Lean Transport: Buses vs. Light Rail


By Dan Markovitz

Mark posted yesterday about the relative leanness of light rail vs. buses. He pointed out that

a rail line probably has more capacity, but it's very much a fixed asset, a “monument” if you will. Buses are very flexible, both in terms of routes and incremental capacity, right? But, then again, buses do add to traffic congestion, so maybe there's no easy answer about which waste is worse.

But buses don't have to add to congestion as much as we believe. The January 2006 issue of the Sierra Club magazine featured an interview with Brazilian architect (and former mayor of Curitiba) Jaime Lerner about how to build a mass transit system that serves the needs of consumers without creating additional traffic. His questions, and his solution, demonstrate a keen eye for avoiding waste.

Lerner promotes a BRT (“bus rapid transit”) system. Currently, more than 60 cities worldwide have some version of a BRT (including Seoul, with 10 million people, and Curitiba, with 1.7 million residents). A BRT requires only a few relatively simple modifications—dedicated lanes in the center of the street where transit vehicles run unimpeded, “boarding tubes” where passengers pay fares before their bus arrives, and curb-level entries so they board and exit quickly.

Lerner's team began with a clear customer focus: what do people value in a transit system:

We started by trying to understand what mass transit is and what it should be: fast, comfortable, reliable. Most of all, you shouldn't need to wait.

And in true lean fashion, they had to figure out how to do more with less:

We wanted to make sure we could run our system on surface streets because it's cheaper. We had no money and no loans. . . . When we started out, we thought our system could hold us until we could afford a subway. Now I'm sure we don't need a subway.

While Paris, London, Moscow, and New York have extensive subway systems, they were built at the beginning of the last century when it was significantly cheaper to work underground. BRT is also much cheaper than a light rail line. (Are you listening Seattle?)

Light rail is sometimes 10 to 20 times more expensive than a BRT, and it takes more time to implement. When you have time and money and are able to subsidize the system, light rail is OK. But when you have to subsidize every ticket, you're taking money from other social investments. That's the main issue. You can have a BRT system that's as good as an underground or light rail, and it pays for itself.

In true lean fashion, the city found (in Matt May's words) an “elegant solution” to their transportation issues. Lerner explains that

we had to have dedicated lanes. Not just separated by painted lines but physically separated and at the center of the street. And the system had to be fast. That means stops every five or six hundred meters [about a third of a mile], not every block. We transport 2 million people at one-minute intervals—and sometimes at 30-second intervals. Our BRT can carry the same number of passengers as a subway and is 100 times less expensive per kilometer.

The entire interview is fascinating and well worth reading. For my money, the best quote is Lerner's approach towards cars:

I'm not against cars. But your city doesn't have to be oriented toward them. A car is like your mother-in-law. You want to have a good relationship with her, but you can't let her conduct your life. When a city has good public transportation, it becomes for people and for cars. Imagine a city with 30 percent fewer cars on the streets.

30% fewer cars? Less traffic? Fast, cheap, mass transit? Public money freed up for other, more productive uses? Sounds lean to me.

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Dan Markovitz
Dan Markovitz is president of Markovitz Consulting, a firm that radically improves operational speed and efficiency by applying lean concepts to knowledge work. He is a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He also lectures on A3 thinking at the Ohio State University’s Fisher School of Business. Dan is a frequent speaker and presenter at conferences, and has consulted to organizations as diverse as Camelbak, Clif Bar, Abbott Vascular, WL Gore & Associates, Intel, the City of Menlo Park, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His book, A Factory of One, was honored with a Shingo Research Award in 2013. Dan has also published articles in the Harvard Business Review blog, Quality Progress, Industry Week magazine, Reliable Plant magazine, and Management Services Journal, among other magazines. All of these articles are available for download on the Resources page. Earlier in his career, he held management positions in product marketing at Sierra Designs, Adidas, CNET and Asics Tiger, where he worked in sales, product marketing, and product development. He also has experience as an entrepreneur, having founded his own skateboarding footwear company. Dan lived in Japan for four years and is fluent in Japanese. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University and an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.


  1. I am not even sure where to start with this. Yes buses can flex routes and have perhaps incremental capacity . Trains have the latter and having worked on overground and underground trains in London I know this to be the case.

    Train capacity is flexed across the service by minute of the day but essentailly as one would expect peak times are 6-9.30am and 4-7pm with a tail in to and out of each peak.

    A light rail or bus transit whilst cheaper are carving out resource (road space) 24 hours a day 7 days a week and will still have the same peaks and troughs in demand. So between 9.30am and 4pm the fact that the schedule will run 50% of the volume of buses / trains still prevents other vehicles from using the road, whether one train / bus runs per day or 200, nothing can utilise that resource, the road space, due to the fixed track. Whats the loss in revenue from removing road space that can not be utilised. Whats the increase cost of for example delivery lorries being further delayed in increased traffic because road capacity has decreased?

    As to changing routes / and flexing up / down on capacity. I worked on one of the busiest rail lines in the world, 1 line, 1 million people every rush hour. At the ends of that line (the furthest out from the centre of London), the total volume of people using the service might be 15,000 or less a day, its only in the centre where the real volume is carried. The question that raises is if you are unable to make money on that service should you offer it? We, London / UK, have determined that we will offer public transport services that will be run at a loss as there are greater benefits to the community than, this goes for bus services, rail and underground and my preference is that this continues.

    2 Weeks ago we approved the contstruction of the Cross Rail Link in London at a cost of approximately £32 billion US. Not all of this will run at a profit and the return I suspect will take decades but for the people that live in London it will provide an invaluable service.

  2. What about reducing the need for cars and buses in the first place by more mixed development. Current accepted urban planning is a form of batching. Instead of batching housing (suburban developments), retail (strip malls), and work (industrial parks) planning should strive toward mixed development so people can locate themselves within a radius that allows them to accesss work, play, and living all within walking/biking distance. I believe seattle’s waterfront redevelopment is striving towards this with their 20 min rule where everything is accessed within 20 min by foot or public transport. Another good website that demonstrates this is http://www.walkscore.com

  3. There’s one big logical gap here: BRT will increase congestion unless NEW lanes are constructed. To have dedicated bus lanes, you either need to build new lanes, or “steal” lanes from cars. That’s a tough sell, especially in downtown urban cores. And a voter revolt could steal those lanes back, something which can’t be done with rail.

    And if you’re building new lanes, BRT is far less lean than it’s made out to be here.

  4. Thanks for the post, Dan, and for the comments, everyone. Thought provoking stuff. I grew up in a car city (Detroit) and live or have lived in other car cities (Dallas and Phoenix). I lived in Boston for two years without a car and I loved it. I never left a 5 mile diameter for a year, basically (other than flying out somewhere). I didn’t need to leave that diameter between school, home, and anything else I needed.

    I definitely agree about the “batching” comment and that mixed use is great, if you can afford it. That would minimize transportation rather than trying to make the waste of transportation more efficient. But, many people can’t afford to live near their jobs… it will be interesting to see, as a society, how we deal with that.

  5. Boston, which was originally built for walking, then built around street cars, has mostly mixed-use neighborhoods. The “Silverline” portion of the MBTA is the sort of bus described here. It seems like a very flexible, lower capital cost alternative to subways.
    The Silverline uses dedicated lanes and tunnels through denser parts of town, as well as under Boston Harbor, but in more depressed areas of town, where four lane roads already exist with have excess capacity, the solution has been to dedicate some of the existing lanes to the new buses.
    These neighborhoods are revitalizing due to the improved accessibility, but the roads are still sized for the good old days when there was more traffic in the first place.

  6. For relatively affluent cities, BRT is a false economy. It’s cheaper to build, but attracts fewer new passengers, has a lower carrying capacity, and has a higher per-passenger operating cost.

    As oil prices continue to go up (futures hit $88 per barrel yesterday), light rail’s per passenger cost advantage will increase.

    It’s also pretty much useless at generating new private investment around the line, which is essential for transit oriented development. Developers want the long-term commitment that comes with a fixed public investment in light rail/streetcar infrastructure.

  7. Ryan,

    Good point on the need for transit development to spur private investment. But I wonder if the creation of dedicated bus lanes with their smaller infrastructure (i.e., boarding ramps, pre-pay gates, etc.) might be sufficient to act as magnets for development.

    To your point about BRT attracting fewer new passengers than light rail: as an ex-New Yorker, I can say that I often would have ridden the bus had if it had been fast and efficient. The terrible traffic kept me from the bus and drove me to subway stations that were less convenient.


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