Jun 29, 2008

Bogotá's BRT 'warts and all'

A stop on Calle 19 of Bogota's Transmilenio BRT system.
Photo by Kinori, taken 10 July 2004. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A new journal article provides a sympathetic but 'warts and all' examination of Bogotá's celebrated (and much emulated) Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, Transmilenio, and the dangers that it is now facing.

Fresh from hearing former Bogotá Mayor, Enrique Peñ
alosa, speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore last week, my interest was piqued.

The article, "Bus Rapid Transit: Is Transmilenio a Miracle Cure?", is in the July edition (vol. 28, issue 4) of Transport Reviews journal (paywalled, sorry). It is by geographer and expert on Latin American cities, Alan Gilbert of University College London.

The abstract explains:
... The article describes its main characteristics and applauds the improvements that it has already brought to urban transport in Bogotá. Naturally, the system is not without its flaws and these need to be drawn to the attention of those who might copy the Bogotá example. ... There is a real danger that 'Transmilenio' will stagnate as its popularity declines and as demands for a metro increase. Given the strengths of the system that would be something of a disaster and, most certainly, not in the interests of the poor.

Some of the most compelling points in Gilbert's account focus on the power plays in Bogotá's public transport industry. A key feature of Transmilenio is its total transformation of the bus industry structure and regulatory arrangements. However, this transformation has been happening one phase at a time and huge swathes of the city have much the same kind of bus system they had before.

Gilbert highlights the ongoing battle with the
'traditional' bus industry as central to the dangers facing Transmilenio.

Winning over a portion of this chaotic industry has always been one of the most amazing things about the Bogota's BRT system's early successes. However, it now seems that this involved overly generous conditions for the operating companies. There are now increasing calls to 'democtratize' the ownership of the system.

The power of the 'traditional' bus industry outside the system also remains very strong, both as direct competition to Transmilenio and as a set of lobbies opposed to its further expansion. Gilbert alleges that the new Mayor and his political party have close links with this transport lobby.

This is a helpful but sobering addition to the literature on Transmilenio. It highlights that transforming public transport in Bogotá remains an unfinished task. It also reminds us that the visually-striking engineering on the streets is not even half the story.

Formal reference: Gilbert, Alan (2008) "Bus Rapid Transit: Is Transmilenio a Miracle Cure?", Transport Reviews, Volume 28, Issue 4 July 2008, pages 439 - 467

Jun 12, 2008

Oil shock may not rescue cities from traffic

Linking expensive gasoline with city-friendly transport.
Cartoon via Streetsblog and
Robert Ariail / The State.

It is tempting for advocates of green transport (and some economists) to gloat about high oil prices. It is perfectly understandable to see some glee from critics of automobile dependence as rising fuel costs undermine the economics of places planned around cars and start doing the job of the eco-taxes that should have been in place already.

(For a comedy twist on wishful thinking and oil see this video of James Howard Kunstler on the Colbert Report)

But we need to be alert to dangers here too. Please don't assume that high fuel prices will rescue cities from traffic. Oil at $200 per barrel will not automatically bring about a livable streets renaissance.

Here are some dangers of escalating fuel prices if your focus is a less car-focused urban transport policy
  • Rebound. Motorists may reduce fuel costs without reducing driving much. Sure, they are already driving less (at least in countries where the full price rise has been seen at petrol pumps). But in the longer term, more fuel-efficient vehicles may make driving cheap again, so that traffic starts increasing again. I heard Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountains Institute speak in Singapore recently about 'hypercars'. If he is even 10% correct then driving could easily become cheap again via technological innovation, even if fuel stays expensive.

  • Backlash. Motorist anger over high fuel prices might make politicians too frightened to follow through on important pricing reforms aimed at reducing real impacts of traffic (such as carbon taxes or such like, congestion pricing, pricing parking rationally, distance-weight charges for heavy vehicles, and shifting fixed costs such as insurance to 'pay-as-you-drive', etc). There have been fuel tax protests in the UK and several other European countries. Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian and Taiwanese (and soon Chinese?) motorists are currently furious after fuel subsidies were reduced and everyone fears knock-on inflation. Opposition politicians are making populist noises to take advantage of this (Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia for example, and the far Left in India). Governments in these countries may take away the longer-term lesson that raising the cost of driving is always politically costly.

  • Equity-based backlash. First, I want to be very clear that cheap fuel, and fuel subsidies, do NOT help the poor. They mainly help rich people. (See an interesting IHT take on subsidies here.) But there is no doubt that low-income households are less able to cope with a sudden jump in inflation. More generally, food inflation is certainly hurting low-income people (and food price rises are linked with oil prices to some extent). The urban geography of income is also relevant. In many cities in Asia, Latin America, Europe and Australia, the poorer households tend to be in the outer areas, while inner cities are gentrified (or gentrifying). In some cases, such as Australian cities, the low-income outer suburbs, such as western Sydney or far southeast Melbourne, are also the most car-dependent and are suffering most as petrol costs soar. Green transport and liveable streets champions can easily be (and often are) painted as elitist idealogues who care nothing for the suffering of 'ordinary people'. Ideally, governments should target direct assistance to the most vulnerable households in order to ease the impacts of price rises (as Indonesia is doing while cutting back its fuel subsidies). But that is difficult to organise. The temptation is to simply backtrack on getting the prices right.

  • Public transport may not rise to the challenge. The financial situation of many public transport operators is being hit by higher fuel costs, just as they see passengers increasing. They may face other threats to revenue too if part of it comes from fuel taxes revenues (which are beginning to drop as less fuel is sold, and would drop even more if populist politicians reduce fuel tax). So many transit systems cannot easily rise to this opportunity without more public funds, which is a political problem obviously.

  • Complacency. Advocates of transport reform might get lazy and ease off from pushing for changes that will make a more lasting difference to traffic and its impacts. The case for different urban transport priorities and liveable streets still needs to be made in their own right, and not just for the sake of saving fuel.

Is it all doom and gloom then? No. There are also opportunities from this oil price shock for those of us who hope for less car-dominated cities. But only if the right choices get made.
  • Market opportunity for carsharing, bicycling. Some of the alternatives to solo driving are expanding as gasoline prices go up. I have seen various reports from many countries (mostly anecdotal so far) of increases in bicycle use, in car-sharing (car clubs in Britain) and ride-sharing ('car-sharing' to Brits). Each of these does better the more people use them (they reap network economies and club economies). Some of these improvements might last even if fuel prices were to drop again.

  • Opportunity to reclaim street space. Reduced traffic (in the short-run, before rebound kicks in) might open space (physically and politically) which could be claimed for public transport, walking and non-motorised vehicles. For example, on-road bus priority or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems might have a better chance for a while. We may be able to lock in a redistribution of street space. The benefits of this could then last even if traffic later rebounds.

  • Revolutionizing the whole debate. Finally, if this oil shock becomes a pattern-changing moment, which reveals the folly of past assumptions, and provokes real soul searching, then wonderful opportunities may open up. In other words, a fuel-price crisis might prompt some dramatic rethinking and constructive policy change away from business-as-usual. The 1973 oil shock did this in European countries, especially the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden, whose transport policies then became much less car-oriented in their assumptions. Some cities and some countries may respond in a similar way now.

Any ideas on how to make sure we reap the opportunities and avoid the dangers from high oil prices?

Jun 6, 2008

Free parking to ease congestion? I don't get it

[Update: Looking for more parking policy information?  

A Hangzhou boulevard (almost 10 years ago now)

The article below from the China Daily online suggests that the beautiful city of Hangzhou is planning to reduce the price of car parking "to ease congestion".

Oh dear ... I hope this is a case of 'lost in translation' but I cannot understand the logic of this proposal.

There may be some (twisted) logic here. The free parking proposal might indeed reduce the total number of cars that can visit the area each day. This is because making parking free will reduce the turnover of vehicles in parking spaces. Workers will take most parking lots early in the day, leaving few spaces for business traffic and shoppers arriving later. This would be very bad for shop-keepers in central Hangzhou. I doubt this is what is intended by the plan.

And would this mean less traffic? Unfortunately no. If public parking is made free, there will be a lot more traffic. A large percentage of it will simply be searching for a parking lot (or 'cruising for parking').

The article mentions that motorists are already complaining about the lack of parking space. This suggests prices are too low, not too high. Of course car users will always complain about parking fees. But making parking free will make the parking shortage worse not better!

The item also says many cars are already parking on footways. This will only get worse when parking is free and people start hogging the legal places all day. Illegal parking of all kinds will just get worse as desperation and frustration over parking worsen.

I wish our friends in Hangzhou would take a look at Donald Shoup's ideas on this. This looks like a perfect situation for the "performance-based parking pricing" that he advocates. This involves having different parking prices at different places and at different times. At each time and place, the price must rise or fall until there are always some vacancies, so that no-one needs to search for a parking place.

The prices that emerge from performance-based pricing would give us very useful information. If they are low then maybe there was not such a parking crisis after all. But if the price that results is sky-high then, yes, the market is signalling that there is a problem.

Would that mean we need more car parking? Maybe. And private sector developers could then respond by building private parking lots. High parking prices also send a signal about a lack of diversified access to the area. Planners and public transport operators can act on this too by improving the other mobility options. This might be cheaper than increasing parking space if land values are high.

Hangzhou may offer free parking

By Lydia Chen (Shanghai Daily)
Updated: 2008-06-04 13:49

Hangzhou may enact a new traffic policy next month that will provide 58,000 free parking spaces downtown to ease congestion that has drawn numerous complaints from the public.
Public opinions were sought about the plan, Legal Daily reported Tuesday.
The locations of these parking lots can only be approved when more than 50 percent of the public agree, the report said, citing traffic police authorities in the provincial capital of Zhejiang Province.
The policy is expected to take effect on July 1.
Under the policy, almost all public parking will become free in downtown Hangzhou, including those around the famous West Lake. Presently, parking costs about 20 yuan (US$2.88) per hour in downtown lots, the report said.
Parking fees may also be sharply reduced in other areas of the city, the report said.
Hangzhou had more than 400,000 automobiles by the end of last year, compared to 90,000 in 2000, the report said.
However, parking spaces in downtown Hangzhou reached 130,000 last year, an increase of 20,000 from 2003.
More than 1,000 drivers are fined for parking illegally on sidewalks every day in Hangzhou, the report said.
Pedestrians often complain that cars block sidewalks.
Drivers have complained that there are not enough parking spaces and that fees are too high, the report said.
The Hangzhou government said it will invest more than 100 million yuan to manage these free parking lots. The government may lose more than 20 million yuan annually after the policy takes effect, the report said.

Jun 3, 2008

Lagos BRT wins praise

Part of the new Lagos BRT system (Photo by Sam Zimmerman
of the World Bank, via WRI's City Fix blog).

The BRT concept has been having a tough time in India lately.

But according to the Nigerian Tribune on 29 May, World Bank officials are impressed with the success so far of the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Lagos, which opened in March.
The World Bank Task Team leader, World Bank for the Lagos Urban Transport Project (LUTP), Mr. Ajay Kumar, who made the disclosure concerning the project being implemented by the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA) said the project had been executed beyond the imagination of the team, particularly against the backdrop of tough political and socio-economic environment of Lagos.

Speaking during a recent visit to Lagos to assess the operations of the BRT, Mr. Kumar said he would rather send officials of cities seeking to implement the BRT system to Lagos than to Bogotá in Colombia or Curitiba in Brazil.

“You have a tough environment here. The political, socio-economic situations are very tough. The environmental factor is also very tough. In spite of all these, you have been able to implement a system which is running and enjoying very high patronage,” he said.

Ajay commended the partnership LAMATA forged with the private sector, especially the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), which formed a cooperative to run the BRT system and a bank, which provided funding for the acquisition of the BRT buses.

The World Bank official was full of praises for Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) of Lagos State for the support he gave to the operations of the BRT with the release of additional 70 buses to the NURTW Cooperative to boost the system.

He called for a constant fine-tuning of the system so that imperfections that may be discovered in operations would be tackled promptly. Earlier, the Managing Director of LAMATA, Dr. Dayo Mobereola, told the World Bank team that the initial project was for the system to carry about 60,000 passengers per day, however, it now carries about 130,000 passengers per day.

The Lagos system has prevailed so far despite a great deal of early criticism, much of it remarkably similar to Delhi's.

Of course, it will be a challenge to keep the system working well but the signs look promising.

For more information on the Lagos BRT effort see this City Fix blog post which has a nice video link, some photos and a link to a presentation on the system.