.

The project will require the provision of new infrastructure as well as the upgrading of existing infrastructure to benefit South Africa far beyond 2010.

International Implementation

It is important to understand that the Bus Rapid Transit System is a well-known transport system implemented internationally. BRT is gaining popularity around the world with no fewer than 40 BRT systems now operating in Latin America, Northern America, Europe, Australasia and Asia. More than 80 systems are in the planning stage, including those in London and New York City. Most of the systems are part of a new international trend in city development and re-development called transport-orientated development (TOD). This is based on successful projects in South America that started in Brazil in the 1970s.

The system emerged as a necessary option for Beijing to reduce emissions from traffic, and particularly the soaring number of private vehicles. It offered a cost-effective solution to city traffic, supplementing the rail network at one-tenth of the cost of a rail system to construct.

Successful BRT systems in Bogota and Brazil have improved commuter travelling times in these cities, reduced the number of accidents and contributed to improved air quality. The essential difference between a bus system and BRT is that BRT operates longer buses on dedicated bus lanes. Passengers get a regular, faster and congestion-free ride.

The Johannesburg Rea Vaya operator business plan has been modelled on successful BRT systems in Latin America, where they have almost identical situations to those in South Africa, with large numbers of minibus taxis and buses vying for passengers, and where both incumbent taxi and bus operators have become the new BRT operators. Rea Vaya operators will be compensated on the basis of vehicle kilometres run, rather than the number of passengers carried, and consultation has been taking place with industry representatives – particularly the minibus taxi industry.

Benefits of Bus Rapid Transit System

Nearly two years since the first line of Beijing's bus rapid transit (BRT) system began operation, the rapid passenger transport system is contributing to the reduction of the city's severely congested roads and associated air pollution for which the city is infamous.

The implementation of the BRT is seen as an economic development project with short, medium and long-term impacts and benefits. The main focus in South Africa is on Johannesburg's ambitious plans which will form the backbone of, if not the framework for, a new-look city dominated by wide boulevards lined with landscaped pavements, multi-storey affordable flats, offices, shops and entertainment venues. The system and the accessibility it brings will go a long way towards physically and mentally integrating the city and improving the quality of life of inhabitants. Reliable public transport will also “result in more flexible employment and transport arrangements”, which are currently often constrained by the existing bus and taxi systems.

Short Term Benefits of BRT

  • Efficient, reliable and frequent public transport services 
  • Affordable fares
  • A safe and secure public transport system
  • Accessible public transport for people with disabilities and mothers with children
  • A decrease in traffic congestion, energy consumption and vehicle emissions
  • An enhanced urban environment
  • Recapitalisation of the public transport fleet.

Medium Term Benefits of BRT

  • Containing urban sprawl (spread of settlements) and promoting densification
  • Promoting social inclusion instead of isolation
  • Job creation

Long Term Benefits of BRT

  • Better economic development at and around the nodes as well as along the mobility spines.
  • Land-use change along the route as well as the nodes, which will result in densification.
  • Sustainable and frequent peak and off-peak public transportation system.
  • Improved journey times for all public transport users
  • Reduction in pollution
  • A world-class public transport system which the City can be proud of.

Environmental Benefits of Bus Rapid Transit Systems

Considering that traffic volumes are escalating by 7% per year in the economically active corridor between Johannesburg and Tshwane, carbon dioxide emissions from private cars will increasingly contribute to global warming. The use of BRT systems will, therefore, contribute to cleaner cities with reduced carbon monoxide emissions.

  • The Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System is the largest ever climate change project the City of Johannesburg has undertaken and represents a major turning point in how the City deals with congestion, pollution and greenhouse gases emitted due to transportation in Johannesburg. 
  • An extensive study has been done in order to better understand the implications that a project of this nature will have with regard to greenhouse gas emissions and the environment of Johannesburg. 
  • Environmental impact studies revealed an expected savings of 382,940 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions as a result of the implementation of the Rea Vaya system by 2010. 
  • Operation of a Rea Vaya system through 2020 was estimated to save1, 6 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions. 
  • It will dramatically improve the air quality of the city of Johannesburg by taking thousands of poor quality buses running on poor quality fuel off the streets and replacing them with hundreds of buses running on cleaner fuel with the most up-to-date pollution reduction equipment. 
  • This will reduce dangerous vehicular emission to human health
  • The environmental authorities have been fully supportive of BRT.

Risks & Challenges to the Rapid Transit System

There are unfortunately risks to the timely implementation of the Bus Rapid Transit System:

  • Lack of support by the public transport industry where some of the public transport operators don’t want to support the project or don’t want to change to the new operations.
  • Developing a robust business and financial model by obtaining buy-in from existing operators and financiers
  • Taxi Associations have blamed the government for going ahead and implementing the BRT without thoroughly explaining to them how it will work. 
  • Taxi owners say they cannot compete with BRT because the system will have dedicated lanes.
  • One of the challenges faced in the construction of local BRT systems is the time factor 
  • Environmental impact assessment process and outcomes with concerns about increased noise levels and objections to the expropriation of existing houses. 
  • Budgetary constraints may cause delays and implementation over a longer period. 
  • The biggest concern to get buy-in from a consumer point of view is personal safety. Most South Africans are scared of getting mugged on public transport systems. [Johannesburg is to implement video monitoring, as well as an increased police presence, to allay public fears] 
  • Other concerns are around the negative perception of buses when compared to private vehicles (and rail services) in terms of journey comfort and trip time. 
  • Another concern highlights the need for high urban densities along the BRT corridors in order to ensure that the system is feasible to run the service it is designed for, particularly when it is still competing with the other modes in South African cities.
  • Training owners and operators in skills needed for successful Bus Rapid Transit operations.
  • Educating users and potential users.


Global best practice has shown that conflict is minimised when existing operators are drawn into BRT systems. Johannesburg is working towards negotiated contracts with the existing taxi and bus operators on routes so that they effectively become the new joint operators of the BRT system. Tshwane taxi operators have also indicated they will buy into the BRT system if they become partners in the main system and not just the feeder system.

These BRT systems are not seen as the final solution to public transport in South Africa but will form part of an integrated system of different modes and linked to cycleways and walkways as part of the non-motorised transport system that should also be developed.

The success of these systems can only be judged once they are operational, but it is hoped that they will assist in meeting the needs of public transport users.

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