The pro-people ‘movement’

Asian cities are rapidly building mass transit networks as they grow with some successess and failures

The pro-people ‘movement’
One of the biggest phenomenon Asian cities are experiencing this millennium is urbanization. Cities are becoming centers of growth and economic activity, attracting people and expanding in size to accommodate for housing, services and infrastructure. With greater economic activity, and a rise in per capita income, there is a greater demand for travel, which is met by the rise in private vehicle ownership. Transport infrastructure though being scaled up rapidly in the last decade, is unable to match the demand and is managed at a level that is less than desirable for various reasons. The explosion of private vehicles and poor public transport has led to serious externalities such as congestion, air pollution and accidents. According to the WHO, outdoor air pollution alone is estimated to have caused more than 800,000 premature deaths in Asia in 2013. In the context of climate change, transport accounts for almost a fourth of all carbon emissions and is one of the fastest growing contributors.

Urban transport is a complex subject, especially for developing cities as it involves managing implementation and operational costs, affordability and quality of service, competition from other modes and improving ridership. Road-based systems are usually considered more flexible and economical compared to those of rail. Buses are the mainstay of road transport in most Asian cities while cities such as Metro Manila and Bangkok operate rail systems. Cities such as Beijing and New Delhi operate both on a large scale. Organized transport systems help attract more users as there is a sense of reliability and uniformity, compared to unplanned and unreliable operations that people use out of a lack of choice and shift to private vehicles once they can afford it.
BRTS or Bus Rapid Transit System is one such system that is gaining in popularity in Asia, and as of this year, 42 cities have adopted it and many are in various stages of planning and implementation

The high demand for passenger mobility can only be met by a well-planned and operated mass transport system. BRTS or Bus Rapid Transit System is one such system that is gaining in popularity in Asia, and as of this year, 42 cities have adopted it and many are in various stages of planning and implementation. As the name suggests, BRTS differs from conventional bus operations with higher speeds through bus-only lanes, higher frequency, easy entry and exit for passengers, ticketing at bus stops and standardized buses, bringing it on par with the quality and carrying capacity of a metro rail system. Other features could include articulated buses, air conditioning, use of prepaid smart cards, sliding doors etc. It is therefore a combination of buses, roads, bus stops, ticketing systems, passenger information systems that work as a system to enhance user experience.

Latin America has led the way in successfully replicating the BRTS, first launched in Curitiba, Brazil in the 1970s, and expanding to 69 cities to carry more than 20 million passengers a day. Some of them, such as the BRT Rio carries more than 65,000 passengers per hour per direction, a metric that is on par or better than that of most rail systems around the world. Interestingly, Rio has a population of 6.5 million and more than 3 million use the BRT every day! In Asia, ‘TransJakarta’ in Indonesia was the first to be launched in 2004 and is currently the longest in the world, with a length of 207 kilometers spread across the city in 12 corridors, carrying more than 350,000 passengers a day.

BRT in Cebu, Philippines faced stiff opposition from the local Jeepney operators who feared a loss of livelihood. But they were won over through talks and were restructured to act as feeder systems.
New routes even opened up for them

According to the, across Asia, BRTS now operates on 1,490 kilometers carrying more than 9 million passengers a day, accounting for 28% of global BRTS passengers. Janmarg, or the ‘people’s way’, was launched in Ahmedabad, a city of 6.5 million people, in 2009 with a 42-kilometer corridor and expanded in phases to 82 km by 2015 and 130,000 passengers a day. Janmarg’s success has largely been attributed to the engagement of institutions working together from the planning and implementation stage. The municipal corporation, the transport department, the traffic police, media and others were communicated the benefits of the system and dispel myths of traffic jams, loss of jobs, failure of the system etc. Positive stories on the benefits and advantages helped influence citizens, the end users of the system. Institutional arrangements, junction management, rerouting of the existing city bus services helped streamline operations. Janmarg has gone on to receive many national and international awards for being a pioneering effort in the subcontinent and helped put India on the global public transport map.

Despite high quality cycle tracks and footpaths along the 10km corridor, the Delhi BRT, an ‘open system’ that allowed other city buses to use the lanes, was scrapped in 2015 after seven years of trial. Poor enforcement, lack of engagement with stakeholders, pressure from car users, and negative publicity prevented further corridors to be developed.
Building more infrastructure such as flyovers and roads encourages use of private vehicles and creates travel patterns that works against public transport and locks in high emissions for the next several decades

Despite such setbacks and the growing patronage of infrastructure-intensive metro rail for even medium-sized cities, the concept of BRT still finds resonance. Cities such as Rajkot, Bhopal, Indore, Surat, that have a population ranging from 1.5 million to 4.5 million have implemented the BRTS with international expertise and Pune’s ‘Rainbow BRTS’ had a successful full-scale launch in 2015 of 29 kilometers and has expanded to three corridors and ferries more than 65,000 passengers a day.

Guangzhou in China was able to create the ripple effect for comprehensive transport system with its BRT and the supporting bicycle share system which is one the largest in the world. By integrating various modes and land-use planning, Guangzhou is considered a great example of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) that improves accessibility and reduces the need to travel for services such as education, jobs, housing, health etc. It has been able to convert more than 65% motorized trips to bicycle trips. Successful projects help with replication and build confidence for other cities and countries to adopt similar models and tweak to their local context. More than 20 cities in China now operate the BRTS and carry more than 4.3 million passengers a day.

Competition with other public modes is another issue that has to be addressed. The upcoming BRT in Cebu, Philippines faced stiff opposition from the local Jeepney operators who feared a loss of livelihood once an economically priced, comfortable bus system was put in place. But through dialogue, the Jeepney operations were restructured to act as feeder systems, new routes were opened up for jeepneys and some of the drivers were assured of employment in the new system. An environment-impact assessment estimated that 15,000 lives could be saved annually by reducing harmful emissions by implementing the BRT.

Access to a mass transport system is critical to the ridership and patronage. High traffic speeds, lack of space for feeder systems such as auto rickshaws (tuktuks), cycle rickshaws, bicycles, mini buses, prevent people living or working in a 1km influence zone from using the system. An assessment of walking conditions carried out across 17 Asian cities by Clean Air Asia, revealed that conditions for pedestrians especially around public transport terminals remained poor, despite heavy investments to improve the system. Though it could be attributed to different implementing agencies, it only highlights the need for institutional cohesion to achieve maximum impact.

Building more infrastructure such as flyovers and roads encourages use of private vehicles and creates travel patterns that works against public transport and locks in high emissions for the next several decades.

One of the efforts to highlight non-motorized transport demand from people has been the ‘car-free days’ known by different local names in different cities. While the concept is not new, in cities such as Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Kathmandu, Manila, Jakarta, Singapore, it now has the backing of the city governments, with support from citizen groups and has been catalyzed by NGOs. Usually held on Sundays, the events have become hugely popular with citizens, especially children, and has shown that people prefer wide public spaces, without vehicles breaking the planning stereotype that roads are being built for people. Activities during these events include games, aerobics, dance, cycle races and rallies and they are also endorsed by celebrities. The demand for such programs is high and more cities are now jumping on the bandwagon.

In terms of financing, development banks, bilateral and multilateral agencies through their sustainable transport and climate change initiatives are now not only providing financial assistance but also technical knowledge on implementing mass transport projects. Over the past few years the financial pool for such projects has been increasing and will continue to. At the recent Asian Development Bank (ADB) Transport Forum at Manila, the bank reaffirmed its commitment to scale up efforts to provide financial and technical know-how to implement and strengthen its partnerships with member countries. Agencies have adopted globally accepted methods to evaluate the social, environmental impacts of projects to standardize and enable comparisons.

Data is vital for evaluation and to understand performance metrics and smart mobile phones are a new and incredible medium of data gathering and also communicating it with the public. Crowd sourcing, or data collection from users, helps estimate crowd levels, travel time, distance, receive feedback on quality of service etc. It is a low-cost measure, (compared to the expensive and long-drawn out surveys manual means), that is being adopted by many developed cities which are building data centers to collect and analyze the huge amount of data. The processed data is then provided through apps to commuters, real time, who can take informed decisions on their travel. South Korea for example is now embarking upon this method to cut costs on its next phase of public transport Intelligent Technology System and engage more with people.

There are various arguments in the rail-versus-road debate, based on cost, capacity, convenience, but at the end of the day, the two modes should complement each other and integrate with the other modes of a city to provide mobility to citizens, especially in South Asia where each city is different and yet complex. Density and demand are an inbuilt advantage. Transport systems should also be flexible and accommodate future needs of society and the environment. Tokyo is experimenting with transporting goods through its metro rail as it faces a truck driver shortage. Policy makers should be able to decide on the type and scale of transport services to achieve the short and long term goals of the city, while citizens should have options of choosing a mode of travel that is ultimately affordable, accessible, safe, equitable and convenient.

The writer is an independent researcher working on sustainable transport solutions. He is currently working on urban freight and logistics for the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and engaged in research and consulting projects with Domain and Functional Advisory Group. He can be reached at @sameeraanthapur