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Reinventing bus service in Amiens, Metz, Pau and beyond

With its distinctive “light rail” look, bus rapid transit (BRT) is reinventing public transport in a growing number of cities. Frédéric Baverez, Group Executive Director France at Keolis, tells us why.

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Since the spring of 2019, our Keolis subsidiary has operated Europe’s largest network of electric buses in the northern French city of Amiens—thanks to four new BRT lines. Bus rapid transit has a lot to offer: dedicated lanes, extended hours, and innovative use of electricity, natural gas and hydrogen power. This “light rail on wheels” mobility solution is increasingly attractive for metropolitan areas that want to combine high-performance public transport with sustainability.

As Group Executive Director France at Keolis, Frédéric Baverez has witnessed the transformation from the inside. He spoke with us about the growing success of these next-generation bus lines.

Why is BRT so popular with large and mid-size cities such as Amiens, Metz and Pau?

Densely developed areas in cities with 200,000-250,000 residents need transport solutions that people want to use, and for that, the two key metrics are commercial speed and frequency of service. Bus rapid transit offers both, and it’s more affordable than light rail. For example, light rail trainsets are priced at €2-3 million each, and building a light rail system costs about €20 million per kilometre. But with a BRT network, you’ll pay only €400,000-800,000 per vehicle and €5-8 million per kilometre—much less expensive.

Even for very big cities that already have heavy transport systems, BRT offers a solution to the challenges of urban mobility. Because it’s more flexible, bus rapid transit can fill the gaps in a transport network, especially in outlying areas with less coverage. That’s true for Lyon, Lille and Rennes.

A single BRT line can carry 40,000 passengers a day

But doesn’t light rail carry more passengers?

A BRT line can transport up to 35,000-40,000 passengers a day. It’s true that each bus carries fewer people than a light rail trainset, but if you look at overall passenger numbers, a BRT line has nearly the same capacity as a light rail line.

So BRT and light rail can complement each other?

It’s a mistake to see this as an either-or proposition. Each mode is useful in its own way, and besides, economics isn’t the only critical factor.  Sometimes BRT is the best solution because of the way an urban area is laid out. That’s true for some old cities. In France, for example, there are many historic city centres with winding streets and right-angle turns, where it would be impossible to run 30m-42m light rail trainsets.

How is BRT different from a conventional bus line?

The first big difference is infrastructure: BRT buses use dedicated lanes that are closed to private vehicles. They also have priority at stoplights, and can run straight through the centre of a traffic circle like light rail. That gives them a commercial speed of around 20 km/h, which is high. Secondly, BRT passengers don’t have to wait more than 10-12 minutes between buses at rush hour, and at the peak of rush hour that can drop to less than five minutes. Finally, this high frequency is combined with extended hours, starting in the early morning, around 5.30, and usually continuing into the evening.

Photo credits: © Keolis

You also pay special attention to vehicle design, which contrasts sharply with the strictly functional look of conventional buses.

That’s another essential point: BRT buses need to stand out— it’s part of their image. And we put a lot of work into station design for the same reason. BRT buses can’t look like a garden-variety articulated bus. Travellers have to see the difference in a single glance. From that standpoint, the BRT buses in Metz—which have three sections and are 24 meters long—are very successful.

BRT is eye-catching, but it’s also taken an innovative approach to energy: the buses are powered by electricity, hydrogen, natural gas and more, and there are hybrids, too.

The public transport industry has a big responsibility to meet the challenges of the energy transition. At Keolis, we help transport organizing authorities choose and deploy vehicles that are more eco-friendly and emit less greenhouse gas. BRT buses can easily accommodate diesel alternatives. In Amiens, for example, the new Nemo buses are 100% electric. With 43 buses measuring 18 meters long, Amiens Métropole has the biggest 100% electric fleet in Europe.

What are the latest BRT deployments in the pipeline?

Since Amiens launched in May 2019, a number of other cities are following its example. In early September a 100%-electric BRT service will begin operating in Bayonne, in South-western France, and nearby Pau has opted for hydrogen-powered BRTs. With support from Keolis, Pau’s buses will go into service in autumn 2019. And we’ve just won a contract to operate a new natural gas-powered BRT system in Sophia-Antipolis, a conurbation near Antibes. That service will begin in late 2019.

Can this active commitment to sustainable mobility really help limit reliance on privately owned cars?

Whenever new BRT lines appear, we see a sharp rise in ridership—and not just on the affected lines, but throughout the system. BRT simultaneously delivers better service and projects a modern image. Take Metz as an example: a year after launch of its new BRT service, public transport ridership had increased by 24.9%, and the numbers for other cities are about the same.

If we look at BRT in Europe and around the world, how does France rank against other countries?

France is ahead of the curve on public transport, particularly when you look at per capita urban transport spending in cities with fewer than 1 million residents. And three of the world’s five largest BRT operators are French. In short, there’s a “French School”, and we’re exporting our expertise.

If you look at alternative power sources, Sweden—which began eliminating diesel very early—is on the cutting edge. But when you compare countries that are about the same size, France is moving to electric fleets fast than Germany, England and Spain. And conversion to zero-emission energy sources should be even faster under France’s 2015 Energy Transition Act, which requires large metropolitan areas to shift to clean public transport starting in 2020.