Saturday, May 14, 2011

The BRTS capital of the world faces a reality check?

Last decade, many Latin American cities, led by Bogota in Colombia, had successfully pioneered the use of innovative bus transit systems that have been catalysts for the economic transformation of these cities. The Bus Rapid Transit System or BRTS, with dedicated bus lanes, became the rage of urban planners across developing countries. It was held up as an environment friendly model to address the chronic urban traffic problems of the exploding cities in developing countries. And it was far cheaper than the fancy subway systems. The Times describes the BRTS,

It is more like an above-ground subway than a collection of bus routes, with seven intersecting lines, enclosed stations that are entered through turnstiles with the swipe of a fare card and coaches that feel like trams inside... To create TransMilenio, the city commandeered two to four traffic lanes in the middle of major boulevards, isolating them with low walls to create the system’s so-called tracks. On the center islands that divide many of Bogotá’s two-way streets, the city built dozens of distinctive metal-and-glass stations. Just as in a subway, the multiple doors on the buses slide open level with the platform, providing easy access for strollers and older riders. Hundreds of passengers can wait on the platforms, avoiding the delays that occur when passengers each pay as they board.

Bogotá’s TransMilenio BTRS has been central to a dramatic transformation of Colombia's once drug-war torn capital city. In 2009, the TransMilenio was used for an average of 1.6 million trips each day, and has allowed the city to remove 7,000 small private buses from its roads, reducing the use of bus fuel — and associated emissions — by more than 59% since it opened its first line in 2001. In fact, thanks to its extensive route system, TransMilenio moves more passengers per mile every hour than almost any of the world’s subways.

Apart from its affordable and easy to implement nature (Subways cost more than 30 times as much per mile to build than BRTS, are three times as much to maintain, and can be built more quickly), the BRTS is the most environment friendly of transport interventions. As the graphic below shows, it has the lowest per capita emission rate, and can make a serious dent on the smog that envelopes most major cities across the developing world.

As the Times pointed out, TransMilenio success came with several important complementary policies,

"The negative stereotypes about bus travel required some clever rebranding. Now upscale condominiums advertise that they are near TransMilenio lines. People don’t say, ‘I’m taking the bus,’ they say, ‘I’m taking TransMilenio'... Free shuttle buses carry residents from outlying districts to TransMilenio terminals... Bogotá removed one-third of its street parking to make room for TransMilenio and imposed alternate-day driving restrictions determined by license plate numbers, forcing car owners onto the system."

However, underlining the complexity of the challenge facing urban transport planners, a recent Times article points out that TransMilenio may have become a victim of its own popularity. It is now hobbled by long waiting lines, overcrowded buses and delays and corruption in building new routes, and has also become a setting for armed robberies and violent protests. Most critically, it faces the challenge posed by the exploding private vehicle population of the city. Vehicle sales in Bogota surged to 25,527 in February, a 51% jump from the same month a year earlier, worsening its traffic jams.

Bogota is only the latest example of cities which have struggled with the complex challenge of urban transport despite apparently successful transport policy interventions. Many emerging economy cities build fly-overs, widen roads, by-passes, establish meto-rail lines, or improve traffic signalling integration that provide immediate relief. However, it is rarely long before the same problems re-surface. It is therefore worth reiterating for the upteemth time that any sustainable solutions to urban transport has to involve a comprehensive package of interventions as highlighted above.

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