LRT (Light Rail Transit) or BRT (Bus Rapid Transit)? That was the issue on the agenda Thursday night at a meeting of city planners, traffic engineers and activists in Tel Aviv. The question is particularly relevant in Israel as the country invests in setting up a nationwide mass transit system.
The meeting, organized by the Israeli Association of Transportation Research, featured a debate between a professor from Haifa and a planner from NETA, the company that is planning Tel Aviv’s mass transit system, on the advantages and disadvantages of light rails vs. BRT (vs. subways). In Israel, somewhere between the developed and developing world, issues regarding advanced vs. appropriate technology (what EF Schumacher called “technology with a human face”) are common and involve conflicting worldviews, with some aspiring to the West and others arguing for technologies that better suit the specific Israeli context.
The speakers generally agreed that the light rail has two major advantages over BRT, namely a sexier image (image is extremely important if drivers are to be convinced to leave their cars at home and take public transport) and the fact that it is a more established, proven technology. Both also agreed that above-ground transport provides greater benefits to the city as a whole, as it contributes interest, liveliness, and economic benefits to the urban street, and encourages renovations of buildings along the street (much needed in Israeli cities).
The main point of disagreement involved questions regarding the flexibility, costs (set-up and upkeep), carrying capacity and externalities (noise, pollution) of the two technologies. While generally agreed that the two systems (if designed correctly) deliver more or less the same service, the planners disagreed about which system is more economical – one argued that BRT is significantly cheaper to build and maintain, while the other suggested that cost differences are negligible.
Bus Rapid Transit is essentially a system of elongated buses which mimics a subway in its operation and efficiency. Whereas light rails and subways have a larger capacity and are favored in more developed countries, BRT systems are much cheaper and quicker to build, and are thus favored in the cities and megacities of the developing world. BRT was pioneered in Curitiba, Brazil in the 1970’s and later successfully adopted by numerous Latin American cities, including Bogotá, Quito and Mexico City.
A controversy has raged for years in Tel Aviv between city officials, the central government, and local green groups over whether its future mass transit system will be BRT or light rail-based. For the moment, the first three lines will be built as subway and light rail lines, which, because these technologies take much longer to build than BRT, means that a full metropolitan mass transit system is still at least a decade away.