MRT vs. BRT. Which System makes sense for developing cities?

By Saad Islam

Given that up to 60% of the world’s output comes from just 600 cities, and this concentration of wealth will increasingly shift to emerging cities[1], the question of implementing effective urban mass transit systems is extremely important. Karachi is one of those emerging megacities and I would therefore, like to tackle this question in Karachi’s context. To give people some perspective, Karachi’s population is estimated to be around 21 million[2], making it the seventh largest urban area in the world and the third densest[3]. The current public transportation closely resembles the one in Bogota pre-BRT  – mainly private transporters with rickety, although beautifully adorned buses.

I believe that four major issues in particular need to be addressed in implementing a mass-transit system and I will try to address each one below:

  1. Capital costs and financing issues: As we saw in the Bogota case, MRT solutions are significantly more expensive than BRT. It is estimated that for Karachi an MRT system would cost around $2billion for 2 lines of 41km total length, while the BRT system’s cost is about $292 million for 6 lines totalling around 90km[4]. Hence, purely on capital cost basis a BRT system makes more sense. It should also be noted that the opportunity cost for cities like Karachi of spending $1.7 billon extra on mass-transit are not insignificant. Finally, the ability to raise such a large amount of capital should also be taken into account. An MRT system costing billions would require significant external financing from multiple sources, not necessarily achievable for most emerging cities.
  2. Operating costs and affordability: A mass transit system would be useless if fares are not priced correctly. GDP per capita in Karachi is around $3,500, hence ticket prices cannot be high. Rail-based systems generally need to be subsidized and this is not sustainable for cities that have budgetary strains. Hence, in such a scenario a less costly system such as BRT makes greater sense.
  3. Integration with the existing transportation infrastructure: Any new mass-transit system needs to complement the existing infrastructure. Large cities like Karachi already have a widespread network of roads. A BRT system can be built around the existing system as long as roads are large enough to accommodate extra lanes. On the other hand, an MRT system could be significantly disruptive while tunnels are being dug and tracks laid etc.
  4. Bringing various stakeholders on board: The bus operators in Karachi have a very strong trade union and do not hesitate to go on strike, grinding the city to a stop. As we have seen in the Bogota case, a BRT system can be structured so as to provide existing operators with a stake in the system. This can substantially mitigate any risk associated with existing operators trying to sabotage the new mass-transit system.

In summary, I believe that while an MRT system might be more scalable and work for wealthier cities, other cities need to be more realistic about the systems that can be put in place. For a city like Karachi, a BRT system provides a cost-effective mass transit solution that is also quicker and easier to implement.


[4] Karachi Transportation Improvement Study Project 2010 – 2012, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Karachi Mass Transit Cell, Karachi Metropolitan Corporation

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One thought on “MRT vs. BRT. Which System makes sense for developing cities?

  1. Saad,

    Thanks for this post; I think it’s interesting to apply this question to Karachi.

    One criteria or element that I would add to your analysis is about the certainty of future growth and development. One significant benefit of BRTs is that they’re much more flexible than MRTs; if they go to neighborhoods that are no longer as heavily populated in 20 years, they can be moved, while an MRT is almost impossible to shift.

    Of course, a neighborhood with an MRT is unlikely to decline completely, but the presence of an MRT does not guarantee that the area will receive as much growth and development as other areas, and therefore the level of investment per person may be much higher than in another area. For developing cities, where neighborhoods and “city centers” are still evolving, a BRT seems to be a much better solution for its flexibility.

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