Big Philanthropy Takes the Bus

Big Philanthropy Takes the Bus

Since the early 2000s, when the Shell-backed EMBARQ began promoting bus rapid transit (BRT), a wide range of philanthropists and transit advocates have seized on the “technical fix,” which promises to solve a recognized problem without challenging the power relationships that created it.

A stop on the TransMilenio, Bogotá, Colombia, 2010 (Carlos Felipe Pardo)

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In 2002, Royal Dutch Shell’s grant-making arm set out to influence transportation policy in developing countries. Initial “market testing,” the Shell Foundation itself has said, revealed that a program directly funded by Shell would lack “credibility,” and so Shell decided to channel its money through an “intermediary.” Several bidders competed to play this role. Shell chose the World Resources Institute, a business-oriented environmental nonprofit.

The resulting program was dubbed EMBARQ. With Shell’s financial support—starting with a $7.5 million grant—and ongoing guidance, EMBARQ urged cities to rely on buses that run on Shell’s product instead of building electric-powered subways.

Buses, to be sure, are essential to any transit system, and they rarely get the respect they deserve. Improving them can serve social justice as well as transport. But ordinary buses are hardly a credible substitute for subways. So EMBARQ promotes what is called bus rapid transit, or BRT. This refers to bus routes with special features, such as travel lanes where cars are excluded, that are said to offer rubber-tired travel that’s as good as rail but costs less. It’s an elastically defined concept that comes in many flavors; the common element is less the transportation than the politics of it. BRT is the bus you get when you don’t get a train.

Caterpillar became EMBARQ’s second sponsor with a $7.5 million gift in 2006. Soon BRT was a favored cause of the philanthropic world. EMBARQ itself gained additional support from businesses, including Citicorp and FedEx, and from foundations. It has grown into a 170-person operation with offices in India, China, Mexico, Turkey, and Brazil. Funding flowed to other groups too.

EMBARQ and its allies have had much success in reshaping debate over urban transport. Environmentalists hail BRT as a key innovation in the fight against global warming. Transit operators paint proposed bus lines as a sleek, affordable substitute for rail, and news media uncritically repeat the hype. With international aid agencies dangling money, busways have sprouted from Mexico City to Johannesburg to Guangzhou.

BRT was newly in vogue among transit planners when Shell and EMBARQ took it up. But it’s an idea with a history.

The concept seems to have first appeared in a 1937 Chicago transportation plan. Three of the city’s elevated train lines were to be rebuilt as elevated highways, with two lanes reserved for double-decker buses and two lanes for cars.


It got little attention in the postwar years, but resurfaced in the 1960s. Highway builders were running into resistance from city neighborhoods, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society started to draw up plans for new subways. The American Automobile Manufacturers Association pushed back in a 1966 report that advocated bus rapid transit by that name as part of an expanded road network. The report’s lead author, Herbert Levinson, continued to promote the idea for another decade, and bus lanes appeared on highways here and there. But few of the new busways attracted the hoped-for ridership, cars were soon let onto some of them, and the BRT moniker did not catch on.

Soon, however, a rightward political turn was under way, and policymakers in the U.S. government and international organizations grew hostile to rail transit. In the United States, the era of subway expansion drew to a close in 1979 when President Carter appointed a bus-friendly transportation secretary, Neil Goldschmidt. The Reagan administration followed with an agenda focused on cost-cutting. Meanwhile, a rigid doctrine of privatization and deregulation came to dominate the World Bank—a major source of funds for infrastructure in poor countries—imposing a strong bias against investments in natural monopolies, such as subways, that can’t operate as competitive marketplaces.

Yet buses were still hard to sell to the public. Looking to come up with a more attractive vision of low-cost transit, the transportation establishment found what it was looking for in the city of Curitiba, Brazil.

Curitiba in the 1970s had reserved highway lanes along several main travel corridors for use by buses alone. Powers granted by Brazil’s military dictatorship enabled its busways to flourish as those in the United States did not. Land close to the main bus routes was zoned for high-density apartments, while single-family houses were built elsewhere. Cars were banned from key downtown streets. Although the dictatorship ended in 1985, Curitiba’s zoning has remained in the hands of a self-perpetuating commission that is not subject to democratic control. The transit-friendly land use pattern established by the dictatorship has persisted, and the city now combines Brazil’s highest rate of car ownership with an unusually efficient bus system that the majority of the population relies on.

These measures worked well enough that the military-appointed mayor, Jaime Lerner, was reelected after democracy returned and then moved up to become the state governor. In the 1980s and ’90s Lerner imaginatively upgraded the main bus corridors. Extra-long double-accordion buses now carry heavy passenger loads. Fares are collected at street-side turnstiles and riders enter the bus through glass tubes level with its floor.

Planners in the United States took note. Herbert Levinson by now ranked among the country’s leading traffic engineers, and he and other critics of rail transit seized on Curitiba’s well-publicized success. This, they asserted, was not merely a better bus. It was Bus Rapid Transit, a new mode of transportation, as different from the traditional bus as a subway is from a streetcar. BRT was an idea whose time had finally come.

With much fanfare, the Federal Transit Administration in 1998 launched a bus rapid transit initiative. The concrete-heavy engineering concept of the 1930s and ’60s was updated, with bus stops modeled after Curitiba and new emphases on electronics and branding. Study tours flocked to Brazil.

BRT now served many agendas. For powerful state highway agencies and their allies among construction contractors and carmakers, it remained an argument for pouring concrete instead of laying rail. Environmentalists, few of them familiar with the history, saw an affordable way to reduce car use. Economists had a use for their favored tool of cost-benefit analysis. The overlapping worlds of bureaucracy, philanthropy, and sponsored research seized on the much-desired technical fix, which, as in so many cases, promised to solve a recognized problem without challenging the power relationships that created it (in this case, by privileging highways over other forms of transportation).

BRT soon became the center of a well-funded and well-coordinated campaign. In the United States as in the developing world, it joined idealism to oil money, technocratic arrogance to establishment groupthink.


In developing countries

Notwithstanding a common inspiration—the English-language acronym BRT is used in Portuguese, Spanish, and Chinese—events played out differently in countries with wide disparities in wealth and dissimilar transport networks. In all of these varied settings, however, the interlocked complex of establishment philanthropy has continued to promote BRT.

In the developing world, the bus push was led by the World Bank, EMBARQ, and a nonprofit called the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. The ITDP’s original aim, when U.S. environmentalists founded it in 1985, was to combat the World Bank’s promotion of automobile-based transportation networks. Part of its critique of the bank was to demonstrate the existence of practical alternatives. It began by organizing volunteers to send bicycles to Nicaragua, whose Sandinista government was then fighting off an armed revolt by the CIA-financed Contras.

In 1997 ITDP teamed up with Enrique Peñalosa, the newly elected mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who rejected the highway-centered policies of his predecessors. After helping Peñalosa redesign streets for easier walking and cycling, the group proposed that a network of half-built expressways he had inherited should be repurposed as Curitiba-like busways. The TransMilenio opened in 2000 and soon grew into the world’s largest BRT system, carrying over a million riders a day.

Peñalosa was well connected with aid agencies—in the 1970s his father, a prominent Colombian politician, had held a top job in the Inter-American Development Bank—and the World Bank lent Bogotá $450 million for TransMilenio. At the same time the bank shifted economic doctrine, scuttling its earlier dogma of free-market competition and calling for centrally managed privatization. Concretely, this means that a city government chooses a few large companies to run its BRT.

Completing the rapprochement between the bank and its erstwhile critics, ITDP bought into the bank’s privatization agenda. By 2010, when it developed a rating system to distinguish “real” BRT lines from what it considered no more than overhyped buses, it awarded extra points for contracting out. (Some outside experts disagreed, and the rating system no longer awards points for privatization.)

Since then, ITDP’s activities have increasingly centered around BRT, although other efforts to combat automobile dependence continue. The organization’s budget has grown to around $10 million a year, with support from major foundations including Rockefeller and Hewlett. This past October, ITDP hired a new chief executive, a former head of EMBARQ.

By now bus rapid transit can be found in Brazil, India, China, and many other developing countries. EMBARQ counts over 200 cities.

Riders on BRT routes enjoy better travel—the more so, the more upgraded features the routes have. Big new buses are cleaner and more efficient. Trips are faster and safer. But rarely are the promises of “train-like” travel fulfilled completely—in 2013 only twelve bus lines, six of them in Bogotá, met the criteria set by ITDP’s rating system for full-featured “gold standard” BRT. And the gains that do come rest on problematic models of economic organization and urban development.

Much of the benefit of BRT in developing countries derives from introducing centralized management to bus systems previously operated by many individuals and small businesses. This has great practical advantages. Logically planned route networks are more useful to riders than the helter-skelter routes chosen by a multitude of bus owners. Vehicles are better maintained. Drivers’ wages and working conditions are usually better, and it’s easier for the workers to organize for further improvement.

In principle, either public or private operation can yield these benefits. But the World Bank and nonprofits push strongly for privatization, and most cities comply. Contracts gravitate toward favored insiders, reinforcing elite-dominated, clientelistic local politics. The division of responsibility between contractors and their public overseers undermines accountability, leading often to inadequate service, inefficiency, and excessive profits.

BRT also affects the livability of cities by reinforcing highway-centered patterns of urban design. Here the defects are intrinsic to the technology. Buses work poorly in tunnels, where drivers can’t see around curves and exhaust fumes disperse slowly. Because they are steered and not guided by rails, they can’t be hooked together and pulled from the front. The large passenger volumes of megacities thus demand multitudes of buses, each with its own driver. Busways must carry these heavy traffic loads without traffic jams; otherwise their whole advantage would be lost. But bus lanes don’t fit easily onto existing roadways, and in any case motorists are loath to give up space, so new pavement gets added alongside streets, above them, or on entirely new routes.

On ground-level busways, frequent traffic hinders movement on foot, and intersections pose especially tricky problems. If buses, cars, and pedestrians each get their own green light in turn, all suffer from long waits at the red. The political consequences of the slow lights that can result played out this past January in New Delhi, where an outcry from car owners caused the demise of a seven-year-old BRT line.

Under the imperative of keeping the buses moving, and precluded from going underground, full-featured BRT systems mimic the design of urban freeways. Cross streets pass overhead on bridges, or the busway itself is elevated. To carry the passenger load of a subway without excessive delay, a BRT line must be built as a multilane expressway.

In Bogotá, TransMilenio runs on four-lane expressways. Elevated bus highways are going up in China, and New Delhi now awaits similar roadways. Such structures, even when they carry buses, damage their environs in much the same way as if they carried cars, exacerbating local pollution and displacing residents.

As the United States learned in the Robert Moses era, transportation solutions that are imposed top down tend to come at the expense of urban vitality. To prepare for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro scrambled to build the Transcarioca busway. Builders tore down homes to cut a 100-foot swath through middle-income neighborhoods. Streets that were centers of neighborhood life vanished. In their place came a nearly impassable barrier flanked by three-foot-wide sidewalks. Such transit destroys the city life it came to save.


In the United States

Where BRT in developing countries is afflicted with a disease of giantism, it suffers in the United States from the opposite illness. Projects are sold to the public as fast-moving and train-like. Engineers then go to work on the design. Faced with tight budgets and wary of political pushback, they strip out features that might seem too costly or overly inconvenience drivers. At the end of this process, known as BRT creep, what remains is sometimes little more than an ordinary bus with a special coat of paint.

Even the Federal Transit Administration’s flagship project was not immune to the malady. On Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, traffic lights on the new bus lanes were fitted with special controls that kept them green to let approaching buses pass without delay. When the lanes opened, drivers on cross streets complained about the long red lights. Within weeks, the city turned off the green light extenders.

By now, creep has so diluted the meaning of bus rapid transit that the term is used to market almost any upgrade in bus service. In St. Louis, it’s a new bus that would run once an hour in highway traffic. In Monterey, California, federal funding put artist-designed stops on a bus route that runs every fifteen minutes and has short sections of bus lane at a few busy traffic lights.

For ten years or so, this downward slide met little resistance. While national environmental groups were favorably disposed to BRT, they saw its main relevance in the developing world and did not emphasize the issue. The active partisans had agendas of their own, and they did not much trouble themselves about the quality of the final result.

Moreover, BRT’s loudest proponents in this period had little interest in its quality. These were the think tanks supported by the Kochs, Mellons, and other right-wing donors. Their staff, assisted by anti-transit consultants who signed on as part-time “fellows,” seized on the BRT concept to bolster their argument that rail transit is a waste of money. This was merely a thin veneer pasted over hostility to all forms of mass transit.

These ostensible BRT supporters even campaign against bus lanes when rail isn’t on the table. The Reason Foundation, the right-wing group that pushes the issue hardest, promotes what it calls “BRT-lite”—a bus painted a different color, with fewer stops, running on regular highway lanes.

Elsewhere, advocacy took a more academic tack. A National Bus Rapid Transit Institute was established in 2001 at the University of South Florida. It eschewed political partisanship, but hardly avoided politics. The institute’s founder, director of the university’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, had been a supporter of high-speed rail in the state. But he turned abruptly against the rail plan on the very day in 1999 that newly elected governor Jeb Bush killed the project. The center and institute are funded by grants from the state and federal transportation departments.

BRT promotion went mainstream just as the train-friendly Obama administration arrived in Washington. An April 2009 report from the Environmental Defense Fund hailed it as “cutting edge transit” and the Natural Resources Defense Council ramped up its advocacy. Even EMBARQ dipped its toes briefly into the United States. It looked at a Maryland light rail project opposed by wealthy neighbors and declared that BRT would be better.

In 2010 the Rockefeller Foundation, already a major funder of transportation reformers, moved actively into BRT. It gave ITDP a planning grant to start promoting the idea in the United States. The program expanded the next year, with half a dozen grants to ITDP and other groups. By 2013, it had enlisted a PR firm that describes itself as “battle-tested in the trenches of corporate reputation management” for a four-city promotional campaign, underpinned by public opinion polls with slanted questions.

In New York City, the transportation reform community had long-standing ties to ITDP, and it also worked with the circle around highway engineer Herbert Levinson. From the first years of the millennium on, BRT figured prominently on the local transit advocacy agenda. One group, an outreach program at the Pratt Institute headed by Joan Byron, argued explicitly against expansion of the subway. In 2014, the Rockefeller Foundation entered the New York scene, backing a coalition made up of the city’s bicycle lobby, Pratt, and half a dozen other groups.

By now Rockefeller’s president, Judith Rodin, made BRT a personal cause. She and Joan Byron published a Daily News op-ed on “The Case for Bus Rapid Transit,” claiming that further expansion of the city’s subways is too costly and “is simply not feasible.” (Rodin is ill-placed to tell subway riders what’s overpriced. As the well-paid chair of Comcast’s compensation committee, she approved $118 million in salary for its CEO over four years.)

With Rockefeller out front, BRT grew popular elsewhere in the philanthropic world. Boston’s Barr Foundation got involved in 2012, and Knight in Miami followed a year later.

Rarely, in the United States at least, has big philanthropy been the malevolent force in transportation policy that it is in education. Transit activists fight a difficult uphill struggle against an entrenched status quo. Money is scarce and foundation grants do much good.

The funders’ current bus infatuation is an unwelcome turn. The damage is worst in cities like San Diego and Austin, where the highway lobby protects the status quo by insisting on BRT along the corridors with the most transit riders. The public sees the need for rail lines on these routes, but local activists are underfunded and get scant attention from grant-dependent national media and advocacy groups.

BRT, moreover, is a hard sell. Few Americans yearn to ride a bus. And proponents of new busways find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Adding new lanes is no way to humanize the blighted landscape of wide, strip mall–lined highways. But drivers, the vast majority of voters, are hardly eager to yield existing pavement to buses.

It is new trains that arouse popular movements. No bus line has inspired anything like the uprising that stopped a newly elected mayor from halting construction of Cincinnati’s streetcar at the end of 2013, or the long grassroots struggles for new light rail lines in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and from Los Angeles to Santa Monica.

When BRT promotion steers activists away from rail, it undercuts political organizing. The reason for automobile-centered transportation policies is not miscalculation of costs and benefits. It is the influence of highway, auto, and oil lobbies. Only public mobilization can overcome their power. That requires a clear call for change, not half-measures that accommodate the status quo.

Buses will always be an essential part of public transit. Upgrading them serves urbanism, the environment, and social equity. But a better bus is not a train, and bus rapid transit promoters lead astray when they pretend otherwise. At its worst, BRT can be a Trojan horse for highway building. Even at its best, it is a technocratic solution to a fundamentally political problem.

Benjamin Ross is a transit activist in Maryland. His book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism (Oxford University Press, 2014), is about the politics of urbanism and transit.

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