Over the last year, there has been international record growth in fixed-route transit, according to a comprehensive collection of rapid transit data maintained by the ITDP Global staff. ITDP looked at bus rapid transit (BRT), light rail transit (LRT), and Metro built in 2016 in 373 urban areas around the world. Data is collected either directly from government sources or publicly available news sources.
In 2016, 37 cities added 754.5 km of metro rail, and 9 cities added 163.2 km of bus rapid transit, and 7 cities added 72.1 km of light rail. While Metro is by far the most prevalent form of rapid transit construction, these numbers are largely due to the rapid transit growth of China. Incredibly, of the 754.5 km of built in 2016, 533 was in mainland China.
More than twice as much BRT was built in 2016 compared to LRT, continuing the the trend of BRT growth outpacing the increasingly less-popular option of LRT. 2016 marked the fifth straight year where more BRT opened than LRT. Using this data on all rapid transit openings since 1980, we can see where each mode stacks up in terms of grand total of kilometers. While there is more km of LRT, BRT is rapidly catching up. At this rate of construction, the total length of operational BRT should catch up to LRT by 2030.
In the past decade, Metro construction has skyrocketed, increasing by 50% or 5,000 km, the same amount that was built in the preceding 20 years. We can also aggregate the data into buckets of four years to get a sense of more macro trends in rapid transit construction over the past 35 years. LRT was clearly relatively popular in the 1980s, before dropping off in the 1990s. Metro construction stayed relatively consistent through around 2005, before increasing dramatically in the next decade. And finally, it is clear that BRT was a marginal mode until around the beginning of the new millennium, but has since become an increasingly popular choice for cities around the world.
One fascinating application that this dataset allows us to explore is the comparison of rapid transit built in different countries. Instead of simply comparing kilometers built, which ignores key contextual factors, we have normalized this data by population to create the Rapid Transit to Resident Ratio (RTR), which compares the length of rapid transit lines (including rail, metro, and BRT) in kilometers in each country with its urban population (cities with populations over 500,000). In China, for example, we can see that the RTR has quickly risen over the past decade, thanks mostly to a boom in Metro and BRT openings.
Another country worth highlighting is Brazil, which for most of the past two decades was stagnant or declining in terms of its RTR. However, in the past five years the nation has seen a notable improvement, driven mostly by a spate of BRT construction. Since 2012, 171.6 km of BRT have opened in Brazil. This period of transit expansion coincides, of course, with the preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and indeed 70 percent of BRT built in Brazil during this period was built in the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area. However, over this same time frame, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte both opened their first BRT corridors, indicating a nationwide trend towards BRT construction in Brazilian cities.
It appears that cities and countries are responding to both continued global growth in urban population, and more importantly over the past 10 years, a jump in global wealth, (2002-2011) which has allowed cities to invest more in infrastructure. A lot of the projects that stemmed from that boom time (especially metros, which often take up to a decade to complete) are now opening.
As the global economy has slowed down, but city populations continue to grow, the world has increasingly turned to BRT as a means of improving access in cities, without breaking the bank. With much less lead time, the planning of many BRT projects that have opened more recently began after the global boom period (2011-2016). As more cities demonstrate the potential of high quality BRT, some are choosing BRT over metro, and fewer cities are choosing LRT, which is often significantly more expensive and is less able to achieve higher capacities.
With our current global instability, we expect slower economic growth, and thus fewer expensive metro projects opening in the coming years. Yet, demand for more transit will continue, and as more cities demonstrate the capacity potential and relatively low cost of high quality BRT, we expect to see more of these projects.