Rethinking Public Transportation: Bus Rapid Transit Systems

Urban Crossroads #97

 

 

The TransMilenio in Bogotá, Columbia. (Photo by Gabriel Mendoza Ardila; source: wikimedia)

The current state of public transportation in Amman unfortunately is in dire straits. But since a comprehensive system currently is being planned for the city, further discussion of the condition of its public transportation should wait until the first phases of this system are operational. For this article, I instead would like to bring attention to high-quality public transportation solutions being developed in other parts of the world. This is not the first Urban Crossroads article to discuss such systems for I have devoted a few articles to public transportation in Istanbul and in Curitiba in Brazil.

As one searches for public transportation experiences that might be of value to Amman, it is far more informative to look at those taking place in other developing-world cities rather than in the cities of advanced economies. While the experiences of the latter might be of interest and might provide useful frames of reference, the economic, political, and cultural differences between the two worlds often mean that those experiences are of little value, if not irrelevant, to developing-world cities.

In contrast, a series of exciting projects are revolutionizing public transportation in a number of developing-world cities, and these provide valuable and inspirational models from which Amman can greatly benefit.

These projects incorporate what is known as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems. Curitiba was a pioneering city in developing them, as far back in the 1970s. Since then, BRT systems have been planned or implemented for cities across the world, including Istanbul, Deli, and Shanghai. It is interesting, however, that the most innovative and also the largest concentration of them remain in Latin America. In addition to Curitiba, BRT systems are being developed in cities such as Bogota in Columbia, Mexico city and Guadalajara in Mexico, and Porto Alegre in Brazil.

In principle, BRT adopts features found in subway systems, and implements them for above-ground bus systems. It therefore has full-fledged bus stations along bus routes instead of simple bus stops. These stations incorporate elevated platforms that can accommodate a large number of passengers and allows them to enter and exit buses at the same level as the bus floor rather than having to ascend or descend steps, and wide sliding bus doors often are used. Bus tickets are purchased in advance - rather than at the bus door - through self-service machines located in the stations, and a number of BRT systems offer rechargeable smart cards or allow passengers to purchase tickets through their mobile phones. These various features greatly speed up the rate at which passengers are able to enter and exit buses. Moreover, electronic signs are provided in the stations to inform passengers when the next bus is arriving. In addition, glass partitions with sliding doors are installed in the stations between the waiting areas and where buses stop, providing passengers with protection from noise and the elements, but also allowing them to see the buses as they approach.

BRT systems offer numerous advantages over rail systems - whether subway or light-rail. Most importantly, they are much cheaper to construct and operate since they are built upon the city’s existing transportation arteries. Their construction costs are less than a tenth of those of subway systems and a fourth of those of light-rail systems, and their operational costs are about a third of those of subway systems. It also takes about two years on average to construct a BRT lane in comparison to a decade at least for a subway corridor.

BRT systems depend on the use of dedicated bus lanes on which other vehicles are not allowed, thus allowing buses to move at faster speeds, free of traffic congestion. Most often, this is ensured through using barriers between the dedicated bus lanes and the adjacent lanes that are open to other vehicles. The buses themselves usually are large-capacity ones. Some consist of two or three sections with accordion-like connections, and can accommodate as many as 270 passengers. (For additional information on BRT, see the web sites of EMBARQ - The World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport (www.embarq.org) and The Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center (www.gobrt.org).)

One BRT system that has been receiving very positive feedback is that of the Columbian capital Bogota, which is known as the TransMilenio. The TransMilenio was inaugurated in 2001 and currently has eight operational lines covering about 85 kilometers that make up two of its seven planned phases. It has over a thousand large buses and transports an average of 1.3 – 1.6 million passengers on workdays. The TransMilenio incorporates what is referred to as a “trunk and feeder” network. The dedicated bus lanes run along the trunk routes, while over 400 smaller feeder buses connect to terminal stations along the trunk routes from other parts of the city. Travel on the feeder buses is free, and their running costs are subsidized by the ticket price for the trunk routes. About half of all passengers access the system via the feeder buses, but passengers also are encouraged to walk and even bike to the terminal stations. Accordingly, Bogota has developed one of the most comprehensive urban bike path networks anywhere, extending over a length of 300 kilometers.

In the city’s downtown core, a major street has been fully converted to transit and pedestrian use, and cars have been excluded. On a number of major lines, there are two (rather than one) dedicated bus lanes in each direction, one being an express lane and the other a local lane that makes more frequent stops (75% of passengers use the express lanes). Waiting times between buses generally are very short, and it is common for one bus on a given route to be immediately followed by another. Because of these various features, the TransMilenio transports more passengers per kilometer every hour than most of the world’s subway systems. Moreover, it is not unusual for commutes that used to take between two and three hours to now be completed within forty minutes. With the construction of its final phase, it is expected that 80% of the city’s population will be within 500 meters of a trunk line.

Although the system is developed and managed by the city’s municipality, the buses are run by private operators selected through an open bidding system. The operators are required to maintain the buses according to stringent standards. The buses accordingly need to be replaced every 850,000 kilometers, which is about once every ten years, and they have to be thoroughly cleaned at the end of each day. The TransMilenio is profitable and no government subsidies are required to operate it.

The TransMilenio also has brought about environmental benefits. It has cut down emissions coming out of the city’s buses by a half since it has resulted in the removal of around 7,000 smaller, inefficient, highly-polluting, and poorly-maintained buses from Bogota’s streets.

While the TransMilenio is not perfect and criticisms have been made regarding passenger congestion during rush hours and the relatively high price of its tickets, it nonetheless provides an efficient, fast, clean, safe, and comfortable means of public transportation for a city of about eight million inhabitants, and in fact is more advanced than public transportation systems in a number of developed countries. It is a success story that has emerged a source of inspiration for other cities. Enrique Peñalosa, Bogota’s former mayor who guided the project from concept to reality, remarked that Bogota is “huge, messy, and poor,” and that if it is able to develop a first-rate public transportation system, then other comparable cities should be able to do the same. In fact, the Bogota experience shows that such other cities have no excuse to prevent them from doing the same.

Mohammad al-Asad

October 01, 2009

 

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