Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Mexico City BRT model

The Streetsblog has an interesting account of the history of public transport facilities in Mexico City. In the past quarter century, the City has seen its public transit system move from a predominantly publicly-run metro and high-capacity bus based system to one which came to be dominated by private micro-buses. Since 2006, a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, the Metrobus, was started.

The Metro-buses have played an important role in transforming the Mexico City into a more lievable, sustainable, and healthy city. It has been spearheaded by Mayor Marcelo Ebrard whose six year term, about to end this year, has coincided with the start of the Metro-bus project. 



Historically, Mexico City has had a large high-capacity bus based public transport system. However, a wave of privatization policies in the eighties and nineties saw these buses give way to private micro-buses. In fact, whereas in 1986, 42% of trips in Mexico City took place on a high-capacity bus, it plummeted to just 10% by 1994.



The experience with private micro-bus was not satisfactory. The largely unregulated fleet of micro-buses reduced average traffic speeds, lowered road safety (buses competed to get customers and reach their destinations fastest), and increased pollution levels (due to old buses being used and lower average speeds). It also spawned a web of corruption, as these buses were run by political leaders and local syndicates. But things have been looking up since the introduction of the metro-buses through a public private partnership (PPP). Travel times have fallen considerably in the BRT routes and average traffic speeds have risen.



The implementation of Mexico City's BRT system has certain unique features which makes it an interesting case study. The BRT system replaced 1077 micro-buses, which were essentially family-run operations, in certain routes with about 300 metro-buses. The low-floor Metro-buses have their own dedicated lanes, and people pay fares on platforms while waiting so that the buses can move very rapidly. The city government oversees the Metro-bus program and financed the road and station infrastructure.

The government organized the micro-bus drivers, about 800 of them, into collectives and arranged loans for them to purchase these metro-buses. They operate the buses, use the revenues to maintain operations, and make decent profits. This Metro-bús business model of displacing existing micro-bus drivers and then hiring them as BRT rolling stock operating companies, with the government providing the fixed infrastructure, is an excellent example of PPP.

As part of its BRT project under the JNNURM, the Government of India had made it mandatory for cities to form Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs), preferably involving private operators, to run the BRT fleet. However, the challenge with this arrangement is that most of these cities had state-run Road Transport Corporations (RTCs) operating highly profitable services on the proposed BRTS routes. Naturally, the RTCs were reluctant to cede rights over these routes. State governments saw a way out of the impasse by co-opting RTC as a partner, often the majority partner, in the SPV. This left the door open for RTC to exercise backdoor control of the new BRT system, thereby considerably diluting the rigour and effectiveness of its implementation.

It is no surprise that the biggest success with BRTS has come from those cities where RTC services were either absent or where public transport services were with the urban local body. In these places, the local body has been able to bring in external professional expertise and structure Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) that can effectively manage the BRT services.

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