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U.S. Cities Look To Mexico City's Bus System As Possible Model

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The next big thing in transportation might just be the old city bus. Bus Rapid Transit, also called BRT, is dramatically improving commutes in cities around the world. Now a number of cities here in the U.S. are looking at it, too. And Zeninjor Enwemeka of member station WBUR reports they are turning to Mexico City as a model.

ZENINJOR ENWEMEKA, BYLINE: It's after 7 p.m., and cars are still backed up along Paseo de la Reforma, an iconic tree-lined boulevard that cuts through the heart of Mexico City. It's still rush hour here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS BLARING)

ENWEMEKA: More than 20 million people move through this metro area every day. Mexico City implemented Bus Rapid Transit over the last 15 years, which allows many commuters to avoid this traffic. They call it Metrobus.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS ENGINE ROARING)

ENWEMEKA: The bright-red buses fly past car traffic in their own dedicated lane right down the middle of the road. They stop next to a platform like a subway. And just like a subway, you pay as you enter the station.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCANNER BEEPING)

ENWEMEKA: Commuter Zara Snapp uses Metrobus a lot to get to her appointments downtown.

ZARA SNAPP: You know, I look at people who are sitting in their car in traffic, and I just think what; why? How do you handle that?

ENWEMEKA: One and a half million people board a Metrobus here every day. Andres Lajous is Mexico City's mobility secretary. He says to make way for Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, the city did something controversial. It took away space for cars.

ANDRES LAJOUS: People at first reacted negatively. But once you started measuring the effects of the first BRT line, we saw that particularly people making shorter trips would dump their car pretty fast.

ENWEMEKA: The system also helped with pollution because it uses low-emission buses. And it was much cheaper for the city than building more subways, which could cost 20 times more.

SOPHIE GREENSPAN: So we're going to El Caminero, so we're going to take one of these buses over here.

ENWEMEKA: All right.

Sophie Greenspan, who is from Massachusetts, now works as a graphic designer in Mexico City. She's a big fan of Metrobus.

GREENSPAN: I mean, as soon as I saw, like, the Metrobus stations, I was like, this just makes so much more sense than what we have in Boston.

ENWEMEKA: A few U.S. cities have dabbled with some aspect of Bus Rapid Transit, including LA, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Boston. In nearby Cambridge, there's this dedicated bus lane.

UNIDENTIFIED BUS DRIVER: Move back please.

ENWEMEKA: Buses sometimes get a bad rap. Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack says she thinks buses have a chance to transform transit in the region.

STEPHANIE POLLACK: Buses are like the Rodney Dangerfield of the transit system, right? They don't get the respect they deserve. And projects like this are giving buses the respect they deserve.

ENWEMEKA: The bus lanes in Greater Boston aren't as advanced as the Bus Rapid Transit system in Mexico City. They're more like BRT-light. They don't have subway-like features like the ability to pay at stations and board through any door. Transit officials here plan to add more elements of Bus Rapid Transit to make the system more efficient. As they do, they'll continue to look at systems in other cities.

In Mexico City, the system is so popular it's almost maxed out. But while innovative, Bus Rapid Transit faces significant hurdles here in the U.S. Many cities lack the political will to dedicate lanes only to buses. And cities like Boston will have to convince people that it's both more efficient and it's cool to ride the bus again. For NPR News, I'm Zeninjor Enwemeka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.