Cities around the world bear the brunt of population growth. Urban areas contain a majority of the world’s population, with cities over 1 million inhabitants making up 23% of the global population. Cities must turn to public transportation to meet the demands of congestion, the need to commute to work, and residents who cannot afford to drive. Cities in the US struggle compared to their global counterparts in providing public transportation, fueled by a car-centered society and lack of funding. A response to the growing call for public transportation with limited resources is Bus Rapid Transit. Miami-Dade County, Florida is one of the latest cities to look into researching and developing new infrastructure for a bus rapid transit system. Improving the bus system is an essential for Miami-Dade to meet the pressures of growth.

The goal of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is to provide service that is faster than the regular bus. San Francisco’s new BRT line, for example, has reduced some commutes by 14 minutes and 35% in travel times. 

BRT provides an alternative to light rail and heavy rail transit at lower cost and with faster implementation time without requiring new fixed infrastructure. This is a benefit to cities that cannot or will not invest in heavier public transportation infrastructure. BRT works by building physical features that favor buses or traffic features that enable buses to travel faster. By creating bus-only lanes and dedicated busways, raised platforms and pre-board fare collection that speed up the boarding process, BRT mimics light-rail and could rival trains but at a lower cost. If it is too difficult to build such fixed infrastructure, traffic tools can be used to minimize delay. Buses can have traffic signal priority, which triggers green lights, or other systems that give right of way or signal priority. All of this can result in faster travel times. 

BRT is increasingly seen as a tool to improve public transportation in the US. This is reflected in the priority it is given in federal transportation funding. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill) passed on November 15, 2021, includes billions of dollars for public transportation. There is potential for a major shift to buses and light rail with federal dollars being sent directly to infrastructure projects in cities across the US. The infrastructure bill authorized up to $108 billion to public transportation through various programs, increasing the transit capital grant program funding to $23 billion and increasing funding for buses and bus facilities by 30% to $599 million. This follows the Federal Transit Administration awarding $375 million to building BRT lines in 2021 before the infrastructure bill passed where, of the almost 50 transit projects seeking federal investment, 34 were bus lines. 

Miami-Dade aims to be a ‘regional hub’ and ‘gateway to the world.’ As the county looks at ways to expand its influence and grow, it can look at how major cities in the US, and globally,  have turned to BRT as a way to improve public transit. BRT routes have seen increased ridership in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,  and the city is planning on allocating millions more to increasing service. In Jacksonville, Florida, the BRT system, the First Coast Flyer, is the largest system in the Southeast US and has recently completed its program of opening 4 BRT lines, completing a 58-mile system. As cities in the US begin to invest in BRT and a few expand the lines they have, the US is actually playing catch-up with transit systems globally. Currently, there are at least 12 cities in the US with BRT systems, compared to more than 150 worldwide, especially in the global south. The oldest BRT system in the world in Curtiba, Brazil, makes 2.26 million trips a day. Jaime Lerner, mayor of Curtiba in the 1970’s and architect of the BRT system there, innovated the use of express lanes, raised platforms, longer buses, and prepayment. The investment into surface transport rather than subway systems as a cost-effective measure has resulted in 85% of the city’s population using BRT. In Mexico City, Mexico, the BRT system there has been open since 2005 and serves over 1 million people daily. It has worked so well the system is almost maxed out, attributing its success to taking space away from cars to create bus lanes. Mexico City’s mayor Marcelo Ebrard explained the value of BRT in 2012 as “a cheaper way to solve the troubles and mobility in the city” where it has worked to get more car owners to use the bus.  These international cities can serve as an example in understanding what makes for a successful transit system. They demonstrate that it is possible to increase ridership and reliance on public transportation by developing BRT to rival other transit.

Recently, Miami-Dade County has made investments in research and development of BRT as a way to address the issues of current public transportation options. First, access to substantially more job opportunities depends on owning a car. This leaves residents who do not have a car with severely restricted employment choices or having to bear the financial burden of having a car. But expanding access to jobs via public transportation is especially important for the 14.3% of households that do not have access to a vehicle. 85% of commuters, mostly low-income and minorities, after the COVID-19 pandemic used public transportation as their primary mode of transportation. For this population, it is crucial to create public transportation that connects residents with employment. Miami-Dade would be better able to reduce financial burdens on low-income people by providing better public transportation with access to jobs. Second, the average amount of time people spend riding public transit is 58 minutes but 59% of riders actually spend over 2 hours on their commute. BRT may be the right tool to address these issues. 

To address these problems, the County plans to focus public transportation improvements on major traffic corridors. The SMART (Strategic Miami Area Rapid Transit) Plan is administered by the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization and aims to improve public transportation among six major corridors in the county and expand use of BRT

While many of the corridors are still in their planning stages, billions of dollars have already been pledged to the projects. Federal and local funds total over $3 billion in present value. The local ½ penny surtax which funds the People’s Transportation Plan would provide over $6 billion over 40-year period Federal funds from  the Federal Highway (FHWA) Surface Transportation Block Grant Program (STBG) provided $976 million as of January 2020. Finally, the state of Florida is estimated to fund 50% of the non-federal share of the capital costs for each of the Smart Plan corridors.  

BRT is currently being considered and implemented in 4 of the SMART plan corridors. Where building rail transit would be extremely costly (some rail extensions costing as much as $1 billion) or time-consuming, BRT is being considered. Many of the plans for a BRT system would differ from the existing bus service by creating stations that have level boarding, offboard fare collection, better info for passengers, and park-and-ride facilities. The county is considering bus-on-the-shoulder operations, which would allow buses to bypass congestion by using the highway shoulder, limiting what new infrastructure has to be built. In the corridors studying the implementation, ongoing studies are waiting on environmental studies or on bids from developers.

One of the few places where construction of a BRT station and project has begun is in the South Dade TransitWay Corridor. With the FTA allocating $100 million, construction on the South Corridor’s beginning terminal is projected to create what former Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Giménez called “rail on rubber tires” by renovating the existing bus line to create a 20-mile bus-only lane to downtown Miami with the goal of connecting a distant part of the county to the business center. “Busway” lane signs have already sprung up in this corridor along Route 1. The plan will implement BRT features and terminals that facilitate faster boarding. The project offers a compromise between buses and rail. As Mayor Daniella Levine Cava remarks, “All the BRT stations along the corridor will be convertible to rail.” For now, BRT offers a quicker solution at a lower cost.

But BRT and other parts of the SMART plan have not been totally successful. With billions raised by the local surtax since 2002, critics wonder why BRT is being considered at all despite the local surtax approved to fund an expansion of Miami-Dade’s Metrorail. In other corridors, BRT plans have been rejected and sent back because the plan did not create bus-only lanes, terminals, or any other relevant feature that would have made it a faster mode of transportation. Derrick Holmes, campaign coordinator of Transit Alliance Miami, explains that “If the goal of the Smart plan is to get people to choose mass transit, we have to give people a reason to do that. […] We do that by making mass transit a more attractive option than driving.” In addition, many of the studies for the projects have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which delays each subsequent step. Completion for some projects may happen as soon as 2024 but what BRT will be implemented throughout the County is still uncertain as many projects are currently in the planning phase.

As the county aims to grow, improving public transportation is essential for Miami-Dade to grow efficiently and combat growing congestion. Improving public transportation is also essential as Miami-Dade grows to continue to provide job access for its residents. This need is especially felt as the population grows further south from its core business district, worsening travel times and congestion on highways. A major goal of the county’s SMART plan is to decrease the number of cars on the highway by expanding access to jobs via public transportation. This is important for current commuters who want to consider alternatives to driving.

Growing cities deal with the problem of more residents who work and more cars on the road. Longer commute times and increased congestion all push for a system that relies less on car use and provides alternatives. Miami-Dade’s efforts highlight the difficulty of answering any one of these issues. BRT may cut congestion or provide more accessibility. But if it’s not done well, it won’t answer the issue of commute times, and it doesn’t allow for development the way other rail transit might. How Miami-Dade balances these concerns and implements BRT will impact its goals as a global city and could serve as a model for other cities in the US.