Since the introduction of the first bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in Brazil in the 1970s, Latin American cities have been leaders in the sector. More than 45 cities in Latin America have since invested in BRT, accounting for nearly two-thirds of BRT ridership worldwide.

However, as metropolises in Latin America and beyond continue to evaluate long-term solutions for more effective urban flow, light rail transit (LRT) has gained visibility as an environmentally friendly alternative to congestion in urban centres.

Transit systems require significant investment and should therefore accommodate current and future demand projections. Single LRT vehicles have a capacity advantage per vehicle. This affords operators the ability to carry upwards of 35,000 passengers per hour per direction, as opposed to the typical 2,000–10,000 passengers per hour per direction served by fully grade-separated BRT systems.

This, in turn, allows LRT systems the flexibility to serve a very wide capacity range – an advantage when providing for future ridership growth, and in the short term, to meet capacity requirements for special events.

Moreover, unlike BRT systems that typically operate on diesel propulsion, LRT systems operate with electric propulsion. In Latin America, where hydroelectricity accounts for nearly two-thirds of all electricity generated, this leads to significant greenhouse gas reductions. Moreover, according to the president and CEO of Voith Hydro Latin America, more than 20% of Latin America’s feasible hydro potential is still untapped. The policy focus on developing such renewable energy sources across the region should allow for the sustained growth of clean LRT systems.

Despite a higher initial investment, the advantages of an LRT system come at lower per-passenger operating and maintenance costs to public transit agencies. North American LRT systems report cost advantages of approximately 40% per seat per hour, driven by lower system-operator and energy requirements. The latter is due to lower friction between steel wheels and steel rails when compared with the friction between rubber tyres and road surfaces. This further lessens the need to replace steel wheels on an LRT, compared with rubber tyres on a BRT, providing a further environmental advantage.

LRT systems operate on a smooth rail surface. Vehicles are therefore not subject to potholes, expansion joints or other imperfections that commonly exist in road surfaces. A smooth rail provides superior comfort for passengers and is much quieter – particularly at higher speeds. Furthermore, traction motors on LRT systems are electronically controlled, thereby allowing for smooth acceleration and deceleration. All of these factors contribute to a more pleasant travel experience for passengers, and to decreased congestion, as more commuters opt for public transit alternatives.

Moreover, unlike bus routes, which can be subject to rerouting, rail lines are permanent. As a result, LRT systems offer communities longer-term investment security, stimulating transit-oriented residential and commercial developments along the rail network. This, in turn, leads to the creation of transit-oriented neighbourhoods and generates more ridership, further supporting public transit adoption.

Finally, by virtue of their sleek appearance, spacious interiors and generous use of large glass windows, LRT systems offer a perception of environmentally conscious modernity. This perception tends to reflect positively both on the passengers using the system, as well as system owners and operators.

A growing number of transport authorities are opting to rejuvenate their existing light rail infrastructure or to construct complete new systems from scratch. Trams and light rail vehicles provide a sustainable solution for the congestion, environmental and urban development challenges faced by Latin American cities today.

The World Economic Forum on Latin America 2015 takes place in Riviera Maya, Mexico, from 6-8 May.

Author: Jacques Drouin, Director, Platform Management, Bombardier Transportation

Image: A worker cleans the floor as the train arrives at a metro station in Santo Domingo June 14, 2011. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz