Volume 12 | Issue 4 | Year 2009

With a solid bus body-and-chassis manufacturing program firmly in place, the Brazil-based Volvo Bus Latin America resides at the vanguard of bus rapid transport, or BRT.

As company President Per Gabell describes, BRT represents a tightly organized system of collective urban transport, and it is significantly changing the nature of inner-city bus transportation, not only in Latin America but also in other areas of the world.

As cities and regions beyond Brazil and South America are finding out, major BRT system components include vehicles such as Volvo Bus Latin America’s articulated and bi-articulated buses. Such vehicles, dispatched with regularity from Volvo’s Curitiba, Brazil facility, accommodate increased passenger capacity while reducing the number of operating buses that course through congested South American city arteries.

Measuring about 60 feet long (a length that expands conventional busing dimensions by 15 to 25 feet), articulated buses include one or more trailers. The even larger bi-articulated buses (which measure as long as 80 feet) can transport as many as 300 passengers during peak business hours. One might be tempted to describe such a vehicle as a city bus on steroids, but that doesn’t quite do justice. These buses are more like radioactive mutants with beneficial genetic alterations. Think of a big bug from a 1950s sci-fi movie, but without the compulsion to rip apart a thriving metropolis.

Indeed, compared to traditional metro buses, articulated and bi-articulated models include extra axles and joints that make it far easier for drivers to navigate these large vehicles and their payload throughout busy city streets.

Volvo Bus Latin America’s “laboratory” is Curitiba, the capital city of Brazil’s southern state of Paraná. This headquarters was well chosen, as the Volvo Bus Latin America essentially positioned itself in the right place at the right time to capitalize on a growing transportation need.

Everything started coming together in the 1970s. At the tail end of that decade, Volvo sought to advance the concept of urban transit by establishing a strategically located manufacturing environment somewhere in Latin America. At the same time, the local government of Curitiba realized its own need for a more organized city transport system. “To their credit, [government officials] had extremely modern ideas about city planning and, as such, demonstrated a forward-thinking approach to urban transport,” says Gabell.

They had to. The city was poised for dramatic growth. Predictions were perfectly precognitive: In the late 1970s, the population totaled one million people; today, more than three million people live in the metropolitan area. Only a BRT-based infrastructure could accommodate the resulting transportation needs.

The city didn’t waste too much time. By 1979, it became the world’s first city to introduce a BRT system. “The concept provided a highly organized arrangement that included exclusive bus lanes coupled with pre-paid ticketing,” describes Gabell. “In this way, it was similar to existing North American subway systems.”

But, driven by Volvo’s articulated and bi-articulated buses, this regional BRT arrangement proved even more viable than existing big-city rail systems, at least from a cost perspective. For instance, a BRT system capable of transporting more passengers than rail-based and conventional metro systems reduces levels of governmental investment and subsidies. In Brazil, BRT investments amounted to 20 times less than metro bus systems while operational costs represented a 50 percent reduction over conventional bus and rail systems.

Further, the Volvo bus-equipped BRT system proved quite efficient, as it integrated prepayment-fare and level boarding elements typically found in rail-service operations. For instance, an 80-foot bi-articulated bus equipped with as many as five doors and traveling in exclusive bus lines made it possible to board and disembark as many as 300 passengers in about 30 seconds. Also, bus velocity, when factoring in the numerous logistical advantages, averaged 13 miles per hour, which amounted to about twice the speed of conventional buses operating in traditional mixed-traffic corridors.

On top of all of that, a BRT system equipped with modern, large buses exercises a positive environmental impact. Gabell explains: “Because it uses separated, dedicated lanes, drivers aren’t forced to idle buses in a long queue, where the vehicles would spray exhaust into the atmosphere. Buses continually move and, as a result, the only fuel consumed transports people, which is how fuel was intended to be used in the first place.”

In addition, larger-capacity buses reduce the number of necessary vehicles, further reducing fuel consumption and exhaust emission.

The BRT concept and urban-based bus technology is quite attractive in third world countries, where vehicles run day and night. “While the concept initiated in Curitiba, it’s now spreading through Latin America,” reports Gabell.

Take Colombia, for instance: In 2009, in Bogota, Volvo Buses Latin America filled an order for 177 more articulated buses for Transmilenio, one of the largest and most efficient bus-based transport systems. Already, the system includes 1104 articulated buses and six bi-articulated buses. Fifty-six percent of the 1110 vehicle fleet is comprised of Volvo buses. Thanks to high passenger capacity, a large number of smaller, conventional buses have been taken off the streets. Further, as more citizens take advantage of the rapid, convenient transportation system (approximately 1.6 million passengers), the city has experienced a 59-percent reduction in exhaust fumes.

But the concept’s value is recognized in other parts of the world. Once attractive in underdeveloped countries, the BRT concept (as coupled with articulated and bi-articulated buses) is catching on like a late-summer fire spreading in a dry Southern California valley.

Indeed, Volvo has gained experience through diverse global regions. Beyond Brazil and Colombia, the company has witnessed and contributed to system integration in places such as Porto Alegre and Manaus in Brazil, and Leon in Mexico. Further, it’s insinuating its influence in areas that have just started, or are planning, to implement a BRT system. These include India and Asia. “Volvo believes that BRT systems will become a dominant solution for major cities and that our bus technology will play an important role,” says Gabell.

Further, BRT is catching on in unexpected regions such as the United States and Europe. But Gabell isn’t too surprised: “After all, every part of the world has been impacted in some way by the global recession and, as such, has become more money conscious. At the same time, we’re all developing a greater consciousness related to our shared global environment.”

Currently, Volvo bus chassis are produced in Curitiba while vehicle bodies are manufactured by Superpolo in Colombia, a subsidiary of Marcopolo. The Curitiba site is also where Volvo constructs trucks and construction equipment. The company employs 2,600 people.

“We have a productive arrangement, where we work closely together with the truck division,” says Gabell. “In some parts of the world, trucks and buses are produced in separate facilities, but in Curitiba, everything is accomplished under one roof.”

The manufacturing setup offers certain advantages. “While separate product lines exists, all back office staging and logistics are conjoined, as are all material handling and facility maintenance. This fosters synergies, which prove positive from a cost perspective as well as a human resource perspective,” says Gabell.

Further, the arrangement provides flexibility. “When Volvo’s truck business goes down, the bus business usually goes up. The converse it true,” says Gabell. “This allows us to readily shift people from one line to another. In this way, we keep knowledge in house and, from a humanistic standpoint, we experience only a small swing, which engenders stability in our labor force.”

Moving forward, Volvo Bus Company intends to tweak its advantages and extend its value. While it’s highly advanced on the BRT side, it intends to play a bit of catch-up when it comes to hybrid technology and alternative fuels. When it becomes even more fuel efficient, there’s no telling how far the company will fly. As Gabell notes, a turbocharged Volvo Bus Company Latin America could exercise greater impact on both the northern and southern hemispheres, no matter what its name may indicate.

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