“In the dime stores and bus stations,
People talk of situations,
Read books, repeat quotations,
Draw conclusions on the wall”
~ Bob Dylan
Cities ceaselessly fascinate because of the problems they have solved over time – grand socio-infrastructural dilemmas such as property rights, water, sewage, electrification. But as cities grow and evolve, these solutions in turn generate new problems, or intensify existing ones, in ways that are both unpredictable and banal. Indeed, for cities to continue growing in any sense of the word, this will remain a permanent aspect of their discourse, and a precondition of their success. It would not be much of a stretch to say that, given global trends of urbanization, the ability of cities to continue planning and designing their way past new problems is not just essential for their own survival, but for that of humanity itself.
Within this context, mobility must rank as a problem par excellence. Commentators have described slums as “cities that have failed to solve their mobility problem”. The free and rapid flow of people and goods is essential to the dynamic nature of any urban setting; and while the developed world looks on China’s growth with a mixture of awe and trepidation (and hope that they will keep buying our debt), it is also true that the media greets reports of things like a 10-day traffic jam with a certain amount of Schadenfreude. Amateurs! (On the other hand, the fact that there were no incidents of road rage reported during this traffic jam may have something to teach us about the virtues of a certain national temperament. Once, we too had a sense of humour about this.)
At any rate, the design problem is simple: How do you get people to use public transport more effectively?
Another way of putting it is: What is wrong with the public transportation that we already have? Taking the bus system as our focus, most people can come up with a quick list of why travel by bus is so painful: it takes too long to get on, too long to get off, and too long to get from where you got on to where you get off. The designers behind Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) looked at each of these issues and designed for each problem. To get people on the bus faster, the bus stops are freestanding enclosures which are entered by turnstile. Since the driver isn’t responsible for ticketing, all doors can be used to admit or discharge passengers. Also, by raising the station platform to the level of the bus doors, passengers do not need to navigate steps. Best yet, buses are given their own lanes, with a completely separate semaphore system, some of which are now controlled by computers to maximize flow. This allows buses to come and go extremely quickly and should be considered the heart of any BRT system’s success.
While BRT may sound like a particularly Scandinavian invention, it was in fact first put into use in Curitiba, Brazil. You might say that things like BRT happen when you elect an architect and urban planner to be the mayor of your city – in this case, Jaime Lerner (if Lerner had only implemented BRT, his renown would have been richly deserved, but there’s plenty more he has contributed to Curitiba). It’s also worth noting that BRT has been around since, oh, 1974.
BRT has since spread to many other cities, especially in the developing world, that are finding themselves choked by growth. Estimates vary, since implementation of BRT is dependent on the unique characteristics of each city, but by some estimates there are currently over one hundred BRT projects going on around the world.
The argument for BRT is not merely one of efficiency, but also one of public health. Eduardo Behrentz of the Universidad de los Andes has studied Bogotá’s growth and its experience with BRT, first begun in 1999. With 7 million people spread over 500km2, Bogotá by some measures ranks as the world’s 9th-densest city (by comparison, New York City clocks in at #114, despite some recent first-world whinging by the New York Times). Behrentz makes a simple argument: since respiratory illness, which is the main cause of infant mortality in Bogotá, incurs $1bn of public health costs every year alone, targeting air quality will bring forward tremendous benefits. Furthermore, he estimates that every dollar that goes to mitigating air pollution carries an ROI of 8:1. Getting rid of this pollution means identifying its source, and Behrentz locates a big chunk of it in the bus fleets trundling around Bogotá.
On the face of it, the current transport mix in Bogotá is 53% public transport, but the important detail is that BRT only accounts for 11%, despite the fact that it claims the lion’s share of PR (meanwhile, Curitiba, with its mature BRT system, commands the attention of 70% of commuters). The remaining 42% are private operators driving around whatever will keep its wheels on long enough to make the next run.
According to Behrentz, of urban air pollution, fully 40% of particulate air pollution comes from the 42% of non-BRT public transit options. As another example, the table at right shows the reduction of exposure to airborne pollutants along Mexico City’s BRT corridor. Thus, while all vehicles contribute to air pollution, the buses’ use of high-sulfur diesel is one of the major factors, and the fleets themselves are perhaps more accessible candidates for regulation.
There is also an urgency to Behrentz’s advocacy. According to his research, Bogotá is at the beginning of the S-curve that characterizes growth of private vehicle ownership in cities. Curiously, this S-curve seems to hold true for any city, which allows Behrentz to posit that, by 2040, private vehicles will overtake public transport as the dominant form of transportation in Bogotá. More importantly, these trends are almost impossible to reverse: as a warning, he points to the battle against motorcycles and mopeds, which he considers already lost by Asian cities.
BRT is also extraordinarily cheap, which is what you want when you are talking about major construction interventions in a city’s existing infrastructure. While estimates vary wildly and are in accordance with the agenda of the source, it’s not unreasonable to say that development of each kilometer of BRT, including designated lanes, can be 4-20 times less than a kilometer of light rail, and 10-100 times less than a kilometer of heavy rail. There are, of course, myriad ways in which to measure anything, so initial capital costs must be taken into account as only part of the total project’s benefits.
Indeed, BRT, like any design intervention, hides plenty of costs, and not just in terms of initial capital outlay, or construction-based inconvenience. Inevitably, the drive to centralized, competition-less efficiency pushes many existing economic participants out of the market and upends what may be fragile social landscapes.
An instructive example is Johannesburg’s experience. In 2009, its BRT implementation was plagued by striking minibus taxi drivers that eventually turned violent. Given that we are talking about South Africa, it should not be surprising that an intervention the scope of BRT played out over familiar fault lines.
The city’s first challenge was to win over the formidable minibus taxi industry, which moves 14 million people daily in a nation of 49 million, far more than the bus and rail systems combined. It is perhaps the country’s greatest success story of black entrepreneurship, though with a history of ruthless violence. Experts estimate that hundreds, if not thousands, of people have died in “taxi wars” to control routes.
For their part, wealthy white enclaves weren’t too keen on BRT as a perceived threat to their property values. Raucous town meetings reasserted old South African stereotypes, which was most unwelcome on the eve of the World Cup. This is not to say that Johannesburg’s authorities were not aware of the issue even prior to the roll-out:
From the project’s beginning in 2006, the city chose to negotiate the 12-year bus operations contract with local affected taxi operators instead of opening a competitive tender. Taxi operators affected by BRT routes could exchange their operating licenses for equity in the new bus operating company, and compensation would be on a per kilometer basis instead of per passenger as many taxi drivers are accustomed to.
More importantly, Johannesburg’s BRT consistently undercut minibus rates, so many drivers and entrepreneurs were driven out of business – competition had already driven their rates to subsistence levels, and they were no match for the subsidized pricing of the BRT. Perhaps the benefits are still worth it – as I said, it all depends on how you want to measure things. And yet, despite an uncomfortable co-existence since then, I must deliver an ironic coda. In September of last year, it was the turn of the BRT drivers to stage an 8-week strike, crippling the system as drivers demanded a doubling of their pay.
Thus it is possible to view the stresses created by each BRT project in light of the subject city and its historic context. In the case of Bogotá, the ongoing success of BRT is still not guaranteed, in part due to the city’s own economic success. Additionally, existing fleet owners have mounted their own resistance to its expansion. As José Salazar Ferro writes in Megacities-Urban Form, Governance, and Sustainability, Bogotá’s BRT has seen a
…decrease in the number of daily passengers: 1.4 instead of 1.5 million/day in July 2007. This has caused a profitability problem and an increase in the cost of tickets. [There has also been] a considerable increase in the construction cost per kilometer, from US$5 million dollars during the first phase to over US$15 million dollars in the second.
There have also been delays in the integration of the Transmilenio system with the other bus systems, a program which involves tariff integration and taking out of service nearly 50% of the present bus fleet. The transport industry has political power which it has used to delay urgent decisions. Technicians have not managed to build a viable integration scheme from the technical and political point of view (p342).
This points to an inconvenient truth about BRT. Bogotá has 85 kilometers of BRT lines, which, as efficient as these lines are, constitute a fraction of the required daily commute for a city of 500 square kilometers. Thus, it’s not surprising that, like Johannesburg’s minibus drivers, some of these small operators were offered as compensation the opportunities to continue providing transportation to commuters in the form of feeder lines to the main BRT routes. However, this is beginning to feel a bit of a shell game – on the one hand we have definite benefits in terms of BRT itself, but a lack of consideration for the ripple effects on economic growth and employment. Do scrappy entrepreneurs have the right to bemoan the encroaching ‘socialization’ of the public transit sector?
This may be a facile critique leveled by the conservative side, but I think it misses the point. Let’s stick to Behrentz’s first imperative, which is the increase in public health by the reduction of urban air pollution – a classic application of public goods to public policy. BRT may reduce diesel-generated airborne particulate matter at its location, but does it prevent the expansion of unregulated, private fleets into the urban periphery? Especially given the rates of growth that Bogotá is experiencing, it seems reasonable to expect that there will always be new customers to provide the demand.
In order for the gains to be real, further engineering is needed. Since BRT can only be instituted in specific parts of the city, some kind of regulation over all public transit is needed. But instead of a centralized approach that espouses, in Behrentz’s words, “a single authority; unified fare collection; modal integration; and no competition within the market,” city authorities need to be able to access the privateers with incentives as well as regulation.
If clean air is the ultimate desired outcome, a successful program might reward access to more profitable routes to owners who upgrade their old buses’ engines to cleaner burning fuels. A medallion system similar to New York City’s would serve to keep tabs on the private fleet. Privateers who choose to remain outside the system would be pushed to the less profitable routes, or penalized for infractions. This provides incentives for each operator to “go legit”. In this way, the private sector might come to see BRT as an ally and not a state-sponsored juggernaut bent on destroying their livelihoods. What is being measured here is not just public health, or economic growth, but the maintenance and deepening of the social urban fabric. This, I would submit, is the ultimate definition of sustainability. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this was something that perhaps even occurred to Jaime Lerner, many years ago.