All Aboard Volvo’s Very, Very Long Bus

Any half-hearted bus observer knows about articulated buses—those double-trouble mutants with an accordion-like joint. But get a load of the Gran Artic 300, introduced last week in Rio de Janeiro and billed as the world’s longest bus (though a few others are competitive). Articulated, shmarticulated. This baby is biarticulated, with two joints, the kind of bus already on the road in a few European and Latin American cities. What makes this one different is it’s 98 feet long.

Ninety-eight feet long! That’s nearly one-third of a football field, or 1.5 bowling lanes, or 8 feet longer than the distance between home and first base. Volvo Buses says this extra-long beast can carry an amazing 300 people. (That’s assuming eight folks pack into each square meter—a very squashed ride.) The typical New York subway car packs about 255 passengers. Your standard city bus fits about 55.

Pretty sweet. But though this centipede-y thing is expected to hit the road next year, definitely don’t expect to see one on a street near you. It’s built for a very specific (and very Brazilian) purpose. In the US, its brute size makes less sense.

Delicious, Nutritious BRT

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So far, the Gran Artic 300 (Gran is “great” in Portuguese, and Artic short for articulado, which means, well, you know) has a very specific audience—Bus Rapid Transit systems. One BRT system in particular: Rio de Janeiro’s not-yet-completed TransBrasil line, a 14-mile route through the center of the city. This is serious BRT, with a dedicated lane, an average speed of 22 mph (New York’s buses creep along at less than10), and 16 particularly tall stations designed so the bus doesn’t have to waste time stooping to pick up riders. The system can carry 50,000 passengers per hour in each direction, or 820,000 per day. New York’s jam-packed L subway line carries about 225,000.

Biarticulated buses have run on BRT systems since at least the early 1990s, in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, and Beijing. But these are generally in the 80-foot range. (Dresden’s AutoTram Extra Grand may even inch past the Gran Artic, at around 100 feet.) Rio needs an extra long bus because of its extra ambitious passenger capacity goals.

So here’s the main reason you won’t see our enormous friend on American streets: the US doesn’t have BRT. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy publishes a list of BRT standards, which include dedicated right-of-ways, special intersection treatments, platform-level boarding, and off-board fare collection. (The people who drafted these guidelines are real transit nerds, and things get much more complicated from there.) Not one American transit system meets the gold standard criteria. Simply put, there’s nowhere for these things to rocket unimpeded.

American antipathy toward BRT stems from an antipathy toward big transit projects in general. True BRT infrastructure is much more expensive than your average bus system, though generally cheaper than trams, streetcars, and other light rail. Brazil is spending close to $400 million on the TransBrasil line. Beyond that, US cities have a near-irrational preference for light rail, says Samuel Zimmerman, a World Bank urban transport consultant and former Federal Transit Administration transportation planner. “It’s not what the wheels are made of,” he says. “Ninety-five percent of transit project depends on how it’s operated.”

In other words: America, give BRT a chance.

Other Long Bus Problems

A few other peculiarities of this peculiar bus: Though its turning radius is not as nutty as you might imagine (and well within Brazilian standards, according to a Volvo Group spokesperson), this thing is complicated to drive and requires a specially-trained driver, says Vukan Vuchic, a retired transportation systems engineer. The vehicle is ideal for “very straight bus lines, with not many curves,” he says. The bus is also very heavy, so engineers must build Gran Artic 300-friendly roads.

This may all be second nature in Brazil, the country where BRT was invented. But please don’t hold your breath for an extra, extra-long bus in the land of the free, home of the transit-challenged.

Really, don’t. You’ll die.