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Public Transport Modes & Services


Throughout the Bank’s involvement with urban public transport services, two major aspects dominated both project and research activities.

The first of these concerns the interaction between the general traffic and public transport modes running on city streets, which in practice covers most public transport services even in the largest cities. Both operating costs and quality of service of street-based public transport modes strongly dependent on the characteristics of the traffic flow. This calls for:

  1. continuing attention to traffic management to improve the performance and maximize the use of the existing urban road infrastructure;
  2. selectively giving public transport vehicles the priority of use, ranging from the right of quick passage at intersections to exclusive-use lanes for high-volume service corridors; and
  3. judicious additions to the road network, with designs anticipating the priority for passenger transport modes.

These subjects have been bread-and-butter of Bank’s lending operations and policies from the earliest urban transport projects in 1970s to the current ones. Major publications on these subjects were published in the 1970s and 1980s and are available in the Sectoral and IT Resource Center of the World Bank.


The second major focus of the Bank under the rubric of public transport modes has been on rapid transit. The term “Mass Rapid Transit” (MRT) is used to denote public transport modes operating on fully or partially exclusive tracks (rail or road), away from street traffic and thus subject to full or at least considerable managerial control by the operator. This allows the provision of high-capacity and high-quality services.


The flip side is that absolute investment costs of such systems are vastly higher than for street-based modes. In addition, fixed costs make for a large proportion of total operating cost structure of MRT systems.  These two characteristics limit the use of MRT modes to corridors with high passenger flows, found mostly in large, densely populated cities.  Investment costs are especially large for underground and elevated systems, such as most metro lines.


At the other end of the range, subject to physical and political availability of at-grade space, intermediate-capacity MRT systems based on bus or light-rail technology can be constructed at much more moderate cost levels. Commuter rail lines also belong to this family of modes, and are typically provided on existing rail infrastructure, shared with other rail services. When demand levels call for this, regional (commuter) rail lines can be developed anew, superimposed on existing urban metro and national rail networks (e.g. RER in Paris).


The process of planning and implementing MRT projects tends to be difficult and complex, and can be downright controversial, especially at the decision making stage. The underlying causes are several.


First, these projects tend to be large and indivisible, involving investment budgets higher than any other in any given city. A 10-km metro line can cost anything between $300m and $1,500m. Decisions to build tend to be irreversible. These features alone call for a very careful pre-investment planning process, including a serious analysis of alternatives, in economic and financial terms. This is by no means an easy task, since the long useful life of these systems and their interaction with urban development places a strain on long-range forecasting.


Second, MRT projects involve unusual levels of risk, especially as regards construction costs, traffic and traffic revenues. This again calls for refined pre-investment analyses, but also for mechanisms to be used during construction and operation stages to ensure that results will not fall short relative to forecasts. Unfortunately, the relevant skills for engineering design and construction, as well as for the financial engineering, tend to be scarce and expensive, and not often offered by independent sources.


Third, the oft-found combination of MRT modes and low-income “captive” passengers risks one of the two undesirable extremes: unaffordable services or unaffordable subsidies. It follows that MRT modes work best when the market has a high proportion of “choice” travelers.


Fourth, MRT lines being limited to high-volume corridors implies their dependence on feeder/distributor systems and, generally, integrated planning and management of urban passenger transport networks. The restructuring of street-bus services done in the context of MRT planning, aiming to achieve integration and/or remove duplication, can harm the interests of low-income travelers, in both accessibility and cost dimensions. This calls for a multi-disciplinary approach, combining engineering, marketing and social impact analyses.


The Bank has often been called to provide independent evaluation of MRT proposals. The most critical lesson learned in these experiences has been that MRT investment decisions should be driven by a thorough examination of strategic objectives, travel market structure, technical alternatives, and financial implications, and not by short-term political or commercial opportunism.


The Bank has long supported the concept of bus-based MRT (or Bus Rapid Transit, BRT), with notable initial experiences in Brazilian cities, and later in Lima and Bogota. In recent years, the search for opportunities to support investments and regulatory innovations in BRT projects has intensified. This is driven by an already demonstrated potential of BRT for high-quality services and cost effectiveness, as well by the difficulties encountered in developing new metros and other large-scale MRT projects.  Though the Bank has financed some new rail-based MRT construction, the majority of its involvement has been with upgrading existing metro and suburban rail lines and renewing the rolling stock.In the research sphere, the focus has been on the planning and evaluation methodology for metros. Much attention has also focused on separating metros and urban/regional railways from the national railway companies, often coupled with innovative public-private partnerships. These, and a rash of new experiences with concessions for BRT operations in Brazilian and Latin American cities are listed under the Regulation and Finance topic below.


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