Mexico City’s Bus Rapid Transit system, credited with reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in one of the world’s most polluted cities, was recently honored at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government as a model for urban transit worldwide.

Metrobus, as the system is known, received the Harvard Kennedy School’s 2009 Roy Family Award for Environmental Partnership, which is awarded once every two years to recognize an outstanding public-private partnership project that enhances environmental quality through the use of novel and creative approaches.

The system came into being with the support of Hewlett Foundation grantees – particularly the World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico – the World Bank, and the Shell and Caterpillar foundations. The nonprofit Center for Sustainable Transport has provided technical support to the Metrobus system from its inception in 2005 through its expansion in 2008.

Bus Rapid Transit Spreading Across China

In addition to Mexico City, the Foundation has invested in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects in a dozen cities across China, where urban planners have begun to build housing complexes along BRT lines, and in São Paulo, Brazil, the largest, most congested city in South America. The Foundation’s investment is part of a larger strategy to curb global warming and improve the quality of life in some of the world’s fastest-growing cities. Research has shown that a reduction in vehicle emissions also saves billions of dollars annually in reduced health care costs around the world.

Since its inception, the system in Mexico City has become one of the most popular of all.

“We share in the pride of what Mexico City and its people have achieved with Metrobus,” says Alejandro Villegas, consulting program officer for the Hewlett Foundation in Mexico City. “It’s a model of public-private partnership and what can be accomplished when everyone works together to reach a goal.”

The Roy Family Award is designed to draw attention to exceptionally successful partnerships as a means to inspire others to emulate them. Metrobus is considered a model for large cities seeking timely, relatively inexpensive mass transit solutions. BRT lines use cleaner diesel technology and travel in dedicated lanes, allowing them to significantly cut travel time for riders.

A 2008 analysis in the Journal of Public Transit identified BRT systems as the best way for cities to reduce transportation-related CO2 emissions. Cost is the reason why. A subway typically costs $100 million a mile; a world-class bus rapid transit system, a tenth of that. In the United States, these systems are gaining in popularity, with construction underway in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, among other cities.

The success of Metrobus in Mexico City already has led to its emulation in that country’s second largest city, Guadalajara, where last March Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, went to inaugurate that city’s first ten-mile BRT line, known as Macrobus. Guadalajara is Mexico’s second most polluted metropolitan area, with more than 4 million people and more than 100 days each year out of compliance with air quality regulations.

Guadalajara Refines Bus Rapid Transit

In Guadalajara, half a million dollars in Hewlett grants to the environmental transportation nonprofit Colectivo Ecologista Jalisco played a pivotal role in raising the $100 million in public and private investments that the line cost, and the Center for Sustainable Transport gave substantial technical advice to the local government.

The Guadalajara line, which moves 120,000 passengers per day, was built in less than a year, and its design benefited from lessons learned in Mexico City, resulting in improvements in safety, fare collection, service, use of fuel, and infrastructure, Villegas says. Among the innovations are stations with two lanes, which allow for a non-stop express as well as local service. It also includes a system of feeder buses, called Midibuses, which move people from more remote suburbs to the BRT stations, and is connected to train service as part of a grand design to join all public transit in the city.

He says the state government has announced the construction of a second Macrobus corridor in the metropolitan area, which is planned to be 23.6 miles long and cross through four cities – Zapopan, Guadalajara, Tonalá, and Tlaquepaque. However, recent political squabbling has slowed progress.

Nonetheless, Villegas says the first phase of the project has offered an example to other medium-sized cities in the country: “Despite political setbacks, citizens understand the importance of sustainable mobility, and many are willing to do their part to protect the environment and to improve their life quality.”

Making a Difference in Global Warming

With transportation responsible for at least 70% of urban air pollution around the world, the move from polluting older buses and individual cars to systems like BRT can help significantly, he says.

Indeed, Mexico City’s Metrobus alone, which stretches a total of 32 miles since its 2008 expansion, has reduced the annual emissions of greenhouse gases by more than 70,000 tons, experts say. By 2012, the city’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, hopes to expand Metrobus to ten lines carrying 1.5 million passengers.

The planned expansions of Metrobus to other cities in Mexico, which the World Bank will help underwrite with $380 million in low-cost loans, will create eighteen other BRT projects and is expected to further reduce emissions by about 2 million tons a year, according to Walter Vergara, the lead engineer for the World Bank’s Latin America environment department.

Metrobus in Mexico City has already won approval under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to clear the way for it to sell carbon reduction credits on international markets, making it only the second BRT system, after the one in Bogotá, Colombia, to win such approval.