Thursday, May 22, 2008

The challenge of transport planning

The roll-out problems faced by three recent big urban tranpsort projects only highlights the fact that such projects, especially on their implementation side, can be fiendishly complex. The first example is the major overhaul of the public transport system in Santiago, Chile, which was launched in February 2007. The Transantiago scheme involved some 200km (125 miles) of dedicated bus lanes, and the wholesale reorganisation of bus routes to integrate them with the city's metro.

But immediately on commissioning all hell broke loose, and the Transantiago came to be known as a model of how not to reform public transport. It brought misery for commuters: more changes to complete typical journeys, long queues for full buses and gross overcrowding of the metro. There were many reasons for the failure - imposition of arbitrary routes that took little account of passengers' habits, rigid bus routes, inadequate number of buses, inadequate use of pre-paid smart cards, problems with the satellite technology to control bus movements.

In Jnauary 2008, the 28 km Gurgaon-Delhi expressway was opened amidst much fanfare, being projected as a showpiece of Indian urban transportation. The project soon became a commuter's nightmare, as commute times actually increased. The independent consultant to the Project, RITES, got its traffic projection numbers badly off the mark, and the actual traffic on the very first day turned out to be what was projected for 2013. While DPR, prepared in 1998, estimated traffic in the first year at 80,000 vehicles a day, the actual average daily traffic is now being estimated at 140,000 vehicles. Contrary to the 5% annual traffic growth projected, the actual growth has been more than 9%. With the majority of users not moving into pre-paid cards, the toll gates could not cope up with the huge traffic.

And now comes the pilot Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor in New Delhi, which degenerated into chaos immediately after being launched. The 5.8km-long corridor—constructed on a pilot basis between Ambedkar Nagar and Moolchand in South Delhi, resulted in massive traffic congestions and increase in commute times, thereby inviting public wrath. A whole debate got initiated on whether public transport systems like BRT were suitable for Indian conditions.

The interesting thing about all the three aforementioned examples, at least the first two, is that these massive engineering projects appear to have failed not in their engineering but on their transport planning side. Now transport planning is an extremely complex task, complicated not so much by its technical dimension, but by its social dimension. It requires in-depth understanding of the specific economic and commercial context of the city, the local transport mix and passenger habits. Apart from factoring for these major and most obvious stumbling blocks, it is impossible to account for the numerous contingencies that can arise when such massive projects get rolled out.

It is also not incorrect to argue that we, including our private sector, lacks adequate expertise, in planning and executing such massive projects. Having been closely involved with the BRT project in Vijayawada, from preparation of Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) to initiating the project execution, I am convinced that we still have a huge distance to cover. There are only a handful of consultants who have any expertise on BRT or other multi-modal transport systems. And their expertise too is mostly confined to one or two individuals, and limited to the engineering side.

In fact, major infrastructure projects invariably face starting troubles. The problems being faced by the new Hyderabad international airport, and the new terminals at London Heathrow and Beijing, are only major recent examples of this reality. People marvel at the engineering dimension of the infrastructure project, without realising that the operational dimension is even more difficult and often impossible to successfully plan and execute.

But the initial implementation period is an excellent opportunity to closely study the operational dynamics and get emergent problems remedied. It is critical that all such project management teams have adequate and professionally competent support staff in place during the initial period of implementation of the project. In fact, the success of such grand projects depends on how quickly and effectively we can respond and solve the emergent problems.

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