Save Amman's BRT

Urban Crossroads #120

This article is also available in Arabic
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There has been much talk about Amman's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project lately. Much of it unfortunately has been negative. There is no shortage of critical articles in the local press. A government committee recently was formed to reassess the project. Any such assessment should have been carried out at a much earlier stage, before construction on it was begun. A number of newspaper articles recently stated that the project very well may be scrapped.

BRT basically consists of dedicating traffic lanes to high-capacity public-transportation buses. Other vehicles would be prohibited from using these lanes. This makes it possible to move large numbers of people quickly and easily. A BRT lane can reach a carrying capacity of about 40,000 passengers per hour per direction. In contrast, a traditional street lane used by cars, buses, and other vehicles can only move about 3,250 passengers. And this is a best-case scenario since a traffic accident or a single illegally parked vehicle can bring street traffic to a complete stop. In Amman, such occurrences unfortunately are all too common. With a dedicated BRT lane, these kinds of traffic impediments are almost nonexistent. BRT is also relatively inexpensive. The costs of building a BRT system can be as little as a twentieth of those of building a rail-based transportation system. Add to this that the per-capita energy spent on transporting people by bus, as well as the resulting emissions, are less than what they would be if transporting them by car.

BRT provides for a highly-efficient and cost-effective method of transportation. A friend of mine recently brought my attention to an episode of a television program that comes out of the Gulf. The episode interestingly enough is about the advantages of BRT. The program presenter traveled to Istanbul, where he used the city's BRT to go from one place to the other, while a colleague of his used a private vehicle to make the same trip. Both left at the same time. The presenter arrived at his destination about an hour later; his colleague arrived over three hours later! I went through a similar experience when visiting Istanbul in 2009, and wrote about it in this column. I vividly remember being stuck in traffic for what seemed like eternity while BRT buses zipped by in the adjoining lane.

In spite of the clear advantages that BRT affords, complaints against its implementation in Amman surprisingly are loud and widespread. The most common complaint I hear is more or less that the BRT "takes traffic lanes away from me." Yes, it does take lanes away from private vehicles, but it reserves those lanes to public transportation buses. What many fail to understand is that streets have a maximum carrying capacity. Improving driving habits and controlling illegal parking definitely can help a street reach its maximum capacity, but once it is reached, there isn't much more that one can do. However, considering that the capacity of a BRT lane can exceed ten times that of a conventional street lane, the choice between the two is an easy one to make.

I do not know much about the details of the Amman BRT project. It may or may not have design flaws; it may or may not have cost more than it should. What I do know is that being able to set aside lanes in Amman that are dedicated to public transportation is in itself a most impressive accomplishment. It is a crucial first step towards establishing a high-quality public transportation system in the city. Such lanes should be expanded to serve the whole city. Removing them would be a grave mistake.

The quality of life in any city greatly depends on the ability to easily move in it. This in turn depends on the quality of its public transportation system. Here, Amman fares badly. The city has a very poor public transportation system, and life without a private car in Amman is very difficult. Some seem to forget that so many of the city’s residents cannot afford to own a car or use a taxi, which basically is a private vehicle with a driver for hire. Moreover, many are too young or too old to drive. This means that their access to various places in the city is restricted. This applies to places of work, places of study, medical facilities, shops, and places of leisure. The availability of decent, affordable public transportation is a basic right, and is as important as the right to food, clothing, shelter, education, and health. Being deprived of it essentially is a form of discrimination that heightens socio-economic inequality.

There is no shortage of assertions from all sides about the need for political and economic reform in Jordan these days. There are many reform projects to carry out. One of them should address the state of traffic and transportation in the country. In addition to the restricted access to places in the city from which many suffer, think of the time wasted in traffic congestion, and also of the tragic human toll and enormous economic costs caused by traffic accidents. A national reform project addressing transportation would need to ensure that traffic and parking regulations are enforced fully and across the board; that drivers do not use streets as their private race-car tracks; that they drive defensively and courteously; that pedestrian movement is facilitated; and that decent public transportation is available to all. It is a challenging, but realizable, reform project, and the positive human and economic impacts it will have on people's lives will be immeasurable. If such a project cannot be realized, it is difficult to imagine how more ambitious reform agendas may be implemented.

Mohammad al-Asad

September 2011




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